Places Discussed

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Shtetl. Small Jewish village near Kiev, Russia. Before leaving for Kiev, Yakov lives his entire life here. He leaves the village because he considers it a prison, in which he is unable to survive economically. He believes that if he leaves the shtetl his luck will change. Yakov’s sentiments about the shtetl become ironic: He leaves what he thinks is a prison only to be confined to a real prison, and instead of prospering when he leaves his community, he becomes the victim of anti-Semitism.

Yakov’s cell

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Yakov’s cell. Faded stucco prison building in a commercial section of Kiev, near the brickyard where Yakov works. Most of the novel takes place in Yakov’s prison cell. He spends almost three years here, where he is placed in solitary confinement and tortured. Although imprisoned and tortured, Yakov refuses to confess to a crime he did not commit. He willingly continues to be the scapegoat for the Jewish people, as he comes to understand that if he had not been accused, another Jew would have been. Despite horrendous suffering while imprisoned, he learns to appreciate his culture and fight for his people.


*Kiev (KEE-ev). Russian city (now part of Ukraine) situated on the Dnipro River in what was the Ukrainian province of Russia during the earliest period in which the novel is set; Kiev is now a city in independent Ukraine. Yakov journeys to Kiev from the shtetl. Although little of the action of the novel occurs in Kiev, this broader setting is important because it provides historical accuracy to events that occur to Yakov, a fictional character based on Mendel Beilis, who was arrested in Kiev in 1911 for a crime similar to the one Yakov is accused of committing. The novel portrays a specific historical time in which Russia attempted to extinguish its Jewish population. The setting also accurately demonstrates some of the unscrupulous tactics Russian czars used for political gain prior to the Russian Revolution in 1917.


*Lukianovsky. District of Kiev that Jews are not allowed to enter. The brickyard where Yakov works for Nikolai Maximovitch Lebedev is located in Lukianovsky. Yakov at first declines the offer to work but Nikolai persuades him to accept and offers him a place to stay in the brickyard. Yakov is unable to decline Nikolai’s offer without admitting that he is a Jew, a fact he has hidden from Nikolai, who is an admitted anti-Semitic. Living and working in Lukianovsky plagues Yakov with fear, worry, and guilt. Although Yakov feels like a traitor, he soothes his conscience by determining to make some money and leave. The body of the boy Yakov is accused of murdering is found in a cave near the brickyard in Lukianovsky.

Historical Context

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Tsar Nicholas II
Nicholas II (1868-1918), who makes a brief appearance in Yakov's dream near the end of this novel, was the last tsar of Russia (the word is also translated as "czar"). He was driven from the throne and executed shortly after the events of The Fixer take place. To a large extent, it was Nicholas's arrogance and foolishness that brought about the Communist Revolution in Russia, although it is also likely that the country's weak economy would have crumbled under even the most competent monarch. Nicholas was a descendant of the Romanov dynasty, whose rule reached back to 1547, when the grand duke of Muscovy, Ivan IV (1530-1584), had himself crowned czar (the Russian word for "caesar"). His grand nephew, Ivan VI (1740-1764), was the first tsar with the Romanov name, a name that was passed down to Russian rulers until Nicholas was deposed. Nicholas himself became tsar in 1894, when his father became ill and died suddenly. Nicholas, then twenty-six, was unprepared for the throne, a fact that became clear almost immediately when thousands died attending his inauguration, trampled to death due to poor crowd control.

As the nineteenth century came to an end, while countries around the world were entering the Industrial Age, Russia struggled to end a feudal social order that locked peasant farmers into slave-like conditions. With the change in social order came massive poverty. From the 1870s on, revolution was in the air, with labor strikes and peasant revolts occurring frequently. Nicholas's answer to social unrest was to blame it on "outside agitators." In 1904, Russia went to war with Japan in a small dispute over land on the Korean Peninsula--one of the tsar's advisors had told him that "a victorious little war" would unite the population. Unfortunately and unexpectedly, Russia lost, further straining the economy. Strikes, demonstrations, and violence became common.

In 1905, hundreds of peasants, gathered outside the tsar's Winter Palace to present their grievances, were shot down by soldiers. To quell the public outrage that followed, Nicholas set up the Dumas, a Russian Parliament. He did not give the Dumas any political power, though, and the protests continued until later that year when he organized a second, functional Dumas. The public's distrust of the tsar and his family intensified in the following years as he came to rely on advice from Rasputin, a mystic known as the Mad Monk, who had won the Romanovs' trust by being able to treat their son Alexis's hemophilia. When Russia suffered heavy losses after World War I began in 1914, the fate of Nicholas II and his family was sealed. After the 1917 revolution led by Lenin, Trotsky, and others, the tsar abdicated his throne, and a Communist government was established in Russia. In 1918 Nicholas, his wife, and his children were executed, although unsubstantiated rumors persist to this day that one of his daughters, Anastasia, escaped.

