Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

On one level, the story is a comic portrayal of the harried life of a popular writer. The constant ringing of the phone, the appearance of one admirer at the beginning of the story and a second at the end, the narrator’s frantic efforts to secure help for Elizabeth, who recovers without assistance and seems to reproach him for going off on a lark, all these incidents are the stuff of farce.

However, the story has its menacing aspect. Elizabeth may be viewed as the stereotypical crazed admirer and the narrator the conventional beleaguered writer who wants to be polite—and left alone. On a deeper level, though, Elizabeth suggests the Lilith of Jewish legend. In the Cabala, Lilith was the first wife of Adam and the arch-seductress. She has also been identified with the Queen of Sheba, who, like Elizabeth, journeyed to see a man she admired and put questions to him. Like the Queen of Sheba and Lilith, Elizabeth tests the narrator’s knowledge. She asks him to explain the theological tract that her grandfather wrote, and, more subtly, she challenges him to decipher her true character. Is she telling the truth about herself and her husband? Is her husband’s version the correct one? What about her mother’s account?

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s use of the Lilith legend stresses a recurring idea in his fiction: Man is never free from the struggle between the divine and the demonic, not even in a West Side Manhattan apartment. Elizabeth represents temptation, particularly of the flesh but not limited to that. She has apparently cost her husband his teaching job and has caused her mother to leave New York for Arizona. Combatting her are other forces, apparently providential. Elizabeth’s mother calls just as the narrator is about to go to bed with his visitor; the second admirer comes as Elizabeth is trying to persuade the narrator to let her stay with him. His apartment thus becomes a battleground between the forces of light and dark fighting for his very soul.

The narrator escapes. Or does he? Tomorrow he has an appointment with another admirer, whom he has mistaken for Elizabeth’s husband. Lifshitz is not in fact Mr. de Sollar, but might he be Asmodeus, king of the demons and the legendary husband of Lilith?