(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Ruth Puttermesser, a New York attorney, has set aside gainful employment to live on her savings and think through her fate. In her fifties, she has a strong self-image of being brainy, cherishes a devotion to the nineteenth century novelist George Eliot, and finds herself very much alone. Dismayed to recognize her signs of aging, she decides she should marry. Ruth idolizes Eliot—another homely female intellectual, but one who found a happy fate—and lives in her subjective reality of “selected phantom literary flashbacks.” She has immersed herself in biographies of Eliot and in Eliot’s letters, nurturing a dream that she will meet a latter-day copy of George Lewes, Eliot’s intellectual companion and lover, and share with him the same transcendent intimacy of souls ascribed to Eliot and Lewes by her biographers and portrayed in Eliot’s letters. New York, however, seems to be filled only with the self-regarding egos of shallow and isolated failures at marriage, with the leftovers and mistakes who flirt superficially, mask their vulnerabilities behind flippancy, and neglect their children.

At a gathering at which she has chanced on such types, Ruth feels aloof and yearns to find virtue, knowledge, mutuality, and intellectual distinction embodied in a contemporary Victorian gentleman—another Lewes. Then she sees a man some twenty years younger than she is and connects him with her vision of Lewes. She is hurt that he does not even notice her.

Soon afterward, Ruth sits in the Metropolitan Museum, reading Eliot’s letters; gradually she becomes aware that a painter is copying one of the masterpieces to be used as a postcard. Striking...

(The entire section is 681 words.)

The Puttermesser Papers Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Puttermesser Papers is composed of two short stories and three novellas that appeared in periodicals over the previous fifteen years. All center on Ruth Puttermesser and are loosely organized around the various decades of her life.

In the first section, Ruth, a lawyer in her mid-thirties, leaves one job because she faces discrimination as a woman and as a Jew and takes another with the city’s Department of Receipts and Disbursement. Although her days are spent in the monotony of a bureaucracy, her evenings are enriched by her imagination. She envisions being in Paradise, indulging her desire to study everything from anthropology to chemistry to Roman law. She studies Hebrew with her Uncle Zindel who, as the reader discovers, died many years ago. Living alone in the Bronx apartment of her youth, she invents a world more to her liking.

The second chapter begins with loss: Her love affair with Morris Rappoport ends and at work she is replaced by her boss’s inept college crony. She envisions a city where merit is the basis of appointment and promotion and where employees are educated, prepared, and diligent. In the novel, Ozick paints a bleak picture of late twentieth century New York. The city is overrun by vandals, arsonists, and rapists. Yet even with this dark outlook, the novel is often humorous, as seen in the portrayal of the workings of the city administration or of the foibles of the deftly drawn characters.

The chapter takes on the quality of a traditional Jewish fable when Ruth, in her sleep, creates a...

(The entire section is 640 words.)

The Puttermesser Papers Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Puttermesser Papers is divided into five parts, which are further subdivided into several short chapters that trace the life history, including the life after death, of the novel’s feminist, Jewish, intellectual lawyer-heroine, Ruth Puttermesser. An amalgam of comedy and social satire, the book also includes supernatural fantasy derived from Jewish folklore, literary parody that inverts the conventions of historical sagas of great men who run for high public office, and a serious psychobiography of three famous nineteenth century figures. As a result, The Puttermesser Papers divides its energies among various genres of literature and social critique ambitiously and sometimes, to the reader, perplexingly.

The first part, “Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife,” presents a brilliant but frustrated thirty-four-year-old lawyer who has quit a prominent Wall Street law firm, where both her gender and her ethnicity were barriers to advancement, to work for the Department of Receipts and Disbursements in New York. While working for the city, she also visits her Uncle Zindel for Hebrew lessons in which the reader learns that the name Puttermesser means “butterknife.” In this scene, Cynthia Ozick refuses to allow the reader to take her character seriously when the narrative voice erupts with “Stop. Stop, stop! Puttermesser’s biographer, stop! Disengage, please. Though it is true that biographies are invented, not recorded, here you invent too much. A symbol is allowed, but not a whole scene: do not accommodate too obsequiously to Puttermesser’s romance.” Telling readers that Puttermesser is not “an artifact” but “an essence,” Ozick ends the...

(The entire section is 701 words.)