HORACE VANDERGELDER: Vandergelder is a central character. He is sixty years old and is described in the stage notes as “choleric, vain, and sly.” He is stingy with money and rude to everyone he talks to. He is displeased with practically everything around him. He does not approve of the man his twenty-four year old niece intends to marry, and so sends her away to ruin the engagement. He does not like the clerks who work at his hay, feed, and provisions store because he thinks that they should work more than fifteen hours a day, six days a week.
Vandergelder, a widower, plans to marry again, explaining to the audience in a soliloquy that a woman who marries into a household will keep house better than one who is hired to do so.
He originally plans to marry Mrs. Molloy, but his interest in her is so feeble that he is willing to postpone his proposal when Dolly Levi tells him another woman is interested in him.
Throughout the play, other characters spend their time either trying to avoid Vandergelder because of his fearsome temper, or plotting to get their hands on the money that he has hoarded by living a miserly existence. In the end, though, he becomes a warmer person. Dolly Levi tricks him into marrying her, and he goes along good-naturedly. He consents to the marriage of Ermengarde and Ambrose, which he had violently opposed in the first scene, and he agrees to make Barnaby a partner in his business. The sudden transformation implies that Vandergelder was a good-natured person all along, but just did not know how to show his softer side.
DOLLY LEVI: Dolly’s age is uncertain. She is one of the play’s central characters, and the one after whom the later musical “Hello, Dolly!” was named. She is a manipulator and schemer who does not mind making up stories to get the results she wants. Her business cards claim skills in reducing varicose veins and in giving instruction on guitar and mandolin, but she states her principal occupation as “a woman who arranges things.” Although she plans to marry Vandergelder for his money, her intentions are good. As she says to the audience in the last act, she plans to spread his money around to make the world a better place.
Mrs. Levi is a widow, an old friend of Vandergelder’s late wife. As she points out later in the play, she and Vandergelder danced together at each other’s weddings. Vandergelder brings her into the situation because he wants her to chaperone Ermengarde, whom he plans to send to New York while he goes to marry Mrs. Molloy. Mrs. Levi starts planning against him almost immediately. She works to help Ermengarde and Ambrose get together, and she disrupts Vandergelder’s intention to propose to Mrs. Molloy by making up a fabulously wealthy, sophisticated woman whom she says is interested in him. When she finds Cornelius in Mrs. Molloy’s shop, she helps him hide from Vandergelder, and she makes up a ridiculous story so that Mrs. Molloy will not realize that he is a lowly clerk. This serves two purposes: she wants to help the lovers, and she wants to keep Mrs. Molloy from Vandergelder. At dinner with Vandergelder, she carefully but obliquely states the case for his marrying her so that he will think that the idea was his own. Her strategy works, in part because he is a willing victim, which becomes obvious when he announces that she has agreed to become his wife and she has him change his announcement to “finally agreed”, as if he had been begging her for a long time.
Because he is an artist, he does not have a secure economic future, and for this reason Vandergelder objects to the marriage. Ambrose tries to convince Ermengarde to elope with him, an idea which she finds scandalous, forcing him to accept Dolly Levi’s help. In the end, he and Ermengarde are engaged.
JOE SCANLON: Joe is the barber who is grooming Vandergelder in the first act as he prepares to go off to get married. As a barber, Joe has ethics. When Vandergelder offers him fifty cents to do “something a little special” for his looks, Joe is horrified, as if he had been offered a bribe for something improper. “All I know is fifteen cents’ worth, like usual, Mr. Vandergelder,” he explains, “and that includes everything that’s decent to do to a man.” The attempted bribe that Joe refuses turns out to be for hair dyeing.
GERTRUDE: Gertrude is Vandergelder’s housekeeper. She is described as “eighty; deaf; half blind, and very pleased with herself.” When arrangements are made to send Ermengarde away so that she cannot marry Ambrose, Gertrude spoils the plan by mentioning the address that Ermengarde is going to in Ambrose’s presence.
CORNELIUS HACKL: Cornelius is the thirty-three year old chief clerk at Horace Vandergelder’s store. Early in the play, Vandergelder announces to him that, after much consideration, he has decided to promote Cornelius to the position of chief clerk. The announcement that he has been promoted to the position he already holds makes realize that he is in a rut, so he convinces Barnaby to join him for a night on the town in New York. There, he runs into Irene Molloy in her hat shop while he is pretending to be a wealthy socialite shopping for a hat, and he falls in love with her.
To keep Mrs. Molloy from finding out that Cornelius is just a clerk, Dolly Levi concocts an extravagant story about him being one of the most sought-after bachelors in New York, explaining that he comes from a wealthy family and that he only works in Vandergelder’s store because he wants to. When Mrs. Molloy sees him next, she insists that he and Barnaby take her and her assistant to an expensive restaurant. Cornelius goes along, not wanting to tell her the truth. He is frightened about being arrested when he cannot pay the bill, until a stranger finds Vandergelder’s wallet filled with money and gives it to Cornelius, assuming that he dropped it. A series of mistaken identities causes Miss Van Huysen to spend most of Act IV thinking that Cornelius is Ambrose Kemper and that Ambrose is Cornelius, but in the end Cornelius and Mrs. Molloy plan to marry.
