Elizabeth Willard, his mother, whose hotel and life savings never benefit anyone, but whose spirit serves as a bond and inspiration to two men. Promiscuous in her youth, though in search of spirituality, Mrs. Willard had married on the hearsay of village wives expressing contentment. Never in love with her husband, she cherishes a beautiful memory of a lover who murmured to her, “Oh, the dear, the dear, the lovely dear.” The two who loved her most, her son and Dr. Reefy, repeat these words to her dead but seemingly young and uncorrupted body. She lives and dies in quiet desperation and in search of loveliness.
Dr. Reefy, a poet of obscurity who writes great truths on scraps of paper that he throws away in wads and with a laugh. True to a vision of greatness, the doctor loved twice in his life. One love was a pregnant girl who miscarried, then married the understanding doctor and died, leaving him a comfortable income. The other, Elizabeth Willard, he befriends in her last days of a ravaging disease; he was never her lover.
Helen White, the banker’s daughter with a college complex but small-town disposition. Lovely and gracious, Helen is an inspiration to three Winesburg boys, though only George Willard arouses a like response in her. Like the other main characters, she is unconsciously in quest of beauty and truth.
Kate Swift, a schoolteacher who burns inwardly with a deep desire to live and to pass along the passion of living. Attracted as she is to her former student George Willard, Kate cannot finally cast aside her small-town prudery. Always confusing the physical and the spiritual in her effort to awaken her protégé, spinsterish Kate is secretly worshiped in a like way by the Presbyterian minister, who considers her a messiah of sorts (having seen her naked and praying from his clerical window).
The Reverend Curtis Hartman, the Presbyterian minister, Kate’s admirer.
Wing Biddlebaum, a fugitive teacher who ran from unfair accusations of homosexuality to become the restless-fingered berry picker and handyman of the town. Only once in the many years of his hiding out in Winesburg does Wing attempt to pass along his fervor for knowledge, which made him a great teacher. George is on the verge of discovering the man’s tragic secret and is moved by the aging man’s eloquence.
Louise Hardy, his daughter, and
David Hardy, his grandson. These people reveal the deterioration of the pioneering spirit in northern Ohio. Jesse, the lone surviving brother of a farm family, turns from the ministry to farm management with religious zeal. He neglects his frail wife, who dies in childbirth, and he resents the daughter who should have been his son David. When his neurotic but brilliant daughter turns to a village boy and has a son by him, the old man takes this birth as his omen and names the son David. In a moment of fright when the obsessed old man is about to offer up a lamb as a sacrifice to God, the boy strikes his grandfather, leaves him for dead, and runs away, never again to see the old man, his mother, or the town.