Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528

Potok situates most of his novels within the context of American Jewish life in the first half of the twentieth century, and Orthodox Judaism is certainly a central focus in Davita’s Harp . Because Potok goes deeply into the particulars to locate what is universal in human experience, however, his...

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Potok situates most of his novels within the context of American Jewish life in the first half of the twentieth century, and Orthodox Judaism is certainly a central focus in Davita’s Harp. Because Potok goes deeply into the particulars to locate what is universal in human experience, however, his readership is not restricted. Davita’s Harp is set against a background of Christianity as well as Judaism, and it also investigates political issues as Potok deals with what he considers to be the central social problem of the twentieth century: how people confront ideas that are different from their own.

Potok structures his novels carefully and tends to set up the central metaphor of each in an early scene. This time, the metaphor is the door harp, which plays gentle, sweet music. The harp has been a constant in Davita’s peripatetic life, yet it is a dynamic symbol. The harp is strong enough to accept outer influences: In fact, it becomes a haven for the bird of Uncle Jakob’s story, the bird that Davita liberates from Guernica, and eventually even Davita herself. Though the harp is solid and stationary, it becomes the means through which Davita can fly outside the limitations of time and space: to the Maine farmhouse to give her aborted graduation speech; to a reunion with her deceased father and uncle; and to a greater understanding and healing of spirit. The metaphor underscores the central theme in Davita’s Harp: the inexhaustible power of the human imagination, which is able to create its own reality.

Davita’s gender is not incidental to the novel. Potok focuses on the interaction between her intellectual promise and the possibilities for a female scholar to expand within the existing Orthodox tradition. It is clear that Davita’s potential—and, by implication, other women’s—will not be realized. She is excluded from saying prayers, and she is denied the academic prize she earns. Even after coming to terms with the situation, Davita says that she is planning to attend a public high school—a very good one—in the fall.

Potok, however, is an optimistic writer who has faith in human nature. He believes that there is meaning and order in the universe and that people should search for truth. At one point, Uncle Jakob tells Davita to be sure to wear her glasses, because it is important to see clearly. This seems to be Potok’s intention with the novel, to help himself and his readers see through surface values. He portrays the intellect as necessary and practical, not merely as an abstract faculty. He also suggests that the intellect, which gives rise to outer action, is guided by something profound and universal. Davita has a strong sense of this inner knowingness, and as the novel’s sole voice, she will nourish it in readers. Looking within to gain a more expanded perspective on outer circumstance is the process, Potok suggests. He also suggests that the stories people bring forth in order to communicate the truths they find inside help to take everyone closer to realizing the wholeness of spirit that is the human birthright.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 138

The novel deals with a rich variety of themes. Among them are the role of the imagination as a source of strength (for the pioneer women described by Davita's aunt and for Davita herself); the development of personal identity; the forming of bonds (especially bonds within Davita's family and between her family and friends, neighbors, and political and religious associates); links to the past through ancestry, culture, and memory; human suffering and efforts to help and heal (besides the suffering of war, several characters go through emotional trauma healed through time, compassion, and inner resources). Another important theme is the consolation and the challenge offered by religious faith and religious communities. Davita experiences both, especially in the Jewish community she becomes part of: She is drawn to its warmth and goodness, but she sees its problems and injustices.

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