Cynthia Ozick American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4760

In her essays, as well as her fiction, Ozick has repeatedly returned to a handful of themes connected with problems created by being Jewish in a secular society. In the earlier works Trust and The Pagan Rabbi, and Other Stories , the Jewish connection is most obvious. In later works,...

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In her essays, as well as her fiction, Ozick has repeatedly returned to a handful of themes connected with problems created by being Jewish in a secular society. In the earlier works Trust and The Pagan Rabbi, and Other Stories, the Jewish connection is most obvious. In later works, the moral burden placed on post-Holocaust Jewish generations, while it might be less pronounced, remains indigenous to the characters’ psyches. Ozick’s work serves as a reminder that it is impossible to separate modern Judaism from the devastation that Jewish culture endured during World War II, because Judaism in a vast majority of the civilized world was directly affected. As a result of Adolf Hitler’s “final solution” (his attempted extermination of the Jews), the Jewish community in the United States burgeoned, the state of Israel was formed, and European Jewish culture, developed over centuries, was decimated.

Ozick chose a career as a storyteller, yet she has remained unsure of the morality of telling stories. Whether the creativity that inspires storytelling is in conflict with the biblical Second Commandment prohibiting idol worship, and whether the human creativity required to enter an author’s make-believe world competes with the world of the Creator of the Universe are common themes in Ozick’s fiction. Yet her assertion that people become what they most desire to contend with is how Ozick has justified the apparent moral conflict with her career choice. “Usurpation (Other People’s Stories)” warns against this bending of the Mosaic rule, while “The Pagan Rabbi” illustrates the dangerous results when the creative imagination is allowed to overtake the Jewish mind-set.

Another of her interests that recurs in several Ozick works is the nature of language and its influence upon human culture. Because Ozick is a highly articulate writer who manipulates language with enormous precision and artistry, this latter curiosity is not surprising. Not only is Ozick a master of English, the secular language, she also reveals her deep affection for Yiddish, the mamaloshen, or mother tongue, in stories such as “Envy: Or, Yiddish in America.”

This interest in language has fueled Ozick’s desire to plow through her vast and ever-growing reading list. Although she has read widely and broadly, Ozick has “collected” twentieth century writers, most of whom are either Jewish or women (Bernard Malamud and Virginia Woolf, to name two). Ozick has used reading to prime herself for writing, and much of her fiction has been inspired by writers whose work she has read. In an interview, she commented, “I read in order to write.” The Messiah of Stockholm illustrates what Ozick meant by this. This title is borrowed from Polish writer Bruno Schulz’s lost manuscript “The Messiah,” and the plot is about the pursuit of the vanished masterwork. “Envy: Or, Yiddish in America” incorporates a caricature of another Jewish writer, Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Other than reading, a main source of Ozick’s inspiration has been her well-grounded Jewish knowledge. Her familiarity with the Talmud (the authoritative body of Jewish tradition and laws) and Kabbala (Jewish mysticism) has often been the foundation upon which Ozick has built her prose. In The Puttermesser Papers, the protagonist, using ancient rituals, creates a golem out of the earth of her houseplants. Ozick writes about Jewish matters with authority and authenticity, whether her characters be observant or assimilated Jews.

One drawback with being an intellectual and a writer of ideas is that Ozick’s characterizations tend to lack warmth, often making it difficult for the average reader to identify with her characters. Protagonists such as Lars Andemening in The Messiah of Stockholm contribute to this perception of Ozick as a writer of ideas rather than as a window on the human condition. Lars, although an interesting character, has no ability to form lasting relationships and has all but cut himself off from society, even to the point of sleeping while everyone else is at work and working while everyone else is asleep. Edelshtein, the protagonist in “Envy: Or, Yiddish in America,” is characterized as pitiable but basically unlikable—he, too, is unable to have a successful marriage or trust even his closest friends. Rabbi Kornfeld in “The Pagan Rabbi,” a character the reader knows only posthumously, lives in a world completely removed from reality. In Heir to the Glimmering World, Professor Mitwisser has become almost a recluse in his study of the Karaites, a medieval Jewish movement.

