Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In this simple story, Bernard Malamud explores the power of love to change the universe. Throughout the story, the world appears bleak, cold, and dark, and the mood of the tale is one of despair. In a world characterized by the mercenary pawnbroker, the heartless philanthropist, and the greedy wife of the old rabbi, Mendel seems foolish even to hope he might save Isaac, but it is finally his hope in the face of desperate odds that turns the events at the end of the story. Though Mendel’s time has run out, some power greater than death stays Ginzburg’s cold stare for the final minutes Mendel needs to complete the task for which he lives.

When, in the final scene of the story, Ginzburg identifies himself with a mechanical cosmic law that binds him as well as everyone else, the reader recognizes in him more than a symbol of death, though he is that as well. He is the representative of a meaningless universe in which human beings can only play out their destinies against a background of impersonal forces or “laws.” Cold and heartless, Ginzburg, as Mendel tells him, does not “understand what it means” to be human. His world, like that of the other selfish, unfeeling, and greedy characters in the story, is a world without love.

Ginzburg’s opposite is the old rabbi; he says to Mendel, “God will give you,” and offers his own new coat to help Isaac. The rabbi has faith in God, but he also acts himself with charity and love, proving that these qualities are not so dead as other characters make them seem. It is through men such as the old rabbi that God works and by their faith that He lives.

Mendel, a long-suffering old man, might be expected to welcome death as an end to a painful life. His love for Isaac has been the meaning of his life, however, and his determination to see his son safe gives him strength to go on even in the face of the inevitable. He sacrifices his last strength in a final attempt to get Isaac to the train, and in that moment the power of love in the universe is revealed. As Ginzburg’s power over Mendel fails before a “starry, blinding light that produced darkness,” love, faith, and hope triumph over the meaningless universe.