Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The principal themes are symbolized by the novel’s most repeated image: the tightrope. Yasha walks a tightrope as part of his performance, and he aspires to new and always more dangerous stunts. He also figuratively walks a tightrope between faith and moral degeneration. Early in the book, driving along a road in early spring, he exclaims, “Oh, God Almighty, you are the magician, not I!” Yet on his trip to Piask and Warsaw, he readily betrays his wife with three mistresses. After his bungled burglary attempt, he finds refuge in a synagogue. Although he has been in synagogues before, mostly for his wife’s sake, this time he prays in earnest and concludes, “I must be a Jew!...A Jew like all the others!” His newfound orthodoxy, however, is short-lived. Shunned by Emilia, finding Magda dead and Zeftel in bed with a pimp, he realizes that for him forgiveness can come not from God but only from his now-inaccessible victims.

For Yasha, not even God is exempt from the image of the tightrope. During that first outburst in early spring, God was Yasha’s own, personal, immediate companion; again in the synagogue, Yasha feels His presence as a real and vital one. Yet he always returns to his skepticism toward the Jewish God, who reveals Himself to no one, who gives no indication of what is permitted or forbidden.

Even in his self-imposed prison, Yasha walks a tightrope. He believes that through his asceticism he may expiate his sins—indeed, penitents soon come to him, believing him to be a holy man. Yet his prison really still protects him from having to choose between faith and freedom. From his cell, Yasha admits, “No, the temptations never cease.”