Ozick, opposing the generally accepted rule that writers should write about that with which they already are familiar, has taught that writers should write about what they do not know, thereby removing the tendency toward insulation and forcing them to broaden their imaginations. Ozick has followed her own rule, especially when choosing settings for much of her fiction. A native New Yorker who has lived almost her entire life in that state, Ozick has written novels and short stories set in places as varied as Paris, Sweden, Canada, the Midwestern United States, Jerusalem, and Germany.

Ozick embraces her designation as part of the Jewish intellectual establishment. Jewish myths, traditions, speech patterns, religious practices and customs, and historical experiences find their place in her fiction. She has offered her audience prose for thought. Often complex, her writing, with its carefully constructed sentences and rich description, rewards the reader in equal measure to the effort spent reading it.

The Cannibal Galaxy

First published: 1983

Type of work: Novel

A middle-aged school principal who has spent his life seeking out a child prodigy is blind to the brilliance of one of his own pupils.

In a story rich with metaphor, even the title of Cynthia Ozick’s first novel in seventeen years, The Cannibal Galaxy, is pregnant with meaning. An astronomical term, a cannibal galaxy is a huge galaxy that swallows another until the smaller becomes an insignificant component of the larger; Western culture is the cannibal galaxy that devours Jewish culture. This story is about the struggle against having Judaism devoured by the modern world, yet the characters’ particularly Jewish struggles parallel and reflect the struggles of many people, regardless of religious or cultural background. Many unique cultures, while they attempt to emulate the West, paradoxically fear the loss of identity in becoming Westernized.

The protagonist, Principal Brill, is caught between two worlds—his native Parisian Jewish ghetto, where he studied the centuries-old traditions of his ancestors, and modern-day Paris, complete with arguably the world’s best museum, the Louvre, and the world-renowned university, the Sorbonne. In order to fulfill his destiny, Brill founds an American school based upon what he considers to be his unique inspiration, a dual curriculum. He theorizes that this combined method of learning will bridge the gap between the secular and the Jewish, thereby improving both teaching methodologies. As in numerous Jewish day schools, Brill plans that students will learn traditional Hebraic subjects, the Talmud and Gemara, half the day, and modern secular subjects, science and mathematics, during the other half.

Brill devotes his adult life to this pedagogical pursuit, waiting for an exceptional child to work through his dual curriculum and to prove the worth of his life’s work. Brill, however, is so fully absorbed in his preconception of the exceptional child that he overlooks her when she emerges. It is not until the child, Beulah Lilt, reaches adulthood and makes her significant contribution to society that Brill is at last able to see her brilliance, which has been discovered by others. Not surprising to the reader, but an agonizing shock to Brill, Beulah never mentions her childhood education except to note its lack of exception.

The way in which Ozick belittles Brill’s entire life’s work is severe, but her point, that compromise merely encourages mediocrity, is well taken. Rather than combining the best of both the traditional and modern worlds, Brill is left with a mediocre mixture of the two, which produces neither Jewish nor secular scholars of merit. Everything in middle-aged Brill’s life is middling. Even his school is geographically located in the middle of the United States.

For much of his life, Brill sees himself as a creator and an original thinker. Yet when he meets the linguist Hester Lilt, a true intellectual, he cannot even hold a conversation with her without constantly being reminded of his ineptitude. Hester does not accept Brill’s compliment that she is an original thinker. Rather, by way of his compliment, Hester forces Brill to realize how incredibly ordinary he is. Principal Brill acts as a reminder to many who think of themselves as original, creative, and maybe even brilliant. True brilliance is rare, and the last original thinking, Hester Lilt humblingly reminds him, occurred with Plato.

The Messiah of Stockholm

First published: 1987

Type of work: Novel

An adult orphan pursues a lost masterpiece manuscript written by the man he imagines to have been his father.

The Messiah of Stockholm has a dual purpose: It is Ozick’s tribute to Bruno Schulz, the legendary Polish author of Sklepy Cynamonowe (1934; Cinnamon Shops, and Other Stories, 1963) killed by the Nazis in a mass slaying. The Messiah of Stockholm also focuses on the aspect of human nature that craves knowledge of the past in order to have a basis upon which to mold a perception of the present. The deeply human need to have a personal, as well as a cultural, history is one theme winding through this complex novel; this need for a self-history directs the path that orphaned Lars Andemening’s life follows.

