The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Jake is a frustrated member of the black lower-middle class who has become a bigot and a domestic tyrant. Jake is a living stereotype and a negative reflection of white, working-class prejudices. A stock character who does not develop, Jake has not learned either to deal with the limitations of his world or to imagine an alternative.

When his ambition is frustrated in his dull, dead-end job, Jake puts his faith in unrealistic ways to change his life such as get-rich-quick schemes and gambling. He sees Lil as one of the forces arrayed against his success, and he feels that he must dominate her in order to affirm his own value. Disappointed with his family life, he seeks male companionship, excitement in drinking, and sexual satisfaction from prostitutes. The closest Jake comes to self-affirmation is the drunken realization that, even though he has been beaten and robbed, at least he has no one to blame for his troubles but himself. Stumbling home from “Rats’ Alley,” Jake yells, “BUT WHEN I WAS FLYING I WAS A FLYING FOOL!”

Lil Jackson is an embattled housewife, terrorized and dominated by her husband, who must fight for dignity and financial support. Having previously been fooled by Jake into having an unnecessary abortion that has left her with a tumor requiring repeated treatments and operations, Lil must rely on him to pay her recurring doctor bills. When she is not trying to get money for medical and household expenses, threatening...

(The entire section is 554 words.)

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Jake Jackson is a Southern black man who, like many other Southern blacks, escaped his Southern roots in Mississippi to transplant himself into what was perceived to be a more desirable environment for blacks, Chicago. The lure was not that Chicago was desegregated but that there was at least the possibility of work for blacks. Jake is fortunate to be employed as a postal worker during a time, the Great Depression, when jobs were scarce for everyone. Nevertheless, Wright makes clear that Jake and the other black postal workers suffer under extreme conditions of discrimination in their work environment; Jake’s job is as much a part of the trap in which he finds himself as are his marriage, his debts, and his lust.

Jake is self-indulgent, he is mean, he is a wife abuser, he is an alcoholic, he is a womanizer. Wright presents Jake as a loser and gives no clue that he would have been any different in a more favorable situation. At the same time, however, Jake is an archetypal figure who vividly symbolizes the dilemma of many black American families from a sociological perspective. It is in that sense that Jake becomes a tragic figure, not because of who he is or his failures in life, but because he has met the destiny of so many like him.

Lil, unlike Jake, is a character with whom the reader can empathize and identify. She, too, is an archetypal figure, representing abused women—not only black women but all women. In the end, she is courageous...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Jake Jackson

Jake Jackson, a Chicago post office employee. A relatively young, round-faced, dark-skinned black man, Jake is angry, frustrated, and full of contradictions. He left Mississippi to escape the racial prejudice there, but he does not find his desired personal freedom and affirmation in Chicago. Although he is a Republican admirer of successful whites such as John D. Rockefeller and is contemptuous of the poor, he is deeply in debt and retains his job only as the result of political payoffs. At one moment, he sentimentalizes about the beneficence of whites, but at the next, he floods over with anger at their meanness. His hatred of anti-American radicals gives way to his feeling that Uncle Sam holds back his black nephews. Jake is a detestable man in many ways, but he is also a man trapped by racism, economic depression, and a failed marriage. As one day in the life of Jake Jackson ends, he lies bleeding in a drunken sleep.

Lil Jackson

Lil Jackson, Jake’s wife. Lil, a good-natured woman, is fully alive only when Jake is away. She married him at the age of seventeen, when, according to Jake, she tricked him by claiming to be pregnant. Later, she did become pregnant, and he tricked her into an abortion, which led to the “female problems” that prevent her from having sex. Lil, trapped like Jake in a dead-end, bleak existence, tells him as he wakes on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday that she has a tumor and needs an expensive operation. He spends most of their money on his own appearance and entertainment. Verbally and physically abused by Jake,...

(The entire section is 655 words.)