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...
(The entire section is 830 words.)