Although John Dowell is the narrator, he never reveals much about himself. He demurs that he himself is not important. He describes the other characters in great detail, and sometimes contradictorily, but never describes his own physical characteristics. At times, he seems to admire Florence Dowell, and at times he says derogatory things about her, including that she is "a common flirt" and "vulgar." He is the same way toward Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, whom he professes both to "love" and "loathe." Because of John's slippery nature, the reader is never quite sure how much of John's story can be believed. He is the ultimate unreliable narrator, rambling on in nonchronological order, amending and adding to former statements, and hiding possibly violent passions behind a proper and "harmless" persona. It is almost fantastical how ignorant he is of Florence's affairs and how he puts up with a sexless marriage based on Florence's pretense of a heart condition. He paints himself as the innocent victim of the intrigues of Florence and the Ashburnhams. The reader must wonder at John's motive to tell this story. It may be to simply gain sympathy for all he has endured, or it may be a form of revenge against Florence, Edward, and Leonora by exposing their private misdeeds to public scrutiny. Ford Madox Ford leaves it up to the reader to decide.
Outwardly, Edward Ashburnham is a fine specimen, "tall, handsome, [and] blond." Although he supposedly has a heart condition that forced him to resign his military commission, he still commands respect. As a soldier, he reportedly received the Distinguished Service Order and was twice put forward for the Victoria Cross, a medal for bravery. It is said that his men "loved him beyond the love of men." This, too, is how Edward seems to affect John Dowell, who mostly speaks of Edward in reverent tones. But for all his outward virtues, Edward has many private vices. He is too generous with money, and he is a gambler. He engages in affairs with a string of women and even falls in love with his own ward, Nancy Rufford. He thinks his wife, Leonora Ashburnham, is too practical and thrifty and has trouble relating to her. He becomes so agonized by Nancy's departure to India and Leonora's tight rein over his finances that he commits suicide. John remarks that Edward is too much of a sentimentalist to survive in this world.
Leonora Ashburnham has been brought up to honor marriage, and she tries her best to connect with Edward Ashburnham, whom she passionately loves. However, she profoundly misunderstands him and tries to micromanage him, which estranges him from her. When she finds out about his affairs, she believes if she follows her duty to women and her religion to be patient, he will eventually come back to her. She endures with Edward's private vices and his outpouring of generosity, which gives him a good reputation but forces her to work even harder to keep them from going bankrupt. She mostly suffers in silence, needing to project an illusion of perfection. She hates Florence Dowell but puts up with her because she does not want Florence to expose the imperfections in her marriage. She loves Nancy Rufford like a daughter but is jealous that Nancy has captured Edward's heart. Of all the characters, Leonora perhaps comes out the best in the end. Even though she loses Edward, she marries Rodney Bayham and is expecting a baby.
John Dowell claims that Florence Dowell wanted two things: to be a great lady in British society and to retain John's respect. It would seem all her schemes are calculated to install herself in an English country manor while appearing to be a good person. Florence appears to have made an early mistake by giving into her passion for Jimmy in 1900, and she attempts to correct that mistake by marrying John and enforcing a passionless marriage through lying about her weak heart. Florence is not without passion, however. She sees her chance to ingratiate herself with British society when she witnesses Leonora Ashburnham boxing Maisie Maidan's ears. She carries on an affair with Edward Ashburnham, hoping he will leave Leonora and marry her so that she can attain her goal of living in a British country manor. August 4 is a superstitious date for her, and when she witnesses Edward declaring his love to Nancy Rufford and sees John with Bagshawe, who witnessed her and Jimmy together, she despairs and commits suicide. John feels only that a weight is lifted from his shoulders when she dies. He does not mourn her.