Envy: Or, Yiddish in America Themes
by Cynthia Ozick

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Because “Envy” is both a satire, written in broad comic strokes, and an ironic treatment of a serious theme—the isolation of the American Jewish intellectual who clings to his old European tradition—it is a story that is difficult to perceive as a unified totality. Edelshtein scorns what is “modern,” particularly if that term means the rejection of the old values. He rejects what he calls the mere storytelling of Ostrover in favor of the true art of poetry. He rejects English in favor of Yiddish and laments that his language is dying. However, he longs to have Ostrover’s success, desperately seeks a translator who he thinks will make this possible, and knows great dejection in his loneliness and despair. The story is less a theme story than a comic satiric story that lashes out through Edelshtein at the Americanized Jewish writer, yet at the same time makes fun of Edelshtein’s Old World self-pity and bitter jealousy.

For Edelshtein, the loss of Yiddish is the loss of an entire world. In reading the story, however, one is not always sure whether a world will be lost or only the narrow intellectual world of Edelshtein will be lost. The conflict of the story is summed up in the final dialogue between Ostrover and Hannah, in which Hannah seems to see Edelshtein correctly as a ghetto Jew who refuses to accept the modern world. Even as one rejects the narrowness of Edelshtein, however, one cannot accept the triviality of the vision of Ostrover and Hannah. Thus, there is no answer to the dilemma here. Ultimately, what “Envy” seems to be about is the loss of Jewishness, its absorption into what is American and what is modern. Thus, although Edelshtein is right at the end of the story—that the whole world is infected with anti-Semites—the seriousness of the charge is undercut by his comic cry that because of anti-Semites he has no translator.

The more serious aspect of the search for a translator focuses on the symbolic need of an intermediary between the Old World and the New. Edelshtein is an isolated figure, like an Old Testament prophet crying out in the wilderness for someone to communicate his cultural values to the modern world; he feels himself surrounded by infidels and traitors to both his society and religion. He is, however, also a comic figure—ineffectual, pathetic, absurd. What he wants is both valuable and worthless at once.