Blood Libel
The myth that Jewish people murder Christian children to use their blood for mystical rituals is called a "blood libel," and has existed for hundreds of years. Similar accusations were levied against early Christians, who were a small, persecuted cult in the early centuries after the death of Jesus. The first record of a blood libel against the Jews dates back to the death of William of Norwich, who was found beaten to death in the woods on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter) in 1144. The proximity of the high Christian holiday certainly added to tensions between Jews and Christians, while the specific details about the Easter cycle—the bloody death of Jesus the offering of bread and wine as "'body and blood"—are thought to have fueled imaginations about secret mystic rituals.

While blood libel stories existed for centuries, the first recorded one that had official church recognition was the "Cult of Anderl," which started in 1462. The cult celebrated the sainted Anderl von Rinn ("Anderl" is a Germanic form of "young Andrew"; Rinn is a city in the Tyrolean Alps). The death of Anderl, allegedly at the hands of Jews, became a part of the local folklore, handed down from generation to generation. In 1614, Dr. Hippolyt Guarinoni wrote a book, Triumph, Crown, Martyrdom and Epitaph of the Holy Innocent Child, recording the story of Anderl as he said it came to him in a dream. The cult of Anderl continues to this day. In 1985, in an attempt to end this anti-Semitic cult, the Bishop of Innisbrook had the boy's remains removed from the church and put into a grave, but followers still conduct annual processions to the boy's grave.

The blood libel has such deep roots in Christian folk tradition that the Brothers Grimm, German scholars who are famous for fairy tales like "Hansel and Gretel" and "Cinderella," wrote a version of it in the 1400s. Their story "Der Judenstein" (The Jewry Stone) is about a father who sells his son to Jews, who kill the boy in a ritualistic fashion, tying the boy to a stone wheel and draining his blood The blood libel has been authorized by Pope Sixtus V, who in 1588 gave official recognition to the martyrdom of Simon of Trent, allegedly tortured and murdered by Jews a hundred years earlier. To this day there are people who, like the Russian peasants in The Fixer, swear that Jewish people put the blood of young Christian boys into the Passover matzos, citing the longevity of the blood libel as proof that it is true.

Mendel Beilis
The story of Yakov Bok is almost identical to the story of Mendel Beilis (also "Beiliss"), a bookkeeper in a brick factory in Kiev who was arrested in 1911 for suspicion of killing a Christian boy, Andrei Yushinsky. Beilis was held in jail for two years while the government tried to incite public anger against Jews. When Beilis finally did come to trial in October 1913, the jury unanimously declared him not guilty. Unlike Yakov, Beilis had a large family with whom he was reunited upon his release. The Russian government's attempt to distract citizens from the country's economic woes by stirring up religious conflict backfired, instead inciting international outrage against the government's anti-Semitic stance.

Literary Style

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Point of View
Most of this novel is written in the third person limited point of view. This means that characters are referred to as "he" or "she." The narrator is not a character in the book and does not refer to him- or herself. The point of view is "limited" in that the narration is not free to describe anything that happens anywhere, but can only tell us about events and thoughts that are experienced by Yakov. Ideas in the minds of other characters, for instance, are beyond Yakov's knowledge, and so cannot be told to the audience. For instance, the book's narration cannot directly explain the political situation outside of the jail because Yakov would have no knowledge of what is happening. Since the narration is limited to what he knows, any background information is told to Yakov by Ostrovsky. The author uses this device to bring information into the novel that otherwise is beyond its range. Another element of the point of view is the tense: for the most part, this novel is told in the past tense, describing the action as being in the past, as in "Yakov Bok saw people running," or "The fixer remained mute."

There are exceptions to the general point of view. The sixth chapter of section VI starts with Yakov himself functioning as the narrator, speaking in the first person ("I") present tense. The following chapter begins with one paragraph in the second person ("you") present tense. The first chapter of section VII starts with one sentence in the present tense form: "He waits." All of these have the effect of conveying Yakov's sense of reality unraveling as he sits in his cell, his mind deteriorating. Present and past, "me" and "you" and "him," all meld into one unclear frame of mind in his boredom.

Unlike some novels, which focus on the personal lives of their characters, the story of The Fixer places great emphasis on the time in which it takes place. Kiev, Russia, from 1911 to 1913, had just the right balance of political sophistication with peasant superstition; of dedication and corruption; of freedom and severe political consequences. Other settings have been dangerous for religious, political, and ethnic groups that were persecuted, but they have not ended in a few years with violent revolutions, and so they would have lacked the sense of hope that this story implies in the end.

