Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 874
Noah, the patriarch, past the age of seventy when the play begins. He later becomes a stronger, younger man of fifty with “eagle bright” eyes and reddish hair, then returns to an old man at the end of the play. He is very authoritarian and acts as the ruler of his family, but he is obedient to God. He demands the obedience of his sons and banters with his wife. He bitterly disagrees with his son Japheth, who wants to do things in his own way. To obey God, Noah is willing for people to think that he is crazy and to mock and ridicule him for building an ark and saying that God will destroy Earth with a flood. He is made younger by God so that he has the strength to do what must be done. His chief weakness is his unbending, impatient authoritarianism. When he becomes old Noah again at the end of the play, these attitudes have vanished, replaced by gentle humor, friendliness, and open affection. Having lost Esther, the love of his life, he grants her dying wish to marry Japheth to Rachel and Ham to Goldie, establishing new laws for a new world.
Esther, Noah’s wife, a practical Jewish mother. She bosses her daughters-in-law, chides her sons for disrespect toward their father, chides Noah with loving banter about things with which she disagrees, breaks up arguments within the family, and maintains her own sanity by keeping occupied with daily chores. She mistrusts Leah but loves the delicate, hesitant Rachel, lamenting Rachel’s unhappy marriage to Ham and encouraging her to have self-confidence. She takes the children’s side against Noah when Ham wants to marry Goldie and Japheth wants to marry Rachel, but she reminds them that she loves Noah. She feels inadequate when Noah becomes younger and she remains old, but she carries on. She dies just before the ark lands and tells Noah to marry the children as they wish “for the sake of happiness in the world.”
Japheth, the youngest son of Noah, in his early twenties, proud, private, thinking, slow, and shy. Noah subconsciously identifies with him. Japheth loves and respects his father but stands up for his own beliefs, which often are at odds with Noah’s beliefs. He is the most capable of the sons and the one to whom Noah turns for comfort in his darkest moments. Refusing to marry Goldie, whom Noah says God has chosen for him, Japheth loves his brother’s wife, Rachel. Willing to die to protest what he thinks is an avenging and destructive God, he plans to die in the flood, but he is knocked out by Noah and carried on board the ark by his brothers. Going against his father’s wishes, he saves the ark and its inhabitants from sinking by patching holes and steering it with a rudder. At the end of the play, it is he who finds the young flowering peach tree, the symbol of new life.
Shem, the eldest son of Noah, heavy and shrewd, sometimes to the point of foolishness, looking like a “weighty, worried boxer dog.” He is an entrepreneur, always looking for a good business deal, even making fuel briquettes from animal dung on the ark and hoarding them for future use. He tries to arbitrate in the arguments between Noah and Japheth. He says and does what is expedient, getting someone else to do the work whenever possible; for example, he gives Ham liquor to do his work on the ark. It is he, however, with whom Noah decides to live in the new world.
Ham, the middle son of Noah, a neurotic, restless, and high-strung man, filled with malice and jealousy that masquerade as humor and good fellowship and even as honesty. He taunts and mocks, but he knows how to charm, especially Shem, for whom he works. He married Rachel to please his father, but he mocks and belittles her and has an affair with Goldie before Noah finally permits a divorce between him and Rachel and marries him to Goldie.
Leah, Shem’s wife. She is smug and plump, with a prim, small, disapproving mouth; contentious and judgmental; and haughty and disapproving. She is a fit and sometimes prodding mate for Shem. She assists her husband in his business dealings and attempts to boss others. Stubbornly smug, she is mistrusted by Esther and reluctantly obeys her mother-in-law. She likes luxury and will work hard to get it.
Rachel, the wife of Ham, nervous and unsure, bright and hopeful, with a delicate, tentative, and hesitant air. She loves and obeys Esther, tolerates and obeys Ham, and carries unspoken love for Japheth. Finally, she leaves Ham and admits her love for Japheth.
Goldie, the proposed wife for Japheth, attractive, chatty, informal, and easygoing, with a sense of humor. She is poor and has no mother, but she has a kind heart. She saves Japheth’s life when drunken townspeople beat and try to burn him. Ham is attracted to her, but Noah accepts her as a mate for Japheth. Esther, after initial reluctance, welcomes her and teaches her how to do chores. She loves Ham.
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