Peter, one of three brothers whose father, on his deathbed, wills each of them a new coat that is guaranteed to last a lifetime, given the proper care.
The father provides detailed instructions for such care and enjoins his sons Peter, Martin, and Jack to live together peaceably under one roof.
Peter goes in search of giant sand dragons with his brothers and develops an increasingly enlarged sense of self-importance.
When their father’s coats no longer reflect the current fashion, the brothers, under Peter’s leadership, adjust the coats accordingly.
A relentless quest for knowledge, power, and possessions sends Peter in pursuit of experimental science and frenzied finance. He buys a “Large Continent,” which he resells numerous times. He discovers a sovereign remedy for worms and engages in other quackery.
Dedicated to pride, projects, and knavery, Peter eventually turns into a madman. In his delusions, he calls himself Lord, Emperor, Father, and even God Almighty.
His need to make all people subservient soon affects his relationship with his brothers, whom he rules as a despot. They finally rebel and begin their separate existence when Peter, in his rage, turns them out. Allegorically, he represents the pope or the Catholic church.
Jack, Peter’s brother. After his break with Peter, he begins to evince the extremist zeal of the dissenter or reformer. He and Martin wish to rediscover and honour their father’s will.
In trying to rid himself of Peter’s influence, Jack tries to remake his father’s coat, but his hysterical rage makes him tear it to pieces.
Sensing their incompatibility, Jack and Martin separate. Jack’s fanatical dissent soon yields to madness, the madness of jealousy, conceit, rebellion, and anarchy. By rejecting Peter, Jack is forced to establish his own tradition of authority.
He founds the sect of A Enlists, a theology of radical nonconformity that holds wind or spirit to be the origin of all things. Filled with this wind of inspiration, Jack is driven to ridiculous excess.
A copy of his father’s will turns into an object of superstitious veneration. He introduces a new deity known as Babel by some and as Chaos by others. Its shrine is visited by many pilgrims. He covers roguish tricks with shows of devotion.
He is strongly averse to music and painting. Jack’s nonconformity and dissent are clearly as destructive as Peter’s papistry. Both rationalism and emotionalism, as well as both authoritarianism and individualism, turn into religious egotism that perverts and corrupts the simple wishes of the father. Jack allegorically represents John Calvin.
Martin, the third brother, who provides the satiric norm and is as such the least developed and the least interesting of the three. His moderation in all things and sweet reasonableness do not incite the reader’s interest, as does the psychopathology of Peter and Jack.
Representing Martin Luther and the Church of England, Martin lacks the vitality that animates the radical cause and paranoia of his brothers.
The difference is most noticeable in the way he divests his coat of the ornaments that Peter had persuaded his brothers to add. His reformation of the coat proceeds cautiously and discerningly. In contrast, Jack in his impassioned zeal rips not only the decorations but the garment itself, until there is little left of it.
When Martin eventually settles in the north, he kindles the wrath of Peter when the people begin to shift their allegiance and financial support from one brother to the other.
Bloody battles erupt and the relationship between the three brothers is strained further until permanent alienation ensues.