Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In the Beginning was Potok’s fourth novel; in it, he sought to recapture his earliest memories and define his struggle against his strict Orthodox upbringing (which he has called essentially Hasidic without the outward trappings). All of Potok’s novels are efforts to portray the lives of people precious to him, and in the present work, an air of kindliness, of sympathy, is pervasive. At the same time, however, the novel reflects Potok’s traumatic break with the subculture in which he was reared—a break he made in 1950, when, for his rabbinical studies, he opted for Conservative Judaism, with its openness to secular, historical study of biblical texts.

With his third novel, My Name Is Asher Lev (1972), Potok had mastered his craft, moving beyond the stylistic infelicities that marred his enormously successful first novel, The Chosen (1967), and its sequel, The Promise (1969). In the Beginning marked a further advance in craftmanship. A best-seller, like its predecessors, it was also by far his most complex book to date.

While it is undeniable that Potok has grown as a novelist, it is also true that there is a remarkable consistency to his work; this is both a strength and a weakness. Like My Name Is Asher Lev and a later novel, Davita’s Harp (1985), In the Beginning centers on the childhood and adolescence of a gifted, precocious first-person narrator; like those two works and The Book of Lights (1981), a third-person narrative based on Potok’s experiences as an army chaplain in Korea, In the Beginning is structured poetically, built around a pattern of recurring images. Finally, like all of Potok’s novels, In the Beginning deals with what he has called “the problem of faith in a secular world.”