Kabnis is skeptical and wary during his time in the South. He is annoyed by the small town's frenzied religious services, terrified of racial violence, and frustrated by the noises of the countryside. As a writer, Kabnis searches for ways to express the complex feelings in his soul. The story dramatizes his attempted journey to redemption and a possible future.
Halsey is well-known and liked in the community. He has a working-class practicality and deep appreciation for his craft. Living in Georgia by choice, Halsey has resigned himself to the realities of racism and violence in the South.
Lewis is intelligent and curious about the world. His habit of asking questions gets him in trouble in his small Southern town. Lewis takes many other characters, especially Kabnis, to task for their cynicism and denial of their racial heritage.
Father John represents African Americans' painful past in the story. The other characters at first believe him to be mute. He speaks towards the end of the story to accuse white people of "sin" or wrongdoing. Carrie K. looks up to Father John as a sign of Christian faith and hope.
There is something about Fern that makes men want to be physically intimate with her and sense that it will be easy to do so. However, there is also something godly and deeply connected to nature that makes her impenetrable to men. This contradiction isolates Fern because men see her as being above them, and she becomes unapproachable. One day she takes a walk with the narrator in the cane field, but he when he tries to hold her it upsets her and makes her shake. She sings and then faints. The narrator walks Fern home, and they never see each other again.
Men have desired Karintha since she was a little girl, eagerly waiting for her to grow up. Karintha has a mean streak and bossy nature, and she feels contempt for the men who love her and bring her money. She's been married many times but none of her relationships have lasted. The narrator says her soul has ripened too soon, and that all the desire she has inspired in others has not been good for her. At 20 years old Karintha gives birth in the forest, and on her way home passes by a sawmill whose smoke hangs over the valley. Men will continue to bring her money, but they will die without ever discovering the beauty she carries in her soul.
When Becky, a white woman, gives birth to a black son, the townspeople, both black and white, ostracize her, but they build her a house and bring her food out of guilt. Five years later, when she gives birth to another black son, the town considers her dead and stops helping her. Becky becomes like a ghost in their minds, and her sons became hateful and mean because they don't fit in. When Becky's sons grow up, they leave her. The townspeople wonder if she's alive or just a ghost. One day a train going by her house crumbles her chimney and buries her alive. Two men going by in a wagon are too frightened of her to stop and help, so they throw a bible on the pile of rubble that used to be her house.