May Bartram is twenty years old when she first meets Marcher, and so is thirty when they meet again at Weatherend. Her mother is dead, and she is staying at Weatherend as a guest of her great-aunt. Marcher guesses that she is in some way a dependent, and observes in her “a pride that might ache though it didn’t bristle.” In other words, May seems to accept her station in life, and what fate has brought her.
May’s physical appearance is not described in detail, although Marcher finds her “distinctly handsome” when he first sees her at the luncheon party. May is obviously attracted to Marcher, given the fact that she remembers so many of the details of their first meeting and is sympathetic to his story of the “beast in the jungle.”
Less than a year after May meets Marcher at Weatherend, her great-aunt dies. With her inheritance she is able to buy a small house in London and so acquire some independence. Her independence allows her and Marcher to develop a close friendship, and over the course of many years they spend much time together. May is a cultivated, serious, perceptive woman, and she and Marcher share an interest in the arts. She accepts Marcher for who he is and offers him whatever support she can. She has the ability to reach into his consciousness, so to speak, and make his worries and concerns her own. She is able to identify with him and understand the way he sees his life and what it may bring. She does not judge him in any way, which is exactly what Marcher needs.
However, their friendship never blossoms into romance, and Marcher never asks her to marry him. May therefore remains single throughout her life. She appears to love Marcher without reservation, but she makes no demands on him, subjugating whatever desires of her own she may have. She gradually learns to see what the “beast” in Marcher’s life is—his inability to offer her the kind of selfless love that she is offering him.
She dies of some unspecified illness, having spent most of her life loving Marcher without much reward. In that sense, she too is passive, like Marcher. She offers love and hopes that it will be returned, giving Marcher every chance to do so, and never complaining. May comes across as much wiser than Marcher will ever be, but her wisdom does not bring her happiness or personal fulfillment.
John Marcher is the protagonist of the story. He is thirty-five years old when the tale begins, having first met May Bartram ten years earlier, when he was twenty-five and she was twenty. Marcher is a cultivated, well-educated man, probably a member of the English upper middle class, the sort of man who can easily afford to travel and attend the opera in London. He owns a house in the country and he enjoys the garden there; he likes books and owns a probably quite extensive library. He has friends and acquaintances in London and he visits them frequently and invites them to visit him in return. Few details are supplied about his occupation, but he appears to be a civil servant of some kind. He also manages a “modest patrimony,” an inheritance.
Marcher is in these externals a normal enough man of his class and time. But in spite of this he does not feel normal. He regards himself as rather odd, as singled out from the crowd. From his earliest years he has had a conviction that he is marked out in his life for “something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible” that will at some point happen to him, and that it might very well overwhelm him. It is this that makes him, in his own estimation, a “haunted man,” although he keeps this feeling to himself until he meets May Bartram. She is the only person he ever tells about this strange feeling he has, which is never far from his mind and seems at times to obsess him. He knows that it sets him apart from others, and in his judgment “the rest of the world of course thought him queer.” Because of this feeling that he is singled out for a particular destiny, he feels different and lonely, even though he does have friends. When he meets May again after a ten-year gap, and finds that she remembers everything he said about this special but unknown destiny that awaits him, he befriends her because he is grateful to her. By accepting his belief, and not rejecting him or laughing at him because of it, she makes him feel normal. Up to that point he had always felt unsettled and agitated. Marcher’s great fault, however, is that he becomes obsessed with his idea about what may happen to him, and thinks of himself as some kind of hero facing it with courage. He romanticizes his notion of himself while letting real life pass him by. He is so wrapped up in himself that he does not even guess that May is deeply in love with him.
The Grieving Man
The grieving man is the man Marcher observes at the cemetery in London near the end of the story. He is a middle-aged man and he is standing over a fresh grave. The suffering he is enduring is clear from the expression on his face. When Marcher observes him, he suddenly realizes what he himself has lacked all those years. The unidentified man is grieving in such a way it is clear he loved the dead person with a passion—a passion that has always eluded the detached, analytical Marcher. Although presented only briefly, the grieving man acts as a foil to Marcher; he is a man who under similar circumstances reacts in a very different way than Marcher does.