Two central themes are the effects of the approaching storm and the wake that the family is gathered for. At first, the family of relationship of father and three sons is a realistic one of an orderly family. As the storm approaches, chaos comes to rule the family relationships as profoundly as it rules the weather. Boundaries of right behavior are crossed and the wake comes to symbolize a metaphorical wider death than that which has hit Jacob.
In Jacob's Wake by Michael Cook, we are presented with a dysfunctional, divided family.
Mary is an unmarried teacher. She has had no children, but raised her nephew, Wayne, like her own. She is church-going, but not loving. Instead, she finds fault and complains—hateful to her brother Winston.
Mary and Winston's father, Skipper, lies in a bed upstairs from which he has not moved in twenty to thirty years, having lost the use of his legs as the captain of a ship. He lives in the past, haunted by the death of his grandson, Jacob, out with Skipper on the sea when Jacob died. He moves between times when Jacob was alive, and the present. Mary's character is evident when Rosie, her mother, goes up to care for Skipper.
An expression of near hatred crossing her face.
Why don't you just die and leave us alone.
Mary insults Winston for not working, saying for him, every day is a holiday. She complains that Winston gives Skipper rum—one thing that comforts him. Winston says the man should have it: it's a holiday. Winston is sure some rum, a little more or less, will not alter Skipper's chance of finding salvation. Mary retorts that work won't be his salvation...
But that would be more of a miracle than getting old Lazarus up there [Skipper] to leave his room.
It seems that Winston can't stand Mary, and for good reason.
Winston is most likely an alcoholic. He drinks beer all day, even in the morning. He is unsophisticated, sacrilegious, vulgar and antagonistic. He is unemployed, living off of the welfare system and an allowance Wayne sends monthly. Winston does not quietly take Mary's insults:
...I am crude. I drinks because it helps me to fergit where I am and I swears because I like it. It sounds good and it protects me from your kind of literacy. And I likes jokes about natural functions because they're funny and they're particularly funny when aired in front of ye.
However, Winston deeply cares for his wife Rosie. They have had five children, and lost two (Jacob and Sarah). And even though his father often mistakes him for Jacob and Winston feels he has disappointed his dad, Winston spends time with Skipper each day. He defends Rosie against Mary's eventual verbal attacks. Husband and wife don't talk of love much, but they live their love for each other. His character has merit.
Wayne fakes propriety—like Mary. She made sure Wayne was educated. He now has an great job with the government. But Wayne is self-serving. He needs Skipper out of the way to advance his own interests, so he makes arrangements to have him committed to an asylum. He is a sneaky politician, not afraid to work on the wrong side of the law if it helps him. In fact, he is involved in shady dealings with his brother, Alonzo (and the son who is the most like Winston: a drinker and a bully, etc.). Alonzo has forged Winston's signature on Skipper's commitment papers for Wayne.
Brad is a preacher, just thrown out of his church. Among other things, his fanaticism drove him to burn down the bar in the town he served, to save people from the sin of drinking. He is a damaged soul—picked on by his brothers for years, and mentally and emotionally impaired.
Rosie is the dearest. She finds something good in all. She takes care of everyone, even when she is exhausted. She admits:
...I nivir could say no to none o' dem...
...old habits die hard.
Skipper says the family is like a ship—floundering—headed for disaster.