Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

As its title suggests, the novel has as a primary concern Levin’s search for a new focus for his life, even a new identity. Fleeing despair in the East, he heads west, to America’s Eden. In this promised land Malamud’s unlikely hero becomes involved in a series of quixotic adventures that turn the erstwhile idealist into an uneasy realist who learns that deception is vital to survival and becomes almost as adept at deceit as the philistines he confronts on their own turf. Though he wins some of the skirmishes, Levin realizes that redemption and salvation are to be found within, that victory over one’s inadequacies and insecurities is what really matters. The forests, mountains, and even idyllic college campuses offer only the illusion of tranquillity—and only from a distance.

Seymour Levin, like his creator, is Jewish, and this fact is central to the hero. Many of Levin’s characteristics place him in the tradition of the archetypal Jew in literature: He is an outsider rejected by a community to which he comes, a wanderer in search of a new home, a man to whom suffering is a way of life, a nonbelligerent who becomes the center of conflict and maybe even its cause, and a scapegoat who suffers because of the sins of others. Though obvious, his Jewishness is spoken of only near the end of the novel, when Levin learns that Gilley hired him because Pauline had picked his application out of a pile. She explains: “Your picture reminded me of a Jewish boy I knew in college who was very kind to me during a trying time in my life.” To this Levin responds: “So I was chosen.”

In addition to Levin, Malamud focuses upon Cascadia College, which becomes as much an antagonist as Gerald Gilley and is closely patterned after an Oregon state college where Malamud taught for many years. A roman à clef, the novel also is an academic satire, with Malamud’s sharp criticism only occasionally tempered by light humor. Mocking people, procedures, and rituals, the satire transcends the boundaries of the Cascadia College campus to embrace much of American higher education; Levin’s parochial, unenlightened colleagues, after all, are its products.