Yakov Bok, a poor fixer, or handyman. A tall, nervous man with a strong back and work-hardened hands, this orphan—whose mother died in childbirth and whose father was killed not more than a year later in a pogrom, a mass destruction of Russian Jews—holds a pessimistic philosophy of life. Taught his trade at the orphanage, he was apprenticed at the age of ten and has, during his thankless life, served in the Russian army and taught himself Russian as well as some history, geography, science, and arithmetic. He considers himself a freethinker and professes no interest in politics. At the beginning of the novel, he feels trapped by his run-down village and lowly job. Even his wife has deserted him. Claiming that he wants his rewards now, not in heaven, he sells all he owns except for his tools and a few books, then journeys to Kiev to find new opportunities. In the city, his basic humanity embroils him in a series of events that lead to his being falsely accused of the ritual murder of a Christian boy. Escaping the symbolic entrapment of his village, he finds himself literally imprisoned for more than three years. During this period of physical and mental suffering, he fights to understand the reasons for his cruel and undeserved fate. Through reading, reflection, and dialogue with a few people with whom he has contact, this man who once hid his Jewishness comes to accept his irrational suffering as a means of identifying himself as a Jew and as a human being. No longer fearful, he concludes that his long-sought freedom is in truth a state of mind that must be pursued actively. At the novel’s conclusion, he drinks in the cheers of the crowds lining the streets as he goes to trial, a hero of the downtrodden. With a newfound spirit, he proclaims,...
(The entire section is 725 words.)