The protagonist of the novel, he is a man in his mid-forties going through a breakdown after divorcing his second wife, Madeleine. The novel takes place in his mind, through his memories of the past and the letters he writes to "the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead." These letters are often unfinished and always unsent. Moses is a character trying to understand how to live his life and achieve happiness.
Moses' first wife and the mother of Marco, her child with Moses. Daisy is a conservative, organized, and systematic woman of Jewish background, almost the antithesis of Moses' second wife, Madeleine. Moses' disorderly life brought out the worst in Daisy, and led to their eventual divorce.
Moses' second wife and antagonist, she is often described as neurotic. Madeleine is the mother of Moses's second child, June. She divorced Moses, leaving him for his best friend, Valentine Gersbach. Madeleine refuses to live her mother's life of servitude, and did not fare well in her married life in the country with Moses. She hates her father, a famed actor. At one point, she converted to Christianity, and later she turns her attention to the scholarly world of ideas.
Read an in-depth analysis of Madeleine.
Valentine and his wife are Madeleine and Moses' only neighbors in the country. Valentine, who has one wooden leg, is Moses's best friend. Valentine begins an affair with Madeleine that continues after Madeleine and Moses divorce.
Valentine's devoted wife, she fails to see the truth about her husband's affair with Madeleine. She has a child with Valentine.
Moses' lover, she is Argentinean, and the woman in Moses' life throughout the novel. She is beautiful, well-educated, and, as Moses puts it, a "priestess" of sex and love, the epitome of "sex and swagger." She cooks extravagant meals for Moses, tends to him, and even follows him to the country.
Moses' daughter from his second marriage, she is a child who demonstrates a great capacity for love. She shows affection for her father, and Moses thinks of her with great joy.
Moses' son from his first marriage, he is older than June and away at camp throughout the novel. Moses considers staying away from camp on parents day, because he thinks Marco blames Moses for causing his divorces. Nevertheless, by the end of the book Moses decides that he will visit his son.
Moses' father, he was a Russian-Jewish immigrant who moved his family to Canada and raised his four children in the slums of Montreal on Napoleon Street. He worked long hours to support the five members of his family, but often failed in his endeavors. He ended up working as a bootlegger, and had trouble succeeding at that, too. He had a temper, and made empty threats. Once, he threatened Moses with a gun. Good at heart, on his death Jonah left Moses twenty thousand dollars. Moses has fond childhood memories of helping his father label the smuggled bottles of liquor.
Moses' mother, she was a woman of high class in Russia, but upon immigrating to Canada, had to work as a seamstress and a washerwoman. She supported her husband and worried about him. She looked after the children, making sure they grew up in the Jewish tradition. She was anxious for them to be educated, and not common.
Moses' stepmother, she was Jonah Herzog's second wife. She had been widowed twice, and lived alone in the old house she used share with Jonah. When she was married to Kaplitzky, a wholesaler who loved her dearly, she excelled at the role of rich, childless darling. Taube is now an old woman, and Moses calls her a survivor who fights off death.
Moses' rich brother, he is a businessman with a very different temperament than Moses'. Unlike the sentimental Moses, Shura is a realist. Shura never hesitates to give Moses money, but Moses claims that Shura "despises" everyone. Nevertheless, Moses loves Shura just as he loves all of his siblings.
Moses' brother, he is always willing to give Moses financial help. Will worries about Moses' mental health. He bails Moses out of jail, and eventually offers to take him to the hospital for psychiatric attention.
Moses' sister, she is referred to, but never makes a physical appearance in the novel. Like her brother Will, Helen seems to worry about Moses.
Jonah Herzog's sister, she is a matriarch, a successful immigrant and strong woman who deals in real estate. She is hard on Jonah, and inspects his household and his children. Tough and realistic, she is also endearing.
A childhood friend of Moses', Nachman embodies love, loss, and suffering. A sentimental, romantic poet, he fell deeply in love with an unstable woman who was taken from him and placed in an institution.
A childhood friend of Moses', he is a poor man and a symbol of friendship in the novel. Lucas is distraught when his monkey, Rocco, dies. He gives Moses a place to stay, and tells Moses about Madeleine's affair with Valentine.
The psychiatrist that treated Moses during the last days of his marriage to Madeleine, he is one of the many people Moses believes to have betrayed him. Evig questions Moses' mental health.
The Chicago lawyer with whom Moses stayed after the divorce. He handled Moses' divorce case, and Moses believes he sided with Madeleine, betraying Moses. He questions Moses' mental stability.