The central family around which the story takes place. The Hulots are a family that arose to great prominence during the Napoleonic Era, and are now struggling to make ends meet. In many ways the book is a portrayal of how swiftly French society was changing at this time, and how savvy middle class figures such as Crevel supplanted the faded imperial nobility the Hulots represent.
The book's great antagonist: an apparently virtuous, extremely cunning spinster.
- Big Bad Duumvirate: With Valerie.
- Boring, but Practical: Her seasoned ability to run household expenses in the background is how she ingratiates herself into each family, and learns about their debts. The fact nobody notices her is why she's so deadly.
- Death by Despair: The Hulots' eventual recovery slays her. Her only satisfaction is that they all cry on her death bed, completely unaware of how she sought to destroy them.
- Evil Makes You Ugly: An interesting deconstruction. Bette's plainness is the exact reason she starts down the path of evil: she was overlooked and forced into a life of peasant drudgery whilst her beautiful sister Adeline became a baronness. Her hatred towards her because of this - and then for her daughter, who lures Steinbeck away from her - is unwavering.
- Hoist by Their Own Petard: Bette's eventual aspiration is to marry Marshal Hulot. The havoc she wreaks on the family causes the old Marshal to literally die of shame, right after he'd finally agreed to marry her. Bette never really recovers from this.
- Just Friends: How Steinbock views her (although it's a slightly more complicated relationship than that). Being forced to confront this by Hortense's seduction of him is the bitterest pill Bette has to swallow.
- Karma Houdini: More or less completely gets away with everything she does. Everyone believes she is their friend and an absolute saint, and nothing ever changes that. It's of exactly no comfort to her, since all of her aspirations are ultimately foiled.
- Old Maid: One of the most famous.
- Reverse Psychology: One of her most brilliant tricks is working out that people will generally do the opposite of what the fussy, fuddydud old maid says. So she's constantly advising Baron Hulot to drop Valerie, for instance.
- Sadist: Resigned to a bowl of dust in childhood, Bette's only real pleasure comes from inflicting suffering on her own family.
- Villain Protagonist
Baron Hector Hulot
The head of the family. A once-famous general in Napoleon's Armies, the Baron's deep weakness for vice is the catalyst for much of the action.
- Asshole Victim: At some point during the book - your mileage will vary - you'll stop feeling sorry for the Baron and how he's constantly manipulated. He destroys his family several times over chasing after women, he robs the state and indirectly causes the death of three relatives, he seduces minors, and when his family rescue him from the most abject circumstances, he repays them by doing it all over again, ultimately killing his adoring wife by it. He's truly an utter wretch.
- Corrupt Bureaucrat: He's a high-ranking official in the French government, and becomes increasingly corrupt the higher his debts climb.
- Dirty Old Man: He can't help himself, and nobody else can either.
- The Casanova / The Casanova Wannabe: The Baron beds almost every non-Hulot woman in the book. The twist is that all of these women are seducing him: They lead the lecherous old man on in order to drain him completely dry, particularly Valerie. Even little Atala at the end mostly likes him because of the financial security he offers.
- Friendly Enemy: Crevel is an old comrade of his. Though they both joust for Valerie's attentions and ultimately Crevel completely humiliates him, they're able to commiserate with each other afterwards.
- Gone Horribly Wrong: His attempts to use his connections to skim the colony of Algeria.
- Karma Houdini: Although forced into abject poverty, he's rescued by the efforts of his family, forgiven completely, and rejoins high society. He really, really doesn't deserve any of this, a message driven home by the stunt he pulls right at the end.
- Ignored Epiphany: Has several about his self-destructive lifestyle and the kind of person Valerie is.
- Old Soldier: His feats of heroism in the Napoleonic War are what brought the family to prominence in the first place, and are the reason everyone's so reluctant to cut him adrift, particularly Adeline and his government friends.
Adeline HulotHector's beautiful and long-suffering wife.
- Darkest Hour: Attempting to seduce, and subsequently being humiliated by, Crevel.
- Extreme Doormat: Shows nothing but limitless forgiveness and adoration towards Hector.
- Glory Days: Ten years of married bliss, during which she was the star of Napoleon's court, are often invoked.
- Heroic BSoD: Valerie making a passing mention of the 200,000 franc debt does this to her.
- Hope Springs Eternal: Is forever driven on by the thought she can redeem Hector. She's wrong.
- Twitchy Eye: Develops a nervous tremor as a result of stress.
- Woobie: Although how much you sympathise with her almost continuous suffering is contingent on how frustrating you find her submissiveness.