The novel's narrator, John Dowell is the reader's only guide through the twisted story of the thirteen years the couple spent in France. He is a naïve man, quickly taken in by appearances, and easily cuckolded by his wife* He tells the disjointed story of his own gradual understanding of what has occurred. Ultimately, he is a man who has lost all moral certitude, all comprehension of right and wrong. He is described by several literary critics as the quintessential "modern man."
Dowell's wife, and the adulteress of the novel, Florence is a manipulative and deceptive woman. Because she never really communicates with her husband, Florence's story is the only one that is never told. Florence desires to be the lady of her ancestors' home, Branshaw Manor in Fordingbridge, and she is willing to have an affair with Edward in order to achieve that position. Feigning a heart condition, Florence deceives her husband in order to control him and gain greater freedom for herself.
Described as a "sheer individualist," Leonora cares deeply that her affairs are in order and that the Ashburnham family maintains every ounce of propriety. She is economical, practical, and efficient with matters of money. Though she has the capacity to be deeply in love with her husband, Edward, she is also easily hurt by him. When wounded, Leonora defends herself with great power and cruelty. Above all, she seeks to have a "normal" life, free of the distractions of her husband's passion.
Dowell describes Edward Ashburnham as "the cleanest looking sort of chap," "an excellent magistrate, a first-rate soldier, and one of the best landlords." He appears to be exactly the sort of man one could trust with his wife. He is generous with those who live on his land and even jumps overboard from a ship to save a drowning man. But Edward is not practical; he is a poor manager of money and easily led by instincts of lust and passion. Though the narrator deeply sympathizes with Edward's "good intentions," such an assessment of him is questionable.
Also known as "the Girl," Nancy Rufford becomes the ward of Leonora and Edward after her mother abandons her and her father leaves for India. Having been educated in a convent school with nuns, Nancy remains very naive and unworldly. She is in awe of what she perceives to be her heroic uncle (Edward) and his wonderful marriage. She willingly "sacrifices" herself to save Edward at the end of the story, but ultimately, along with the other "passionate" people, she is destroyed by madness.
A cabin boy who travels with the Hurlbirdson their trip around the world, Jimmy becomes Florence's first lover. Jimmy is of a much lower class than either the Hurlbirds or the Dowellsand he continues his affair with Florence by lying to Dowell about Florence's heart condition. It is an embarrassment that Florence could have an affair with someone so low and ill-mannered.
The old, wealthy uncle of Florence Hurlbird, Uncle John is thin, gentle and extraordinarily lovable. He is a violent Democrat and a hardworking man who has owned a factory is entire life. Though he claims to have a heart condition, Uncle Hurlbird desires to travel the world bringing gifts of oranges to every person he comes across.
Maisie Maidan is described by Dowell as young, gentle, and "so submissive." Only twenty-three years old, Mrs. Maidan is recently married to a young man about the same age, although his job in the army keeps them separated. Though Maisie is indeed vulnerable to those who seek to trick her, it is questionable whether she is truly submissive, as Dowell assumes. From the same convent school as Leonora, Mrs. Maidan preserves some of the strict morality that was once taught to her.
Described by Dowell as "quite an economical person of so normal a figure that he can get quite a large portion of his clothes ready-made," Rodney Bayham is portrayed as the utterly normal (and somewhat boring) British man. He is the second husband of Leonora, and is mentioned, but does not act, in the story. His character serves as a foil to Edward; Bayham is 'perfectly normal' and quite respectable in his quiet (passionless) liaisons.
The wife of an army officer stationed in India, Mrs. Basil is a sympathetic listener to Edward's discussion of his estate and his tales of heroism. Mrs. Basil is lonely, as her husband, Major Basil, often leaves her alone for long stretches of time. Because she is closer to Edward's class, the affair they begin seems relatively safe and ends when Edward leaves India. But when he learns of the affair, Major Basil endeavors to blackmail Edward.
Mercenary and manipulative, La Dolciquita is the mistress of a Grand Duke who is visiting Monte Carlo. She aims to seduce Edward and take as much of his money as possible; she cares nothing about his love, his passions, or the public embarrassment of their affair.
These two older women who reside in Connecticut are Florence's unmarried aunts. Though Dowell thinks them eccentric, they try their hardest to warn him away from their wayward niece. Florence despises and distrusts them.
A young man from Fordingbridge whose father has been ruined by a fraudulent solicitor, Selmes's family is in financial distress when Edward and Leonora return to England. Edward, meeting Selmes along a path one day, offers to give him his old horse. This act of charity enrages Leonora, but enthralls Nancy; thus is highlights the difference between Leonora and the Girl.
A violent man, Captain Rufford had a bad relationship and eventual separation from his wife, who he severely abused. Dowell notes that Major Rufford has an "ungovernable temper," despite the fact that he doesn't drink. He is the father of Nancy, and she remembers him as being rough, but kind to her as a child. During the novel, he is stationed in India.
The father of Leonora, Colonel Powys is a retired Army officer living in Ireland with his wife and seven daughters. He helped arrange the marriage between his daughter Leonora and Edward Ashburnham. He values saving money and managing it strictly, and he passed these financial tendencies down to his daughter.