Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Style is more important to “Envy” than theme; the point of view of the story and its rhetorical structure are the most obvious sources of its interest. Ozick maintains an ironic and satiric perspective on Edelshtein, even as she sustains a point of view that reflects Edelshtein’s values. The language of the story is comic and ironic, combining the conventions of Yiddish folktale with the style of the upbeat Jewish comic; even as it makes fun of the Americanized Jewish idiom and folktale devices, it makes use of them. Its structure, made up of various kinds of rhetorical patterns such as letters, stories, and debates, is far from straightforward. This highly stylized and self-conscious structure and style make the story somewhat difficult to fix in the reader’s mind, depending primarily neither on plot nor on characterization, but rather on purely rhetorical devices and erratic shifts in tone and perspective.

“Envy” is a satiric comment on the nature of Jewish literary culture in the United States. Although Edelshtein’s view that without the Jews there would be no literary culture in Western civilization may be an extreme one, it is obvious that the success of Jewish writers in the United States is a result of their willingness to give up the strict traditions of their culture as well as their language. Moreover, the success of such writers as Malamud, Bellow, and Roth is largely the result of their willingness to make their Jewish characters the butt of an extended Jewish joke. Roth especially has written novels that reflect on this capitulation for the sake of popularity. The basic punch line of Ozick’s joke about this dilemma of the Jewish writer is “You can’t have it both ways”; that is, the Jewish writer cannot maintain his language and culture and be read at the same time. The technique of Ozick’s story is to maintain the seriousness of this problem even as it must be seen from the perspective of satiric humor.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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