Lee is the novel's main character and narrator. She speaks from the vantage point of her adult self, describing and musing about her teenage experiences. Lee comes from a middle-class family in South Bend, Indiana. At home, she is outgoing, lively, and high-achieving, earning her a scholarship at an elite boarding school. Upon arriving at boarding school, Lee feels like an outsider. She turns her intelligence and energy inward, spending most of her time observing others and wondering about their habits, motives, and backstories. Lee's greatest strength is her intelligent watchfulness. She has a gift for observation and understanding others. However, she spends a great deal of time worried about her own weaknesses. As a result, she feels debilitatingly self-conscious and becomes even shyer and more inward-oriented. Lee feels enormous affection for her close friends and family, but is wary of expressing raw emotion. Furthermore, she is uncomfortable hearing others express emotion. Throughout high school, Lee deals with an internal conflict, vacillating between a desire to understand the world around her and a fear of confrontation. Furthermore, she experiences a feeling of internal conflict regarding her own social position: she knows that returning home will be impossible after going to boarding school, but also knows that her origins will make her an eternal outsider among wealthy sophisticates. After Ault, though, Lee finds her relief mixed with longing for the intensity and challenge of her schooldays.
Martha Porter is Lee's best friend and roommate at school. She is extremely intelligent and modest, but also blunt. Martha never intends to speak hurtfully, but she can't stop herself from telling the truth. Lee appreciates her friend's thoughtful advice, but sometimes resents the extremely pragmatic Martha for deflating her hopes, especially where boys are concerned. Martha comes from a very wealthy New England family, and her father is an Ault graduate, but she refrains from the competitive, ostentatious displays of status that so many Ault students engage in. Ultimately, though, Martha's integrity earns her a high status within Ault anyway. Her classmates evidently admire her unglamorous competence and elect her senior prefect, the highest-ranking position available to students. Martha prizes honesty and detests breaking rules, so her choice to help Lee cheat on a math exam (and thus avoid failing out) reveals the depth of her devotion to Lee.
Sin-Jun is one of Lee's two freshman-year roommates at Ault. She is kind but somewhat quiet, in part because she is from Korea and speaks English well but not fluently. She lives on the fringes of Ault's social life, interacting mainly with a friend named Clara O'Hallahan. As time goes on, Lee grows apart from Sin-Jun, assuming that her former roommate is content with her life. However, Sin-Jun attempts suicide during Lee's junior year. This experience brings Lee and Sin-Jun close again, since Lee is recruited to help Sin-Jun while she is hospitalized. Soon after, Lee discovers that Sin-Jun is in a sexual relationship with Clara. After this tumultuous series of events, Lee gains insight into her friend's internal life, and the two enjoy a peaceful, low-pressure friendship. Sin-Jun is one of the few people with whom Lee stays in touch after graduating.
Dede is Lee's second roommate during her freshman year. As with Sin-Jun, Lee grows apart from Dede, but the two are brought close again after a series of confrontations. Dede is a wealthy girl from the suburbs of New York who desperately wants to gain popularity at school. Like Lee, she is deeply self-conscious, but she deals with her insecurity in an almost opposite way. While Lee retreats and rarely draws attention to herself, Dede tries to curry favor with the grade's most popular students. She herself is unable to become more than a hanger-on due to her lack of charisma, her appearance, and her Jewishness. Because Dede and Lee recognize their own weaknesses and fears in one another, they tend to lash out at each other in private. Publicly, though, they defend one another in subtle ways, recognizing the other's needs in the school's larger social sphere. Just as Lee's friendship with Sin-Jun deepens after graduating, Lee feels that she can appreciate Dede's sense of humor more after they leave school.
Cross is one of the most popular students in Lee's grade at Ault. His popularity comes mostly from the genuine affection and admiration he provokes in his peers and teachers. He is athletic, academically gifted, and charming. Lee does not speak to him for most of her freshman year, since she considers herself completely unwelcome in his group of friends. When she faints at a mall near school, though, Cross cares for her and invites her to join him and his friends for the day. On the way back to school, Cross strokes Lee's hair, and she develops an enormous crush on him. After this, the two do not speak again until Lee's senior year, when Cross comes to her room at night. They begin a sexual relationship that never blossoms into romance, largely because Cross and Lee do not communicate clearly with one another. Lee, determined to seem low-maintenance, tells Cross to avoid romantic gestures, and Cross, avoiding any semblance of a more committed relationship, makes Lee feel insulted. Lee maintains fond memories of Cross, but they part on emotional, unpleasant terms largely because Cross—like Lee—is terrified of insulting others or taking controversial stances.
Little is one of Lee's first friends at Ault, but they never grow close, partly because Little is so intensely private and partly because, later, she is expelled from school. One of the only black students in Lee's class, Little is much more explicit about her feelings of exclusion than Lee. She has a biting sense of humor and is impatient with other students' frivolity. However, she also steals from classmates' dorm rooms. Lee discovers this and, after only brief debate, turns in her friend, resulting in Little's expulsion.
Gates is Senior Prefect during Lee's Freshman year, and is Ault's first female senior prefect. She is popular and confident yet approachable and kind. She speaks kindly to Lee on a particularly difficult day during Lee's freshman year, and her kindness causes Lee to feel devoted and even obsessed. Gates is a high achiever, helped along by her enormous charisma. Like Lee, she hails from the Midwest, but unlike Lee she comes from a wealthy background, and, furthermore, has worked hard to fit in at the school. She graduates after Lee's freshman year, and therefore is a prominent character only during the early part of the novel.
Conchita is one of Lee's first friends at Ault, but the two have a dramatic falling-out that ends their relationship. At the start of the novel, Conchita is an iconoclastic, refreshingly straightforward freshman. She wears purposely mismatched, colorful clothes, flaunting the school's dress conventions. Conchita is fiercely proud of her Mexican heritage on her mother's side, and Lee later learns that her father is a prominent Texas oilman, making Conchita one of the wealthiest students at Ault. Conchita is excited to become friends with Lee, and Lee teaches Conchita how to ride a bicycle. Conchita introduces Lee to her friend Martha, but Martha and Lee quickly become close independent of Conchita and decide to room together rather than with Conchita. Conchita is devastated and tells Lee that their friendship is over. When Lee next encounters her, it is in the context of Conchita making a speech to rebut Lee's critiques of Ault in a newspaper interview. By this point in their senior year, Conchita dresses and acts in a far more conventional manner.
Dave is a member of Ault's dining staff, but Lee meets him in a nearby hospital, where she is visiting Sin-Jun and he is waiting for his sister. Dave offers Lee a ride back to school, which she reluctantly accepts. He is kind, competent, and clearly interested in Lee. He asks Lee out and she accepts, but acts awkwardly towards Dave in front of her classmates. Dave, insulted, assumes that Lee is as wealthy as her classmates and that she feels ashamed of being associated with him. After this, he is clearly angry and stops seeking her company.
Aspeth is the most popular student in Lee's class at Ault. She is beautiful, popular, and appears thoroughly at ease with herself. She comes into direct conflict with Lee during the election of senior prefects, since Aspeth feels entitled to be prefect and feels threatened by Martha's candidacy.
Darden is a popular student in Lee's class at Ault with whom she has very few interactions. He is also on a scholarship, and is one of Ault's few black students, but unlike Lee fits in well at Ault. He treats Lee kindly when she breaks down during their senior year in the wake of the New York Times article in which she is interviewed. Darden reveals to Lee that he feels keenly aware of his outsider status at Ault, and in fact argues that the threat of racism forces him to avoid controversy. Lee comes to respect Darden, just as Ault's administration and student body do.
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