Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Roth typecasts his characters both to promote easy identification and to focus on his themes. The title discloses his primary intention; by using the title of the most parabolic and paradoxical book of the Old Testament, Roth directs the reader’s attention to the problem of human suffering. The subtitle extends the intention; unlike the heroic Job, Mendel Singer is the “simple man,” and the problem becomes not only unjustified suffering but also the common suffering of the poor and the neglected. To that extent, Job is an updating of the old story. The hero becomes mankind, and his problems are universalized. The Old Testament writer attempted to reconcile the sufferings of the worthy with the concept of a just and loving God. Roth expands that dilemma to include all suffering.

Roth generalizes further by presenting Mendel with the dream and the promise of the United States, the brave new world which held forth for generations of European peasants the hope of escaping the poverty of an exhausted land and the tyranny of absolute rulers and entrenched bureaucracies. The fortunes of Schemarjah attest this: Sent to apparent slaughter by executive mandate, he escapes by blind luck, stumbles to the United States, and becomes wealthy in the insurance business. The contrast between the two worlds appears in a significant detail. Schemarjah’s letter includes the trivial gift of ten dollars, yet that amounts to a tenth of the total “fortune” which Deborah has accumulated after twenty-odd years of scraping. The promised land, however, proves a lure and a deception. The country is rich, but life is poor in many significant ways, and Mendel loses everything that makes his life meaningful. Material prosperity is not the antidote or antithesis to suffering; in the end, what remains of the Singer family is returning home.