Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

An important theme in Nathan Englander’s “The Tumblers” is the struggle of the individual against society. The story takes place during the Holocaust, when being identified as a Jew in areas controlled by the Nazis was a death sentence. It offers a quasi-humorous escape route for the Mahmirim, who are strict observers of Jewish and civil laws. The group is repulsed by the more liberal-thinking Mekyls, who bend the Jewish and civil law to suit their own purposes. The implication is that because the Mekyls behave in a stereotypically greedy manner, they are not as able to shed their acquisitions and thus become trapped by the Nazi regime.

Another point associated with the theme of the struggle of the individual against society is related to how Jews are perceived by the greater populace. If Gentiles view Jews as clumsy and farcical, that perception would be difficult, if not impossible, to erase. The audience laughs at the acrobats, who they believe are mimicking Jewish behavior. When the final scene includes heckling from audience members who demand a longer performance, Mendel impetuously puts his hands out as if he were testing the waters to see if he was safe. There was no other place in the realm of his experience that he would have been able to act as spontaneously.

The entire story is filled with self-deception and self-discovery. From the start, when the townspeople of Chelm hold Gronam in high regard because he renamed all that...

(The entire section is 481 words.)