An unnamed, approximately forty-year-old woman who struggles to explain the aspects of her daughter Emily’s childhood that have made Emily who she is. The narrator was a young single mother during the lean years of the Great Depression. After her first husband left her, she struggled to work and raise Emily alone. She eventually remarried and had four more children. As she settles into a more stable life, she looks back on the intervening years and challenges she faced as a mother. Her guilt about the lack of attention she gave Emily as she grew up is especially pronounced.
The narrator’s nineteen-year-old daughter, who, according to an unnamed person, needs help. Emily is the oldest child in the family, a beautiful baby who grew gaunt and sickly as a child. She is just entering womanhood and displaying the beauty and grace that will mark her adult years. Despite having a great talent for acting and comedy, she is a somber loner who has always been self-conscious of her dark hair and complexion.
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The narrator’s approximately fourteen-year-old daughter. Chubby, blond, and curly-haired, Susan is an articulate and self-assured child. Because of her social exuberance, she easily outshines Emily. Susan is clumsy, selfish, and less thoughtful than Emily, who has grown to despise Susan during the years for being everything that she herself is not.
The narrator’s infant son and one of her five children. Ronnie cries and interrupts the narrator’s meditation on Emily’s life. He represents a fresh start and the hope of the future, the opportunity for the narrator to right the wrongs of the past.
The narrator’s second husband. Bill is mentioned only in passing, as a limited presence in the family.