The writer, narrator, and in a sense protagonist of the book. A comfortably upper-middle-class writer and journalist, she dives into the low-wage workforce in order to investigate it, chronicling her experiences day by day. Ehrenreich, instead of pursuing an analytical response to the growing disparity between income-class levels, pursues an in-the-trenches, immersive investigative approach. What ersults, then, is a blur between Ehrenreich as an author and a character. She is her own fictional protagonist, who must at once comment on her own narrative, while still preserving the truth. The interesting aspect of this, then, is to wonder whether her character can at all be 100% objective about her own situation. In analyzing the book, then, we must repeatedly return to the question of the unreliable narrator -- and determine whether we can trust her feelings and responses to the issues 100% or whether we should consider simply the facts of her given account.
Gail is a waitress at Hearthside. Ehrenreich follows her on her first days on the job to learn the trade. Gail is middle-aged, wiry, and kind. Her boyfriend was recently killed in prison. She shares a room with a man who is hitting on her and driving her crazy, but without whom she couldn’t afford the place.
The assistant manager at Hearthside. A dictator, his primary job seems to be to make sure the employees are always working—even when the restaurant is nearly empty.
The top manager at Hearthside. Just as tyrannical, he lectures employees about the “disgusting” break room, prohibits employee gossiping, bars off-duty employees from eating in the restaurant, and reminds everyone that lockers can be searched at whim at any time.
The manager at Jerry’s. A mood-swinger, he is not easy to work with (or, rather, work for).
One of the younger waitresses at Jerry’s and a co-worker of Ehrenreich’s. Twenty-something and tattooed.
Another fellow Jerry’s waitress. Claims she once managed a place in Massachusetts but won’t apply for management at Jerry’s because she’d rather not order people around.
An older waitress at Jerry’s, suffering from a leg problem that cannot be diagnosed or treated without health insurance—which she does not have.
Ehrenreich’s “saving human connection” at Jerry’s. George is a hard-working nineteen year-old dishwasher from the Czech Republic who has been in the U.S. for only a week, and whom Ehrenreich decides to teach English. He is later accused of stealing from the storage room.
Ehrenreich’s supervisor at the Woodcrest Residential Facility. Kind, supportive, shows Ehrenreich the ropes.
The cook at Woodcrest. Ehrenreich strikes up a friendly relationship with him, realizing that he has a great deal of power over dietary aides’ workload. He’s something of a braggart, but with a beat-up car and “scraggly” teeth.
Franchise owner of The Maids. Tyrannical yet smug, he insists lockouts are the fault of the employees and tells sick employees to “work through it”. Disgusted with his behavior, Ehrenreich privately compares him to a pimp.
A fellow employee at The Maids. Twenty-three years old and “visibly unwell”. Ehrenreich is assigned to her cleaning team, and grows increasingly concerned over Holly’s physical state.
Another Maids employee. The oldest and most affluent and talkative member of Holly’s cleaning team.
Interviews Ehrenreich for a job at Wal-Mart. Sixty years old or so, with platinum blonde hair.
The aunt of a friend of Ehrenreich’s, whom Ehrenreich meets in Minneapolis. Ehrenreich hopes to learn from Caroline, as Caroline went through a real-life version of what Ehrenreich has created for herself: she packed up her bags and headed from New York to Florida with no connections and only $1,600.
Ehrenreich’s manager at Wal-Mart. In contrast to other managers Ehrenreich has previously described, Ellie is quite likable, and Ehrenreich likens her to “the apotheosis of ‘servant leadership’”.
The assistant manager at Wal-Mart. In contrast to Ellie’s more gentle style, Howard constantly rails about “time theft”.
A coworker at Wal-Mart who buys Ehrenreich a sandwich because she has heard that Ehrenreich lives in a motel and only eats fast food. Ehrenreich is touched by this simple act of kindness.
Employee at The Maids. Says she doesn't complain because she's a "simple person".
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Some of the problems can be addressed through policy. Companies can take more responsibility for their workers. I think, however, their needs to be a major shift in ideology of the general population. The government and the people must make it a...
A tone of defensiveness has by now crept into her writing, as though she senses her enterprise is hitting the rocks: “If some enterprising journalist wants to test the low-wage way of life in darkest Idaho or Louisiana, more power to her. Call me...
Study Guide for Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
Nickel and Dimed is a book by Barbara Ehrenreich. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America study guide contains a biography of author Barbara Ehrenreich, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.