What are the main characters of The Defender of Faith? And how would you describe them?

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teachsuccess | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Hello! You asked about the main characters in 'The Defender Of The Faith,' by Philip Roth. Roth's short story is mainly about the interactions between two Jewish soldiers: Sergeant Nathan Marx, a veteran of the European theater during WWII, who takes over command of the training company at Camp Crowder, Missouri, and Sheldon Grossbart, a trainee at Camp Crowder. Although Grossbart is flanked by his two Jewish soldier peers, Halpern and Fishbein, the conflict between Marx and Grossbart takes center stage.

Although Marx is irritated by Grossbart's blatant attempts to solicit favors from him, he is too unschooled in the art of manipulation to adequately combat Grossbart's masterful knowledge of human behavior. Marx is a war veteran, and he has a kind heart; to his personal embarrassment, he finds himself giving in to his wayward Jewish trainees more times than he cares to admit. His superior, Captain Barrett, tells him that he is going to be old before his time if he worries too much about his trainees' feelings.

Grossbart uses flattery in such an unassuming way that he manages to pierce the defenses of Sergeant Marx. He calls Marx 'Sir' despite the fact that Marx is not an officer. When Marx does a favor for him, he is ingratiatingly grateful and shows it. He tells Marx what he so desperately needs to hear:

"You're a good Jew, Sergeant. You like to think you have a hard heart, but underneath you're a fine, decent man. I mean that."

When Grossbart manipulates his way out of Friday night barracks duty for the supposed Jewish call to worship at synagogue, Marx is lulled into thinking about synagogue himself, even though he is far from an observant Jew himself. He remembers that he had 'to shut off all softness' when he fought in battle.

Even though Grossbart is a little melodramatic and self-absorbed, he is not a malignant character. He is only interested in doing as little work as possible; his only goal is to gain positive outcomes for himself. However, his skilful manipulations of Marx leads Marx to feel emotionally destabilized. Is he being too strict or just not sensitive enough to the needs of another Jewish young man far from home?

What was I that I had to muster generous feelings? Who was I to have been feeling so grudging, so tighthearted?

In the end, Marx realizes he's been tricked again when Grossbart presents him with some Chinese egg rolls as a gift after supposedly attending a passover seder in St. Louis (Marx himself forged the Captain's signature on Grossbart's pass to allow him the time off).

Marx wises up to Grossbart's manipulations and eventually turns the tables on Grossbart by maneuvering for Grossbart to be shipped to the Pacific. Even though Grossbart is upset at having been outwitted, his emotional blackmail falls flat:

"You owe me an explanation!" He stood in my path.

"Sheldon, you're the one who owes explanations." He scowled. "To you?"

"To me, I think so-yes. Mostly to Fishbein and Halpern."

In the end, Marx has to come to terms with the fact that it will do all of them no good by continuing to allow Grossbart to manipulate him. Whatever misgivings he might have regarding his humanity (stemming from his combat experience), he must separate those personal struggles from his leadership of the trainees under his command.

Thanks for the question! Hope the above helps.

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