You’ll find here critical readings of the three stories we reviewed last week. Use them as a way to build on your own thinking about the works and to work on incorporating literary criticism into your own interpretations.
And if you’re thinking “Hey . . . this looks suspiciously like a way to prepare me for writing research papers . . .” I’d say you’re a thinker.
Note: some of the page numbers will be off due to use of earlier edition.
Salvation can be offered; it can just as easily be rejected. In “Horizontal Snow” we have a narrator who is offered something – what it is isn’t exactly clear – by a man who “claimed to be a preacher” (112). However, as an instrument of God, Lot is flawed: he’s murdered a man, literally with his own hands, and feels no remorse. Does this make him less holy? The obvious answer is yes, but there is a long Christian tradition of the sinner turned proselyte (think St. Augustine), and so he may hold out the hope of redemption for the narrator. Yet the narrator, locked in his own private world, blots out (whites out?) any chance of change by distancing himself from Lot through the easy out of social convention: he ignores Lot’s obvious religious devotion and concentrates on his (Lot’s) appearance; the narrator sees in Lot “the complete aspect of an outcast and loser” (122).
It seems ingrained in the narrator’s character to reject kindness, wisdom, and love. The trail of shattered lives he leaves behind (as we see in flash-forwards) testify to an emptiness or blankness in his emotional and spiritual makeup that nullifies, from the outset, any chance of renewal. We see him at his lowest ebb, a time when his façade of rationality is cracking (“I didn’t have any reasoning” ), yet he remains immune to this brush with the bizarre and possibly holy, choosing instead a retreat into the conventional response of society when confronted with the strange: rejection. In this he is like most people – I’m not sure if I would have felt comfortable with what “may have been the ugliest man in the world” (112). But that’s the point: redemption isn’t easy; it involves suffering, sometimes mental, sometimes physical, and the narrator, again, like much of society, isn’t willing to suffer, to take that leap of faith. Of course, such a leap – as its name suggests – requires faith, and that seems to be a quality that the narrator lacks. Not only faith in a religious sense, but faith in himself, life, and especially, others. His refusal to commit points to an essential flaw in his character: emotional alienation.
Is it fitting that these events take place during a blizzard – the “horizontal snow” of the title? In the midst of a tempest/storm, as he is buffeted by the elements, he has the chance to change, but as I’ve just noted, he rejects it. Even the birth of a child – a child that has overcome odds (the previous two were stillborn) – has no effect: his greeting to the baby “Welcome home, chump” (118) and his bluntly honest response to Willie’s “You’re a nice fella” (119) – “I don’t think so” (119) – are signs that foreshadow a thwarted life. Lot is wrong: he never will “wake up out of [his] little nightmare” (398). The blizzard, or horizontal snow, is a powerful symbol of his emotional distance. Blind, cold, and wreaking havoc, it, like the narrator, is devoid of spirit and life. However, the story is a flashback: it takes place before he’s completely lost, before his life has hardened into a path of destruction. His rejection of Lot’s offer of redemption, or understanding of the “holy light” (122), apparently sets the pattern for his continued rejection of life – or more properly, emotion – itself. Instead of a transformative experience, he distances himself from Lot, dismissing his experience by telling the trucker who gives him a lift that Lot was “Just a ride” (122).
Still, why is he telling this story late in life, after the women, and after the work in the Dakotas? What is it about this experience that allows him to recall it and ponder, at length, over it? Does he realize what he’s lost? Is this merely the recounting of some anecdote? Is he merely puzzled? Is he somehow moved by his remembrance of this meeting with indigenous (note that Willie is a Native-American) American pilgrims? Has he finally paid “attention” (122)? And just what is this “holy light” (122) that he rejects? Hmmmm. . . . sounds like some good questions for group work.
“Gimpel the Fool”
As the textbook notes, Singer wrote in Yiddish and many of his stories take elements of Jewish folktales and update them to fit the conventions of modern short stories. Here, the Jewish stereotype of the “little man” is inverted. In some ways Gimpel matches the stereotype – he is persecuted, cuckolded, oppressed – but his inner life and strong faith sustain him, preventing him, as Singer notes (see “What the author/critics say” below) from being a “victim.” Set amid the shtetls (Jewish villages) of Eastern Europe, Singer shows that while Jews may live together to escape persecution, a desire to oppress the “Other” is not confined to anti-Semites.
