Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1669
The themes of The Chosen unfold through the friendship of Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter. They first meet in the contest of a baseball game between their rival yeshivas (Jewish religious schools). Reuven is hit in the eye by a baseball that Danny has hit, breaking his glasses and cutting his eye. At the hospital, he at first refuses to let Danny apologize, but after his father rebukes him, he relents. Much to his surprise, he finds Danny a compelling personality. Reuven is attracted to his intellectual brilliance and is also fascinated by the differences in their personal and religious upbringing. Potok uses this friendship as the basis for exploring conflict between fathers and sons, a theme which transcends the particular setting of a Brooklyn Orthodox Jewish neighborhood where both boys live. The differences in their religious upbringing is explored in great detail as the two develop their friendship and get to know one another's fathers. Their friendship is tested by Reuven's antagonism toward Reb Saunders and the way he relates to Danny. It is put to a critical test when Danny is forbidden to talk to Reuven. Reb Saunders disagrees with Mr. Malter's outspoken views on the establishment of a Zionist state in Palestine after World War II. It was the belief of Hasidic Jews at the time that it was wrong to establish a Jewish state. They must wait for the Messiah before the Jews can have a homeland. The friendship between the two young men at the end of the novel has ripened with their maturity. They see the irony of the fact that Reuven was expected to have an intellectual career as a professor and Danny was expected to follow in his father's footsteps. Instead Reuven will become a rabbi and Danny a psychologist. There is the sense in their friendship that by viewing one another's lives, they were better able to formulate their own futures. Each has been enriched by his ability to explore their thoughts and feelings together, and each has been enriched from experiences with the other's father.
Coming of Age
Closely related to the theme of friendship is "coming of age." The novel opens when the two principal characters, Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter, are fifteen-year-old high school students. Grappling with their respective ambitions, which conflict with their father's plans, they do not realize their goals until the end of the book when they complete college. In the process of determining their careers, they must examine their father's lives. Danny has to take the difficult step of disappointing his father by not following in his footsteps as a religious leader. His decision seems frightening because of the fanaticism of his father's beliefs, but the book ends happily when Reb Saunders resigns himself to his son's decision. He recognizes that Danny has been helped by Mr. Malter, and that he has helped Reuven choose his career. As Chaim Potok presents this perennial conflict, his message seems to be that fathers, as well as sons, share in the coming of age experience. When it happens, fathers need to make the adjustment of letting their sons find their own paths in life.
Throughout the novel, the reader wonders how far Danny will break from his father's strict observance of Judaism. While he eventually must reject many of the outward appearances of a Hasidic Jew, he remains committed to Judaism. As a young boy, he grew earlocks (uncut sideburns) and wore the traditional black clothing of his sect. As a young man, he grew a beard that was never to be cut. When he is about to enter Columbia University as a psychology student, we see Danny for the first time clean-shaven and with trimmed sideburns. He must change his outward appearance to assume his professional role, but it is apparent that inside Danny is still a devoted Jew and has respect for his father. When Reuven asks him how he will raise him to be compassionate and to remain unafraid of examining ideas closely.
The political background of The Chosen is important to Chaim Potok's writing. World War II is a topic of discussion in the early section of the novel. The escape from Nazi persecution and the Holocaust are also important subjects. Later events, like the struggle for a Jewish homeland after the war, becomes a major subject that Reuven discusses with his father. David Malter becomes an ardent spokesperson for the Zionist cause in Palestine. His views are abhorred by Danny Saunders' father, and this causes a break in the friendship of the two young men. Throughout the book many discussions between the characters revolve around important events that helped to shape Jewish beliefs and migrations to avoid persecution. The struggles of the new state of Israel colors much of the background material in the last section of the book.
Reuven Malter is the narrator of The Chosen, which is written in the first person (the narrator refers to himself as "I"). Potok makes it possible for readers unfamiliar with Orthodox Judaism to identify with the conflicts in the story by having it told from Reuven's perspective. Since he is a secularized Jew, his outer appearance is the same as any young man's in American society. The opening scene of the baseball game also adds to the everyday American atmosphere. It is against Reuven's character that much of the conflict resounds. His antagonism toward Reb Saunders casts the latter in a negative light. The reader hopes then that the rabbi's son Danny will rebel and find a life of his own. On the other hand, Mr. Malter is portrayed sympathetically, especially in his warm relationship with Reuven. When his father's outspoken views on Zionism get Reuven in trouble at school, he is subjected to taunting. Because the Malters are both sympathetic characters and Reuven is the narrator, the reader is inclined to side with them whenever a conflict occurs in the novel. In this way, Potok has structured his novel to present his own point of view on controversial political and religious issues.
