Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 914
The novels of Chaim Potok typically concern themselves with conflicts between worldviews, usually as represented by the American Orthodox Jewish tradition and aspects of the secular world. Davita’s Harp is the story of a girl’s search for balance—between practicality and idealism, between the inner self and the outer environment. Davita’s parents are intelligent people who have rejected their respective religions and become passionately dedicated to Communism. Davita describes in detail the Communist Party meetings that the Chandals hold in a succession of tenement apartments, apartments that they are regularly forced to leave by unsympathetic landlords.
Amid the instability of Davita’s physical environment, two objects stay constant: a picture on her parents’ bedroom wall of three white horses, and a door harp hung on the front door of whatever apartment they call home. Davita looks at the picture often, feeling that she is almost able to enter into the scene. She also loves to listen to the sounds of the harp whenever the door is opened or closed. To Davita, it rings the most gentle and sweetest of tones.
Eight-year-old Davita, a precocious child with a rich inner life, is growing up in turbulent times. Her main outer influence is her parents’ politics. She often falls asleep at night to the sound of impassioned voices talking about dialectic materialism, tools of production, capitalists, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler. Although her parents do not talk about the religions they have abandoned, Davita learns about them both. She learns about Christianity from her aunt, Sarah Chandal; she learns about Orthodox Judaism from her neighbors, the Helfmans, and from Ezra and David Dinn. She learns about the power of the imagination from Jakob Daw, a noted leftist writer and family friend. Jakob tells Davita about the search for truth; the images he uses in his stories come from deep within his heart and lodge at a correspondingly deep level within Davita’s own.
Eventually, Michael’s newspaper sends him to cover the war in Spain, Channah becomes absorbed in Party activities, and Davita is left essentially on her own. She follows the Helfmans to the local synagogue and starts to attend regular services there. During his second tour in Spain, Michael is caught in the bombing of Guernica, where he is killed trying to help a wounded nun. Davita feels a deep emptiness and starts to say Kaddish for her father, a prayer she knows David Dinn said daily for eleven months after his mother died. Females do not usually say Kaddish, and Davita creates quite a stir.
Jakob Daw comes again to visit, and Davita finds some relief in his presence. He tells her a story about a little black bird struggling against the wind; the bird eventually finds safety inside the sweet music of the door harp. One day when out rowing in the park, however, Davita goes deeply into her sadness with a strange detachment, watching herself stand up and step quietly out of the boat. Out of contact with the world, Davita goes with Aunt Sarah to recover in the family farmhouse in Maine. When she returns to New York, she transfers to the synagogue school to be closer to her friends Ruthie Helfman and David Dinn. Davita is happier there than in public school, but she is growing up and thinking deeply about her relationship to what she sees around her—things familial, political, religious, and sexual. When Davita goes with her class to see the Pablo Picasso painting Guernica, she again experiences a sense of detachment from her surroundings. She flies up and enters into the painting, taking from it a little gray bird, which she puts into the door harp for safe-keeping.
Channah’s dreams for Communism are eventually shattered, and she collapses from both physical and emotional exhaustion. To recover, she too goes with Sarah to the farmhouse in Maine, and Davita stays with the Helfmans, becoming more and more involved with their Orthodox ways. When Channah returns, she and Ezra decide to marry. Although Davita misses her father and Uncle Jakob (who has also died), she now has a strong family life, and she is an excellent student.
When Davita is graduated from the eighth grade, it is expected that she will receive the Akiva Award for highest academic average. The school directors cannot accept that the first-place graduate is female, however, and they give the award to a boy. Davita feels betrayed and incensed, realizing with great pain what her mother, her father, and her Uncle Jakob before her had learned—how a single event can change the course of a person’s life. Yet the inner life that had caused Davita so much anguish in the past now comes to her aid.
Lying on her bed, she suddenly finds herself inside the door harp, sitting between the black bird of Jakob and the gray bird of Guernica. The birds fly the harp, with Davita inside, to the Maine farmhouse, where Davita sees her father, Aunt Sarah, and Uncle Jakob and receives their blessing. The novel ends on an open note, as Davita— still bitter from the experience—returns to her family and welcomes a new baby sister. “Enjoy your childhood,” she whispers to Rachel. “They’ll take it away from you soon enough.” Davita, though, also starts to tell Rachel a strange story that does not have an ending, “a story about two birds and some horses on a beach far away.”