John Barth manifests the pessimism of existential philosophy by allegorizing God, Satan, and the soul of Man, through the use of Joseph, Jacob, and Rennie, respectively. This conceit reveals not only because of the constant emphatic repetition of the words “God and lord” when referring to Joe, and “hell, and damned” when referring to Jake, but it can also be viewed in terms of the situations that Rennie struggles in between these two beings.
According to Rennie, “Joe is God.” Like God, Joe punishes harshly when crucial mistakes are made, but then forgives. For example his socking of Rennie when she apologized to him displays that overwhelming intolerance that God is known for throughout the writings of the Old Testament. During this conversation Jake makes a direct reference to Joe as God and vice-versa: “That blow had struck harder than God imagined.” She sees his being as so strong that it could even afford to look weak at times. His being emits sanctioning if not demanding order for every decision or action that Rennie, or metaphorically speaking, mankind takes. This being wants her to believe that she indeed carries an autonomous will enabling individualistic decisions, but as Rennie’s actions show, she can only do and not do in terms of the conditioning provided by a greater entity- this being God or the Devil.
Just as man finds comfort in denying the existence of Satan, Rennie rejects Jacob’s reality. This mental consolation arouses man because of an innate fear of temptation derived from our Godly origin, and also, because of pure fear of hell. The former personal philosophy arises from the ideology that we are creatures of God and He has placed it within us to negate the evil and obscurity of this world. Thus, since Rennie is a direct subject of Joe, she imposes to Jake that he does not exist. This idea is expressed entirely through Rennie’s dream. First, she tells Jake that he compares to somebody inside a dream only to follow up with a description of a dream she had where the Devil was friends with Joe. Then she states, “Joe…told me that the Devil wasn’t real, and that he had conjured up the Devil out of his own strength, just as God might do.” The metaphor of Jacob as Satan does not necessarily imply that he is pure evil. It does however manifest the devilish qualities of creating temptation, scrambling a person’s life, and not assuming responsibility for any harm or damage caused.
Rennie’s inescapable death symbolizes that man is doomed to failure. Her struggle between good and evil, reason and un-reason, and being and non-being, leaves her with no control over her own life. God and Satan are constantly fighting for the soul of man. The human personality is not vast or strong enough to yield to both of these forces and still remain independent enough from either one to be self-sufficient and complete as an individual.