ERMENGARDE: THIS ROLE HAS BEEN CAST AND IS NO LONGER AVAILABLE Ermengarde is the niece of Horace Vandergelder. She is twenty-four and intends to marry Ambrose Kemper, an artist, even though he does not make a good salary. When Vandergelder forbids her marriage and sends her to live in New York to keep her away from Ambrose, she goes along with him. She is rebellious enough to plan marriage to a man her uncle does not approve of, but she is also very concerned about her standing in society. When Ambrose suggests that they elope, she is not only against the idea, but is shocked that he would even mention such a scandalous word.
MALACHI STACK: Malachi arrives at the store in Yonkers with a stack of letters of recommendation from employers in different trades, including a letter from one of Vandergelder’s friends named Joshua Van Tuyl. Vandergelder hires him and sends him to New York on a train that is leaving immediately, so that he does not meet the other clerks. Therefore, when he runs into Cornelius and Barnaby at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, he does not know them, and he give Cornelius the wallet he finds on the floor, which is Vandergelder’s. Malachi explains his honesty in trying to return a wallet full of money to its rightful owner. He used to be a thief, then took to drink, and has found that a person can only handle one vice well, so he drinks but doesn’t steal. Later, his drinking clouds his judgment, and he and the Cabman abduct Cornelius and Barnaby instead of Ermengarde and Ambrose.
BARNABY TUCKER: Barnaby is young, the junior clerk at Vandergelder’s store. He is naïve about the world, which makes him inclined to follow after whatever Cornelius does, even when Cornelius leads him off on an adventure that gets both into trouble. At the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, Mrs. Molloy rewards Barnaby for his sweetness by kissing him, and he is so overwhelmed with his first kiss that he falls to the floor.
To get out of the Harmonia Gardens without being spotted by Vandergelder, Barnaby dresses up in a woman’s hat and coat, which gets him mistaken for Ermengarde, a disguise that he has to maintain throughout the fourth act.
At the end of the play, when harmony is restored and everybody is happy, Dolly Levi says to the audience, ”I think the youngest person here ought to tell us what the moral of the play is.” Barnaby makes a speech then about the need for “just the right amount” of adventure in life.
IRENE MOLLOY: At the beginning of the play, Vandergelder intends to marry Mrs. Molloy. She has no personal interest in him, but she is interested in being married in order to get out of the hat business. As she explains to her assistant, people think of women in the millinery trade as being wicked, and she has had to limit her social life in order to keep up an air of respectability. She cannot go out to restaurants, balls, or the theater, because it would hurt her reputation. The only men she meets are feather merchants. In addition, she is interested in marrying Vandergelder because she thinks he would be a good fighter, which she thinks an attractive trait in a husband as it would keep off boredom.
When Cornelius ducks into her shop to hide from Vandergelder, he falls in love with her, and she is just as quickly attracted to him. Part of her attraction comes from the fact that he is pretending to be a wealthy man, an impression that Dolly Levi promotes when she makes up a story about him being the famous Cornelius Hackl, a millionaire rogue who is well-known in the highest reaches of society. At the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, Mrs. Molloy finds out the truth, but by then she is so in love with Cornelius that it does not matter. In the end, they are engaged to be married.
MINNIE FAY: Minnie works in Mrs. Molloy’s hat shop. She is amazed that the older woman would even consider marrying a man whom she does not love. Minnie is not very worldly, and has to ask if the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant is “what they call a ‘café.’”
CABMAN: When Vandergelder finds out this his niece Ermengarde is at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant with the man whom he has forbidden her to see, he hires an enormous cabdriver named Joe to take them to Miss Van Huysen’s house and keep them there, by force if necessary. The Cabman has a few drinks with Malachi, and they end up kidnapping the wrong couple.
RUDOLPH: The senior waiter at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, Rudolph is a snob who tries to maintain dignity when dealing with the antics of the play’s main characters. He speaks with a German accent.
FLORA VAN HUYSEN: An old friend of Ermengarde’s deceased mother, Miss Van Huysen is an old spinster who lives with her servants at 8 Jackson Street, New York. Vandergelder sends Ermengarde to live with her so that she cannot marry Ambrose, but they follow Miss Levi’s advice and go to the restaurant instead, leaving Miss Van Huysen to wait in vain all day for Ermengarde’s arrival. When they do arrive, it turns out that Miss Van Huysen has no intention of keeping them apart. She considers herself “a friend of all young lovers,” hinting that her own love life was ruined by “obstacles and disappointments.” She is easily confused, fooled into thinking that Barnaby is Ermengarde, but her good intentions are essential to everything coming out all right in the end.