What do a 14-year-old-girl, a deaf mute, a carnie, an
aging black doctor and a restaurant owner have in common? See how their lonely
hearts intersect in a small Georgia mill town in the 1930s.
Antonapoulos is a deaf-mute who lives with John Singer for more than ten years. He is a fat, lazy man who only signs with his hands when he is talking about eating, drinking or sleeping. He works at his cousin Charles Parker's store selling fruit until his behavior deteriorates following an illness and he begins stealing silverware from restaurants and urinating on buildings. Mr. Parker abruptly sends Antonapoulos away to an insane asylum without consulting Singer first. Singer misses his best friend, the only person he's ever met who he feels kin to, and visits him for weeks at a time or writes him letters while they are apart.
Singer is a deaf-mute who makes a living engraving silver pieces in a jewelry shop. He is almost the exact opposite of his best friend Antonapoulos, who has been his roommate for more than ten years. Singer is tall and thin, with intelligent gray eyes. He carries a notebook in his pocket to write messages and signs very well. A diligent worker and a kind person, he is also a good and attentive listener, which makes him very appealing to many of the other characters in the novel. After Antonapoulos is taken away to an insane asylum, Singer grows very sad and lonely and moves in as a boarder with the Kelly family. Although he is an outsider, many of the characters come to feel that he is the only person in their lives who understands and empathizes with their progress and pain.
The Kellys have six children: Hazel, Bill, Etta, Mick, Bubber/George and Ralph. Mr. Kelly used to be a carpenter but since he broke his hip he has been running a watch-repair business out of their house. He feels useless and ignored by his family so he often asks Mick to do trivial things for him while he's working just so he can have someone to talk to. The Kelly family is poor and takes in boarders like John Singer to live in their house. Mrs. Kelly hires Portia to help raise the younger children and cook and clean.
On the cusp of the transition from childhood in to adolescence, 14-year-old Mick is tall for her age and very thin, with short blond hair and blue eyes. She often leaves Bubber/George in charge of watching their baby brother Ralph so she can sneak off to smoke a cigarette. Although Mick is absorbed in her "inner room" thinking about music, she heroically swings into action to help her family—defending her little brother Bubber's desire for a pink costume, or offering to quit school to work at Woolworth's to support the family. Mick is fascinated by her family's new boarder John Singer and starts following him around. She also begins an awkward sexual relationship with her older next-door neighbor Harry Minowitz. Mick's character is somewhat autobiographic, and reflects Carson McCuller's personal views on coming of age.
At the beginning of the novel, Mick looks up to her 18-year-old brother Bill the most despite the fact that he ignores her most of the time. Mr. Kelly often says that dinner goes to his feet, breakfast to one ear and supper to the other because Bill wears size 13 shoes and has red ears that flare out.
Bubber, whose real name is George, is a smart 2nd grader who looks sick and is always attracted to pretty things—like his four-year-old neighbor Baby's pink costume. When Bubber accidentally shoots Baby in the head with his friend Spareribs' BB gun, his sister Mick tries to punish her brother by telling him that Baby is dead. Bubber feels so guilty he tries to run away. Once an outgoing a playful boy, Bubber becomes a loner after the accident. Everyone in his family starts calling him George.
A few years older than Mick, Harry Minowitz lives next door to the Kellys. Harry is Jewish with straight brown hair and wears glasses. He frequently reads the newspapers and worries about the Nazis in Germany; he inspires Mick to think about world events. Harry and Mick strike up an awkward friendship after Mick throws a party. Later they share their first sexual experience—which leaves Harry racked with guilt.
Portia has light honey colored skin like her mother Daisy Copeland. Portia is married to Highboy and works for the Kellys. Although she has no children of her own, she feels that Mick, Bubber/George and Ralph Kelly are her kinsfolk because she has practically raised them. Portia and her brothers Hamilton, Karl Marx and Willie are all estranged from their father Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland. Her younger brother Willie lives with her and they have a communal arrangement: Highboy pays the rent; Portia buys the groceries; and Willie takes care of "Saturday Night." Portia constantly tries to bring her father back into the family fold but she seems to be the only one who can tolerate his highly intellectualized speeches.
