Hulga, named Joy by her mother Mrs. Hopewell, lost her leg in a childhood hunting accident and now wears an artificial leg. She changed her name to Hulga at age 21 because it was an ugly-sounding name. Hulga has a PhD in philosophy and insists she is an atheist and a nihilist who believes in nothing. She thinks she sees the world more clearly and realistically than other people but turns out to be easy prey for a con man, Manley Pointer, who comes around selling Bibles. Despite her intention to victimize him, she becomes his victim.
Mrs. Hopewell is highly pleased with herself. She believes she knows how to spot "good country people" when she meets them. She believes she knows how to make other people's weaknesses useful and doesn't have any weaknesses herself. She's sure she knows what would make her daughter happy: smiling more, meeting a nice boy. The trouble is, Mrs. Hopewell's self-image is self-delusion. She refuses to accept her daughter Hulga as she really is. She is easily duped by a con man acting the role of a "good country person." And she thinks, ultimately, that her wealth makes her better than her poorer neighbors.
Manley Pointer can put on quite a show. His country-boy mannerisms, tale of woe, and sincere-seeming desire to do "Chrustian service" easily win over Mrs. Hopewell and convince Hulga he will be an easy target for her seduction scheme. In reality Manley Pointer is not even Manley Pointer—it's one of many aliases he uses as he travels around, conning women and stealing their artificial body parts. The briefcase he carries is also a fraud. When opened, it contains not Bibles but whiskey, pornographic playing cards, and condoms. Like Pointer, its appearance is deceiving.
Mrs. Freeman and her husband work for Mrs. Hopewell as tenant farmers. She is reportedly a nosy woman who makes other people's business her business. Though she, like Mrs. Hopewell, speaks mostly in stock phrases, her interactions with Mrs. Hopewell and Hulga often suggest she knows or suspects more than she tells. Mrs. Freeman doesn't see life in a hopeful or rosy way. On the contrary, she is fascinated by the darker side of life—assaults, illnesses, diseases, and disfigurements. She relishes sharing details of her daughter's illnesses.