The speaker reveals no autobiographical information—we don't know their age, occupation, or gender. What we do know is that they seem to serve as a middleman or as a kind of translator between the adult bystanders who witness the children's suffering, and the children themselves. They are evidently heartbroken by the existence of child labor, and spend most of the poem attempting to convince other adults that more must be done to end the practice. However, they also spend a smaller amount of time working, unsuccessfully, to persuade the children to feel hopeful and even joyful. The speaker is passionate and empathetic, but also patient, attempting to appeal to bystanders' better natures rather than merely to scold them.
The poem's child characters are described as a single unified group with hyperbolically tragic characteristics. The speaker stresses that these children are experiencing the stresses, sorrows, and pains of old age, but without any of the positive elements of old age, such as wisdom and experience. They represent a perversion of childhood, in contrast to young animals and plants, who are able to live carefree childhoods. These children are so exhausted and strained from working in mines and factories that they wish to die, and are envious of peers who die young (in particular a friend named Alice). They are unable even to long for happiness or freedom, since they are simply too tired to enjoy life. They are also unable to turn to religion for comfort, since human unkindness has convinced them that God, too, is uncaring.
The speaker addresses a group of listeners as "brothers" throughout the poem, and, indeed, the poem itself is essentially framed as an attempt to persuade this group. Everything that is revealed about these listeners is revealed through the speaker's own words to them, and it becomes clear that these listeners are a group of adults with some degree of power to end or at least advocate against child labor. The speaker's goal is to provoke their empathy and make them understand the uselessness of their naivete and complacency. It seems that these listeners have responded without sufficient urgency to the plight of the children: they believe that their country is a place of freedom and safety, and are too comfortable in that belief to actually fix its problems. They also advocate for religiosity, attempting to preach to suffering children without actually addressing their everyday struggles. The speaker tries to make them channel these energies in more productive ways and to act on the children's behalf.
The Cry of the Children Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Cry of the Children is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.