Little is made of the fact that Yakov is a "fixer," other than the constant use of this word to refer to him. The term has literal significance in this story in that he is indeed a fixer, a handyman, as he proves with the work he does on Lebedev's spare apartment. As his troubles grow and freedom becomes less and less likely, he thinks of his tools more often. It is somewhat ironic that this novel is named The Fixer in spite of the fact that Yakov is trapped in his situation and for most of the book is unable to do anything to fix it. In the end, though, the purpose of the title becomes clear enough. In the last scene, he is hurtling along in a carriage with a broken, wobbling wheel that needs fixing (which echoes the wagon wheel that broke when he was first leaving for Kiev), trapped in a political system that also needs fixing. With his tools Yakov could fix the carriage, and by allowing himself to be a symbol of Jewish oppression he can further the growing revolution that might fix the corrupt government.

Folk Tale
Malamud has described this novel as a "folk tale." The key element of a folk tale is that, true or false, it is repeated frequently within a culture because, whether they know it or not, it helps people define who they are. Malamud mentioned that the story of Mendel Beilis, upon which this novel is based, is a story that his father told him when he was a little boy. A story like "Cinderella," for instance, has elements of tragedy (such as the death of the natural mother, the stepmother's cruelty, and the father's insensitivity), but it also ends in triumph, with the stepsisters defeated and the prince declaring his devotion.

The Fixer follows a folk tale pattern in that it starts with a man leaving his home and traveling to a place with which he is unfamiliar—a different world. In this case, he is moving from the Jewish Step to the Christian-dominated Kiev. By leaving out the trial and its outcome, though, the novel takes a turn toward abstraction that a folk tale would never take. There might be a good intellectual reason to leave the ending open, so that the reader will have to think about it and perhaps even look up the history of the case it is based on. However, folk tales, even when they are mysterious, seldom leave the reader with unanswered questions about what happened. Folk tales are repeated by listeners who have heard them and found them complete, they never leave readers unsatisfied.

Compare and Contrast

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1913: Tsar Nicholas II, political leader of Russia, follows a policy of persecuting and suppressing Jewish citizens in response to social unrest.

1966: Leonid Brezhnev, premier of the Soviet Union, supports an official propaganda campaign to blame Russian Jews for the country's economic troubles.

Today: With the economies of former Soviet countries unsettled, old questions of ethnic identity lead people to identify themselves with smaller groups and to also demonize other groups.

1913: The American Cancer Society is formed at a time when 9 out of 10 patients diagnosed
with cancer are destined to die.

1966: The Surgeon General releases findings that smoking causes cancer, as well as numerous other health problems. Cigarette companies deny this claim.

Today: Although the chances of surviving cancer has improved dramatically since 1913, the number of incidents of cancer has also increased, making it the second leading cause of death in America.

1913: Distraught Russian citizens, upset with the country's backward economy and the government's inability to do something about it, riot frequently. The government fuels anti-Semitism in order to keep angry citizens distracted.

1966: Race riots blaze across many major American cities, including Cleveland, Chicago, and Atlanta.

Today: Violent displays against social injustice have become rarer in the United States, having been replaced by more sophisticated forms of economic pressures.

1913: The Russian government can hold a suspect in custody for as long as it wants without proceeding with a trial.

1966: The U.S. Supreme Court rules in the case of Miranda v. Arizona that failure to allow suspects to have a lawyer present during questioning violates the Constitutional right against self-lncrimination. At the same time, civil rights abuses are legendary in the secret workings of the Soviet Union's government.

Today: The Soviet Union no longer exists, having given way to more democratic forms of government. Amnesty International is a respected worldwide organization that monitors abuse of political prisoners.

1913: Before the First World War devastated their economies, the countries of Europe were the center of the world's finances.

1966: In the middle of the Cold War the world was defined by the competition between two Super Powers: the United States and the Soviet Union.

Today: Since the Soviet Union voted to dissolve itself in 1991, the United States is recognized as the world's leading economic and military power.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

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The Fixer is modeled upon an actual case in Russian history, the infamous Mendel Beiliss trial held in 1913 after the accused had been imprisoned for twenty-six months. Although Beiliss was eventually acquitted, the jury on instruction from the bench maintained that the child in question had actually been a victim of ritual murder, thereby implicating the Jews as a people if not the individual who was on trial. While Malamud's interest in the relation between history and the individual is deep, and his narrative like The Natural has historical analogues and parallels, The Fixer is not simply a traditional historical novel but an imaginative construct whose authenticity lies more in the truth of ideas than in verifiable facts. (For the latter, see Maurice Samuel's Blood Accusation: The Strange History of the Beiliss Case, 1966.)

