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Cynthia Ozick begins Bloodshed, and Three Novellas with a preface that explores the difficulty of using English to explain Jewish postulates and explains that “Usurpation,” the longest fiction in the book, is “a story written against story-writing, against the Muse-goddesses; against Apollo.” For this author, the act of creation carries...

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Cynthia Ozick begins Bloodshed, and Three Novellas with a preface that explores the difficulty of using English to explain Jewish postulates and explains that “Usurpation,” the longest fiction in the book, is “a story written against story-writing, against the Muse-goddesses; against Apollo.” For this author, the act of creation carries the risk of breaking the Second Commandment’s injunction against making idols. Connecting these stories is Ozick’s focus on the problems involved in being Jewish in an essentially pagan, Hellenistic world.

The opening story of this collection, “A Mercenary,” begins by introducing Stanislav Lushinski, “a Pole and a diplomat,” who represents an African country at the United Nations. After surviving the Holocaust, Lushinski adopted as his new country a tropical land far removed from the icy forests of Europe. Further, in his efforts to remake himself, he has acquired an American-German mistress, sets of fake passports, and fame as a humorist on television talk shows. It is Lushinski’s assistant and closest friend, Morris Ngambe, angered by Lushinski’s power to create a war in Africa for economic reasons, who unmasks the diplomat and forces him to face his identity. In a letter to Lushinski, Morris tells a story that reveals his evaluation of Lushinski as an impersonator, a traitor, and, most devastatingly, a Jew. Thus exposed, Lushinski, under African skies, remains entrapped by his memories of Polish stones and snow.

In “A Mercenary,” Lushinski and Ngambe are juxtaposed; in “Bloodshed,” an equally unlikely pair of characters appear. “Bloodshed” begins as the protagonist, Bleilip, visits a distant cousin, Toby, and her husband in a half-finished Hasidic town outside New York. A skeptic, Bleilip is fascinated by Toby’s conversion to wife, mother of four, and, in his estimation, zealot. When Yussel, Toby’s husband, takes him to the evening prayer service, Bleilip encounters the rebbe, the religious leader of the community. During the study hour, the rebbe, a survivor of Buchenwald, confronts Bleilip, calls him an atheist, and accurately divines that Bleilip is carrying two guns in his pockets, a toy and a real weapon. Reflecting Ozick’s suspicion of the fictional, the rebbe declares that it is the toy gun that is truly dangerous. The story ends with Bleilip’s confession of a sometimes-faith, a conclusion more dramatic than actual bloodshed.

While “Bloodshed” and “A Mercenary” use two juxtaposed male characters to investigate questions of identity and tradition, both “An Education” and “Usurpation” follow a female protagonist as she learns lessons about the perils of fiction. In “An Education,” Una Meyer is a diligent and promising graduate student in the classics. At twenty-four, she meets a married couple, the Chimeses, who eclipse her academic aspirations with their brilliant portrayals of their lives. Una rejects her Fulbright scholarship to act as their nanny, maid, and financial support. Through Una’s affair with a medical student and the death of the Chimeses’ daughter, she eventually comes to see the sterility of a life based on a fictive remaking of identity. When offered marriage by her lover, Una chooses instead to get a Ph.D.

In “Usurpation,” subtitled “Other People’s Stories,” an unnamed female narrator explores the issues concerning the making of stories. The tale begins with a reading by a “famous author,” whom Ozick identifies in her preface as Bernard Malamud. Dismayed to hear this author’s version of a story she has written, the narrator realizes that they both have been inspired by a newspaper account of a rabbi who cheated people by selling magic crowns with purported curative powers. The protagonist then embarks on her own search for a silver crown of inspiration. Through the maze of stories that the narrator encounters, appropriates, and rewrites, she eventually is faced with the choice between “God or god. The Name of Names or Apollo.” Choosing Apollo, the narrator is seemingly blessed with an endless supply of stories; however, Ozick’s final scene gives the reader a cautionary view of the Hebrew poet Tcherni-khovsky, who has chosen paganism, in a paradise of gods where the Canaanite idols call him “kike.”

Context

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Bloodshed, and Three Novellas reflects Ozick’s intense interest in large philosophical issues. Rejecting the idea that biology is destiny, she makes her protagonists, both male and female, face the same temptations, and all must grapple with problems of assimilation, tradition, and the dangers of idolatry. Ozick utilizes both the techniques of stories within stories, often found in Yiddish literature, and postmodern moves that emphasize and reveal the author’s presence. With this unusual combination of styles, Ozick creates a distinctive voice that earned “Usurpation” first prize in the O. Henry Prize Stories competition in 1975.

Like Muriel Spark and Flannery O’Connor, Ozick presents the reader with a world where the soul of the protagonist struggles with issues of faith and where revelation of truth can become risky, even violent. Ozick does not invite the reader to become emotionally involved with her characters; rather, her detachment and often brutal humor encourage a distancing. Further, she sharply criticizes twentieth century America, disgusted at the physical decay, violence, and superficial values of urban life. In “A Mercenary,” these destructive forces expand to the Third World, where a war is started to protect the narrow financial interests of an American businessman. Only in the Hasidic town in “Bloodshed,” a community devoted to tradition and faith, do growth, building, and progress exist.

Despite her respect for tradition, Ozick’s stories do not express the view that women can be happy only in traditional, domestic roles. In “Bloodshed,” Toby appears satisfied with the abandonment of her ambition to become the first Jewish female president, but other female characters use their intelligence for scholarship or authorship. Ozick provides a variety of ways in which a woman can use her talents; however, if characters reject their Jewish identity or commit idolatry, they risk the sterility of displacement. In the world of Jewish American letters, Ozick’s obsession with “the dread of imagination” is unique.

Bibliography

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Bloom, Harold, ed. Cynthia Ozick. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. This collection covers Ozick’s works to 1983. Although many of the pieces are brief book reviews, Ruth R. Wisse’s review essay on “Bloodshed” is particularly illuminating, and Victor Strandberg’s contribution includes a brief discussion of Ozick’s novellas. Bloom’s introduction is interesting for its treatment of Ozick’s essays.

Currier, Susan, and Daniel J. Cahill. “A Bibliography of the Writings of Cynthia Ozick.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 25, no. 2 (Summer, 1983): 313-321. A complete listing of Ozick’s works. Its usefulness is limited by the 1983 publication date, but it is helpful for citation of lesser-known works.

Friedman, Lawrence S. Understanding Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. An entry in the Understanding Contemporary American Literature series, this book is designed for those unfamiliar with works that use nontraditional literary forms and techniques.

Kauvar, Elaine M. Cynthia Ozick’s Fiction: Tradition and Invention. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. A close reading of Ozick’s oeuvre. In the chapter “The Dread of Moloch,” the links between the novellas in Bloodshed and Three Novellas are revealed, and Ozick’s sources and references are thoroughly explored.

Lowin, Joseph. Cynthia Ozick. Boston: Twayne, 1988. A very readable interpretation of Ozick’s fiction, this book is also useful for its chronology, selected bibliography, and first chapter, which provides a brief biography of Ozick.

Pinsker, Sanford. The Uncompromising Fictions of Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987. A brief analysis that includes a chapter on Ozick’s essays and a treatment of “Bloodshed.”

Walden, Daniel, ed. The World of Cynthia Ozick. Vol. 6 in Studies in American Jewish Literature. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1987. Interesting essays on Ozick’s short stories and longer fictions, but the novel The Messiah of Stockholm (1987) is not treated.

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