Highboy married Portia Copeland without ever really meeting her father Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland. Highboy is good-natured, polite and wears very loud outfits. He is with Willie at Madame Reba's Palace of Sweet Pleasure and gives Willie the razor blade that he uses to attack Junebug.
Willie works in the kitchen at the New York Café and lives with his sister Portia and her husband Highboy because he is estranged from his father Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland. Willie plays his harmonica everywhere he goes. He is a sweet young man, but not very bright, and falls for a stripper named Love Jones. He gets in a knife fight with Junebug over Love Jones and is convicted of attempted manslaughter. He is sent to a hard labor prison and while his family tries to start a letter writing campaign, he is severely tortured.
Dr. Copeland is an aging black doctor who was educated in the North and then returned home to the South to uplift the black community. Dr. Copeland has four estranged adult children: Portia, Karl Marx/Buddy, Hamilton, and Willie. His suffocating dreams for his own children drove his wife Daisy to leave with their four young children. Eight years after that Daisy died and his children were old enough to live on their own. He never speaks in the slang that his daughter Portia and his son Willie use and he is prone to long winded Marxist speeches. He often feels uncontrollable anger and alienated from his own family and the black community at large. He is deeply touched by John Singer's small act of lighting his cigarette because he doesn't trust white people.
The owner of the New York Café, a combination of diner and bar, Biff Brannon is a quiet, thoughtful man who observes his patrons from behind the counter. He has a habit of pressing his nose down with his thumb when he thinks about things. Biff and his wife Alice have been married for 15 years but have a frigid relationship. Biff wants children of his own: he wishes that Mick Kelly and his niece Baby Wilson were his own children although he finds himself attracted to the maturing Mick. After Alice dies, Biff starts to sew and use his wife's perfume. Although he is described as a "dragnet for lost feelings," he is the one character who has an epiphany about what the meaning of life may be.
Biff Brannon's wife is seen only from their apartment over the New York Café. Although they've been married 15 years, Alice and Biff have taken to calling each other "Misses" and "Mister" when they bicker. Alice prepares a weekly lesson for the boys in the Junior Department at her church. When she dies, Biff remembers how beautiful he thought her feet were when they were first married and he kissed the soles of her pink feet. Her sister is Lucile Wilson.
Lucile, a beautician, is Alice Brannon's sister. She is a neighbor of the Kellys. Lucile has dreams of making her daughter Baby famous. She makes Baby take dance and elocution classes, dresses her in outfits that are more like costumes and even takes Baby to get her hair permed. After Alice dies, Lucile and her brother-in-law Biff Brannon have a heart-to-heart conversation where Biff admits that once he beat up Lucile's ex-husband Leroy because he bragged about hitting her. Despite Leroy's violence and cheating, Lucile knows that if he showed up again, she'd probably marry him for a third time. After Baby's accident, she boldly asks the Kelly's to pay for her private nurse and hospital bills.
Baby Wilson and her mother Lucile live across the street from the Kellys. Baby is a somewhat prissy little four-year old with blonde curls and blue eyes who likes to draw attention to herself. Baby knows Bubber/George Kelly envies her outfits and parades around with candy she gets from her Uncle Biff's café. She becomes petulant and rude to her mother after Bubber/George accidentally shoots her with a BB gun.
Jake Blount is a bizarre looking man: short, but with long arms, large hands, and a moustache that appears oddly detached from his somewhat distorted face. He is as prone to drinking himself into a stupor at Biff Brannon's café, where he often goes into a frustrated rant about socialism. Jake is passionate and occasionally violent and feels he has found a confidant in the deaf-mute John Singer. He came into town passionate about a workers' revolt, but gets a job at a local carnival, rather than one of the factories or mills.
Simms is a religious fanatic who writes quotes from the Bible on brick walls around town. Jake Blount finds these anonymously written quotes fascinating, but when they finally meet he feels Simms clings to him "like an evil genius." Simms peaches from the sidewalks and tries to convert Jake even though Jake repeatedly mocks him in public.