The Chosen is set in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn during World War II and the period shortly after when Jews were struggling to establish a homeland in Palestine (Israel). The neighborhood is an Orthodox Jewish one in which a number of different sects reside side-by-side. Even though Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter lived for the first fifteen years of their lives only five blocks from one another, they did not meet until their rival yeshivas competed in a baseball game. The opening scene of the baseball game sets the mood for the whole novel. It is the conflicting demands between religion and secular interests that provide the dramatic tension of the story. At no time in the novel do any of the characters leave Brooklyn while they are engaged with one another. Mr. Malter does make a speech at Madison Square Garden, but it is only talked about in the book. Besides the scenes at the ball field, most events take place at Danny or Reuven's house, in the library, or in class. Several scenes are also set in the hospital after Reuven is hurt and David Malter has a heart attack. In this way, Potok has been able to devote a good portion of the novel to educating the reader about Jewish history and religion. Since the different views of Mr. Malter and Reb Saunders about Judaism are at the heart of the conflicts in the novel, keeping the characters indoors is an appropriate setting for their conversations.
The fierceness with which Danny's team plays baseball is a mirror image of the way Reb Saunders practices his religion. He cannot tolerate other views. The baseball game becomes a symbol of the battle ahead between the two fathers and their sons and between the two world views of David Malter and Reb Saunders. It is also a symbol of the conflict within Jewish culture.
Another important image is the eye. Reuven's eye is cut when the baseball smashes his eye-glasses. The little boy in the hospital does not regain his eyesight and Tony Savo has lost one eye. The image of blindness suggests that Reb Saunders is blind to any ideas that he does not embrace. Danny and Reuven suffer from a symbolic blindness of youth, until they come of age and realize the paths they must take to reach their goals.
There are two silences in the book. Reb Saunders has a silent relationship with Danny, only speaking to him during their studies of the Talmud. When Mr. Malter makes his Madison Square Garden speech, Danny is forbidden to speak to Reuven. They maintain a silence between them for two years. The silences symbolize the inability of the sects within Orthodox Judaism to communicate with one another.
The war of liberation in Israel becomes a symbol for Danny's liberation from his obligation to follow in his father's footsteps. There is some symbolism in Danny's brother Levi inheriting his father's role as tzaddik. Levi is sickly, which suggests that the leadership of Hasidism is weakened when the tradition of inheritance is abandoned. The title of the book also has symbolic meaning. The Jewish people are referred to as "the chosen people." Danny was chosen by birth to become a spiritual leader, but he chooses another course. Reuven was not chosen for the role he will assume as a rabbi. Instead, he chooses that role.
The book ends with a hidden symbol. The final chapter is number eighteen. In Hebrew, this number means life (chai). It is a positive symbol with which Potok leaves his characters and readers. Earlier in the novel, Reb Saunders used gematriya, a numerology system that assigns each letter of the alphabet to a number. Since eighteen is life, Reb Saunders contends that nine, which is the difference between "this world" and "the world to come," is half of life and that people are only half alive in this world.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425
The themes of The Chosen have largely to do with human relationships and with the nature of the human soul. One theme is that of friendship, exemplified in the relationship of two boys from very different backgrounds — Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders — who learn to become friends, to understand and empathize with each other, and to deal with conflict. Another theme is that of the bond between father and son. Reuven is close to his father and for the most part adopts his values and way of life. Danny has a much more complex and difficult relationship with his father, who has chosen to teach him "through silence." Danny chooses a path very different from the one expected of him and rejects many of his father's attitudes and some elements in his way of life. Yet Danny and his father have a strong bond of love. They enjoy their study of the Talmud (the only time when they speak to each other); the father feels great pride in his son; the son, although he wants to choose his own way, respects his father and does not want to hurt or disappoint him. The theme of father and son is related to the theme of conflict between new and old ideas and ways of life, a conflict that appears in all of Potok's novels when a character feels committed both to the core values he has grown up with and to values in the world outside his own culture. In The Chosen, Danny feels trapped by the expectations of his father and of the Hasidic community; his conflict with his father is essentially the result of his fascination with the non-Hasidic world. Yet he also values much in his Hasidic culture. The novel suggests that human relationships can survive such conflicts, for despite Danny's failure to follow in his father's steps, the father is not finally disappointed in him.
The novel also deals with the theme of the mystery of the human soul: as one character puts it, "The most mysterious thing in the universe to man is man himself." The characters can be complex and enigmatic; they sometimes find it difficult to understand their own emotions. Danny's fascination with Freud introduces the concept of the unconscious, one attempt to explain the strange inconsistencies of human nature. The fathers are concerned with the moral development of their sons, and as part of that concern, the novel deals with the conflict between heart and head and the ways in which the human soul grows and acquires depth.