Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1555
The Fifth Son describes a journey into the past, a pilgrimage that leads the narrator, the son of Holocaust survivors, to an understanding of his father. Although written from the narrator’s point of view, the novel has three other voices: Reuven Tamiroff, the narrator’s father, whose reminiscences and letters provide glimpses of a tortured man; Bontchek, another survivor, whose recollections reveal more about Reuven; and Simha-the-Dark, also a survivor, who finally unlocks Reuven’s past.
The novel begins with the narrator’s dream; in Reshastadt, he sees his father, who tells him that the trip to Germany is a mistake. The dream fades, and the narrator begins to piece together twenty years of reminiscences about his attempts to understand his father’s silence.
As the narrator assembles the vignettes about his life, he remembers his father as silent and his mother as an unhappy woman who withdrew into a private world when he was only six. He is reminded of a Passover during which Simha demanded that Reuven remember his duty to the living. Simha then told the folktale about the four sons and The Question. The first son knows and assumes The Question, the second knows and rejects it, the third is indifferent to it, and the fourth is ignorant of it. The fifth son, not mentioned in the tale, is gone.
Few vignettes involve Reuven’s descriptions of his own life, but the narrator recalls that Bontchek “brought to life . . . an entire society with its heroes and villains, its giants and its dwarfs.” He particularly remembered the sadistic Nazi called The Angel and recalled The Angel’s murder of fifty men, an act that the survivors protested by going on strike. In retaliation, The Angel executed half of the Jewish Council, sparing Simha and Reuven. Intermittently, the narrator analyzes his relationship with Lisa, a banker’s daughter whom he met in a philosophy class. He recounts his seduction by Lisa, his obsession with her sensuality, her frenetic existence, and her political activism. Simha completes Reuven’s story by remembering the shooting of more than two hundred people (among them, Simha’s wife, Hanna) for defying The Angel’s orders that they pray in public so that he could prove that God did not hear them. Several men swore that if they survived the war, they would execute The Angel.
Throughout The Fifth Son are Reuven’s secret letters to an absent son named Ariel. In them, Reuven questions God and existence and reveals his remorse at the deaths of his fellow councillors. (He admits that he feels responsible because he supported the strike.) Finally, he tells Ariel that he and several others found The Angel after the war and killed him. Reuven confides that he and Simha are still disturbed by their action; revenge is the sole topic of their monthly discussions. He wonders how he would have acted in different circumstances.
The narrator eventually remembers his discovery of the Ariel letters, his reading of the letter in which Reuven relived Ariel’s last day. The letter contained Reuven’s cry to Ariel: “That night you left us, you were six years old; you are still six years old.” Ariel, son of Reuven and Regina, was tortured to death by The Angel. Obsessed with Ariel, the narrator attempted to learn everything about The Angel and finally discovered that The Angel, still alive, became Wolfgang Berger, a businessman and a respected citizen of Reshastadt. In his own attempt at revenge, the narrator traveled to Reshastadt, but the encounter between former Nazi and survivors’ son was anticlimactic: The narrator could only tell Berger who he was and threaten Berger with the curse of the dead. Assassination was impossible.
Years later, the narrator ends his quest with a meditation on his life. He has assimilated his father’s lost years and Ariel’s lost life into his own existence; he has finally connected with his father. His life has purpose and form but no meaning: “When,” he asks, “yes, when, shall I finally begin to live my life, my own?”
Although the narrator provides brief physical descriptions of the other characters, he himself remains indistinct, exhibiting the same absence from life that he deplores in his father. Content to watch rather than to experience life, the narrator spends his childhood and adolescence as his father’s assistant, instead of participating in games with his peers. In college, he drifts into philosophy, again demonstrating his preference for abstractions. With Lisa, he is passive, allowing her to initiate him into new experiences. Despite (or maybe because of) the barriers he has erected between himself and life, he is attracted to those who are his opposites—Lisa and Bontchek—perhaps hoping to discover life through them.
