Wallant, Edward Lewis 1926–1962
Wallant was a Jewish-American novelist and short story writer. Central to the four novels written during his brief career is the theme of suffering and redemption. Wallant believed it was the artist's role to see clearly and define life for a myopic public. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Wallant's novels] are dark visions of disquieting, often apocalyptic seriousness, haunting, desolating books about the improbable possibilities of redemption in a corrosively malignant world. Each of Wallant's books is a kind of pilgrim's progress about those blighted innocents, who damned to disbelief, keep vigil at the gate.
Wallant's prose, at its best, seems to brush across the nerve of our feelings in fragile and uncanny ways. Even in his first novel, The Human Season, the least successful of the four, there are moments of rending insight, of agonizing perception of character. (p. 138)
Like all of Wallant's heroes, Sol [the title character of The Pawnbroker], in a delicate truce with survival, has of necessity shut himself off from his feelings. He is "sick and dying yet nowhere near the ease of physical death." The novel is about the Pawnbroker's slow return from the carrion sleep of numbness to the agonized awareness of pain, grief, and love—the torturous responsibilities of feeling.
If the Harlem pawnshop is our hell world in microcosm, Sol (the sun) functions in his realm as a kind of merciless god. In extension, then, Sol's grinding despair suggests the hopelessness, the death of possibility of the world; as a consequence, the problem of the Pawnbroker's survival has cosmic implications—the survival of the world, of human life itself, is at issue…. [The] pawnshop has the sacramental aura of a church, a place of penance and redemption, where Sol and his assistant Jesus dispense with ceremonial judgment, "in exchange for the odd flotsam of people's lives," small loans of cash—the artifact of grace. (p. 140)
As Sol assumes the "aggregate of pains" of his customers, Jesus, who patterns himself after the Pawnbroker, becomes an ingenuous conspirator in the strange church-hood of the store. The conspiracy of their relationship, its profane and sacred implications, is at the heart of the novel's experience. Jesus remains in Sol's employ for less actual money than he might earn elsewhere, in the hope of uncovering, as it seems to him, the secret wealth and power of the Pawnbroker's knowledge. For hope of undefined gain, he is Sol's apprentice, a sharer of his burden, though he misconceives until the end the true nature of such an apprenticeship. With an irony too deeply pitched for the boy's comprehension, Sol tells his helper that the only thing in the world he values is money. And so with a disciple's faith, the innocent boy conspires with three other Negroes to rob the Pawnbroker's shop. As Jesus sees it—his own bitter irony—in robbing Sol, he is merely putting into practice the lesson of the master. There are lessons and lessons, however. And at the end, with the instinct of a fit apprentice, Jesus enacts the deepest lesson of Sol's life, reteaches it to the Pawnbroker at the expense of his own. Ultimately, Jesus' sacrifice, a supreme act of faith, moves Sol into reassuming the responsibility of his own feelings, resurrects him from the death of spirit. The death of the son makes possible the salvation of the father.
The excess of contrivance of Wallant's allegory occasionally...
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[Wallant] pushes aside the glittering surfaces of modern society to write of the terror, suffering and mystery buried within. [The Human Season] describes one man's confrontation with the fact of death; although it states Wallant's major theme, the dilemma of the individual faced with the problem of evil, it contains little suggestion of the expanded historical and social dimensions created in the later three novels. A tragic chorus of the defeated, frustrated, helpless outcasts of society frequents Sol Nazerman's pawnshop, enters the hospital in Children at the Gate, and inhabits Norman Moonbloom's tenements. These unfortunates poignantly dramatize the ills of contemporary society, yet in the novels they function more as indices of the hero's development and his state of mind; the social and historical context derives its importance from its profound effects upon Wallant's primary interest, the individual's inner life.
The central character, therefore, dominates each of Wallant's novels; in only one, The Children at the Gate, does a second figure of comparable significance emerge. Before the action begins, Wallant's heroes have attempted to deaden themselves to their world in order to escape the evils dramatized by the chorus of outcasts. Yet the fact that they have been hurt indicates that within their protective shells they feel deeply, care about others, and long to develop their humanity and to love. They cannot repress their feelings fully or for long, and their return to life is measured by their gradual, agonized acceptance of the terrible, downtrodden figures. Each of Wallant's novels describes a form of rebirth, the process of returning to or achieving an affirmation of life. Thus, each novel contains both an effort to transcend the pervasive evils as well as the evils themselves, a movement toward hope and life as well as despair and death, and possibilities as well as limits. The novels derive much of their depth and tension from this conflict. The negation in the human environment seems all but overwhelming, yet Wallant effectively counters it with the extraordinary resources he finds within the human spirit.
Wallant immediately reveals himself as a highly skilled craftsman in The Human Season. He brings his characters alive, and by his selection of the most ordinary concrete details, gestures and actions he evokes a deeply moving human situation. The novel depicts Joe Berman, a fifty-nine year old plumber, during the summer after his wife's death…. Wallant develops the novel by juxtaposing Berman's present with his memories of the past. His present seems a terrible parody of his past…. As a result he turns to the past; almost every chapter contains a dated memory, each earlier than the preceding one. At first, reflecting his present state, his memories are of death and pain, but gradually memories of the joys of life begin to emerge intertwined with them. The general movement of his reminiscences is from death to life, but more important, his memories soon present joy and sadness mixed inextricably together: when his father died, for example, "his grief came out in a shape like beauty. He was filled with wonder, brimming with the peculiar beauty he felt like an inexplicable pain."