Ozick’s third novel, set in the frigid city of Stockholm, Sweden, is a chilling story of one man’s desperate search and struggle to create a rational past for himself. Lars, who selected his name from a dictionary, seeks help from a cast of other World War II refugees who also have public identities of their own choosing. Not all the secondary characters are refugees, however; those in Lars’s world fall into two distinct categories: colleagues with factual pasts from the “stewpot” where he works, and refugees from the bookstore with fictional histories. Lars seeks out members of the latter group to help him discover his own indeterminable origins. Obsessed with his search for verification of something impossible to verify, Lars is incapable of establishing lasting relationships with anyone from either category.

His lack of any family history is considered cause, at least by one of his former mothers-in-law, for Lars’s lack of success in both his personal and professional life. His daughter lives in America; a dried-up childhood paint set is Lars’s only remaining connection with her. He only chose to keep the paints because of Schulz, who had been an art teacher as well as a writer; Lars hoped to see some of his “father’s” talent genetically passed on to his daughter.

Lars’s obsession with Schulz invades his consciousness awake or asleep, the latter being when Lars sees “as if he lets me have his [Schulz’s] own eye to look through.” In his fixation with discovering his past, he searches relentlessly for photographs, letters, reviews—any tangible connection with the dead author.

Reading Ozick’s intricate fiction, one wonders where history ends and invention begins. Ozick’s deep interest in World War II refugees underlies the plot of The Messiah of Stockholm, whereas Judaism plays a far less direct role than in her previous fictional works. Lars presumes himself to be the son of Schulz, a Jew, but he never acknowledges any connection with Judaism, probably because Schulz wrote in Polish rather than in Yiddish. Lars chooses to connect with Schulz by becoming extraordinarily literary, hoping to establish his paternity by sheer force of intellectual achievement.

Lars’s made-up world of presumed identities and a lost masterpiece is bound to crumble. His tangible connection with his “father” has been primarily through the findings of obscure Schulz memorabilia that Mrs. Eklund imports from Poland to Sweden on his behalf. After she delivers what she claims to be the missing manuscript, Lars does some of his most profound thinking and realizes the absurdity of his pursuit: He cannot prove the unprovable. In a sudden metamorphosis, Lars leaves behind his belles lettres and becomes not merely part of the stewpot but a success in his everyday world.

The Puttermesser Papers

First published: 1997

Type of work: Short stories

Ruth Puttermesser—a lawyer, a bureaucrat in a city department, and finally the mayor of New York City—searches for satisfaction in her career and in her personal life.

The Puttermesser Papers is composed of two short stories and three novellas that appeared in periodicals over the previous fifteen years. All center on Ruth Puttermesser and are loosely organized around the various decades of her life.

In the first section, Ruth, a lawyer in her mid-thirties, leaves one job because she faces discrimination as a woman and as a Jew and takes another with the city’s Department of Receipts and Disbursement. Although her days are spent in the monotony of a bureaucracy, her evenings are enriched by her imagination. She envisions being in Paradise, indulging her desire to study everything from anthropology to chemistry to Roman law. She studies Hebrew with her Uncle Zindel who, as the reader discovers, died many years ago. Living alone in the Bronx apartment of her youth, she invents a world more to her liking.

The second chapter begins with loss: Her love affair with Morris Rappoport ends and at work she is replaced by her boss’s inept college crony. She envisions a city where merit is the basis of appointment and promotion and where employees are educated, prepared, and diligent. In the novel, Ozick paints a bleak picture of late twentieth century New York. The city is overrun by vandals, arsonists, and rapists. Yet even with this dark outlook, the novel is often humorous, as seen in the portrayal of the workings of the city administration or of the foibles of the deftly drawn characters.

