Sir Felix Carbury, a dissolute young gentleman who enjoys a run of luck at gambling but reluctantly acquiesces to his mother’s urging that he pursue marriage with Marie Melmotte. With little effort, he gets Marie to fall in love with him, but he is able neither to impress Marie’s father into acceptance of their engagement nor to follow through on Marie’s plan that they elope. His luck at cards changes, and he loses so badly that his friends will no longer play with him. He is beaten by the fiancé of a working-class girl he tries to seduce, and he is forced to leave England and live quietly in Germany.
Hetta Carbury, Lady Carbury’s daughter, who is wooed by Roger Carbury. Although she increasingly recognizes and admires his wisdom and probity and thinks she ought to be able to love him, she knows she prefers Paul Montague. Although their engagement is threatened when she learns about Paul’s relationship with Mrs. Hurtle, she forgives him and they marry.
Roger Carbury, a country gentleman who wants to marry his cousin Hetta but is unable to persuade her to accept him. Although Roger believes that Paul Montague’s relationship with Hetta is a betrayal of their friendship, he works to prevent Paul from a renewed entanglement with Mrs. Hurtle, whom Roger regards as a completely unsuitable match for an English gentleman. He finally becomes reconciled to Paul’s marriage to Hetta, and he promises to make their son his heir.
Paul Montague, Roger’s friend and his rival for Hetta’s love. Paul had met and become engaged to Mrs. Hurtle during a trip from America, where he had worked for a while, back to England. Roger had persuaded him that Mrs. Hurtle’s reputedly wild past would make her an unsuitable wife, and Paul had ended the engagement. When Mrs. Hurtle appears again in London hoping to resume their relationship, Paul finds it impossible to stay away from her, even though he believes she is a dangerous woman, capable of violence, and he knows he loves Hetta Carbury. He manages to extricate himself both from his relationship with Mrs. Hurtle and from his involvement with Augustus Melmotte’s America-to-Mexico railroad scheme.
Winifred Hurtle, a beautiful American who had become engaged to Paul Montague and who believes her only hope for happiness is to renew their engagement. An independent, spirited woman, she has survived marriage to an abusive former husband and an episode in Oregon in which she found herself forced to shoot a man. Although she dreams of a safer life in England, she also scorns the rigid English code of propriety and regard for family origins that make Roger Carbury oppose Montague’s relationship with her.
Augustus Melmotte, an unscrupulous financier who is the talk of upper-class London for what people believe to be his fabulous success at making money. He knows his continued success depends on his ability to maintain this belief in his financial wizardry. Although English aristocrats are repelled by his uncouth arrogance, their need for money to support their own expensive modes of life makes them put their repulsion aside and vie for invitations to his parties. Melmotte aims to move more permanently into upper-class society by entering Parliament and marrying his daughter Marie to an aristocrat, but his ambition makes him take too many risks. When he is discovered to have forged signatures on several documents, he kills himself.
Marie Melmotte, Augustus Melmotte’s daughter, whom he assumes he can use as an instrument of his ambition by marrying her to an English lord. Marie’s ignorant naïveté at first makes her passively willing to marry her father’s choice, Lord Nidderdale, but when she realizes Nidderdale is interested only in her money, she decides she wants to be valued for more than that. Unfortunately, her own romantic choice, Sir Felix Carbury, also is interested only in her money. When Marie is forced to accept this fact, she despairs of love and again agrees to marry Nidderdale, coming to appreciate his honesty about his feelings as he, in turn, has come to admire her spirit. After Augustus Melmotte’s financial collapse and death, Nidderdale withdraws his suit, and Marie decides to go to America with money her father had given her and she had refused to give back to him.