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Philip Carey, an orphan with a clubfoot, is the protagonist of the novel. During the book, he undergoes the trials and tribulations of life and emerges stronger. He falls in love with Mildred and sacrifices his education and money for her. After she leaves him, he becomes a doctor and decides to lead a life of peace and harmony with Sally.
On one level, Mildred Rogers is Philip's antagonist. She exploits his goodness, blackmails him emotionally, drains his finances, and has an affair with his friend. She keeps him in bondage and restricts him from establishing his identity in the world.
At a deeper level, Philip is his own antagonist, causing his own problems and defeats. Until he knows and accepts himself and determines to better himself in life, he feels downtrodden. Fortunately, he is able to put his life in order, marry Sally, and happily settle down.
The climax occurs in London during the war when Mildred leaves him. He suffers a financial setback, losing all his stock investments, and discontinues his medical education. He is bankrupt and takes to the streets. His generosity towards Mildred and his trust in Macalister have brought ruin upon him.
Philip's story ends as a comedy. In spite of his many setbacks in life, he finally knows what he wants, overcomes his problems, and is able to set his life in order. He marries Sally and at last settles down.