Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

For the narrator, as for the reader, the meaning of the Fonstein-Billy Rose story— the real “Bellarosa connection”—is not just the need for the recognition of one man’s responsibility to another but the human need to recognize the value, the importance, the overarching supremacy of moral kinship. What, indeed, Sorella is seeking, what Billy Rose attempts to conceal, what the narrator ultimately comprehends, is that all the participants in life’s drama are connected by chains forged of the spirit and the mind. Billy’s act of secret generosity has liberated Harry from physical death but has, ironically, snared Billy himself in a kind of spiritual bondage by which Billy has become connected to Harry the Jew and Harry the human being. The private Billy Rose has come into conflict with the public persona. Billy has become his brother’s keeper and must recognize his kinship and his responsibility.

The narrative structure is more supple than it first appears. Though the action is related second-hand, as it were, events and conversations spanning thirty years are seen through the narrator’s memory and clarified by his insights. The narrator’s own working motto is “memory is life”; his position as president of a memory institute in Philadelphia (the city of brotherly love) gives him credibility as a judge and validates his observations that “God doesn’t forget” and that human beings must not forget their vital connections with one another.

Finally, a lesser theme emerges near the conclusion, when the narrator learns that the Fonsteins’ son has become a Las Vegas gambler. Whereas the Fonstein-Rose story gained significance in the holy city of Jerusalem, the direct descendent of the Fonsteins, son Gilbert (not a “Jewish” name) has taken his place in America’s most secular city. Las Vegas has become the new Jerusalem. The question implied by the narrator is whether the new generation of Jews, American-bred, will survive with its values intact or if it will go the way of Gilbert Fonstein—or, perhaps, of Billy Rose.