The protagonist and antihero of the story. An idealistic, lying, suicidal young man, Paul fits in nowhere and looks down on nearly everyone he knows. He is class-conscious and reserves his approval for rich people and those involved in the art world. Desperate for both acceptance and superiority over others, he lies about his friendships with actors to make himself seem important. He ends his life after stealing money and spending it all on a lavish spree in New York City.
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An unnamed widower. Paul’s father, in Paul’s view, is simply a potential disciplinarian. However, Cather portrays Paul’s father as a deeply generous man who provides for his children and looks after their well-being. His concern about Paul’s troubles in school, his willingness to pay back the $1,000 Paul stole, and his quest for his vanished son all demonstrate his deep kindness.
A young actor in a Pittsburgh theater troupe. Charley Edwards allows Paul to hang out backstage, help him with his costumes, and observe rehearsals. However, when Paul is forbidden to return to Carnegie Hall, Charley agrees not to see him anymore.
A German singer. To Paul, the soprano seems to be a highly romantic figure, when in fact she is a middle-aged mother. This gap between perception and reality is typical of Paul, who idealizes what he does not understand. The soprano also lives (at least in Paul’s mind) a life of glamour and beauty that Paul craves. Her stay at the Schenley, a posh hotel, may inspire Paul’s flight to the Waldorf in New York.
The Drawing Master
One of the faculty members. The drawing master defends Paul to the other teachers, positing that he is disturbed rather than simply rude. He makes the only mention of Paul’s dead mother in the story and worries about Paul’s physical weakness.
The English Teacher
One of the faculty members. The English teacher is keenly aware of the contempt Paul feels for her and the other teachers. She knows that he has a “physical aversion” to her that he cannot control, and this knowledge hurts her feelings. She spearheads the attack against Paul during the meeting. Later, when she attends the symphony at Carnegie Hall, she covers her confusion at encountering Paul by acting snobby.
The Young Clerk
A twenty-six-year-old man held up as an example by Paul’s father. The clerk embodies everything Paul wants to avoid in his own life. He married an unattractive woman, fathered four children, lives on Cordelia Street, and brags about his boss, a steel magnate.
The Yale Student
A rich boy from San Francisco. Something unmentionable happens between Paul and the Yale student, who spend a night out on the town together in New York. The narrator says only that they part on bad terms, without explaining why. It is possible that a sexual encounter, or an attempt at one, soured their friendship.