The townspeople’s cruelty demonstrates their lack of faith and suggests that savagery and skepticism is their response to anything different; Gimpel’s very goodness seem to drive them into a frenzy of cruelty. Yet Gimpel’s faith prevails: as the rabbi tells him “It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil. You are not a fool. They are the fools. For he who causes his neighbor to feel shame loses Paradise himself” (1417). But the difficulty of trying to live a spiritual life in a temporal world is revealed when, as he leaves the rabbi’s house, “the rabbi’s daughter took me in” (1417). As the rabbi hints, yes he is a fool, but a holy fool, one whose naiveté will receive a spiritual reward. As for the others, their reward has a distinctly bitter, sulfuric quality: on her deathbed, Gimpel imagines Elka saying “I deceived Gimpel. That was the meaning of my brief life” (1424). Scorched and burning in hell, this vision becomes a warning to Gimpel of the fate the townspeople – and anyone without faith – will receive: “I’m paying for it all, Gimpel. They spare you nothing here” (1425).
A kind of religious stoicism dominates Gimpel’s vision. As he states, “I’m the type that bears it and says nothing. What’s one to do? Shoulders are from God, and burdens too” (1420). Yet instead of hardening his heart, this view makes him wise, seeing in the cruelty of the townspeople the potential for good. Earlier in the story, we see that he knows he is being gulled, but still notes optimistically ” I believed them, and I hope at least that did them some good” (1417). Instead of being angry at being taken advantage of – as I would (and have) – he reveals the goodness of his character by seeking the solace of good intentions.
Yet Gimpel’s difference, which separates him from the others, is not strictly confined to religious matters. The theme of the holy fool, when considered as a literary device, suggests a more general theme: the fate of an individual in society. Similar to “A&P,” we have here a character who wants to remain an individual – though here this desire is much more subtle and based on morality instead of honor – and, like Sammy, Gimpel has to leave the society he is in to pursue his vision.
But before he can pursue his vision, he must, in the manner of many prophets and holy men, be tempted. Like the narrator in “Horizontal Snow” and Manischevitz in “Angel Levine,” the story places us at a climatic moment: when his faith is tested. It is a measure of his realism as a character that he, at first, succumbs to the temptation of the “Spirit of Evil” (1424). At first glance, this temptation involves merely revenge, but the Spirit is after larger game: Gimpel’s soul. When Gimpel voices his concern about “the judgment in the world to come,” the Spirit sneers, “There is no world . . . There is no God either” (1424-25). Gimpel’s first impulse is to try and crush the devil, but, “answer[ing] the call of nature,” he sinks to the level of the townspeople. That seemingly innocuous line, ” answer[ing] the call of nature,” illuminates the distinction between Gimpel and the others, and between faith and skepticism. Revenge seems the “natural” course for Gimpel to take. It requires an effort, a conscious decision to forswear revenge; only by rejecting human “nature” – which in this case involves seeking revenge by urinating in the dough – and retaining his individuality can he remain true to his god. This difference between himself and others takes on a logical, more conscious air by Elka’s admonishment in his dream vision: “Because I was false is everything false too?” (1425). She exposes the “eye for an eye” idea of revenge as hollow by setting up a false tautology: if A sometimes = B, than does everything = B? The story asks the question, “because some lack faith, should everyone lack faith?”
Elka’s part in this drama seems vaguely archetypal. Literally, a Madonna/whore figure, she represents the saving nature of grace and the possibilities of redemption. Like Levine and Manischevitz, Elka’s and Gimpel’s fates run parallel: when Gimpel loses faith, she appears in a dream with a black face, apparently suffering for her sins (1425). But as Gimpel regains his faith, and especially as it grows in his travels, her face appears “shining and her eyes are as radiant as the eyes of a saint” (1426). She becomes a part of his trials on earth, a test of his spirituality. His all-consuming love for her, “I adored her every word” (though tempered with realism, “She gave me bloody wounds though” ), symbolize his relationship with God. As he states later in the story, after Elka has been unfaithful to him several times, “Today it’s your wife you don’t believe; tomorrow it’s God Himself you won’t take stock in” (1422). True soul-mates, his love for her, despite a host of difficulties and temptations, provides a sure measure of his humanity and spirituality. Later, as a reward for his devotion, Elka acts as medium between this world and the next, coming to his aid at a crucial moment and literally saving his soul. In a sense, his love and affection towards Elka is finally rewarded. Without her timely intervention, his realization that he is becoming cruel and vindictive — in other words, just like the townspeople — might not have occurred and he might have succumbed to the devil and lost his faith.
