Hugh Wolfe, a nineteen-year-old iron mill furnace tender. Born into poverty and a mill worker since childhood, he is undernourished and tubercular. Because he does not indulge in vicious pastimes, he is considered effeminate by his fellow workers. His kindness has earned him the love of his cousin Deborah and the young Janey. When upper-class visitors to the mill praise his skill at carving, Hugh thinks that a better life might be possible, and he keeps the stolen money Deborah gives him. Arrested for the theft and sentenced to prison, he commits suicide.
Deborah, Hugh’s cousin, a cotton mill worker. She is called “the hunchback” because of her deformity. Her love for Hugh is the central truth in her life. To help him, she steals a pocketbook from the wealthy Mitchell. As Hugh’s supposed accessory, she receives only a short prison sentence. After her release, she is taken in by a Quaker woman and spends the rest of her life in a mountain settlement.
Janey, a young Irish girl. She is important primarily as the focus of Hugh’s dreams. Although he knows that she will soon lose her health and her beauty, he imagines having enough money to make a decent life with her. Meanwhile, he is her protector.
Young Kirby, the son of the man who owns the iron mill where Hugh works. He despises and fears his employees, whom he views as subhuman, and believes that his only responsibility to them is to make sure that they are paid.
Mitchell, young Kirby’s brother-in-law. A wealthy dilettante, he has no convictions and sees the world as a place constructed solely for his amusement. Mitchell refuses to help Hugh fulfill his artistic ambitions and later prosecutes him for the theft of his pocketbook.
Doctor May, a friend of young Kirby. A sentimentalist, he thinks that by speaking kindly to Hugh, he is fulfilling his duty to humanity. He refuses to give Hugh financial backing. Reading of Hugh’s sentence, he is offended by what he terms the young man’s ingratitude.