The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay Analysis

Michael Chabon


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is about the history of American comic books, the Holocaust, World War II, American suburbia after the war, censorship, homosexuality, magic, art, and romance. After two highly praised novels on a smaller scale, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh(1988) and Wonder Boys (1995), Michael Chabon has created a Pulitzer Prize-winning, epic vision of mid-century America.

Sammy Klayman meets Josef Kavalier when his nineteen-year-old cousin arrives in Brooklyn from Czechoslovakia in 1939. Joe has escaped from the Nazi terror by hiding, with the help of Bernard Kornblum, his mentor in magic, inside a coffin containing the Prague Golem, the legendary clay figure that once came to life. With the Golem, Joe makes his way to Lithuania and then to the United States on his own. Having forsaken his ambition to be a magician modeled after his hero, Harry Houdini, when one of his escape stunts almost drowned him and his younger brother, Thomas, Joe plans to be an artist. When Sammy, a less talented artist, introduces Joe to the new world of comic books with their superheroes (Superman and Batman having recently been created), the cousins create the Escapist. Sammy convinces Sheldon Anapol, his boss at Empire Novelties, to give comic books a try as a means of advertising his products, and within a year Empire Comics is thriving, with the Escapist joined by several more crime-fighting characters; Sammy is responsible each month for over “two hundred pages of art and wholesale imaginary slaughter.”

The small, sickly Sammy blossoms as the primary writer for Empire Comics; his cousin has “animated” him just as the Rabbi Loew of legend breathed life into the clay Golem. Joe, in contrast, saves most of his money in the hope of getting his brother and parents out of Europe. Joe is everything Sammy longs to be: artistic, attractive, sure of himself. Sammy also feels drawn to his cousin by erotic emotions he does not understand or trust. More erotic tension is created when Joe meets Greenwich Village artist Rosa Saks, who falls for Joe and understands Sammy’s feelings for him better than Sammy himself.

The Escapist is the alter ego of both men. Sammy makes the superhero’s true identity that of an uncertain teenager with a limp, just like himself, and Joe uses him to beat up on the Nazis, help the oppressed, and win the war, just as he wishes he could do. Sammy worries that Joe might be “overcome by the imprisoning futility of his rage.” After learning of his father’s death, Joe indulges this rage by picking fights with Germans and Americans sympathetic to Hitler, leading to a clumsy assassination attempt while Joe is performing his rediscovered magic act at a bar mitzvah. He even feels guilty when he enjoys himself at the party where he meets Rosa. He wins Rosa’s heart forever at this event by using the skills taught by Kornblum to save the life of Salvador Dali, who, in one of his Surrealist stunts, is suffocating inside a diving helmet. (There are also notable cameos by Al Smith, who helped create the Empire State Building, where Empire Comics has its office, and Orson Welles, a big fan of the Escapist.) Through Rosa’s work at the Transatlantic Rescue Agency, Joe learns that he can pay for Thomas’s passage to America. After many delays, the ship carrying Thomas and hundreds of other children fleeing the Nazis is torpedoed by a U-boat, and all are killed. Confronted with the greatest despair of his life, Joe enlists to fight the enemy. At almost the same time, Sammy has given in to his homosexual impulses and begun an affair with Tracy Bacon, the handsome actor who plays the Escapist on the radio. When a weekend party at the New Jersey shore mansion of the program’s sponsor is raided, Sammy decides not to follow Tracy to Hollywood. Neither Sammy nor Rosa hears from Joe for over a decade. Finding herself pregnant, Rosa marries Sammy. The last section of the novel presents the couple’s suburban life in Bloomtown, Long Island (patterned after Levittown), raising their son, Tommy. Rosa becomes a highly successful artist for romance comics while Sammy moves from one unfulfilling job to another, spending years trying to complete a novel appropriately entitled “American Disillusionment.” After they are finally reunited with Joe, thanks to a clever intervention by thirteen-year-old Tommy, the trio begin to face the truth about themselves.

In Joe and Sammy, Chabon has created two complex protagonists, guilt-ridden and insecure. Joe feels guilty for leaving his family behind and for participating in the freedoms offered by America. An essentially secretive person, he can never be completely open with either Sammy or Rosa. This burden of secrecy prevents him from reading Rosa’s letters to him until near the end of the war; he has resolved to have nothing to do with her, their son, or Sammy afterward. His self-imposed exile also results from his inability to come to terms with the loss of his other family in the Holocaust. He must suffer to...

(The entire section is 2050 words.)

Literary Style

Allusion occurs when an author refers to people, events, symbols, or stories external to his or her story. Allusions may be only hinted or implied as the author assumes the reader understands the connection and what it means. Allusions are an economical device, permitting an author to introduce new ideas without a long explanation. Usually comprehension of an allusion is not critical to a basic understanding of a story, but the reader’s experience is enhanced if he or she does recognize what the author is trying to say. The title of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is an allusion to common comic book titles. Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay are an allusion to Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the creators of Superman. Tracey Bacon’s name is an allusion to kosher law because he and his love is forbidden to Sammy, a good Jewish boy.

Chabon alludes to mythology when he compares Joe’s leaving Prague with the legendary Jewish hero Golem. According to folklore, Golem, a larger-than-life automaton, was sculpted by Rabbi Loew in the sixteenth century from river mud pulled from the banks of the Moldau. Golem was created to protect the Jews of Prague and was awakened when need arose. Sammy Clay’s name is an allusion to the Golem; when he is no longer essential at the end of the story, he leaves, having accomplished his task of helping Rosa, Joe, and Tommy.

Foreshadowing occurs when an image or event in a story gives information about what is going to happen later in the text. In Kavalier & Clay, the smuggling of the Golem out of Prague foreshadows doom for the Jews in Prague because the Golem, the legendary hero, is made unavailable when they need help the most. Joe and Thomas’s near drowning in the River Moldau foreshadows Thomas’s death by drowning six years later. Sammy’s view of Joe at the top of the fire escape of Jerry’s building,...

(The entire section is 552 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Conflict in the Middle East
In the 1990s, tensions increased in Middle Eastern countries such as Israel and Iraq....

(The entire section is 892 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The most powerful technique that Chabon employs in approaching the various themes of the novel is his use of history to not only provide a...

(The entire section is 359 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Because of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay's use of history, it positions itself within a variety of discourses, unlike...

(The entire section is 373 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Extensive is perhaps the best word to use to describe The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Looking into such matters as...

(The entire section is 1640 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1940s: World War II begins in 1939. The United States becomes directly involved in 1941. By the time the war ends in...

(The entire section is 524 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Individually or in groups, create a superhero and write a story featuring him or her. Include a weakness along with a superpower, a villain,...

(The entire section is 695 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay fits nicely within a tradition of what might be considered pseudo-epic novels about...

(The entire section is 455 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

None of Chabon's previous works are of such impressive scale as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but they do share some...

(The entire section is 335 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

An abridged audio version of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, read by David Colacci, is available through Nova Audio...

(The entire section is 22 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

The Amazing Website of Kavalier & Clay at is a fan site for Chabon’s book created and...

(The entire section is 74 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and the American Comic Book Revolution (2004), by Ronin Ro, covers the life and career of...

(The entire section is 235 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Campbell, Joseph, he Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 193.


(The entire section is 270 words.)