Betsy is one of the interns at Ladies’ Day, a cheerful girl from Kansas. Esther refers to her “bouncing blond ponytail and Sweetheart-of-Sigma-Chi smile.”
Cal is a young man who is introduced to Esther by Jody. They meet only once, at the beach. Esther is indifferent to him because of her depression.
Jay Cee is editor of Ladies’ Day magazine and Esther’s boss. She is highly educated and intelligent but not considered physically attractive. Esther says of her that “she had brains, so her plug-ugly looks didn’t seem to matter.” Doreen thinks she “is as ugly as sin.” Jay Cee is a fair-minded boss who tries to help Esther and often gives her advice.
Constantin is a simultaneous interpreter at the United Nations. He is short but handsome, and Esther likes him. Constantin takes Esther on a tour of the UN, and then out to lunch. They go back to his apartment, and Esther really want him to seduce her, but to her disappointment he makes no sexual advances.
Dodo Conway is one of Esther’s neighbors in the Boston suburbs. She is a Catholic with six children who is pregnant with her seventh.
DeeDee is a patient at the private psychiatric hospital, in the Belsize ward.
Doreen is one of the interns at Ladies Day, and a friend of Esther’s. She is from a college in the South. Outgoing and funny, Doreen does not take her responsibilities at the magazine very seriously, and Esther appreciates her company. They often go out together, and it is through Doreen that Esther meets Frankie and Marco.
Frankie is a young man Esther meets when she goes out with Doreen one evening. She cannot stand him and thinks he is a “little runt.” He is much shorter than she is.
Joan Gilling comes from Boston, like Esther. She is a year ahead of Esther in college, and is president of her class, a physics major and college hockey champion. Esther feels uncomfortable around her: “She always made me feel squirmy with her starey pebble-colored eyes and her gleaming tombstone teeth and breathy voice.” Joan dates Buddy Willard for a while, but later goes through a personal crisis and becomes suicidal. She is admitted to the private psychiatric hospital where Esther is also a patient. Joan is later released and then readmitted to the hospital. One night she goes into the woods and hangs herself.
Dr. Gordon is the psychiatrist who treats Esther. He is young and good-looking, but Esther takes an instant dislike to him, and she does not trust him. Dr. Gordon arranges for her to have electric shock treatments.
Esther Greenwood is the protagonist and narrator of the story. When the story begins she is working for a month as a guest editor for a New York City fashion magazine. This is her reward for her outstanding performances at high school and her first two years in college, where she always excelled and won academic prizes. However, Esther does not fit in at the magazine, and feels without purpose in life. She has no idea what she want to do with herself when she completes college in one year’s time. Esther feels inadequate, unable to fulfill the expectations of others. She also feels at odds with the norms of American society in the 1950s regarding gender roles. She does not want to marry and become a housewife, leading a dull life cooking and cleaning while her husband pursues an interesting career. Nor does Esther have any desire to have children. One of her ambitions is to be a writer, but when she is turned down for a summer writing program at Harvard, she loses her mental balance and becomes severely depressed. All she can think about is suicide, and she makes several attempts to take her own life, one of which nearly succeeds. Taken to a psychiatric hospital, she is given electric shock therapy and eventually recovers her equilibrium and zest for life.
Mrs. Greenwood is Esther’s mother. She teaches shorthand and typing to girls at a city college. Mrs. Greenwood does everything she can to help Esther, but Esther resents her. When she is in the hospital, she has this to say about her mother, who is one of many visitors she receives: “My mother was the worst. She never scolded me, but kept begging me, with a sorrowful face, to tell her what she had done wrong.”
Philomena Guinea is a wealthy novelist who is an alumnus of Esther’s college. She has established a scholarship there, of which Esther is the recipient. Guinea again becomes Esther’s benefactress when she helps get Esther out the city hospital and into a private facility. She sympathizes with Esther in part because at one time she was in an asylum, too.
Hilda is one of the interns at Ladies Day. She is six feet tall, and is apprenticed to the Fashion Editor.
Irwin is a full professor of mathematics at Harvard at the age of twenty-six. Esther thinks his face is rather ugly but intelligent. They meet on the steps of the library, and Irwin becomes Esther’s first lover.
Jody is an old friend of Esther’s from Cambridge. She tries to persuade Esther to take another summer class at Harvard after Esther is rejected for the writing course. Jody later introduces Esther to Cal.
Marco is tall and dark and wears an immaculate white suit. Esther meets him at a country club dance in the suburbs, and recognizes him immediately as a woman-hater. Marco gives her a stickpin diamond but later turns violent and sadistic. He seems to regard all women as sluts. He and Esther fight, and she punches him on the nose.
Dr. Nolan is Esther’s female psychiatrist at the private hospital. Esther much prefers her to Dr. Gordon, and she has much greater understanding of Esther’s needs. Dr. Nolan emerges as a kind of mother-figure for her.
Miss Norris is a severely disturbed patient in the psychiatric ward who does not speak to anyone.
Mrs. Ockenden is Esther’s next-door neighbor in the Boston suburbs. She is a retired nurse, and a spiteful woman.
Lenny Shepherd is a loud and flashy disk jockey in New York. He invites Doreen and Esther back to his apartment, and he and Doreen dance the night away.
Mrs. Tomolillo is a young Italian woman who occupies the bed next to Esther in the city hospital. She refuses to talk to Esther when Esther tells her why she is in the hospital.
Valerie is a patient at the psychiatric hospital. She has undergone a lobotomy, so she appears always calm, but the operation has so deadened her that she does not feel much, either good or bad.
Buddy Willard is a Yale medical student who is two years older than Esther. She has known and admired him for some years from a distance, but when she gets to know him better she becomes less interested in him. Buddy is in many ways the ideal man. Athletic and good-looking, he excels at college and will soon become a doctor. But he is also very conventional in his attitudes, and Esther rebels against the kind of life that she would have if she married him