Enemies: A Love Story Critical Context
by Isaac Bashevis Singer

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Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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Enemies, Singer’s fourth novel to be translated into English, was his first with a contemporary American setting. His America is a bleak, winter wasteland, a gray background of deserted beaches, steamy subways, and seedy cafeterias. Singer’s New York City is a fitting place for the hollow men and women who inhabit it.

Despite its grim setting and tragic conclusion, Enemies is essentially comic. Herman speculates that Tamara may be a ghost but rejects this possibility when he notes that she is gaining weight. His juggling of wives is farcical, and his elaborate lies are themselves a tour de force. Where indeed but in comedy would the central lie—his occupation—become truth? Yadwiga’s confusion over the ritualistic importance of an insurance policy and dishwasher, while symbolic, is at the same time amusing. Even the ending may be regarded as part of the fertility ritual that underlies comedy—the old Masha is slain so that a new Masha may be born in the late spring.

Like Singer’s other novels, Enemies uses a simple narrative to raise complex metaphysical questions. Is there a God? Does He care about the world? Is He benign or malign? How can or should man relate to Him? In Singer’s novels one senses an increasing dissatisfaction with easy answers. Der Knekht (1961; The Slave, 1962) concludes with the canonization of its hero and heroine, whose son is carrying on their beliefs. In Enemies, the ending is ambiguous. Herman vanishes, leaving behind a child whose life is yet to unfold. In Neshome Ekspeditsyes (1974; Shosha, 1978), Singer implies that no answers are possible; one is left literally as well as spiritually in the dark.

Although Singer lacks answers, he remains one of the few contemporary writers to pose ultimate questions. In this lies much of the lasting significance of his books.