Wallant describes these recollections in a smooth, pellucid, rhythmic style which differs markedly from the compressed, tense exchanges which characterize present time in the novel. Both the style and the imagery become increasingly lyrical as the memories reach back into Berman's childhood, and this lyricism contributes significantly to Berman's recovery…. The electric shock [which jolts him away from the past] remains a rather crude symbol, but Wallant's fusion of memory, imagery and style renders The Human Season a beautifully poetic yet richly human novel. (pp. 78-80)
[The Pawnbroker] derives much of its power from its shocking settings, characters and events. Yet at the same time The Pawnbroker is an intricately constructed, complex literary achievement. Significant patterns of things, words and images, of character relationships and interlocking actions enrich the novel's development. A number of verbal and image patterns surround Sol Nazerman. He is described as a stone, but one chipping away and developing cracks, and he is also described in images of precarious equilibrium or balance. He is called "uncle," by his niece and nephew, and because this is a generic term for a pawnbroker; but although his racketeer boss Murillio uses the term ironically, it gradually comes to denote a reality. Another term, prominent in King Lear, "nothing," echoes throughout the novel: both Sol and his assistant Jesus Ortiz try to convice themselves that the other means nothing to him, and both confront the various forms of nothingness. The echoes of King Lear are extensive enough to establish an unobtrusive but enriching parallel between the two works. Both Lear and Sol are strong men who are brought face to face with the realities of human frailty and human suffering; like Lear, Sol passes through a madness in which he becomes hypersensitive to the sight, sound and smell of mortality. Predatory animal imagery is also characteristic of both works. (pp. 80-1)
The revitalizing force of nature appears in still other images and patterns. A river which takes on connotations similar to those of the river in The Human Season frames the novel; Sol notes the disparity between its filthy surface and the insistent force beneath, and he is drawn to it. The names Marilyn Birchfield and Mabel Wheatly indicate that these women also offer a sustaining relationship with nature; both seek to save their men, Sol and Jesus, by providing love and hope…. Light images constitute the predominant image pattern in the novel. Repeatedly cruel and false artificial light is juxtaposed to sunlight. Sol seeks to evade sunlight just as he seeks to evade life itself. But Sol can never fully reject the sun, for as his name indicates, he in some sense is the sun; he has its life force within him, and eventually it will emerge.
The Pawnbroker also contains a vein of allegory, both in its settings and in its character relations. Its primary setting, the pawnshop, represents various aspects of Western civilization. It reveals the underside of man's dependence on things, both the pathos of his efforts to protect himself with things and the immense weights of things crushing in upon him. The shop is also referred to as a museum; thus it conveys also the weight of history, particularly of the failures of the past. Furthermore, Wallant carefully selects the specific objects he mentions in the shop and which people bring in to pawn: musical instruments, objects d'art, lights, means of communication, clothing and clocks predominate. Thus the things in the shop provide further evidence of the failure of art, culture, and refinement, the death of civilization which Sol feels was caused by the camps.
Wallant also employs the pawnshop to criticize materialism and the capitalistic system itself. The nature of the pawning transaction suggests that the Western economic system is based on exploitation and degradation; Sol's only defense of the business is that "poor people are always taken advantage of, and there could be no business in our society without that being so." Money itself exerts considerable force in the novel. Almost every human relationship in it has a financial basis; even those who have other interests find themselves forced to meet over money. Yet in spite of all this, things still have only the value people give them, and Sol's transactions retain a human dimension…. In an economically based social system, the economic transaction itself is forced to provide whatever human interaction that can be achieved.
Both the tightly interwoven structure and the allegorical dimension of The Pawnbroker are manifested in its character relationships. Directly or indirectly, all of these relationships focus on Sol Nazerman, and their allegorical dimension derives from the fact that...
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The human body in Wallant's world is a scandal. Mankind is portrayed in pain and ugliness, in the humiliation of a body that sweats, smells, runs over from glands out of control, ages and finally decays. The human situation exceeds the barrenness of Eliot's wasteland; it is a torture chamber, a garbage dump where people are buried alive and thrash around until they can no longer move. They wait for the peace of oblivion. "'Life is an avalanche—the little stones only bruise you, the big ones kill you. What's the sense getting excited?'" (p. 88)
Wallant's novels tend to maximize the vulnerability of the flesh, which is soft. It bruises, it tears, it can be crushed. Most of all, flesh can be pierced...
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[Wallant] achieves the dramatic by skirting the melodramatic; his characters tend to be drawn in outline or reduced to a few essential traits; his symbolism tends to be simple and straightforward, if not obvious;… these aforementioned characteristics help to describe him as an American naturalist in the tradition of Dreiser and Norris…. [He] was interested in the difference between appearances and reality, and philosophically he was a meliorist determinist. Like the subjects that concerned the turn-of-the-century American naturalists, his subjects are contemporary social and personal problems; similarly, his characters live on the lower fringes of bourgeois society but are often distinguished by a certain native...
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