The chapter takes on the quality of a traditional Jewish fable when Ruth, in her sleep, creates a golem. Using the dirt from her flowerpots and performing ancient rituals, Ruth fashions the creature, who, although newly formed, knows all that Ruth does. Named Xanthippe, the golem types up Ruth’s thoughts on revitalizing New York, which forms the basis of her bid for mayor. With Xanthippe’s help, she wins the election, and the period that ensues represents a golden age for New York: The gangs are disbanded, venereal disease disappears, and robberies are nonexistent—all achieved with the guidance of the golem. When the golem discovers sex, however, all is lost. Xanthippe no longer advises Ruth and instead searches out lovers in the administration, who, exhausted, quit their jobs. The city returns to its former squalor, and Ruth, as the mayor, is ruined. Realizing that she must destroy the golem, Ruth recruits Rappoport, who lures Xanthippe to bed, and there Ruth reverses the rituals that bestowed life on Xanthippe.

The next two chapters depict Ruth in her fifties and sixties. Ruth, now unemployed, lives her life vicariously in literature. She longs for a relationship similar to that of the Victorian novelist George Eliot. Though she does meet an artist, the resulting affair ends in disappointment for her. Also disappointing is her encounter with Lidia, the granddaughter of her father’s sister. Ruth imagines her to be politically and religiously oppressed in Russia and offers to sponsor her. For Lidia, however, America is a business opportunity. Eager for dollars, she cleans apartments, cares for children, and peddles Lenin medals and other Russian trinkets. After amassing several thousand dollars, she returns to Russia and her boyfriend.

The final section, “Puttermesser in Paradise,” mixes the surreal with the realistic. Ruth, now almost seventy, is thinking of Paradise moments before she is brutally murdered and then raped by a robber angered over her lack of valuable possessions. In life, Ruth found no happiness or delight in family, friends, mythical creatures, or employment. In death, Paradise is another disappointment. She had imagined that she would be able to read and study at her leisure. In Paradise, however, all is already known. She could re-create the past, but that would be transitory. She concludes bitterly that it is better never to have loved than to suffer the loss of that love.

Heir to the Glimmering World

First published: 2004

Type of work: Novel

An eighteen-year-old orphan is employed as a typist, nanny, and companion in the household of a Jewish immigrant family headed by a scholar of an old Jewish sect.

In Heir to the Glimmering World, Cynthia Ozick examines what it means to be an exile or a refugee. The first refugee whom the reader encounters is Rose Meadows, who escapes from the unsettling world of her prevaricating father. Her mother died in childbirth, if she believes her father, or died when Rose was about three, if she trusts her own faint memories. Sent to live with Bertram, a distant cousin, she reluctantly attends a teachers’ college in Albany; she would much prefer to study literature. When Bertram begins an affair with the radical Ninel (Lenin spelled backward), Rose must leave. With no other options, she accepts a position with the Mitwisser family, even though it is unclear exactly what she will be doing, and moves to the Bronx with them.

The Mitwissers are also refugees. They have recently fled Nazi Germany, leaving their language, culture, and careers. The family has trouble coping with the New World. Rudolf, the father, is no longer esteemed as a scholar of the Karaites, a Jewish community who rejected rabbinical interpretation and accepted the Scriptures literally. Rudolf attains a position at a college with the help of Quakers, but it is with a mistaken understanding of his speciality. His wife, Elsa, previously a physicist who studied elementary particles, now takes to her bed and is possibly insane. With different degrees of success, their five children are dealing with the displacement. Anneliese, the oldest, assumes the responsibility of running the household. The three sons have embraced the willfulness of American children, and the young girl Waltraut regresses emotionally. The family acquires a benefactor of sorts in James A’Bair, a mysterious character who, in his own way, is also a refugee.

James’s father authored an immensely popular series of children’s books with James as the hero (loosely based on A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books about Christopher Robin). James’s childhood was controlled by this fictional character, and now he struggles to escape his past. With a fortune from royalties, he should be free to pursue any goal. He first encounters the Mitwissers in Albany and pretends to be a tutor. Later, he tries acting and then travels with Anneliese as his companion. He finds no solace, however, and eventually commits suicide, leaving Anneliese, pregnant, to return to her family.

Bertram enters into the mix. Once financially stable, he has been brought low by his association with Ninel and, using his acquaintance with Rose, moves in with the Mitwissers. He soon becomes indispensable, even marrying Anneliese in order to provide a father for her child.

