This is a complex, powerfully imagined tale portraying a conflict of loyalties and delineating the difficulty of being a decent and fair-minded person in a world beset with opposing priorities.
For Grossbart, Jewishness has no devotional or ritualistic substance. He is a cleverly conniving barracks lawyer who poses as a defender of the Jewish faith to manipulate Marx and other authority figures into granting him undeserved privileges. He articulates litanies of whining and wheedling, flattery and hypocrisy—all in a consuming desire for special treatment.
Marx’s character is deeply layered: He wants to be a good person, a good soldier, and a good Jew—in that order. As a human being, he is at first vulnerable to Grossbart’s performance as the victim in danger of having his rights crushed by the dehumanizing institution that the army often is. However, as a soldier, he wants to treat his trainees equitably and humanely, balancing obedience to military regulations with empathy for the loneliness and confusion of young men uprooted from their families in wartime. As a Jew he has a particularly thorny dilemma: how to observe his tradition yet also fulfill his military duties; how to avoid the sentimental claims of Jewish solidarity when they contradict the ethical mandate for justice and equity; how to be strong without bullying; how to be compassionate without showing weakness.
Philip Roth concludes the story with a twist: Grossbart accepts his fate, to be treated no differently from his comrades, and Marx accepts his own fate after “resisting with all my will an impulse to turn and seek pardon for my vindictiveness.” Thus, Roth stresses the existential nature of the protagonist’s moral anguish: Marx finds training camp a far trickier moral terrain than the battlefield. He discovers that the best—for him, the only possible—way of defending the faith of Jews is to defend the faith of all recruits in the cause of a just community, to watch out not for one individual but “for all of us.”