Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“In the Basement” is the third of the four stories of the Dovecote cycle devoted to Isaac Babel’s Odessa childhood. The first two are “The Story of My Dovecote” and “First Love”; the fourth is “Awakening.” They are presented as autobiographic tales, and they are indeed quasi-autobiographical in the sense that Babel observed such families in the Odessa Jewish quarters. The narrator is the same boy at different ages.

The main theme is growing up Jewish in czarist Russia. The difficulties of growing up and the boy’s identity problems stem from his feelings of social inferiority. His love for reading and the power of imagination help him to escape the mundane reality, the poverty, the vulgarity, and the hysteria of Jewish life. He is ashamed of that world, but he is still a part of it. The lifestyle of the Borgmans does not present an alternative either. The satirical description of Mr. Borgman and his guests, especially the women, proves it.

The boy’s far-fetched tales, which help him to escape reality, are nourished by the emotional richness of his Jewish heritage, his grandfather’s exercises in writing, and the uniqueness of his family. The boy’s tales breathe poetry and truth and are indicative of his vocation to literature. Literature, an important theme in this story, is the subject of the last story of the cycle, “Awakening.”