Is the Blackburn family intended as a microcosm of society, and, if so, what does the play appear to say about the health of the institutions these characters represent in Jacob's Wake by Michael...

Is the Blackburn family intended as a microcosm of society, and, if so, what does the play appear to say about the health of the institutions these characters represent in Jacob's Wake by Michael Cook?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the "institutions" represented in Michael Cook's Jacob's Wake, the author describes a picture of decline.

An institution is defined as: organization, establishment, foundation, society...devoted to the promotion of a particular cause or program, [esp.] one of a public, educational, or charitable character.

The first institution disintegrating is the government. Winston gets money in the form of a welfare check every month. He doesn't work at all, but drinks all day, everyday, and makes "moonshine." When Winston and Rosie's son, Wayne (a successful—but corrupt—politician), returns home for the Easter holiday, Winston kids him about the part of the government that matters most to him:

...[Wayne's] proud of his father. Talks about me all the time in that House of Assembly...To the Minister o' Welfare.

It is with the government checks, and money Wayne sends home, that the family survives. (Alonzo and Mary may or may not contribute.)

The government is failing if: it supports Winston (who speaks of a "heart murmur" in vague terms), a man seemingly capable of working that chooses not to; if a forged signature can put Skipper away without due process; and, if it allows blatant nepotism, as well as cronyism and bribery, in permitting Wayne to award government contracts to Alonzo and his friends in exchange for his seat won in the government by carrying his family's district. Its dysfunction is complete as the radio announces that "the government has resigned." 

The Blackburn family is falling apart. Alonzo lives at home; Brad has also returned home. They are lazy, letting Rosie wait on them all. This disease comes first from Skipper who bears the grief and guilt for his son's death thirty years before. On that day, he withdrew into a world of memories and delusions—leaving the family to flounder. His other son, Winston, and his daughter Mary, hate each other. Of Winston, Mary tells Rosie (as Winston listens):

He was always destructive of anything he couldn't understand...In fact, there was time when everyone thought he was retarded.

Winston laughs, but soon gets his revenge, comparing Rosie to Mary:

That's my Rosie. Fat and comfortable and mindin' her own business. Aye, and warm on a cold night too.

He swings on MARY.

But ye, ye frozen wharf junk. Ye wouldn't know anything about that part of life now, would ye?

Skipper's grandsons are the same. When Wayne returns, his drunken father and brother (Alonzo) torment Wayne about his masculinity. Wayne is distraught and furious. The same thing happens to Brad, who is already obsessive and unstable. At the end, he runs away and (we assume) dies in the storm.

Skipper compares his family to a sinking ship:

This one's adrift.

The last institution that is failing is that of organized religion. Brad, a preacher, is fired for burning down a congregant's bar, accusing him of serving the Devil. His faith has no room for love or mercy, only judgment and suffering. Mary holds to the holiness of Easter and disparages the men in the family for their ungodly behavior. However, she is hateful to everyone but Wayne, has no compassion for Brad's dead "girlfriend," Mildred (noting that when her father threw her out in a raging storm an hour after giving birth was "morally right"), and she even wishes her father dead, secretly saying:

Why don't you just die and leave us alone.

None of these institutions are successfully "promoting" those that they serve, but are falling apart.

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

the Stranger, the Necessary Outsider, and the Insider. These three levels of status are said to represent points on a line of alienation which extends from within a community’s normative boundaries to Outside them; the Stranger and Insider represent the extreme ends (Outside and Inside, respectively) of the line, while Necessary Outsiders occupy a median, border position. ("Stranger Figuration and Outsider Depiction in Newfoundland Drama, 1945-")

According to the above quote from a critical analysis of contemporary Canadian, more specifically Newfoundland, drama, analysing Jacob's Wake as a normative microcosm of society might be a bit far off what is actually represented by the play. At least some critics analyze it as an examination of outsiders to normative society. In this case, Cook does not present a "microcosm" of society. Rather, he presents the abnormal fringes of society as symbolically represented by Newfoundland's "outport": a subsidiary (secondary) port built near a primary port but in deeper water.

In this analysis, the institutions represented by the characters' employments are brought into question through the perspective that, even in these professions, outcasts of non-normative morals and values enter the professon and represent it. Since Alonzo is caught in his corrupt act of fraud, the play shows that normative society does not long tolerate such outsider, non-normative behavior: society and society's professions seek this behavior out and restrict it through the established channels of justice.

Yet, if you must analyze this play as a microcosm of normative (instead of non-normative) society, then you might say that Cook shows--under this analysis--that society's professions, and representatively, society itself, is in a degenerate state of "health."

  • Winston earns his living from the liquor of an illegal still.
  • Rosie and Winston's three children all live with the guilt of tragic secrets.
  • Wayne is a corrupt member of the legislature.
  • Brad was indirectly responsible for the death of his high school sweetheart.
  • Alonzo forges the signature of his grandfather, Skipper Blackburn.