Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Perhaps the most ubiquitous figure in Bernard Malamud’s fiction is the person, usually Jewish, who suffers, like Job in the Old Testament, without any apparent reason. Manischevitz is not a bad man; no sin accounts for his fall. As he complains, he suffers far more than would seem to be just.

The tailor’s mistake is in wanting to understand why he should suffer, and in expecting there to be some cause and effect in life. Just as he will want proof that Levine is an angel, he wants some sign that God exists. When he fails to achieve either of these assurances, Manischevitz undergoes a crisis of faith when he renounces his belief in God and surrenders to despair. It is then that his dream vision of Levine preening his wings gives him new hope and sends him in search of the angel. Still, his faith must be tested, so Levine forces him to acknowledge before the assembled crowd in the honky-tonk that the black is an angel. At this point, not only is Manischevitz’s problem solved, Levine casts off the clothes of a pimp and becomes the angel he is meant to be. Faith is necessary both for God and for humankind.

Manischevitz’s final realization that there are Jews everywhere reflects Malamud’s theme that all men are Jews. Jews, in Malamud’s fiction, are those who suffer without cause and who maintain their faith in humanity (or in God) despite the injustice of their plight. Manischevitz does not suffer because he is a Jew; he is a Jew because he suffers. He does not believe because he is a Jew; he is a Jew because he believes.