Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

For Singer, history is not linear but cyclical; the past is never lost. Toward the end of the novel, as Jacob, impoverished, flees with his son across the Vistula, he thinks about his patriarchal namesake:His name was Jacob also; he too had lost a beloved wife, the daughter of an idolater, among strangers; Sarah too was buried by the way and had left him a son. Like the Biblical Jacob, he was crossing the river, bearing only a staff, pursued by another Esau. . . . Perhaps four thousand years would again pass; somewhere, at another river, another Jacob would walk mourning another Rachel. Or who knew, perhaps it was always the same Jacob and the same Rachel.

The forests have not changed since Creation. The peasants seem to predate that event, vestiges of worlds that God made and destroyed before He created Earth. Even the Chmielnicki massacre, though a discrete historical episode, is part of a recurring cycle of persecution. The line of history curves back on itself.

Nothing changes, not even the Jews. Jacob thinks of the first chapter of Isaiah, in which the prophet rejects prayer and sacrifice unaccompanied by human kindness. Like those Jews in Isaiah’s time, the Jews of Pilitz observe the easy commandments; they eat kosher food and go to the synagogue. While they discharge their duties to God, however, they ignore their responsibilities to their fellowman. The poor are not cared for properly. Beile Peshe will not assist Wanda in childbirth. The burial society steals...

(The entire section is 611 words.)

The Slave Themes

The juxtaposition between determinism and free will plays a major role in Singer's novel. Does God control the events in Jacob's life or does...

(The entire section is 349 words.)