While the novel seems to be centered on Rose, she is more of an observer of the Mitwisser world, rather than a participant in her own world. At the novel’s end, she leaves, but it is uncertain what she is going toward.

“The Pagan Rabbi”

First published: 1966 (collected in The Pagan Rabbi, and Other Stories, 1971)

Type of work: Short story

A modern rabbi struggles between the religion he teaches and a forbidden world for which he yearns.

“The Pagan Rabbi” explores a modern Jewish problem, the overwhelming appeal of things non-Jewish, or “pagan.” The title piece in Ozick’s first short-story collection, “The Pagan Rabbi” is a mythical tale set in the modern world. There are three voices in the story: the intense dialogue controlled by the widow, the information provided by the narrator, and the reading of the deceased’s suicide note.

Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld, a gifted and renowned intellectual, teacher, and writer, has hanged himself in the public park. The narrator, a childhood friend of the deceased. seeks to discover why a pious man, about to reach his intellectual peak at age thirty-six, would choose to end his life. Ozick was thirty-six years of age two years before “The Pagan Rabbi” was first published; she created a character similar to herself in age and talent. Kornfeld’s mythical world exists in a modern city filled with parks bisected by filthy rivers rather than in an idyllic, nonpopulated nature reserve. In this unlikely setting, with his unique vision, Rabbi Kornfeld dares to experience the excruciating beauty, as well as the horrifying ugliness, of the pagan world forbidden to him.

In trying to unravel the mystery of his friend’s death, the unnamed narrator pays condolences to Kornfeld’s widow, Sheindel, a very clever mother of seven daughters, who as an infant miraculously survived a Nazi concentration camp. The widow reveals a letter left in her husband’s coat to explain his fatal action posthumously. Sheindel describes it as a “love letter,” but it does not confess any earthly infidelity. Kornfeld confesses that he has fallen in love with a free-spirited dryad. As a result of being unable to release what must be free, Kornfeld loses his own soul—revealed, to Kornfeld’s horror, as an ugly, old man oblivious to anything of natural beauty around him, aware only of the worn Tractate of Mishna he is intently studying.

The three characters—the narrator, the widow, and the Rabbi—all approach Judaism differently. The narrator attempts to assimilate—he married out of the religion to a tall, blond, frigid Puritan named Jane. His approach does not work because he is secretly in love with Sheindel, who, with her seven female offspring, represents the survival of Judaism, a maternal religion. Sheindel stays within her Jewish world, accepting that she is different from those outside it. The third approach, a purely intellectual one, is Kornfeld’s path. He questions and challenges everything, which has the paradoxical effect of strengthening his faith, while he becomes enamored of all that is forbidden by it. His duplicity, living publicly as a Jew and privately as a Hellenist, leaves the Rabbi no alternative to suicide.

“Envy: Or, Yiddish in America”

First published: 1969 (collected in The Pagan Rabbi, and Other Stories, 1971)

Type of work: Short story

An unknown Yiddish poet envies a fellow Yiddish writer’s success and blames his own failure on his lack of a translator.

“Envy: Or, Yiddish in America” first appeared in Commentary, then was published as part of Ozick’s first short-story collection two years later. The connection between language and culture is explored as an aging Yiddish poet, a fictionalized Joseph Glatstein, centers his life on his all-encompassing jealousy of Yankel Ostrover, a thinly disguised Isaac Bashevis Singer.

True to Ozick’s belief that large themes can be explored in short fiction, she expresses her concern with the nature of language while entertaining her audience with a comically wry story. It takes place in New York City, where Hershele Edelshtein, son of a Polish Hebraic tutor, has lived for forty years. Edelshtein writes Yiddish poetry for an obscure publication edited by his friend, fellow Yiddish poet and Ostrover envier Baumzweig. Baumzweig and Edelshtein are “secret enemies” (a concept that recurs in “The Pagan Rabbi” as well as in “The Shawl”). Their shared obsessive hatred of Ostrover, however, is the force that binds their tenuous friendship.

Ozick’s treatment of the demise of Yiddish, the mother tongue of European Jews, reveals her fondness for the language of her forebears. Yet the death of Yiddish lacks sentimentality; in fact, it faces a brutal rejection from an educated young Jewish writer, Hannah. She represents the first generation of English-speaking secularized American Jews, those who have reduced the richness of Yiddish to a smattering of commonly used exclamations and insults.

