Desperate Characters chronicles the disconcertment and desperation in the lives of Otto and Sophie Bentwood. The Bentwoods are a well-off couple of German descent, living in Brooklyn, New York. Sophie is a housewife whereas Otto is a successful attorney. The novel revolves around Sophie and it is only her perspective and thoughts that are presented to the reader.
The story begins when Sophie is bitten by a rabid stray cat when she was trying to feed it,; her wound becomes increasingly infected and sore but she refuses to have it treated and goes on ignoring it. Sophie's wound is symbolic of her growing disillusionment and desperation; she refuses to face reality and accept her world as it is. Sophie's marriage seems to be falling apart and she is desperately trying to wrench meaning from a seemingly purposeless and joyless marriage. Sophie had had an affair which Otto remains unaware of. Otto's ignorance and apathy towards Sophie's affair is the final straw, indicating to her that her marriage is already ruined. Otto is constantly preoccupied with his work and the row he had with Charlie Russel, his partner at the firm. Otto and Charlie have contrasting personalities, Otto is stoic and reserved whereas Charlie is melodramatic and given to emotional outbursts. Otto resents his falling out with Charlie and often complains about it. Charlie extends an olive branch and tries to patch things up with Otto, but Otto finds his attempts duplicitous.
The relationship between Otto and Sophie becomes increasingly strained, since they avoid fighting and keep ignoring their issues, preoccupying themselves with other trivial matters - Sophie with her friends, alcohol and her affair and Otto with his firm and his work. It becomes clear that their marriage will end if they continue to ignore their problems. Sophie continues to let her cat bite fester and refuses to get it treated. She can choose only one of two options, she can treat her bite which will be painful or she can let it be which will eventually destroy her body.
In the last few chapters, Sophie makes her decision: she decides to go the doctor and get her hand treated. Her treatment and the hospital visits manage to somehow bond Sophie and Otto again. The conflict presumably reaches an end when Sophie and Otto catch the rabid cat that bit her, but Sophie refuses to kill it. This is symbolic of her desire to wallow rather than accept her reality and try to mend her disintegrating life and marriage. Charlie calls Otto to presumedly get over their row and Otto refuses to speak with him. Sophie lets go of the cat and decides to face reality and mend her marriage. Both Sophie and Otto decide to focus on their problems and the book ends with them in a warm embrace.