Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 699
Writing an essay?
Get a custom outline
Our Essay Lab can help you tackle any essay assignment within seconds, whether you’re studying Macbeth or the American Revolution. Try it today!
J. B., the protagonist, a successful businessman who is, like Job in the Bible, “an upright man, one that feareth God and escheweth evil.” Early in the play, at a Thanksgiving dinner with his loving wife and happy children, he gives thanks to God for their many blessings and says that he has never doubted that God is on his side. Disasters soon befall him: His eldest son, David, is killed by mistake while on Army maneuvers; a daughter, Mary, and another son, Jonathan, are struck down by a drunken driver; his youngest daughter, Rebecca, is raped and murdered; his only remaining child, Ruth, is killed in a bombing raid that levels the town and reduces J. B.’s vast fortune to nothing; his wife leaves him; and he is afflicted with painful sores. All the while, J. B. maintains that God is just, never punishing a person without reason. He takes no comfort from three visitors who offer Marxist, Freudian, and Christian consolations. Asserting to them his essential innocence and integrity, J. B. can find in his own soul nothing deserving of such suffering, yet he refuses to blame God, acknowledges divine omnipotence, and repents. He is visited by Nickles, who prophesies that all will be restored to him in time: wife, family, wealth, and health. Immediately, he notices that his sores have healed. His wife returns, and they make a new beginning in love.
Mr. Zuss, a large, florid, deep-voiced circus vendor with a bunch of balloons tied to his belt. He opens the play when he and his colleague Nickles happen on a sideshow stage under an enormous circus tent. Finding a pair of stage masks for God and Satan, they decide to stage the Job story then and there, looking down on the stage from an aerial platform. Zuss takes the mask of God and is somewhat startled at the biblical grandeur of the words that he utters through it.
Nickles, an elderly, gaunt, and sardonic circus vendor who wears a popcorn tray strapped to his shoulders. He takes the mask of Satan and bets Mr. Zuss that J. B. would lose faith and curse his God if his wealth and happiness were taken from him.
Zophar, a fat, red-raced, cigar-chomping priest who comes with Bildad and Eliphaz to comfort J. B. in his misery. He believes that all people are guilty and that the ability to feel guilt distinguishes people from animals. He cannot help J. B. find in himself a wickedness equal to the enormity of his suffering. Instead, he tells J. B. that his sin was being born human, for the heart of humanity is evil. J. B. calls his the cruelest comfort of all, because it makes God a party to the crimes that he punishes.
Eliphaz, a lean, dark, pipe-smoking man who wears an intern’s jacket. He offers J. B. a Freudian analysis of his predicament. Disagreeing with Zophar, he considers guilt a psychophenomenal illusion and the soul an empty, tiny bladder washed this way or that by wind or wave.
Bildad, a squat, thick man who offers J. B. a Marxist explanation of his condition. He considers guilt an accident of sociology, like being born in the wrong century or the wrong class. History operates without regard for one insignificant individual, so a person must expect fortune and misfortune to cancel each other out, he thinks.
Sarah, J. B.’s wife, whose faith in God and love for her husband are weakened by adversity. Blaming God for the deaths of their children, she loses patience with J. B. and leaves him at his lowest point. She cannot stay away, however, and eventually comes back to make a new life with him.
Two messengers, who bear the bad tidings. Dressed as soldiers, they tell J. B. of David’s death in the Army. Dressed as reporters, they bring the news of that fatal automobile accident. Dressed as policemen, they describe the rape and murder of Rebecca. Dressed as civil defense officers, they report the bombing in which J. B.’s vast wealth and only remaining child are lost.