Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 19, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1604

The theme of The Education of Robert Nifkin is stated explicitly in its title, with the novel itself telling how a teenage misfit manages to be educated in spite of the educational system inflicted upon him. Nifkin explains, in response to an essay topic on a college application form, how he made his way through high school, eventually graduating with good grades in spite of poor attendance and a lack of interest in most of his courses. The key to The Education of Robert Nifkin is that the education takes place outside of high school where Nifkin makes friends, observes hectic city life, earns money as he learns about people, and pursues academic interests, especially American literature, on his own in libraries. He even acquires a suitably weird girlfriend who becomes a sometimes schoolmate at Wheaton School (everyone is a sometimes schoolmate at Wheaton).

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When Nifkin comes to Riverview High School, he already has excellent credentials for being an outsider. Besides being fat and unathletic, his family life has made him feel as though he belongs on another planet. He explains that his father left Poland at the outset of World War II, not just to escape the Nazis, but because his community could not tolerate him and bought him a ticket for America; they even escorted him to the train to make sure he really left on it. His father relates to Nifkin by telling him how stupid, lazy, and cowardly he is. Even though he verbally berates his son, he willingly spends the money it takes to send Nifkin to Wheaton School in hopes that the frequent truant will actually learn something. Nifkin's mother has adapted to living with a demanding husband, and her cooking has suffered because her husband requires bland foods. "I fear my mother's meatloaf more than I fear my father," Nifkin says, and "What my mother does to vegetables ought to be against the law." Furthermore, his parents are in love with tacky furniture and ugly decorations; their house is a monument to excessive money united with excessive bad taste. Home is an unpleasant place for Nifkin, and it has left him with doubts about his worthiness for anything. This means that he ends up trapped between home and school.

He is immediately an outsider at school. His gym teacher abuses him; his homeroom teacher rants about communists and suggests that his looks make him a likely candidate for communism; his biology teacher talks to her plants and wishes the students would go away; and another teacher tells her students that Jews have been conspiring for centuries to overthrow western civilization. It is his temporary good fortune to learn that students who join ROTC get out of taking gym class. ROTC is conducted by Sergeant Gunter: "You address me as Sergeant. I am not a member of the corrupt and parasitic officer class." The school's one true communist runs the ROTC unit, and his room in the school basement is decorated with sayings by famous people. One sequence of sayings is:

Duty is the sublimest word in our language. —Robert E. Lee

When a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares that it is his duty.

—George Bernard Shaw

Duty is what one expects of others. —Oscar Wilde

Robert E. Lee was a weenie. —Alphonso Gunter

Sergeant Gunter's appeal to Nifkin lies neither in his attempts at indoctrination nor in his teaching; he notes that "Sergeant Gunter was impressive as he conducted the lecture while asleep himself." Sergeant Gunter's appeal is that crazy or not, he treats his students well. When he is arrested for being a communist, turned in by one of his ROTC students, Riverview High School looks like it could become an unredeemed nightmare for Nifkin.

If Pinkwater was Samuel Butler and if The Education of Robert Nifkin was The Way of All Flesh (1903)-which The Education of Robert Nifkin somewhat resembles in structure and its use of autobiographical material—Nifkin would be doomed to a demeaning life of fulfilling duties to his family and to his school, with his creativity stifled and all hope for happiness suppressed. He might even become as insane as his teachers, but with Pinkwater at work Nifkin has choices. They begin with his chance meeting with Linda Pudovkin at Mel's, home of greasy Melburgers. He admires her ability to eat a triple Melburger, something he will not even attempt: "Only polar bears and Arctic wolves can digest them." She introduces him to her boyfriend Kenny Papescu, and a whole new world opens up for Nifkin—one filled with life and useful activity.

Papescu, supposedly a high school student himself, spends most days away from school. He delivers furniture now and then, usually forgeries of antiques, and he takes Nifkin with him. Nifkin quickly learns that moving furniture pays. He also discovers that no one really misses him at school. The teachers either do not notice that he is usually absent, or they are happy to be rid of him. Nifkin, when not with Papescu, is therefore able to have time to pursue his interests. He reads American literature, he visits art galleries, he stares at the city's architecture, or he visits a coffee house where various unusual people mingle. He falls in love with Chicago, visiting the Loop and calling it an amusement park ride in which he glides along on his feet. The secret is to keep moving as thousands of people rush to wherever they are going: "After a while, all the empty space, between and inside the buildings, and all the solid space—the buildings themselves, cars, buses, people would start to feel like it was all moving, dancing. It was like music."

The world Papescu introduces Nifkin to is populated by wild and improbable characters, eventually including Sergeant Gunter, who lost his teaching position, was jailed, has been let out of jail, and now makes speeches at the coffee shop. Linda Pudovkin is tough and quick with her fists, and she explains that Papescu and she are saving themselves sexually: "When we need to overcome desire, we talk on the phone while wearing boxer shorts on our heads—which does the trick. You might keep it in mind," she says. As blunt about her eccentricities as she is about his, Nifkin can be blunt with her, confiding that he sometimes thinks he is in a black-and-white movie. Papescu is big-nosed, with thick glasses, and walks like a gorilla. He is also a good source for work that pays, even if it is somewhat shady work, and he is a good resource for learning how to cope with a school system that is cruel and debilitating. He also introduces Nifkin to Pamela, who calls herself Nastasia. She wears white makeup on her face in the manner of Chicago beatniks of the time (the Chicago beatniks meet some real New York beatniks and are frightened by them), dresses in black, and is perpetually sad. She also takes to pulling Nifkin into closets at Wheaton and kissing him. About Nifkin, she says, "I have loved him from the first moment I saw him." Nifkin remarks, "This made my head swim." Thus, once Nifkin makes one true friend, he makes another, and each new friend leads him on to other new friends so that he eventually becomes part of a community of people who care about each other.

Belonging to a group of people who like one another pays immediate dividends. When Riverview discovers that Nifkin has been truant for months, causing his father to receive a threatening notice that Nifkin must attend school, a new friend is now available to help him escape this pending predicament. It is Papescu to the rescue with his secret to attending school without attending school: the Wheaton School. The teachers at Wheaton are generally as nuts as those at Riverview, but they are nonetheless different from the usual. This, for instance, is Wally Gershkowitz:

Wally Gershkowitz was easily the ugliest person I had ever seen. In his late twenties, he was swarthy, unshaven, and short, with a shock of coarse black hair, pale brown eyes, a pig's snout, and a sneering expression. He held a Lucky Strike cigarette between the yellowed second and third fingers of his left hand. I liked him immediately.

Part of what makes Gershkowitz special is that he, like Nifkin, is far from handsome, but more important is that for all his cynical ways, he cares about his students. When Nifkin first comes upon him, he is meeting with students in his rooms at night because that is when they want to see him. He is cavalier about grades and makes cynical remarks about giving away As, but his actions show him to be someone who actually cares about young people. He mixes with his students, goes where they go, eats where they eat, and proves to be an excellent guide for Nifkin regarding the dos and don'ts of Wheaton.

The Education of Robert Nifkin is populated with several such vividly fleshed-out and intense characters, all so real they could be found avoiding school someplace today. It is through these extraordinary characters that Nifkin is educated, and he learns a great deal about such matters as being a true friend, accepting people as they are, open mindedness, the spiritual and intellectual riches to be had in the city, and how to educate himself. He learns to definitively take charge of his own education and not passively wait for it to be delivered. What high school offers pales in comparison to what he achieves.

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