Cynthia Ozick Cynthia Ozick American Literature Analysis

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Cynthia Ozick American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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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...

(The entire section is 4,760 words.)