Gimpel’s spiritual view of life is revealed in his avowal at the end of the story that “No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but once removed from the true world (1426). For Gimpel, the physical world – the world we live in – is “imaginary,” a fleeting vision that needs to be endured until the “true world” – the spiritual level – can be attained. The paradox of this vision is part of Gimpel’s individualism: he views the world and all it contains from his own perspective, remaining true to his own beliefs. In his final wanderings, he discovers the truth of his beliefs; that life is not always what it appears to be and that the strange and miraculous are possible on earth – it only takes faith, a message in accord with both secular and sacred interpretations of life.
What the author/critics say:
Interviewers: Now what about this folk element in your work? What use do you feel you are making of it, and how do you regard the so-called demonic trait?
But let me come back to the literary reason for my use of the demonic and supernatural. First, it helps me to express myself. For example, by using Satan or a demon as a symbol, one can compress a great many things. It’s a kind of spiritual stenography. It gives me more freedom. For another thing, the demons and Satan represent to me, in a sense, the ways of the world. Instead of saying this is the way things happen, I will say, this is the way demons behave. Demons symbolize the world for me, and by that I mean human beings and human behavior; and since I really believe in their existence – that is, not only symbolically bus substantively – it is easy to see how this kind of literary style was born. (qtd. in Blocker and Elman 23)
Blocker, Joel and Richard Elman. “An Interview with Isaac
Bashevis Singer.” Critical View of Isaac Bashevis
Singer. Ed. Irving Malm. New York: NYUP, 1969. 3-26
“the world [Singer] recoils from is the world of the market place, of human passions, of vain ambitions, of misguided aspirations, and of all the human relationships which result from them. This is the world of Gimpel the Fool, where the simple and the sensitive are gulled, deprived, humiliated, and despised. It is the world in which the poverty of Frampol distorts the perspective of its people.”
Eisenberg. J. A. “Isaac Bashevis Singer: Passionate Primitive
or Pious Puritan?” in Critical Views of Isaac Bashevis
Singer. Ed. Irving Malin. New York: NYUP, 1969. 48-67.
From your collection Spinoza of Market Street, I get the impression that there are two broad philosophical areas into which the stories can be divided. . . . I got the feeling that either supernatural forces such as imps or devils are enticing man into wrong doing and then he is punished, or he stoically accepts the natural order, suffers, and does nothing to improve his condition. In either case, it seems that your characters are not so much conscious agents as expressions. They seem to become somewhat static.
No, it is not completely so, because I believe, at least consciously, in free will. Everyone of us has free will. The only thing is that free will is a rare gift and we get very little of it. In the stories where I describe human misery, I describe cases where a man did not make use of his free will and because of this you have a feeling that the imp and satan and the devil are victorious. I always believe that there is no power which can curb a man from using this rare gift if he really wants to. Even though you will see in my works many stories where I make man seem like a victim of other powers, I don’t believe in that.
Your characters have the will to repulse the forces if they make that choice?
Yes. They have the will and in some of my stories you will see that they actually do so. This war between God and Satan means actually the war between free will and compulsion. From the moment man is born, he is compelled, yet at the same time he is given the free will to fight compulsion.
You would say that when a man uses free will, he will use it to rise above into the ethical, that his compulsion may be toward evil but he uses his will to fight evil?
Yes, to my mind this is actually the essence of religion. There is not such a thing as a fatalist religion. Be it Judaism or Christianity or Buddhism, they all teach you that we are always given a choice. Even when it seems to a human being that he has no choice, he still has some choice. When a man is in prison, naturally he has no choice – he cannot leave the prison. He cannot break the walls, but he can always be at one wall or another wall – he can be quiet or he can be hysterical. He can be a good prisoner or a bad prisoner.
He can reconcile himself to his position?
Yes. It is very interesting that in Europe there does not exist the fact that one gets time off for good behavior, which means that those who made the laws in this country knew that even a man in prison can behave well or badly, and he is rewarded and punished accordingly. This is a very good idea because it means that man has not lost his will completely even though he is in prison. (qtd. in Marshall Breger and Bob Barnhart 39-41)
Berger, Marshall and Bob Barnhart. “A Conversation with Isaac Bashevis Singer.” Critical View of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Ed. Irving Malm. New York: NYUP, 1969.27-43.
Afterward to “Angel Levine”
A man who has it all suddenly finds himself bereft of family, health, wealth, and, for a moment, and faith. This sounds like the story of Job, which it is, but it’s also a basic plot used throughout the centuries. Here, Malamud uses it to trace the fall and then redemption of Manischevitz. The use of such an archetypal story lends a measure of solemnity to the gentle manner and bumbling ways of Manischevitz, who refers to God as “sweetheart” (1057), and shuffles along in pain. The allusions also give a structure and moral weight to a story filled with more comic elements, such as Manischevitz’s incredulity when confronted with a black, Jewish angel, and the tone of the narrator (notice here it is third person: unlike Gimpel, we don’t see the actions entirely from Manischevitz’s view).
