The tragic last scene is the Skipper's ghost's attempt to recapture the event in which Jacob died. Whether the ghost's intent is to redo it and do it right or to do it again as before but this time with Winston and his sons, the appearance of Skipper's ghost emphasizes the tragedy at play in the family as all rules are broken--even supernatural ones--and the storm rages over and around them.
Throughout Michael Cook's play Jacob's Wake, the audience witnesses, with varying degrees of severity, just how dysfunctional the Blackburn family is. Thirty years before, Skipper's favorite son was killed in a winter storm very much like the one building during the play. It also took Skipper's legs, and he has been bedridden since—reliving that day repeatedly, burdened by his sense of guilt for the loss of Jacob. Skipper is disappointed in his son Winston, who pales by comparison to Jacob. Old and failing, Skipper often mistakes Winston for the long-dead Jacob. Skipper hates his daughter Mary who is self-righteous, hypocritical and nasty. Winston's sons are unethical and weak-spirited. Skipper admires only Rosie, his daughter-in-law, for whom he has a genuine fondness. She is a hard-working, simple woman who loves her family and tries desperately to keep the peace.
By the end of the play, Skipper ("not much longer fer dis world") has an enlightening conversation with Winston. While he is familiar with the jargon his father uses and can answer him in kind, he cannot fathom his father's obsession with the sea. He is finally tired of his father's insistence that he is still on a ship—and tells his dad there is no ship. Then he reveals the terrible problems in their home—including the plot Skipper's daughter and grandsons are hatching to have the old captain institutionalized:
A few more roars from the bridge and I allows ye'll be gone...
Skipper calls Winston a fool; Winston cannot help but agree with his father. However, Skipper (for all of his disabilities—mental and physical) is deeply insightful and goes on to explain what his son cannot see:
A house is a ship. Lights agin the night...Some adrift...Some foundered, some rotting old hulks full of the memories of men...They's no difference...I tell ye, boy. This one's adrift.
Suddenly, Skipper has a vision. This is not insanity; his words (we later find) are strangely prophetic:
Mark me. Look. 'Tis the shape of death, boy. I din see'n just like that first time [at Jacob's death], rising out of the drift, moving across the ice widout a sound, a man like a cross growing up into the sky.
Winston looks where his father peers into the darkness, and tries to tell his failing sire that there is nothing there. After a moment, however, he allows that his father (for all his infirmities) "sees plainer that I."
Without Winston knowing it, Skipper prepares for his own death.
Ah. It's time.
Skipper failed his family thirty years before. When Jacob died, he stopped leading them, and they floundered through the grief and the ensuing years. He seems powerless to help them now.
Extending the metaphor of house and ship, Winston notes:
But what if he's right? If we is a ship? Then we's as good as gone. She'll nivir ride this one out.
However, in the final scene of the play, Skipper's ghost appears out of the gale, walking through the doorway. The storm's destruction of the house is imminent. As with Jacob, Skipper will be unable to save his family, but he has not left them behind. Miraculously, they join together as one body, becoming what they might have been if Skipper had not abandoned them years before. And while left alone thirty years before to mourn Jacob's death, Skipper now leads his family as he should have then. In a way, Skipper redeems himself. Under his watchful eyes, the all prepare to "blast her out." They are united in death, as they never were in life.