Having recently completed his college education, Julian is living with his mother until he can establish himself. With ambitions of being a writer, he is currently working as a typewriter salesman, a job in which he takes little pride. He both loves and hates his mother. He hates her because he needs her and because she represents ideas he is trying to escape. He loves her because she is his mother, but he fails to show her compassion in his effort to separate himself from her and punish her for her backward ideas about Southern gentility and particularly race. He is ashamed of their genteel poverty and guilty about his mother's history of sacrifice for his sake. He himself is punished by his mother's demise and forced to face his own delusions and hypocrisy.
Mrs. May has successfully run a dairy farm with the help of Mr. Greenleaf, a lower-class white man who has been her hired help for many years. The two of them have an adversarial relationship, primarily because Mrs. May considers herself superior to the Greenleafs. Although she doesn't admit it to herself, she is jealous of Greenleaf's sons, who work hard and respect their father, while Mrs. May's adult sons live with her and disrespect her. Mrs. May is punished for her smug egotism and atheistic Christianity when her attempt to force Greenleaf to kill the stray bull, belonging to his sons, ends with the animal goring her to death.
Mr. Fortune, with his inflated ego, can love only those he sees as a reflection of himself. In his unceasing spite, he sells off his land because he takes satisfaction in hurting his son-in-law and because he sees himself as an agent of progress. He clams to love his favorite grandchild, Mary Fortune, but he continues to act in a way that causes her father to beat her. In the end, he kills her because she defies him. He loves her only as long as he sees her as a reflection of himself.
Asbury comes down with undulant fever after drinking unpasteurized milk, as an act of defiance against his mother. Another of O'Connor's weak, "so-called" intellectuals, Asbury is a failed writer, smug and superior. He blames his mother for his lack of creativity and demeans her every chance he gets, so much so that the hired men in the dairy comment on his disrespect. In the end he thinks he has a vision of the Holy Ghost.
Thomas thinks of himself as a good man, and he avoids Star, the 19-year-old waif and budding criminal his mother has taken into their home in an act of charity. Her "good deeds" may be admirable and well-intentioned, but in this case Thomas is unnerved by the aggressive interloper who interferes with his set patterns of life. Star pursues Thomas sexually, but he fends her off. To get rid of Star, Thomas violates his own code of ethics by enlisting the help of a dishonest sheriff. When Star attacks him physically, he shoots his mother, who steps in front of Star to protect her from the violence.
A professed atheist, Sheppard takes 14-year-old delinquent Rufus Johnson under his wing and seems to prefer him to his own son, Norton. Sheppard thinks his son is selfish and should overcome his lingering grief about the death of his mother more than a year ago. Johnson is not the least bit needy and has deep faith in his fundamentalist beliefs. While Sheppard tries to turn Johnson into an atheist, Johnson instead turns Norton into a believer. Sheppard ultimately realizes he cannot help Johnson and has neglected his own son. However, his repentance comes too late to save Norton from a catastrophe.
Ruby Turpin has a preoccupation with categorizing people according to class and race and, in her mind, relative worth. She feels thankful to God she is a good person and has been given blessings, which she doesn't hesitate to enumerate for those around her. She is also grateful God has granted her a station in life above others. After she is attacked by a young college student in a doctor's office, she rethinks her point of view and comes to the realization that her vision of creation is skewed.
Parker has lived his life as an itinerant handyman and a sinner unconsciously seeking redemption. Parker ends up marrying, almost against his conscious will, a hard-nosed fundamentalist woman, full of judgment and lacking in imagination. After Parker has a spiritual epiphany, he gets the Byzantine face of Christ tattooed on his back, mostly to please his wife—so he thinks. But she rejects his offering as idolatry because she says Jesus is a spirit. Parker himself is redeemed but suffers like Christ for his newfound knowledge.
Tanner's daughter urges her father to return with her to New York City after she finds him living in a shack with his friend Coleman Parrum, a black man. The two have been friends for 30 years. He and Coleman have been squatting on land that now belongs to a middle-class black man, who will allow them to stay if they agree to share some of the profits of their illegal whiskey still. Tanner agrees to live with his daughter to avoid the humiliation of working for a black man. Tanner hates living in a cramped apartment and longs for home and his friend Coleman. However, Tanner ends up dying in New York after he reaches out to a Northern and sophisticated black neighbor who reminds him of the South. The neighbor hastens Tanner's death when Tanner treats him with the same condescension he would show a black man in the South.