Each of Lagerkvist’s principal characters is given a symbolic dimension in the evocation of Judaeo-Christian tradition or Greco-Roman myth. Tobias evokes the son of Tobit and Anna in the Book of Tobit. The biblical Tobias is a pilgrim to Ecbatana who is accompanied by a dog and the angel Raphael. His father has become blind. The mission to Ecbatana is successful: The divine Raphael not only ensures the success but also provides the cure for Tobit’s blindness. Inversely, Lagerkvist’s Tobias kills his dog, is accompanied by Ahasuerus, who is cursed instead of blessed by God, and has an incurably blind father figure in Giovanni. Like certain existentialist writers, Lagerkvist takes God out of the picture and places the responsibility for human existence with humans themselves.
Ahasuerus evokes the myth of the Wandering Jew, which derives dualistically from the evil Malchus, who flouted Jesus, and the good John, Jesus’ beloved disciple, who was considered by many to be immune to death until the Second Coming of his Lord. Lagerkvist sustains this dualism from the perspectives of Ahasuerus (as Malchus) and Giovanni (as John).
Diana is the Italian equivalent of the Greek goddess Artemis, whose cult in Asia Minor, particularly at Ephesus, was overcome by early Christians. In The Death of Ahasuerus, Diana is victimized by a man who becomes part of the growing Christian world, and in an act evocative of Jesus, she sacrifices her life to save her victimizer, whom she loves.
Giovanni is both an extension of the Wandering Jew, as noted, and a humanistic inversion of the beloved disciple John. Jesus gave his mother to John in the Gospel of John, but Giovanni’s mother gave Giovanni to Jesus, from whose godhood the defrocked priest seeks to separate himself.