The novel's protagonist. Tommy Wilhelm is a forty-four-year-old man who is living temporarily in New York City. He has left the country, which he likes, and has moved to a hotel in New York's Upper West Side to ask for his father's assistance. He is a man who has had many an odd job after a stint in acting but ended up with a steady job in sales. However, he has been laid off from his sales job, he has a strained relationship with his father, he has been separated from his wife, he is in love with a woman he cannot marry, and he has invested the last of his money in a joint investment venture that is bound to failure. It is amid all of this that Tommy finds himself on his "day of reckoning."
Tommy's father. Dr. Adler is a difficult man who abides by the rules of a previous generation. He is a Jewish-American, who has worked hard during his life to achieve his position in life as a well-established, successful, and admired doctor and/or "professor." He refuses to "carry" his children on his back because he believes they should come to their own achievements, as he is a believer in the American "protestant work ethic." He is rational and straight- laced; he is stern and often harsh; and, most importantly, he does not truly understand his son.
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Also resident of the Hotel Gloriana and a "friend" of Tommy's, Dr. Tamkin is a fraudulent and questionable character. He claims to be many things and is constantly giving Tommy psychoanalytical advice. He says he is a psychologist and a poet, and he claims to be a member of the Detroit Purple Gang, the head of a medical clinic in Toledo, the co-inventor of an unsinkable ship, a technical consultant in television, and a widow. His statements are brought into question and although most people seem to distrust him, Tommy is attracted to him. It is with Tamkin that Tommy enters into a joint stock market venture, entrusting the old, East-European, Jewish doctor with the last of his money.
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The wife of Tommy Wilhelm. Margaret is separated from her husband. The only view we receive of her is through Tommy. We are told that she is cold, harsh, and unsympathetic. As the mother of Tommy's two boys, she is demanding of Wilhelm, constantly asking, for instance, for monetary support. She refuses to grant Tommy a divorce and has made settlements difficult. She claims that she will not make it "easy" for Tommy to leave. She is a character that we never read in the flesh, for the only encounters we have with her is through Tommy's memory, through Dr. Adler's talks of her, and through the phone conversations she has with her husband.
The fraudulent talent scout from Tommy's past. Maurice Venice showed initial interest in Tommy as an actor. However, we later find out that he is the "failure" of a powerful family in the industry. He initially is attracted to Tommy because of his good looks, but later refuses to work with him because of a failed screen test—Tommy's faults, such as stuttering, are magnified on the screen. Later, the reader finds out that Venice had really been a "pimp" and had been running a prostitution ring, using his position as a "talent scout" as a cover.
The woman with whom Tommy Wilhelm is in love. We never meet Olive, she is only alluded to. She is a Christian but is willing to marry Tommy outside the church after he divorces his wife, however, Margaret will not grant him a divorce. She is described as small, pretty, and dark; a woman who had worked with him at the Rojax Corporation from which Tommy was fired. His office relationship with her may have had something to do with his release from employment. Apparently, Tommy is taken by her and probably truly in love with her. It is mentioned many times that Margaret has ruined things for the couple; but Wilhelm constantly thinks of her and says, toward the end of the book, that he will have to go to Olive, on his knees, and ask her to "stand by [him] a while Olive loves me."
Tommy's sister and Dr. Adler's daughter. Catherine, like Tommy, also changed her name, in her case to Philippa. She is a married woman with a degree, a Bachelors of Science, from Bryn Mawr. Nevertheless, she has aspirations as a painter. Her father will not assist her financially so she can rent a gallery space for an exhibition. Dr. Adler does not have faith in her talent; in fact, he does not believe she has any. Tommy does not seem to have particular faith in her either and he does not seem to care much for the paintings although he attempts to defend her, weakly, in front of his father. Tommy's reaction to his sister, however, may have to do with the fact that he is speaking to his father when she comes up in conversation. She is another character that the reader never meets in the flesh.
The blind, old man at the stock exchange who cannot see his numbers and is constantly asking for assistance. Mr. Rappaport appears in several chapters as a symbolic figure of "blindness." He asks Tommy for assistance on his venture to the cigar store and Tommy accompanies him. Nevertheless, he tells a story of once being yelled at by Teddy Roosevelt during war that allows Tommy a "moment," one of those fleeting moments in which he feels at one with the world.
A breakfast companion of Dr. Adler. Perls is a salesman and a man resented by Tommy for taking the role of what Tommy believes to be that of a "buffer." Tommy resents him because he takes on many of the opinions of his father and because Tommy believes his father has invited him to breakfast so as not to spend time with his son alone.