Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Based on the story of a Russian Jew, Mendel Beiless, who was tried and acquitted in czarist Russia for the ritual murder of a Christian child, The Fixer artistically re-creates that history. It also represents, in its theme, persecution in general. Bernard Malamud creates in this novel a story like a parable, similar in theme and style to his other works, that recounts the protagonist’s spiritual growth and affirms personal dignity and moral integrity even in a world that seems incomprehensible. Yakov Bok, the hero, a Jew, comes to define himself, value suffering, and feel most free when most confined.
Yakov, a fixer or handyman, has had bad luck. With little work in his Jewish village and a wife first disappointing him in being childless then deserting him, he feels himself a prisoner of his circumstances. He sets off for Kiev, a city known for its anti-Semitism, in hopes of changing his life. In Kiev, Yakov, finding no work in the Jewish sector, begins looking outside the ghetto, which is illegal. Coming upon a drunken man who is lying unconscious in the street, Yakov helps the drunk, although Yakov recognizes him as an anti-Semite. To reward Yakov, the man offers him a job, which Yakov accepts with misgivings because it is outside the ghetto. One day Yakov reads in the paper of the ritual murder of a Christian child. The next day he is accused of the murder and put in prison. He is held for thirty months before being brought to trial....
(The entire section is 462 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Yakov Bok, a fixer, decides in his thirties to leave his native village and go to the big city of Kiev, in search of a better life. His father-in-law, Shmuel, comes to see him off. They talk, a bit gingerly, about the fact that his wife, Raisl, daughter of Shmuel, left him a couple of months earlier and ran off with a stranger. Yakov feels humiliated by this, because he is the laughingstock of the village. Yakov reminds Shmuel that his daughter is also barren, for in the nearly six years they lived together she failed to give him a child. Yakov is also pessimistic about the village’s economic future; he is finding it harder and harder to make a living there as a fixer and fears there will likely soon be pogroms in the area.
Shmuel gives Yakov his horse and wagon in exchange for Yakov’s cow, which he hopes will prove more profitable. His parting advice to his son-in-law is to recall that it is illegal for Jews to live in Kiev, except in specified Jewish districts, and to advise him to settle in the Jewish district near the synagogue, because without spiritual support a Jew will be vulnerable in a hostile world. Soon after Yakov sets out, his wagon fails him. A wheel breaks, and even the fixer cannot repair it. He continues on horseback as far as the sickly horse can take him, then sells the horse as meat and completes his journey on foot. He settles in the Jewish district but finds no adequate housing there, and too little work as a handyman. He concludes that he ought to try other district and ventures into the larger city in search of better luck. Winter comes. One cold evening he encounters an elderly man lying face down in the snow. The man, who appears drunk, wears a button with the two-headed eagle of the Black Hundreds, a notorious anti-Semitic group. Nevertheless, Yakov feels obligated to help the man. He is joined by a young woman with a crippled leg, who says the man is her father. Yakov helps her carry the man to their nearby house, and as Yakov is leaving, the young woman urges him to return the next morning so that her father, Nikolai Maximovitch Lebedev, can thank him properly.
Yakov worries about going back to the home of an anti-Semite, but, hoping for a reward for his good deed, he goes anyway. The result is that Yakov is offered the job of manager of the brick factory the old man owns. With the job comes living quarters right in the factory. Yakov gives a false name,...
(The entire section is 986 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Fixer is perhaps Malamud’s finest novel. A best seller and Literary Guild selection, it won for him both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for fiction. In addition, it was cited for excellence by the American Library Association and was adapted into a film. Malamud continues his theme of the quest for self-definition.
The Fixer, however, replaces the more modern settings of his earlier novels with the historical backdrop of early twentieth century Russia. The novel’s plot is based on an incident that occurred in 1911 in Kiev, the setting for most of the book. The work is by no means a slavish reportage of actual events; rather, Malamud uses the situation of Mendel Beiliss, a Kiev worker who was imprisoned for the ritual murder of a Christian boy, as the basis for his fictional account of the struggles of his hero, Yakov Bok.
Underlying the plot of The Fixer is Malamud’s familiar attempt to define true freedom in an insensitive, seemingly irrational world. Yakov Bok, a poor fixer (or handyman), grows disenchanted with his humble life in a run-down village. An orphan who was taught his trade in an orphanage and apprenticed at age ten, Bok has served in the Russian army and taught himself some history, geography, science, and arithmetic in addition to learning the Russian language on his own. Considering himself a freethinker, he feels trapped in his situation (even his childless wife has deserted him) and longs for the new opportunities that life in the city might afford. He sells all that he owns except his tools and a few books, then journeys to what he believes will be freedom in Kiev.
Malamud uses Bok’s journey to reveal the character’s basic humanity. For all his shortcomings, Bok is a good man, and it is his spirit of giving that constantly embroils him in trouble. Like Roy Hobbs, Frank Alpine, and S. Levin, Bok is his own worst enemy. At times his troubles are comical; feeling sorry for an old woman walking on the road to Kiev, he offers her a ride in his run-down cart only to have the cart break down under their weight.
At other times, however, his humanity leads him into more devastating circumstances. His false imprisonment for the ritual murder of a Christian boy is a direct result of his rescuing the anti-Semite Nikolai...
(The entire section is 955 words.)