The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 830

The story begins and ends in Jacob. His spirit presides over the whole tetralogy. One of the original God-dreamers, his “mild and pensive piety” is a pure, if not simple, expression of his somewhat timid yet profoundly thoughtful nature. Still, he plays the rogue. He tricks Esau out of his...

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The story begins and ends in Jacob. His spirit presides over the whole tetralogy. One of the original God-dreamers, his “mild and pensive piety” is a pure, if not simple, expression of his somewhat timid yet profoundly thoughtful nature. Still, he plays the rogue. He tricks Esau out of his birthright. He gets the better of Laban when dividing the flock by settling for lambs of mixed color and then causing the ewes to conceive such offspring. Near death, he confuses everybody by crossing his hands as he settles blessings on the heads of Joseph’s sons. Yet Jacob maintains his resolute morality to the end. Disgust for Egyptian customs is the lodestar of his morality. Since revelry, prostitution, and bestiality have there been raised to the level of religious rite, Jacob considers Egyptian society to be a version of Hell, based on bondage, error, and death. It is profoundly ironic that, before being laid to rest in the tomb of his fathers, Jacob’s body is mummified in Egyptian fashion.

Retelling history’s oldest story of personal love, Thomas Mann drew a most feeling portrait of Rachel. More is made of her emotions and inner feelings than her outward beauty. In her selfless suffering, she attains archetypal significance. Her chaste beauty and noble charm survive in Joseph. Her affection for Jacob helps Judaism become a religion of love; Jacob’s fondness for her seems as ardent as his faith in God when he gazes into her black eyes brimming with tears of joy and sorrow. Rachel shares Jacob’s antic spirit, once taking revenge on her father by absconding with his precious household idols. Just as delicate as she is lovely, Rachel suffers mental anguish in childlessness and physical pain in childbirth. Dying in labor, she typifies the savior whose death brings life.

Joseph is the most complex and compelling character of all. As he walks through the streets, women mount the housetops and throw their rings down to him. His godlike beauty, eloquence, and charisma astound all whom he meets and his chroniclers as well; even the account in Genesis lingers on his legend. Yet in Mann’s story, Joseph’s personal development overshadows his natural gifts. As a boy uniquely beloved, he expects people to love him more than they love themselves. His dreamy egotism is shattered by his fall into the pit. Realizing his folly, Joseph allows the energies of his ego to flow from arrogance into the common weal. He accepts that his lot in life is to play out an ancient pattern, to undergo a tragic withdrawal before returning to glory. His bondage in Egypt replays the pattern. There, Joseph develops the virtues on which his triumph depends. His chastity, loyalty, and sympathy are tested and proved.

Joseph is altogether more modern in outlook than Jacob: more volatile and witty, less single-minded, and more practical. His manner is far from patriarchal. Joseph’s complexity is epitomized in the epithet tam. Originally it meant one who is upright, a dweller in tents, but it came to connote the intellectual agility of a wanderer who loves God, the kind of man who can handle the glad and sorry aspects of a double-sided life.

In his portrayal of Mut, Mann developed the personal, as opposed to the mythical, side. Although she had been well-adjusted to her role as the official wife of Pharaoh’s eunuch, she begins to find her personal life empty. Understandably, her passions take human shape when Joseph enters her life, as a slave, hers to command. For two years, she tries to conceal desire behind polite conversation, but her womanhood has been aroused, and all reserve thaws. On a holiday when the house is almost empty, she throws herself at Joseph, is rebuffed, and recoils in panic. Her happiness could have been ruined, but everyone seems to understand, and her husband’s evenhanded disposition of the affair restores their intimacy.

The brothers are a mixed lot. Collectively, they represent the ordinary people who do not appreciate the heightened artistic sensibilities of a man such as Joseph. Six are born to the dog-headed Leah: Zebulun, who hates herding sheep and longs for adventure at sea; bony Issachar, who loves the quiet life; the violent “twins” Simeon and Levi; Judah, a sensitive soul of leonine lust; and Reuben, the eldest, a big, soft, excitable man, who loses his birthright through shameful intercourse with his father’s concubine. Two are born to Leah’s maid, Zilpah: sweet-toothed Asher, a seeker of pleasure, and the forthright Gad, as stubborn as a butting goat. Two are born to Rachel’s maid, Bilhah: subtle Dan, a stickler by nature, with a judicious turn of mind, and the fleet Naphtali, who has the gift of gab. Only Rachel’s son Benjamin delights in his remarkable brother Joseph. Tied to the apron strings, he receives from Jacob more protection than affection, never knowing the effusive love and hate that Joseph experiences.

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Critical Essays