Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725

Yakov Bok

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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, “Where there’s no fight for it there’s no freedom.”


Raisl (RI-suhl), Bok’s wife of almost six years. Faithless and childless, she has deserted Bok at the beginning of the novel for a stranger she met at the village inn. She visits Bok in prison to get him to sign a paper acknowledging his paternity of a child she conceived by another man. Her plea leads Bok to ponder the nature of responsibility and its role in defining oneself as a human being.


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Shmuel (shmew-EHL), Bok’s father-in-law. A skinny man with ill-fitting clothes, he is a peddler with the ability to sell the seemingly worthless. His philosophy of life is that God will always provide. He visits Bok in prison, where he attempts unsuccessfully to get his son-in-law to open his heart to God and accept at least partial responsibility for his troubles. He later dies of diabetes.

Zinaida (Zina) Nikolaevna

Zinaida (Zina) Nikolaevna (ZIHN-ay-dah nih-koh-LAYV-nah), a lonely unmarried woman. About thirty years old, sharp-faced, and slightly built, she is marked by a crippled leg, the result of a childhood illness. From Bok’s first appearance in her father’s house as a handyman, she attempts to seduce him. Failing, she later falsely accuses him of attempted assault.

Nikolai Maximovitch

Nikolai Maximovitch, a semiretired businessman. A fattish man of about sixty-five, with a bald head and melancholy eyes, he runs his late brother’s brickworks. Unaware that Bok is a Jew, this anti-Semite hires him to manage the brickyard. Later incensed by Bok’s deceptions, he turns on Bok and testifies against the man who saved him from smothering in the snow after passing out from the effects of alcohol.

B. A. Bibikov

B. A. Bibikov, the investigating magistrate for cases of extraordinary importance. A man of medium height with a large head, dark gray hair, and a darkish beard, he is a lover of Baruch Spinoza who claims that he depends on the law. He possesses great compassion and plans to get Bok’s story to journalists in the hope of saving an innocent man. He is hanged mysteriously in what is termed a suicide by authorities.

Attorney Grubeshov

Attorney Grubeshov, a prosecutor of the Kiev Superior Court. A heavy man with a fleshy face, thick eyebrows, and hawk eyes, he relentlessly pushes for Bok’s conviction of the ritual murder of the Christian boy. His obsession with Bok’s guilt blinds him to reason.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500

"Yakov Shepsovitch Bok, the chief character, is a fixer, or handyman, conscious of his ignorance as well as his poverty but longing to better himself. He has read a little Spinoza, and what he has learned has whetted his appetite for more. Feeling trapped in the Jewish Pale of Settlement, and against the advice of his kindly father-in-law Shmuel, he decides to leave the shtetl and head for the big city of Kiev, despite its reputation for conservatism and anti-Semitism. Like other Malamud protagonists, he has a dry skepticism and apparently realistic attitude that belies an inherent idealism or, if that is too strong a word, a guarded optimism. If he did not believe he could improve his life, he would not take the chances he does. It is this innate if obscure optimism, or his refusal to believe in the hopelessness of his situation, coupled with his stubborn belief in his innocence that helps him endure the enormities he is later subjected to in prison.

Raisl is Bok's wife, who runs away with a gentile lover when Bok stops sleeping with her and she is driven to her wit's end. Near the end of his time in prison, she comes to visit him, beg his forgiveness, and ask him to accept the son she has borne as his own. In pity for her, but also because he can now accept greater responsibility for their failed marriage (and thus demonstrate his growing maturity and humanity), Bok agrees.

Among those investigating Bok's case are B. A. Bibikov, the Investigating Magistrate, who believes in Bok's innocence and tries to help him; and V. G. Grubeshov, the Prosecuting Attorney, who does his utmost to condemn Bok. Bibikov pays for his efforts with his life: He is found hanging in a cell adjacent to Bok's some time after his imprisonment. While in prison, Bok is persecuted by the Warden, Grizitskoy, and especially the sadistic Deputy Warden, as well as by several guards, Zhitnyak (who is later shot for allowing Shmuel to visit Bok in his cell), Kogin, and Berezhinsky.

The dead boy, whom Bok once chased away from the brickyard, is named Zhenia Golov. His mother, Marfa Vladimirovna Golov, is an unsavory character who, it becomes clear, is the actual murderer of her son along with her blind lover (her husband had long since deserted her). She puts on a good act and is made to seem almost a saint by Grubeshov and others who oppose Bok, but Bibikov suspects the truth — that the boy was onto her nefarious activities with her lover and had threatened to inform on them. Nikolai Maximovitch Lebedev, the wealthy widower, and his crippled daughter Zina, who attempts to seduce Bok, both give evidence against the fixer along with several malicious workers at the brickyard. Near the end of the novel, two lawyers appear to assist Bok: Julius Ostrovsky, who offers the first real hope of a trial, and Suslov-Smirnov, a reformed anti-Semite, who will be Bok's defense attorney.

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