Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 505
David and Jonathan is a dense, complex novel that deals with multiple issues: the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, war, guilt, family life, friendship, coming of age, and sexual, cultural, and racial identity. Henry Marr and Jonathan Nafiche, intelligent sixteen-year-olds, have been friends since fifth grade in spite of their different backgrounds. Henry is from a staid New England family whose maternal ancestors arrived in America on the Mayflower. His mother is a teacher, and his father is a financially unsuccessful musical composer. The family is somewhat estranged from the Chapin grandmother who is wealthy but who does not approve of Henry's father. The Marr family is reserved and stoic, and Henry turns to Jonathan and the Nafiche family for most of his nurturing.
Jonathan is Jewish, and his is an extended family formed from the political turmoil of the 1930s. His mother, then a widow with two small children, married his father, a widower with three children of his own, by proxy, she in Germany, he in Yonkers, New York. Mr. Nafiche's citizenship enabled Myra Rosen Nafiche to leave Germany before the borders were closed to Jewish citizens wishing to emigrate. Living with the Nafiche family is Mr. Nafiche's father-in-law, the father of his first wife, who is known by all as the Rabbi. The Nafiche family is warm, generous, and loving, but it is a disturbed family, one marked by the horrors of the Holocaust and its aftermath.
Henry and Jonathan's close friendship is disrupted by the arrival at the Nafiche home of David Steintodt, Mrs. Nafiche's twenty-year-old nephew. David is a survivor of the Holocaust, the only one of Mrs. Nafiche's family to escape, and in spite of treatment for several years in a psychiatric center, he is suicidal. For this reason, the family maintains a close watch over David, and Jonathan begins spending most of his time with him, leaving Henry alone and lonely.
Henry is at first angered and hurt by being excluded from David and Jonathan's companionship, but he comes to understand how disturbed David is and accepts that Jonathan's energies are being absorbed by David's brooding dementia. He dedicates himself to what he thinks is helping Jonathan save David. Eventually Henry realizes that the larger struggle is not to save David from himself but to keep David from destroying Jonathan as David seeks to draw Jonathan into his troubled, destructive thinking.
David's eventual suicide releases both boys from the tensions his presence has created, but it leaves a permanent shadow across their friendship, a shadow not erased until years later when the two meet in Vietnam. There, in a grim military hospital, Henry, now Captain Marr, Surgeon, encounters Jonathan, badly injured and perhaps soon to die. In the ensuing days, as Henry skillfully tends Jonathan and restores him to life, the two lay to rest the specter of David and resolve questions of their own identities. Each returns to the United States secure at last in the direction his life is to take and ready to reach out to its possibilities.
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