Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Best known as a Jewish American writer, Bernard Malamud frequently created characters that are poor, sad, benighted, and living on the margin. However, they somehow manage to preserve, maintain, or regain a semblance of self-worth in the teeth of implacable circumstance. Rosen’s suicide represents an assertion of a sadly comic human dignity in a chaotic, often merciless and incomprehensible world. Rosen has literally killed himself trying to succeed in what he believes is a worthy effort. Feeling that he has been pained and abased by endlessly entreating Eva to accept his unselfish help, Rosen salvages something of himself by angrily rejecting the apologetic and beseeching Eva when she appears outside his coffin window. As he lies in limbo awaiting judgment, he may even meet the angel Davidov’s standards.

“Take Pity” is one of several stories appearing in The Magic Barrel, and Other Stories (1958), Malamud’s first collection, most of which are tragicomic tales of long-suffering Jews. Although they are that, it would be superficial to see them as that alone. Although his characters often are Jewish, they are created less to realistically chronicle aspects of traditional Jewish life than to serve as moral metaphors. In “Take Pity,” for example, Malamud emphasizes the horror and comedy of Rosen’s frustrated need to share, to enjoy a communion prized by many people throughout most cultures. The story, then, is a moral fable with near-universal spiritual relevance.

Within this context, however, Malamud fills his tale with ironies. The angel, Davidov, like the people he scrutinizes, is shabby, poorly equipped, somewhat frazzled, and bored. Kalish, the grocer, saddles Rosen with his burdens as he dies at the feet of the old, sick, lonely coffee sales representative. It is ironic that Rosen, a skeptical and experienced person, is willing to visit all of his money and goods on a widow whom he scarcely knows. Woven throughout the story is the crowning irony that those who are eager to savor the joy of giving unselfishly must suffer from the would-be recipient’s hatred and endure personal anguish and humiliation. Even worse, with the Holocaust still excruciatingly etched in Jewish memories, Rosen dies by gas. When Rosen is stripped of everything with nothing remaining to give, proud Eva appears, repentant and importuning.

Ironies aside, however, “Take Pity” stands as a testament to the enduring Jewish—and human—spirit.