The Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554

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...

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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 to complain of Jake’s violence to the post office, or fending off physical attacks, Lil turns for comfort to religious magazines.

Jake prefers the easy camaraderie of male companionship to the responsibility represented by Lil. Despite Al Johnson’s high blood pressure and heart condition, Jake envies his swaggering good cheer and National Guard membership and even agrees to join the Guard after Al’s sales pitch. Jake and Al constantly compete for dominance in the world of the four friends.

Bob Madison and Nathan “Slim” Williams are sickly counterparts to Jake and Al whose bad health shows the consequences of fast living in the ghetto. Jake’s friendship is of doubtful benefit for these two. Jake practically pours whiskey down Bob’s throat, even though it will aggravate Bob’s inflammation, while Slim’s tubercular coughing disgusts and frightens Jake more than its fills him with sympathy.

Doc Higgins is a hypocrite who hides his own self-interested behavior under an appearance of helping his community. A small-business owner who preaches a philosophy of self-help, Doc relies on his political connections to help him get ahead. Rejecting any politics of change, he believes that “we colored folks ought to stick with the rich white folks.” While seeming to be Jake’s friend and helping him out of a difficult situation, Doc takes advantage of Jake’s trouble with the post office for his own monetary gain. After the Review Board agrees not to fire Jake, Doc charges him $150 for his assistance, double the amount upon which they had agreed.

Blanche represents the seduction and danger of unmarried, free women. She is the unattainable object of desire for Jake. Blue Juice is a powerful black man who, like Doc Higgins, is better able to control his environment than Jake is and who takes advantage of Jake’s naïveté.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

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 in her battle with Jake and, if only for the moment, victorious over his assault if not the circumstances of her unfortunate situation.

Al, Bob, and Slim offer an interesting counterpoint to Jake’s character. Each is single and therefore, in Jake’s view, not caught in the trap of marital responsibilities that he believes is dragging down his life.

Unlike Jake, Al, Bob, and Slim do not have mounting debts that they are unable to pay; they are, in Jake’s estimation, “free.” Nevertheless, Jake’s buddies are as unsavory in their behavior as Jake. Wright pointedly plays on Al’s case of gonorrhea, as well as other attributes—his bragging, his overeating, and his stinginess—to make him the brunt of the others’ jokes. Slim, meanwhile, has a chronic cough, the result of tuberculosis; as Jake observes to Bob, “Ain’t it funny about folks what’s got T.B. They hound for women. . . .” Wright uses these characters in comedic relief against his tragic backdrop, but the technique does nothing to lighten the tragedy of Jake and Lil.

Wright captures exquisitely the black dialect of his characters and accurately preserves the language of the ghetto. A number of minor but colorful characters convey the black world of Chicago’s South Side and give the reader a realistic insight into a world infrequently seen, much less understood, by whites. Wright’s characters, all of them, live on the edge of survival. For those who have not been there, their actions are difficult to comprehend.

Characters Discussed

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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, she reports him to the post office. After he beats her again that night and she cuts him, the novel closes with Lil saying to herself, “Lawd, I wish I was dead.”

Albert (Al) Johnson

Albert (Al) Johnson, another post office employee. Al, a fat and dark-skinned African American, works hard, saves his money, and is the least depressed of the four friends. He is secure in his belief that he will amount to something someday.

Robert (Bob) Madison

Robert (Bob) Madison, another post office employee. Bob’s apartment provides the friends with the setting for their bridge games. He spends the day in pain from untreated gonorrhea and is the focus of the friendly banter of his pals. He is divorced and complains about the alimony payments he must make. He and his friends spend most of their leisure and work time together, chatting about sex, racial mores, sports, the meaning of life and death, and their dreams of the future.

Nathan “Slim” Williams

Nathan “Slim” Williams, another post office employee, the fourth of the close friends. Slim is a tall, slender womanizer who suffers from tuberculosis. His work at the post office is killing him, but he is trapped by lack of money and cannot leave. Slim and his three friends are rather naïve men who can quickly convince themselves that Father Divine, the black religious leader of the 1930’s, may really be God, that whites are humane and smart, and that black people have only themselves to blame for their problems. They are also aware of racial oppression and white hypocrisy, and they are conscious that they live in a warped world that imposes its ambiguities and contradictions on them.

Doc Higgins

Doc Higgins, an older man who runs a barbershop. He shares Jake’s dismissal of Duke’s communism and his acceptance of the capitalist philosophy of self-help. He has influence in corrupt local politics.


Duke, an idealistic young man who tries to convince Doc that the problem of unemployment cannot be solved by self-help. He, like Doc, appears in a minor role to comment on race, politics, and the Great Depression. Their comments, taking place on Lincoln’s birthday, contrast the promise of slave emancipation with the reality of racist suppression and warping of black lives.

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Critical Essays