Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

At an elementary level of meaning, this story reveals the hidden relationships that may exist between apparently unconnected things and events. The Italian play, with its fantastic Sicilian actor, acts powerfully on the unloved wife of the swindler Nick Schwarz—and the boy and his watch are saved.

The story becomes more interesting when the reader sees that it is precisely the power of art that is significant, rather than merely “a play.” Finally, it is not art in general that is at issue but art of great passion. Here, bad art is “transformed” by a passionate actor. Commenting on Di Grasso’s acting, the narrator insists that the Sicilian, “with every word and gesture,” confirms that there is “more justice in outbursts of noble passion than in all the joyless rules that run the world.”

Such an explicit statement, not all that common in Babel, must be taken seriously. One wonders if “joyless rules” might refer to the Soviet Union of the bleak 1930’s, and if Nick Schwarz, with his handlebar mustaches, is not intended to be seen as a pitiless Stalin figure. In any case, however, such political overtones are not the central focus of the work.

Passion in life, as in art, is a recurring motif in Babel’s writings. Often it is accompanied by violence, as in the present work—which depicts not only the murderous leap of Di Grasso but also the descent of the curtain “full of menace” and the “vicious pinch” exacted by Schwarz. If life is lived fully and passionately, some violence is inevitable.

As art influences or works itself into life (here moving Schwarz’s wife to take pity on the boy), so may life be transformed into art. Thus the boy, dizzy with happiness, sees the ordinary world of the city transformed into ineffable beauty. Here reality, art, and transcendent beauty merge in a remarkable vision. The boy’s epiphany has the character of a future writer’s first glimpse of the world beyond everyday reality (or of the way reality really is if one looks at it right).