Cynthia Ozick Long Fiction Analysis
After her disappointment in her first novel, Trust, which took her fourteen years to write, Ozick felt that she did not have the time, given her methods of composition, to write another work of such length and complexity. Trust is a Jamesian novel in important respects: its theme of “Europe versus America,” its concentration on upper-class characters, its situations of personal discovery, its virtuoso technical devices. Trust contains only one Jew, Enoch, a young man who, significantly, discovers his Jewish identity as well as a meaning of history different from that held by the Gentiles in his work cataloging Holocaust victims.
Expansions of Enoch’s quest form the basis for Ozick’s later work. In her essays, she announced a new direction: Literature is for the sake of humanity, she declared; it is not an idol of the imagination. Literature is a recognition of the particular. She denied the tenets of the dominantNew Criticism and its “intentional fallacy,” which declared that writers should dissolve their explicit intentions into the forms they discover. This artistic turnabout affected her subject matter. As she saw it, two standards distinguish the Jewish sensibility from that of the Gentiles: The Jews abjure idolatry, which is found not only in the worship of art but also in other secular religions such as Freudianism and Marxism, and they maintain a tradition of interpretive commentary, as evidenced by the Talmud. She seized upon English, now spoken by more than half the world’s Jews, as the medium to replace the dying Yiddish language. What she meant by a Jewish literature in English was soon illustrated in her shorter fiction. In “The Pagan Rabbi,” for instance, theprotagonist, an assimilated Jew, visits a Hasidic community in New York State and is humbled by the spiritual commitment he finds there. A strong narrator, one with a broad knowledge of Jewish tradition and allusive powers, became her principal character.
The Cannibal Galaxy clearly serves Ozick’s aesthetic and moral program. The protagonist, Joseph Brill, had been a “hidden child” in a French convent during the Holocaust. In his youth he seeks to become an astronomer, to look ad astra, toward the cold heavens, to escape what he has experienced. He soon compromises his ambition, however; he emigrates to the United States and seeks mediocrity as his refuge—as principal of a middling school in the middle of the country, far from coasts and foreign dangers.
Brill’s idol becomes the “Dual Curriculum,” a mixture of Jewish and non-Jewish culture that finds a small, fashionable following but that to Ozick represents assimilation killing the roots of culture: “When a Jew becomes a secular person he is no longer a Jew.” Brill’s escape into dullness continues for years, but it is finally interrupted by the introduction of Hesther Lilt, a brilliant and aggressive intellectual. She is a self-described “imagistic linguistic logician” who enrolls her daughter, Beulah, in his school. Hesther fascinates Brill and reminds him of his many compromises. He is particularly obsessed with the relationship between mother and daughter.
Beulah is an ordinary child, without any of the spark shown by her mother. How disappointed the mother must be, Brill thinks. In a central conversation, he accuses Hesther of failing her daughter because she lacks a maternal instinct. In return, she tells him that she is “nothing but maternal” and that he has stopped too soon in maintaining his hope for Beulah. Her obsession with Beulah’s development is in fact her idol, and it finally cannibalizes her as Brill’s idol has cannibalized him.
Brill, freed from his obsession with Hesther, marries another woman, fathers a son, and sinks into a stupor of boredom and frustration. One day years later he sees Beulah being interviewed on television. In a startling switch of personality, she has become a fashionable avant-garde artist. She publicly demeans her...
(The entire section is 2,200 words.)