Carol Kennicott represents the ideals of the Progressive Era—a time when women's rights, the labor movement, and social reform were at their peak—and dreams of effecting change herself. Carol is a bright, college-educated woman who makes it her mission to bring beauty to one of the Midwestern prairie towns she has read so much about. She gets her opportunity when she marries Dr. Will Kennicott of Gopher Prairie. Once she moves to the town, however, her progressive ideals are shattered by the smug, provincial attitudes of the townspeople who live there.
Dr. Will Kennicott is a decent, hardworking man. He woos and marries Carol Milford with the idea that the town needs her ideas and energy to continue its growth. When Carol turns out to be more of a reformer than he envisioned—and unhappy and restless as a result of her failures—Will is put in the position of having to balance his affection for the town with his love for his wife. He does so by turning a blind eye to some of Carol's mistakes and indiscretions, but at one point he has an affair after Carol continues to reject and dismiss him. Will is imperfect in other ways, as well, sharing some of the town's prejudices and provincial attitudes. At his core, though, he is a good man, and he and Carol are eventually able to be happy together.
Vida Sherwin is an intelligent woman, who becomes one of Carol's closest friends. Like Carol, she would like to see change in Gopher Prairie, but she sees Carol's impulsive efforts as foolish and destructive, and prefers to effect reform slowly from within the system. For most of her life, Vida has also been sexually repressed. In fact, unknown to Carol, Vida was once in love with Will Kennicott. He had once shown an interest in her, but her conflicted feelings about physical intimacy prevented her from responding. She still harbors the delusion that he loved her and she "gave him up," which results in a love-hate relationship with Carol. Eventually, though, Vida sets her sights on Raymie Wutherspoon and, at age 39, finally marries and settles happily into domesticity and a healthy sexual relationship.
Miles Bjornstam is the town handyman, known as "The Red Swede" because of his socialist views. He is intelligent, good humored, and well-read, but he has no patience for the townspeople, whom he views as materialistic, hypocritical, and shortsighted. Carol is one of the only people Miles respects because she, too, is a liberal. Eventually, Miles falls in love with Bea Sorenson, a Swedish girl who is Carol's housekeeper. The marriage changes Miles, and he decides to become a respected citizen, and a good provider so he can support his wife and baby. The townspeople continue to shun the little family even when Bea and her child, Olaf, become ill with typhoid. When both mother and baby die, Miles curses the town and leaves it forever.