Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Malamud presents his major theme of the novel, the conflict between art and life, through the two male writers of different races. He presents them in direct polarity: Harry is a form-and-structure man, Willie has raw experience and no form; Harry writes for immortality, Willie for money; Harry insists on the universality of art, Willie insists that black art cannot be universal because black experience is beyond white apprehension. Malamud is not saying that either man is right or wrong but that both are both right and wrong. The author treats them with a complex kind of irony that is sympathetic while it satirizes.

Each writer is incomplete as an artist as he is incomplete as a human being. They are both egocentric in their concerns. Harry is obsessed with his writing, and Willie is obsessed with his own blackness as well as his writing. Malamud also satirizes Hollywood and the film industry that bought Harry’s bad book. Ironically, the bad book is supplying the funds that enable him to survive financially, isolated from life, so that he can finish his third novel.

In the final death scene, both writers are annihilated. Malamud undercuts the violence with subtle irony; the reader is never sure whether the scene is fantasy or reality. Harry and Willie are armed with stock weapons, an ax for the white man, a razor for the black. The black is traditionally feared for his virility and the white for his brain, but in this novel, Harry destroys Willie’s brain, and Willie castrates Harry.