Jacob Flanders is the novel's protagonist, but he is rarely its focus. His character is conveyed through the impressions and experiences of other people. His mother Betty Flanders sees his quiet intellectual side. His unrequited love Clara Durrant sees his potential for passion. The old woman he encounters on a train sees his strong physical qualities. Jacob encompasses all of these qualities, but his true character is an elusive combination of these and all other interpretations. There are a number of key objective facts about Jacob. He is intelligent enough to secure a scholarship to the prestigious Cambridge University. He shares a love of Greek culture and art with his friends. He is a hard-working and committed young man who is eventually killed in the First World War (1914–18). Other qualities of Jacob's character are more subjective and are suggested by people's impressions. The people in the British Museum see him copying poetry from older books. This suggests that he is too poor to afford poetry books of his own and yet obsessed enough by art to seek it out and treasure it for as long as possible. Clara's failed pursuit of Jacob's affections reveals that he is blinded to his own self-interest. Jacob and Clara seem an ideal match, but he routinely overlooks her in favor of women such as Florinda and Sandra. Jacob's wistful drift through life is shown by his failure to find love and failure to find a purpose.
Betty Flanders grows into an archetypal widow. Her husband dies and leaves her with three young children. There are numerous men who put themselves forward as potential replacement husbands, but Betty rejects them all. She dedicates her life to raising her children and forsakes love, affection, and personal happiness to make sure she has enough money to feed her three boys. There is no way for Betty to escape death. Before the narrative of the novel begins she has already lost her husband and her brother. It is a tribute to her skills as a mother that her children grow up to be respectable, intelligent young men. The outbreak of the First World War threatens this ability to cling to her children for emotional support. Her son Jacob Flanders is killed early in the conflict. All of the hard work she poured into raising him and ensuring that he had an excellent education is rendered useless by the mindless violence. Betty accepted widowhood and dedicated herself to raising her children only for one of those children to perish in obscene circumstances. The tragedy of Betty's life is that she cannot escape death even when she succeeds.
Sandra Williams is a married woman whom Jacob Flanders meets while travelling alone through Greece. Jacob meets many women but not many interest him and none leave a lasting impression in quite the same way as Sandra, whose mature, intelligent character stands out from the other female characters. Sandra is the object of Jacob's affection precisely because she is unattainable. Sandra occupies a different social position from Jacob in almost every respect. She is of a different gender and social class, she is wealthier, she is older, and most importantly she is married. She carries around books as affectations and dresses herself in literature and associations as another person might wear a hat or a purse. This behavior would typically annoy Jacob, but Sandra seduces him nonetheless. Sandra is unique in her ill-suitedness for Jacob's affections yet she is the only woman who holds his interest for an extended period of time. Sandra's status as a poor romantic partner for Jacob makes her as distant and impossible as the Greek culture Jacob loves. Sandra is married and in love with her husband. A relationship with Jacob seems impossible, just as it would be impossible to return to Ancient Greece. Jacob and Sandra walk together through the Greek ruins, and this becomes a metaphor for the nature of their relationship. The ruins are the outlines of a lost time that can never be reclaimed, just as their relationship is a fleeting moment that can never be consummated.
Clara Durrant is a pathetic figure in the text. She loves Jacob Flanders from afar, but he never seems to recognize her obvious affection. Clara is kind, gentle, intelligent, and determined. She falls in love with Jacob when he visits the Scilly Isles with her brother Timmy Durrant. Both Clara and her mother recognize Jacob as a fascinating young man, and Clara moves to London in an attempt to bring herself closer to Jacob. She fails to win Jacob's affection and settles instead for other, less interesting men. A pathos is a quality that evokes pity or sympathy. Clara's pathos lies in her inability to take control of her life. She wants to be with Jacob and tries to attract his attention, but these efforts routinely fail. No matter what Clara does, Jacob seems unwilling to recognize her in any romantic capacity. He chases after the promiscuous Florinda or the married Sandra instead. Though he is a man of obvious intelligence, Jacob cannot recognize Clara as a suitable romantic partner who is compatible with him on almost every level. Clara finally accepts this and moves on. She has relationships with other people while Jacob pursues impossible women. Clara is a sympathetic figure because of the kind-hearted intelligence she displays and the emotional wherewithal she portrays in chasing after Jacob only to be let down again and again.