Trained in economy of emotion, the narrator reveals his capacity for passion only in his persistent attempts to know his father. Convinced that his father’s history has the answers to his questions, he searches for information about his parents and their life before him. Later, having exhausted Bontchek’s and Simha’s store of recollections and having heard his father’s vague tales, the narrator turns to libraries for information that will substantiate his family history.
Reuven Tamiroff shares himself only minimally with his son, slightly more with Simha. Reuven lives a narrow life defined by two concerns: his act of revenge and his attempt to write a commentary on the work of Paritus.
The other major characters are little more than substantial shadows. Simha-the-Dark and Bontchek are figures from Reuven’s past, survivors of The Angel’s regime. Bontchek is more talkative, more practical; he inhabits the world of action rather than the world of discussion. While in the ghetto, he traveled secretly, smuggling Jews to friendly countries. Bontchek’s stories reveal the events that shaped the brooding man that Reuven has become. It is significant that the narrator provides a vivid description of this garrulous man: “a mixture of martyr and hedonist. A black . . . face as though covered with soot, flattened nose, powerful neck, square chest.” Simha is “a nocturnal character attracted by darkness and its ghosts. . . . He buys and sells shadows.” A shadow himself, Simha lives alone and spends his free hours calculating the time that separates the Jews from messianic deliverance. He and Reuven spend hours together in philosophical debates, from which they exclude Bontchek.
At one point, the narrator remembers Simha’s explanation of his occupation as a merchant of shadows: “Most people think that shadows follow, precede, or surround beings or objects; the truth is that they also surround words, ideas, desires, deeds, impulses, and memories.” The Fifth Son is about shadows: shadows of the Holocaust, of Ariel and of others who died at The Angel’s orders. The characters are all shadows, their lives outlined by the past. Reuven, in particular, cannot separate himself from the past, and he passes on his preoccupations to his son.
Two concerns inform the novel. First is the narrator’s story; second is the question of revenge. The two concerns intersect and parallel, often forming one narrative thread. As he becomes acquainted with his father’s past, the narrator learns that Reuven is obsessed with revenge because he is guilty of it. Overcome with the enormity of his action, Reuven engages in endless discussions with Simha, always on the same question: Is revenge ever justified? The theme of revenge comes full circle when, discovering that The Angel is not dead, the narrator decides to finish what his father started.
Although Ariel clearly is the “fifth son” of both folktale and novel, Simha’s reminder to Reuven of his duty to the living indicates that the narrator is also a “fifth son.” Indeed, in the epilogue, the narrator reveals that his name is Ariel; he represents both the dead and the living.
The Fifth Son has elicited mixed commentary. Critics generally agree that the work is almost a poem, with its strong imagery, its terseness, and its carefully handled language. Praised for its sympathetic treatment of a sensitive subject—the feelings of children born to Holocaust survivors—Elie Wiesel’s novel has also been hailed for its ambition of purpose, its poetry, its spare characterization, its brilliant use of novelistic techniques, and its masterly construction.
It is ironic that The Fifth Son has also been strongly criticized for those qualities often singled out as its strengths, but there are elements of truth in the criticism. To a certain extent, the structure is ill conceived, the characters are almost faceless, and the novel’s ambition goes largely unrealized. Occasionally, the novel is overwhelmed by its own technique. Oddest of all is the suspenseful unveiling of Ariel’s identity and fate. Reuven’s letters to Ariel slowly become more specific, slowly provide more information about who Ariel is; yet the final revelation is only a vague reference to the execution of a child.
Flaws of construction aside, what Elie Wiesel has produced in The Fifth Son is a thoughtful study of the least-known Holocaust victims: the children of survivors. How accurate that study is, only those children can say. Wiesel’s book, however, is valuable because it makes all readers “children” of the Holocaust through its sympathetic portrayal of the feelings that isolate the survivors from the rest of society.