Manischevitz’s slow descent into hopelessness is mirrored by Levine’s gradual resumption of worldliness. Tempted by Bella, Levine, after being rejected by Manischevitz, slowly regresses into mortal habits. Paralleling Levine’s decline, Manischevitz’s life unravels. The pair seem locked in some strange kind of tragic tango: Levine assumes the forms and shapes that Manischevitz expects of him. This is hinted at in the story when Levine tells Manischevitz “I am in a condition of probation. How long that will persist or even consist, I admit, depends on the outcome” (1058). It seems that Levine’s fate rests on his acceptance by Manischevitz; and conversely, Manischevitz’s fate rests on his acceptance of Levine. As one critic writes, “Manischevitz is required to acknowledge the divine essence in another, an act which redeems both the truster and the trustee” (Richman 78). Unlike the previous stories, the lines between faith and skepticism, belief and rejection, are here closely drawn and mutually beneficial – and mutually punitive. Of course, the question remains, why does Malamud shape these characters so? Why do they seem almost like Siamese twins, subject to the same fate?
At first, I was taken aback by the seeming regression of Levine’s character into stereotype. However, I read an interesting interpretation of this by Robert Solotaroff which relates it to Manischevitz’s crisis of faith. He argues that “In terms of the workings of faith, the inability to make a difficult assertion only renders it yet more difficult: since Manischevitz cannot accept a sober Levine in his apartment, he has to accept the stage Negro while they are surrounded by anti-Semites in a Harlem drive” (38). Since Manischevitz has rejected the first offer of salvation, he must be punished, and now, before he can receive grace, he must humble himself. In a sense, Manischevitz can only accept the angel after he (Levine) is transformed into a stereotype: he can only believe when confronted, literally, with his own prejudices. Thus he regains, not only his wife and health, but his essential humanity. His final remark to his wife, “Believe me, there are Jews everywhere” (1064), marks his realization of a kinship with all – though, still in character, he has to transform others to his own view (Jewish) of humanity.
But before he can believe, his faith is sorely tested. After a brief respite, his pain returns and his darling Fanny fades. At his lowest ebb, he visits a synagogue, and Job-like, “rail[s] against God” (1061). But since he is essentially a good man, he receives a final chance at redemption. Just as Gimpel first commits a sin (urinating in the dough) and then is warned in a dream, so does Manischevitz first sin (doubt God’s omnipotence), and then receive a dream vision which gives him a measure of hope.
His final avowal of faith is oddly lacking in spirituality. Indeed, he chooses to trust Levine, “without belief” (1061), yet knowing that he somehow had to act. As he thinks, “If there was no choice, he did at least what was chosen” (1061). Although he feels he lacks faith, he still retains a shred of conviction: confronted with the choice of rejecting the dream or at least exploring its validity, he makes a “choice” and, sitting there in Bella’s with the wheel of fortune whirring in his head, finds redemption. The wheel seems to settle on “yes,” but then it “moved” (1063). At this moment, Manischevitz realizes that faith isn’t a matter of luck or chance. As he notes: “one had still to make a choice” (1063). Thus faith comes down to choice: he’s faced with a “no,” yet makes a conscious decision (free will?) to accept and believe – and decides to take the leap.
Solotaroff, Robert. Bernard Malamud: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.
What the author/critics say:
Norman Podhoretz on Malamud’s characters, ‘The Jew is humanity seen under the twin aspects of suffering and moral aspiration. Therefore any man who suffers greatly and who longs to be better than he is can be called a Jew” (Richman 78).
Richman, Sidney. “The Stories.” Bernard Malamud. Modern Critical Editions. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. 71-100.
From a 1966 interview:
“My work, all of it, is an idea of dedication to the human. That’s basic to every book. If you don’t respect man, you cannot respect my work. I’m in defense of the human” (qtd. in Solotaroff 146).
In what way does Manischevitz evince this “defense of the human”?
Interviewer: Do you see an inner cohesiveness, a miniature world, in your works?
Malamud: “I like to be told that I’ve created a world” (qtd. in Solotaroff 151).
Malamud: “Narrative tries to find the way from one condition into another more blessed” (qtd. in Solotaroff 156).
Malamud on literature: “It elevates, enriches, changes and, in some cases, reveals the meaning of life. In some cases, it makes you want to change your life” (qtd. in Solotaroff 156).
© 2000 David Bordelon