Jonathan Chandler, also referred to as Mr. Chandler, commits suicide on Christmas Eve in front of the whole Chandler family, including live-in maid Lutie and Little Henry Chandler. Afterward, the Chandlers pay off a number of officials to make sure the incident is recorded as an accident in the public records. This episode makes Lutie realize how money shapes reality.
Little Henry Chandler
Little Henry Chandler is the young son of Mr. and Mrs. Chandler. Lutie takes care of Little Henry while she is living away from her own son of the same age. Little Henry grows attached to Lutie and is devastated when she leaves. For Lutie, his wealth and privilege represent all that she wants to give her son but cannot because she is poor and black.
Mr. and Mrs. Henry Chandler
Mr.and Mrs. Henry Chandler, parents of Little Henry Chandler, employ Lutie as a maid and nanny. Their interactions with Lutie reveal their unconscious racism toward African Americans.
Mr. Crosse trains singers for Broadway and nightclub appearances. Lutie auditions at his studio and throws an inkwell in his face when he propositions her. He had offered to give her singing lessons for free if she sleeps with him several times a week.
Granny is Lutie Johnson’s grandmother. Her intuition about people—particularly men with bad intentions—conforms to Lutie’s own experience. Lutie grew up with Granny’s company and was never afraid of the dark because Granny made her house feel known and familiar.
The madam of a house of prostitution, she has a close relationship with Mr. Junto, a powerful white man. Many years ago, she narrowly escaped a burning building. The fire left her permanently disfigured. Her appearance is a source of immense insecurity for the woman and a barrier to intimacy with Mr. Junto, who appears to like and respect her. Mrs. Hedges intervenes to protect both Lutie Johnson and her son Bub at key moments in the novel. She is a strong woman who intimidates William Jones and the local bullies who harass Bub.
Bub Johnson is Lutie’s eight-year-old son. He desperately wants to gain his mother’s approval and love. While much of the novel concerns Lutie’s attempts to take care of her son, she shows little warmth toward him and often lashes out at him under the pressure of trying to survive in the awful conditions of the Harlem ghetto. Bub does not understand why his mother is so concerned about money and tries to please her by earning money from the super, who in turn manipulates him into stealing letters from people’s mailboxes. Bub is eventually caught by the police and sent to jail, where his mother visits him once, promising him she will be back soon. Lutie never returns and Bub is left abandoned at the jail with a bleak future ahead of him.
Jim Johnson is Lutie’s husband. He cheats on her while she is away working for a white family, the Chandlers, in Lyme, Connecticut. Unable to find work because he is black, Jim grows depressed because he cannot provide for his family. After Lutie finds out about the affair, Jim moves away and neither Lutie nor Bub hear from him again, although Lutie eventually comes to understand the despair he felt while she was away.
Lutie Johnson is the main character in the novel. She has been estranged from her husband, Jim Johnson, ever since she returned home from working at the Chandlers’ to find another woman living in their house. Although she and her son Bub no longer have any contact with Jim, she remains married to him. Lutie is a strong woman who works hard to provide for her son. Her primary concern is that she make enough money to move out of the ghetto. Unlike many peripheral characters in the novel, Lutie refuses to sell her body for money. It is the one compromise she is completely unwilling to make—a fact that stands in strong contradiction to the expectations of many people around her who assume that all black women welcome to the advances of white men. Despite many setbacks, Lutie remains determined to fight her circumstances for the sake of her son. Unfortunately, during the many years Lutie has endured racial and gender inequality, oppression, and hardship, her anger at ‘‘the street’’ has reached an unbearable level. By the novel’s devastating conclusion, Lutie has been consumed by her rage. Blinded by her anger, she murders Boots after he traps her in a hotel room. Not wanting Bub to know that his mother is a murderer, Lutie abandons him completely, buying a one-way ticket for Chicago.
William Jones is the superintendent of the apartment building into which Lutie Johnson moves with her son Bub. Jones lives with a dog, which he physically abuses when he is angry, and a woman, Min, who is so submissive to Jones that she is virtually invisible to Lutie when she comes to rent the apartment. As the story progresses, Jones becomes increasingly obsessed with physically attractive Lutie and tries in various ways to reach her through Bub.
Mr. Junto is a wealthy and powerful business owner in Harlem who is good friends with Mrs. Hedges. Mr. Junto takes an interest in Lutie Johnson after he hears her sing at a bar he owns. He tells one of his employees, Boots, to let her sing in Boots’s band but not to pay her, presumably so that she will remain economically desperate. He tells Boots not to pursue Lutie because he wants her for himself. After learning that she is not interested in sleeping with him for money, Mr. Junto becomes angry.
Pop’s promiscuous girlfriend, who provides the motivation for Lutie to find a new place to live. In addition to having a ‘‘loose bosom,’’ Lil offers Bub alcohol behind Lutie’s back and asks him to light her cigarettes for her.
(See Gray Cap) Charlie Moore is the leader of a gang of older boys, the ‘‘big six-B boys,’’ who live on the street and bully Bub.
Mom and Pop
Lutie’s parents, referred to only as Mom and Pop, are minor characters in the novel. However, Pop’s role in Lutie’s history is significant. It is because of him and his girlfriend Lil that Lutie decides to escape to Harlem.
Min is a meek yet intuitive woman who lives with William Jones. Her relationship with the super was stable until Lutie Johnson moved into the building. Min is so submissive toward the super that she becomes invisible to Lutie. Once the super begins to desire Lutie, his feelings toward Min turn increasingly hostile. Sensing that she is in danger, Min consults a witch doctor, the Prophet David, who tells her how to prevent the super from being violent toward her. His tricks work and Min keeps herself safe until she eventually moves to another apartment on a nearby street.
The Prophet David
The Prophet David is a root doctor (a herbalist purported to have magical powers) who serves women who seek protection from the abusive men in their life. He helps Min to protect herself from William Jones.
Miss Rinner is Bub’s white teacher at school. She has worked in Harlem for many years and cannot stand the smell of black children. She does not think there is any point to teaching them and dreams of the day she will be transferred to a school of blond-haired and blue-eyed children.
Boots Smith, who has a long scar on his face, is a wealthy African American man who works for Mr. Junto and meets Lutie Johnson after she sings at Mr. Junto’s bar. Boots takes an interest in Lutie Johnson and invites her to sing in his band. Hw lures her with the promise of money he knows that she desperately needs, assuming she will sleep with him in return. Much to his disappointment, Boots is unable to pursue Lutie further because Mr. Junto tells him he wants her for himself. Sensing their motivations, Lutie trusts neither man and has no desire to sleep with either of them but plans simply to make money by singing. After Bub is jailed for theft, Lutie comes to Boots in desperation and asks to borrow money for Bub’s bail. Boots agrees and tells her to come to a hotel room where Mr. Junto is waiting, assuming she will sleep with him for the money. Enraged, Lutie ends up kicking Mr. Junto out of the room and then murdering Boots with a candlestick when he makes sexual advances toward her. After he is dead, Lutie finds the door locked, indicating that Boots had intended to rape her.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Ann Petry, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010