Ironically, Edelshtein earns his meager living lecturing—in English—on the death of Yiddish. He is also forced to reduce Yiddish to a medium for telling jokes in order to hold the interest of his waning audiences. Edelshtein tells two of his jokes to the reader, one about a funeral. Then Edelshtein, never able to read people well enough to mesh with current trends, realizes too late that the jokes “were not the right kind.” Envy has kept Edelshtein in the pitiable position of being on the outside looking in since his boyhood in Minsk. In his dotage, Edelshtein daydreams about the past, when he was taken as a boy to Kiev, where his father taught the wealthy young boy with the beautiful face and the intricate German toys with whom Edelshtein could never play.

Several decades later, Edelshtein remains outside, watching his Yiddish universe modernize without him. He makes a fool of himself by sending pathetic letters that display his desperation, then blames his utter failure on everything he can think of: lack of a translator, the Nazi extermination of six million Yiddish speakers, and anti-Semitism. Edelshtein blames everyone but himself. His fury is twofold: He sees his beloved culture dying and he craves Ostrover’s success.

Ozick endows her fictionalized Isaac Bashevis Singer with popular appeal and a quick wit. Ostrover goes so far as to use Edelshtein’s failure as the basis for his latest successful fable, told as a story within the novella. Years earlier, Ostrover had done the same thing; after Ostrover’s affair with Edelshtein’s wife, he had written another successful story inspired by yet another of Edelshtein’s failures.

“Envy: Or, Yiddish in America,” while about a petty, narrow man with frustrated ambitions, also depicts, with a feeling of great loss, the deterioration of a culture as it disappears into the melting pot. While some, Ozick seems to say, can adapt and be translated, others, who are less flexible, can only look in from the outside, knowing the obscurity of death is imminent.

“The Shawl”

First published: 1980 (collected in The Shawl, 1989)

Type of work: Short story

A magical shawl sustains the life of a hidden infant in a Nazi concentration camp.

“The Shawl” is a brief story that has a lasting impact upon its reader. Ozick’s most anthologized work condenses within seven pages the horrors of the infamous Nazi concentration camps. This prizewinning fiction reverberates with images and themes common in Ozick’s work: the Holocaust, World War II refugees, and secret enmity. Chilling imagery leaves the reader’s senses buzzing like the electrified fence against which Rosa’s fifteen-month-old child, Magda, is thrown. Through Ozick’s powerful, yet uncharacteristically simple language, the reader shares the spiritually elevating love that Rosa, a young mother, has for her infant daughter as well as her forbidden despair over Magda’s barbaric murder.

Initially, the shawl provides warmth and protection as it hides the secret child. When Rosa can no longer suckle, the shawl magically nourishes Magda with the “milk of linen.” In its third life-giving role, the shawl provides companionship, as Magda silently laughs with it as if it were the sister she never had. Without the shawl, Magda, separated from her source of life, is completely vulnerable. Her secret existence is instantly discovered, and her brief life brutally extinguished.

The central metaphor, the shawl, wraps baby Magda and the story in many layers of interpretation. Ozick has crafted her three characters in the fashion of a fifteenth century morality play. In a morality play, each character represents moral qualities or abstractions. Similarly, Ozick’s characters represent three states of existence. Magda, wound in the magical shawl, is Life, full of warmth and imagination. Rosa, who no longer experiences hunger, “a floating angel,” is Spirit. Stella, always so cold that it has seeped into her hardened heart, is Death.

Metaphorically, when Spirit looks away, Death, jealous of the warmth of Life, takes the life-source away, thus killing Life. The secret hatred that Stella harbors toward Magda is only surpassed by the disturbing images Rosa has of starving Stella cannibalizing the delicious-looking infant.

A powerful story, whether read literally or interpreted metaphorically, “The Shawl” offers a private insight into the chillingly painful world created by World War II Germany. Rosa’s loss is humankind’s loss, and the gut-wrenching pain she experiences as she sucks out what little taste of Magda’s life remains in the shawl is the pain of the modern world, gagged and left speechless by inhumanity.

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