The novel is set in the Salinas Valley of northern California and a farm in Connecticut. The time spans the years before and after the turn of the nineteenth century, ending after the start of World War I.
The first person narrator and grandson to Samuel Hamilton in the novel.
A native of Ireland. He is the first generation to arrive in the Salinas Valley from the home country. He makes his living as a blacksmith, well digger, and informal doctor.
A man who created a brilliant military career out of his imagination and managed to become a high official in the military establishment. He loved his son Adam but not his son Charles.
The son of Cyrus Trask. He dearly loves his father, who does not return the love. Although he loves his brother Adam, he also has an intense jealousy of him.
The well loved son of Cyrus Trask, who does not return his father's love. He is sent to join the army against his will. He marries Cathy Ames and moves to the Salinas Valley to start a farm. He raises twin sons by himself after Cathy shoots him and deserts him.
Cathy Ames/ Catherine Trask/ Kate
A woman without morals whom the narrator calls a monster. She kills her parents and steals their money, making it seem like an outside murder and a robbery. She shoots Adam to escape him after she has just had twins. She becomes a prostitute in Salinas and eventually becomes a madam after murdering her predecessor.
A Chinese-American servant of the Trasks in California. He devotes himself to making a home for Adam and raising the twins. He is the philosopher of the novel.
Aaron "Aron" Trask
One of the twins of Adam and Cathy Trask. Open and innocent by nature, he is the good son, who is loved by everyone. With his light hair and nice features, he is also quite handsome. He goes to war in order to escape from Salinas after he finds out about his mother.
Caleb "Cal" Trask
The second twin of Adam and Cathy Trask. A contrast to his brother, he is dark-haired and secretive. He distrusts all the people in his life and manipulates their emotions to get his own way. Before the end of the novel, he undergoes a transformation, chooses goodness, and becomes the repository of hope for the future.
The wife of Samuel. She is humorless and morally strict - an opposite of her husband.
The wife of Cyrus Trask and mother of Charles Trask. She lives quietly, content to serve others.
The oldest Hamilton son. He moves to the city and becomes a successful businessman. He helps Cal get started in business.
Another Hamilton son. He moves to the city and becomes a businessman in the insurance field.
Another Hamilton son. He stays on the farm and reads books devotedly. He commits suicide after blaming himself for the death of his sister, Dessie.
Another Hamilton son who attends Stanford College.
The favorite Hamilton daughter. She becomes a popular dressmaker in Salinas. After a failed romance she moves to the home place with Tom, but soon dies of a stomach ailment. Tom blames himself for her death.
Olive "Ollie" Hamilton
The narrator's mother. Her husband's name is Ernest Steinbeck.
A "whore-master" who runs a successful business setting up prostitutes in small town hotels and then rotating them over a two-week period between towns. He has an affair with Catherine Ames, then beats her and leaves her to die. He dies in old age choking on a chicken bone.
The wife of Mr. Edwards. Devoted to her religion, she remains willfully ignorant of the nature of her husband's business.
A farmer in Salinas Valley who introduces Adam Trask to Samuel Hamilton.
The deputy sheriff who investigates the shooting at the Trask ranch. Years later, he brings Kate's will to Adam and burns the photographs she had planned to use to ruin the reputations of the state's leading male citizens.
A neighboring rancher, who attends the first meeting between the deputy sheriff and Adam Trask after the shooting.
A madam of a house of prostitution in Salinas. When Kate goes to work for her, Fate adopts her as a daughter. Kate kills her with several poisons.
A doctor whose age and confusion Kate uses in her scheme to kill Faye.
A prostitute who worked for Faye and then Kate, after Faye's death. Years later, she tries to extort money from Kate out of her knowledge of Kate's murder of Faye.
The narrator's younger sister.
The girlfriend of Aaron throughout their school years together in Salinas. Years later, when she realizes Aaron cannot grow up, she falls in love with Cal.
The minister of Saint Paul's Episcopal Church in Salinas, who serves as Aaron's mentor. He is attracted to high church doctrines and inspires in Aaron a desire for purity.
A man who works for Kate in her house of prostitution. An escaped convict, he tries to trick Kate about her fear of Ethel. She learns of his betrayal and turns him in to the sheriff.
A German-American who is persecuted during the war by the citizens of Salinas because of his accent and his foreign manner. The narrator remembers with shame how he and his sister participated in this persecution.
A handyman in Salinas who knows all the gossip and tells Joe Valery the rumors about Kate killing Faye.
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