Acton is Dorcas’ boyfriend, after she has ended her relationship with a much older suitor, Joe Trace. Acton accompanies Dorcas to the party where she is shot and killed by Joe Trace.
One of the central characters of the novel, Dorcas enjoys a romantic relationship with Joe Trace, an older man who shoots Dorcas after she rejects him. An orphan, Dorcas has come to live in Harlem with her aunt, Alice Manfred, after both of her parents were killed in riots in East St. Louis, Illinois. Throughout the novel, Dorcas’ interests in jazz, the “fast life,” and “vampy clothing” bring about her eventual independence from her aunt’s puritanical ideas. Dorcas’ independence is marked by her relationship with Joe Trace, whose age and casual demeanor bear a marked contrast to Dorcas’ speed and excitement. Her relationship with Trace, who is married, brings consequences from his wife, Violet Trace, who slashes Dorcas’ face at her funeral. Dorcas’ relationship with Joe Trace is her first, and even as she represents the “wages of sin,” her ruptured innocence and orphaned childhood suggest that she is more of a victim, than a predator.
The owner of the drugstore, depicted in Chapter 4, where Violet Trace thinks about her mother and buys malt drinks in the hopes of gaining weight.
Felice is Dorcas’ best friend and co-conspirator, sharing in her efforts to evade Alice Manfred’s rules. After Dorcas is shot, Felice kneels beside Dorcas’ deathbed. At the novel’s close, Felice consoles Joe Trace, who is suffering from grief and remorse, informing him that Dorcas chose to die and rejected all efforts to seek medical care. In her exploits with Dorcas, as well as her conversations with the Traces, Felice (a name that means “happy”) serves the role of a comforter.
Golden Gray is a Phaeton-like character who appears in the mythologies recounted to Violet by her grandmother, True Belle. Golden Gray is the son of Vera Louise Gray and one of her slaves, Henry Lestory. After Vera Louise is disowned, she moves from Wordsworth, Virginia (accompanied by True Belle) to Baltimore, Maryland. Vera is enamored with her newborn son , naming him for his radiant golden color. Despite his auspicious birth, Golden Gray eventually leaves his home in search of his father.
Vera Louise Gray:
The owner of True Belle, and mother of Golden Gray. She moves to Baltimore after her parents discover that she has been impregnated by one of their slaves. An evasive and sentimental character, Vera avoids telling her son the secret of his paternity for eighteen years. After her son leaves for Vienna, Virginia‹presumably, to find his father‹Vera never sees him again.
Colonel Wordsworth Gray:
The father of Vera Louise Gray, who owns a plantation with “seven mulattos” of indeterminate parentage. When he discovers that his daughter has been impregnated by a slave, he slaps her into a serving table and eventually disowns her.
“Henry”/Henry Lestory(LesTroy)/Hunter’s Hunter:
This man of several names serves several roles in the novel. As “Henry,” he is the slave who has a romantic involvement with Vera Louise Gray, though he is unaware that she later becomes pregnant. Henry Lestory (or LesTory) is the name that True Belle gives to Golden Gray, when he asks for information about his father. Henry Lestory takes care of the pregnant and deranged woman, named Wild, and as Hunter’s Hunter, he offers valuable lessons in life to her son, Joe Trace. A convoluted character, he serves as a connection between the folklore of Violet Trace’s grandmother and the disappearance of Joe Trace’s mother.
A young black boy who lives in Vienna, Virginia, Honor is the first of the town’s residents to notice Golden Gray when he arrives at the cabin of Henry Lestory, his father.
One of the upstairs neighbors of the Traces. Malvonne is an eavesdropper who enjoys meddling in the affairs of her neighbors, going as far as to rent her apartment to Joe Trace‹for the afternoons and early evenings‹so that he might use it as a “love nest.”
An older woman, Alice Manfred is the strict, rather Puritanical, aunt of Dorcas. Alice is disconsolate as she considers Joe Trace’s crime to be evidence of her failure to guard her home from the sins and violence of the world. After Dorcas dies, Alice finds herself lonely and she later befriends Violet Trace, before leaving for Springfield, Illinois.
