At the start of the novel, Babbitt is vaguely dissatisfied at home because he and his wife have drifted apart into indifference. He longs for a more romantic female ideal. At his real-estate office he perfects the art of the shady deal and socializes with a large group of businessmen who enjoy the herd mentality of exaggerated civic pride in the middle-level status of Zenith. They easily and regularly violate Prohibition laws and flaunt bigotry toward all minorities, feeling safe in the mutual company of like-minded people. Babbitt thrives for a time in this atmosphere and rises to heights of recognition through his effective use of media to spread commonplace beliefs and clichés and to create the impression of a "regular guy" all can trust. His doubts overtake him when he longs to spend time away from his family and city in a rural setting with his best friend, but the impossibilities sadden him. Bereft of his friend, he escapes again briefly and begins to have extramarital affairs, but the drive to find himself ends in stress. Trying to be less conservative in his views and speaking his mind, he loses all his contacts and is isolated. Ending his affair, at a low point of certainty, he realizes where his loyalties lie. He can be faithful at home in Zenith again, yet he urges his son to follow his own dreams.
Myra Thompson Babbitt runs her household carefully, making many creative maneuvers with money because her husband likes to live over their means and give others the impression they are bound for top-level social acceptance. She, too, has these pretensions and tries to entertain those she sees as elite, even if they snub her. She accepts occasional interest from her husband, seeing it as her duty to arrange all aspects of his home life, leaving him to make their public presence more prestigious. She ignores signs of his infidelities and continues to second all his opinions, although she has little understanding of them. Her ultimate trust in Babbitt is repaid as the book concludes with his recognition of her importance in all aspects of their lives.
Ted Babbitt, first presented at age 17, grows in the course of the book into a decisive figure. Whenever he can, he rejects the idea that he must follow a traditional academic education and displays talent for working with his hands. Fascinated with cars, parties, girls, and modern appearances, he sees his father's business successes as enabling him to find a way for himself. He indulges in fantasies of an exotic, far-off future and manages to have a great deal of fun with the girl next door, Eunice Littlefield. Eventually, he takes decisive action with Eunice to make the most of their resources and affections. He is likely to live the same life as his father, endlessly chasing money and material possessions after marrying young and without much thought.
Paul Riesling is something of a shadow character casting light on Babbitt. Trapped in a troubled marriage, Paul and his wife live in a cold and unforgiving atmosphere, full of scorn and nagging disapproval. Although he has musical inclinations and says he dreamed of being a violinist in Europe, he has never attempted to realize his dream and lives his life as an indifferent roofing-materials sales executive. Paul shares George's love for the outdoors, and they manage one pleasurable getaway to Maine. The release is temporary, however, and Paul is plunged back into his infidelities and scorn for his wife, culminating in his shooting her in a rage and being jailed for insanity.
Zilla Riesling takes care to monopolize attention from others, especially men, mirroring a troubled personality and marriage. She lacks respect for her husband, whom she sees as weak and in need of her direction. Knowing he is frustrated in his life, she also knows she is not an answer to his need for fulfillment. In fact, she is the agent of her husband's disappearance and destruction.
Tanis Judique is a slightly older version of Babbitt's fairy girl, a vision of an enticing maiden taking various forms whenever a woman appeals to him. After he decides to follow his own desires, he begins a relationship with Tanis. They flirt without discretion and soon are fully involved in an extramarital affair. Because they can communicate in the fresh way he has longed for, Tanis provides him with romantic and sexual excitement. She, however, is unstable, seemingly partying nonstop with a superficial group of heavy drinkers and gossips who accept the odd presence of Babbitt as long as he takes part in their revelry. When she becomes increasingly clingy, Babbitt abruptly breaks off the relationship. She tries to restore it but withdraws as well, having the final word by turning him away one last time.
Fond of talking about himself and others, Vergil Gunch spreads his opinions widely. A very public figure, he is an officer of the local Boosters' Club and an active member of the Elks Lodge. When Babbitt rebels against the social pressures of Zenith, Gunch leads those who oppose and discipline him. He is also the one who welcomes him back into their safe conservative ranks. At the séance, when the spirit of Dante is summoned, Gunch himself notes that he too is called Vergil, like Dante's classical guide.