Lily Bart is a beautiful, intelligent 29-year-old woman living in the Gilded Age's high society of New York. Her parents lost all their money just before they died, so she is a woman with no wealth and no parents to care for or guide her. She was raised with all the needs and desires of the rich of her era, and has been trained to understand that she must marry a wealthy man and move up socially. Her friends are old-money New Yorkers, a group of mostly petty and cruel women; their husbands tend to be oafish and are seen as good only for their money. Lily craves beauty and has highly sensitive aesthetic needs, but she cannot make herself marry someone who repulses her. She is in love with Lawrence Selden, a poor young lawyer. Through the novel she develops a keener moral sense; through a series of missteps, she moves from living on the edges of great wealth to a boardinghouse.
A young lawyer, Selden comes from a family that spent above its means as Lily's did; his family taught him to value culture and reading, as Lily's did. He enjoys the position of spectator in the wealthy society Lily moves in, and he enjoys watching Lily. He loves her but disapproves of many of her decisions. He enjoys being in the role of rescuer of Lily and tries to help her. Still he is judgmental and lives by many of the standards of the era. Previously he had an affair with Bertha Dorset, whose letters to him come into Lily's possession.
Bertha Dorset is a bored, unkind, and petty woman. Other characters in the novel call her "nasty" and "dangerous." She is also powerful, primarily because she is rich. In the past she had an affair with Lawrence Selden. During the novel she has an affair with young Ned Silverton. She ruins Lily's reputation and chances at marriage partly for spite and partly to protect herself. She is popular and powerful, though, because she has a big house and money. In this novel money and immorality go together.
Percy Gryce is shy and disapproves of smoking, drinking, and gambling—many things that Lily's set enjoys. He inherited his wealth from his father, Jefferson Gryce, and now spends it only on Americana, historical objects related to the beginning of the United States. Lily Bart finds Percy Gryce boring and does not snare him into marriage when she can. Bertha Dorset tells Percy about Lily's habit of gambling, so he marries Evie Van Osburgh instead.
Simon Rosedale is a wealthy Jewish newcomer to New York fashionable society. Lily's opinion about Rosedale, and the narrator's presentation of him, changes as the novel goes on. At first he is presented in stereotypical terms: he's a wealthy, social-climbing Jew. At first he seems to be an example of everything the novel condemns—focused only on money, shallow, coarse. As the novel continues, though, he is the only one to show kindness to Lily, and she begins to find him not entirely repulsive. He's a complex character and, in the end, an admirable one. His goal to move into upper-crust society is not rapacious, not mean—he sees it as a kind of hobby. He appreciates Lily as a person, as none of the other men do (excluding perhaps Selden). With Rosedale, Wharton may be saying that this society will change only when people with new ideas enter.
In love with her cousin Selden, Gerty is a kind, thoughtful, though unattractive ("dingy") woman who lives alone and works with poor and working women. She acts as a foil for Lily Bart, demonstrating that Lily has options beyond marriage.
Aunt Julia Peniston
Aunt Julia plays a prominent role in Lily's eventual downfall. She judges Lily too harshly, having a limited understanding of Lily's character and a total blindness to the strictures her own society has placed on Lily. Her refusal to put her niece on a steady allowance, and her doling out of gifts to her, place Lily in many of the compromising positions in which she finds herself.