Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

When Mike Gold wrote Jews Without Money, he was an active member of the Communist Party. Although critics disagree on whether the book is thesis ridden, they agree that it was designed to be a tale of the making of a radical. In the book, the ideas Mike hears about the coming of the Messiah easily lead to ideas connected with the coming of a secular Messiah, the workers’ revolution.

Yet Jews Without Money is not simply a piece of propaganda about the evils of capitalism. It is also a sensitive treatment of the life of a child in an immigrant neighborhood in the slums of New York City. The book has been the center of much debate about its origins. Some critics claim that it simply flowed from Gold’s pen, illustrating his theories that proletarian or workers’ art should flow from the heart and not involve artwork. Others point to the changes Gold made between the material he originally published in magazine articles that he later worked into the novel and the book itself to show that the novel is really a work of art, carefully revised and shaped, and not thinly disguised, straight autobiography.

A major theme of the book is the unfairness of the American capitalist system that leads people to dream of financial success but prevents them from achieving it. The hard-heartedness of the capitalist system is best symbolized by the Adams Express truck that kills Esther and the lawyer who tries to make money from her death. The only character who is really happy in America is Harry the Pimp. The honest workers, however, “eat the bread of sorrow and shame in America.” The book paints for the most part a bleak picture of Jewish immigrant life at the turn of the twentieth century in America—a picture that will remain bleak, the book’s ending implies, until the workers’ revolution occurs.