Frances and Neola Miller:
Frances and Neola Miller, (the “Miller sisters”) live on Clifton Place, and they are babysitters for Dorcas, when she first arrives in Harlem, at a young age. While Alice Manfred works late evening shifts, the Miller sisters feed Dorcas enticing stories of heartbreak and “hellfire,” their lurid details negating the intended moral lessons.
The baby that Violet Trace allegedly kidnapped from his carriage, while his sister went inside the apartment building to find a “Trombone Blues” record.
The mother of Violet Trace. Rose Dear is dispossessed and loses all of her belongings on account of the debts of her itinerant husband. Four years after her mother, True Belle, comes to rescue the family from poverty, Rose Dear kills herself by jumping into a well.
Stuck and Gistan:
An inseparable pair, Stuck and Gistan, are Joe’s best friends in Harlem. They mention his wife’s alleged kidnapping and later seek to console him after they hear that he has murdered Dorcas.
The nephew of Malvonne, who makes money by stealing mail and rifling the envelopes for cash. He eventually leaves Harlem, either for Chicago “or some other city that ended in O.”
Joe Trace grew up in Vesper County, Virginia in the Williams’ household. After Hunter’s Hunter intimates that his mother is Wild, a “wild-woman” who roams the margins of society, Joe makes three failing attempts to track her down. In an effort to sever his memories of an incomplete, “trace” of a mother, Joe marries Violet and later moves to New York and makes a decent living as a salesman for Cleopatra cosmetics. After living in “the City” for two decades, his idealism is tempered by the emerging silence that he shares with his wife. He views Dorcas, a teenager, as a final opportunity to regain his youth and excitement, but the relationship ends in rejection and helpless violence. After Joe Trace shoots and kills Dorcas, he is not prosecuted because as she was dying, Dorcas refused to reveal his name to the authorities. With Felice’s indirect assistance, Joe is able to come to terms with his past and renew his relationship with his wife.
The wife of Joe Trace, Violet is an unlicensed hairdresser, who is nicknamed “Violent” after she invades Dorcas’ funeral to dishonor the girl’s face with a knife. Violet married Joe Trace in Virginia, and she was similarly eager to disavow her memories of an itinerant father and a mother who killed herself by jumping into a well. In Harlem, Violet struggles to preserve her sanity, amidst the tumult of three miscarriages, her husband’s affair, and her ebbing youth. After Dorcas’ funeral, Violet relies upon Alice Manfred’s advice to stay with her husband. The conclusion of the novel indicates that even if Violet is unable to fully restore the physical body of her youth, she is able to resuscitate her marriage.
As a slave in Baltimore, True Belle cared for Vera Louise Gray and her son, Golden Gray. The mother of Rose Dear (and grandmother of Violet Trace), True Belle shares the stories of Golden Gray as she puts her daughter’s life back together. As she survives slavery, the initial separation of her family and the suicide of her daughter, True Belle functions as a symbol of strength and fortitude, even as her Golden Gray stories have an unhealthy effect on Violet’s perceptions of beauty and reality.
A semi-conscious and pregnant black woman, who Golden Gray discovers on his trip to his father’s cabin. She eventually gives birth to Joe Trace but as a “wild-woman,” she is unable to function as a mother or in any other social capacity. As she lives in the forest at the community’s edge, Wild’s phantom-like presence tortures her son Joe Trace, as he makes repeated and unsuccessful attempts to communicate with her.
Rhoda and Frank Williams:
Foster parents who give Joe Trace his original name: Joseph Williams. While they do not mention (and may not even know of) Wild, they openly tell Joseph that they are not his natural parents. After Rhoda, tells Joe that his parents “left without a trace,” Joe renames himself, concluding that he is the “trace” that his parents left without. Several decades later, Joe Trace holds the Williams family in very high regard and is grateful for their kindness and honesty.
Joe Trace’s boyhood friend and foster brother. Victory has a enormous capacity for memory. In his old age, invokes Victory’s memory as he begins the difficult task of coming to terms with his past.