The protagonist of the story. Stern, cold, and pragmatic, Elizabeth is deeply resentful of finding herself married to an alcoholic and living in a coal community. A good mother, she feels she cannot afford to indulge emotional weakness or sentimentality but must be strong for the sake of her children. Elizabeth attains a deep understanding of her life, husband, and marriage only when Walter is dead and she is forced to confront her circumstances and her own role in her fate.
Elizabeth’s alcoholic husband who has just died in a cave-in. Walter was a handsome man, blond and fleshy, with strong limbs and a moustache. Although he never appears in the story alive, he casts a dark shadow over the story’s proceedings. He emerges as a caricature, the monstrous drunken husband, who is gradually redeemed by Elizabeth’s growing recognition of the ways she has denied or ignored his essential humanity.
An emotional woman of sixty who is with Elizabeth when Walter’s body is brought home. Walter’s mother laments Walter’s louche tendencies and the gradual shirking of his responsibilities to his family, while at the same time justifying his irresponsible behavior. She is slightly competitive with Elizabeth when it comes to ministering to her son’s body.
Elizabeth’s young daughter. Annie has large blue eyes and curly hair that is changing from blond to brunette. A sensitive girl, she is attached to her father but deferent to her mother’s harsh opinions of him and his carousing. Annie is drawn to the scent of the chrysanthemums.
Elizabeth’s five-year-old son. A small and sturdy boy with black hair, John wears clothes made from a man’s suit that has been cut down to fit him. Childishly self-absorbed, and often indifferent to what is going on around him, he reminds Elizabeth of Walter.
A short man with a gray beard and cheerful disposition. Pragmatic like Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s father is resigned to remarrying in an effort to fill the domestic void in his life. He appears only briefly at the beginning of the story, when his train passes Elizabeth’s house.
A miner’s wife with twelve children. Mrs. Rigley offers Elizabeth a sympathetic ear while at the same time exploiting the gossip potential of the Bates’s shaky marriage.
A miner who helps Elizabeth look for Walter. Mr. Rigley is a large man with a bony head and blue scar on his temple, which he got from working in the coal pits. Kind and helpful, he is alert to the potential dangers of life as a miner.