As in his previous fiction, Malamud uses symbolism (some critics believe excessively) to universalize his concerns. The name Yakov Shepsovitch Bok, for example, points to Bok's role as a scapegoat: Bok means goat, and Shepsovitch signifies the son of a sheep. Jacob in Biblical history wrestled with an angel and was wounded in his thigh; Bok wrestles with his conscience throughout and develops a limp. The prison in which Bok is confined is a metaphor for the prison of the soul from which all men try to escape, or rather win their freedom.

Critics have drawn comparisons between The Fixer and Camus's The Stranger (1942), a novel also about imprisonment that, like Malamud's, focuses on existential reality and the nature of the individual. But Malamud may owe more to the great nineteenth-century Russian novelists, Dostoevski and Gogol, for his representation of human pain and endurance and the search for salvation. Malamud's Russia is not highly detailed, for the writer is more concerned with interior geography than external details. Nevertheless, the cell in which Bok is confined appears real enough, and his agonies accordingly do not lack conviction.


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John Frankenheimer directed the film version of The Fixer, produced by Edward Lewis and released by MGM in 1968. Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay. The cast included Alan Bates as Bok, Derek Bogard as Bibikov, Ian Holm as Grubeshov, Georgia Brown as Marfa Golov, Hugh Griffith as Lebe-dev, and Carol White as Raisl. The picture begins with scenes from a pogrom, but otherwise is generally faithful to the novel -— too faithful in the opinion of several critics, many of whom disliked the film. Alan Bates was singled out as a poor choice for the lead, his English accent and appearance distinctly not suited to the poor Jewish fixer. On the other hand, Bogard's Bibikov received much praise for capturing the essential qualities of the character.

Media Adaptations

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The Fixer was adapted as a film by John Frankenheimer in 1969, starring Alan Bates and Dirk Bogarde. The film was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists and is available from MGM Home Video.

The Short Stories of Bernard Malamud is a six-cassette program released in 1988 from the Listening Library, Old Greenwich, Connecticut. The writings are read by Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach.

Malamud's famous short story "The Magic Barrel" is included on the eighteen-hour collection Jewish Stories from the Old World to the New. The dozens of celebrity readers on this collection are as diverse as William Shatner, Joseph Gordon-Leavett, Julie Kavner, and Hector Elizondo. Available on eighteen compact discs, the collection was released by KCRW of Santa Monica, California.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Dorothy Seidman Bilek, "Malamud's Secular Saints and Comic Jobs," Immigrant-Survivors; Post-Holocaust Consciousness in Recent Jewish American Fiction, Wesleyian University Press, 1981, pp. 53-80.

Alan Warren Friedman, "The Hero as Schnook," Bernard Malamud and the Critics, edited with an introduction by Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field, New York University Press, 1970.

Sheldon J. Hershinow, Bernard Malamud, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co, 1980.

Gerald Hoag, "Malamud's Trial: The Fixer and the Critics," Western Humanities Review, Winter, 1970, pp. 1-12.

Sidney Richman, Bernard Malamud, Twayne Publishers, 1966.

Further Reading

Salo Wittemayer Baron, The Russian Jew under Tsars and Soviets, MacMillan, 1976.
This highly regarded book is out of print but still on the shelves of many school libraries.

Joel Carmichael, The Satanizing of the Jews: Origin and Development of Mystical Anti-Semitism, Fromm International, 1993.
This book examines the history behind the attitude that allowed the population of Kiev to be stirred up against Yakov and made them believe that, because of his religion, he would have perpetuated a ritualistic bloodletting.

Simon Dubnow, History of the Jews, 4th definitive revised edition, T. Yoseloff, 1973.
Dubnow is a greatly respected Jewish historian, and this work, originally published in Russian, contains the bulk of his life's work.

Robert Ducharme, Art and Idea in the Novels of Bernard Malamud: Toward The Fixer, Mouton Publisher, 1974.
One of the most thorough scholarly books written about The Fixer, examining it from all possible angles.

Charles Y. Glock and Rodney Stark, Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism, Harper and Row, 1966.
This book, published the same year as The Fixer, is part of a study that was being conducted by the Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'nth, a Jewish service organization.

A S. Tager, The Decay of Czarism: The Beilis Trial, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1935.
This early history of the Mendel Beilis affair was written when the Soviet Union was still young and old bitterness still seethed.


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Ducharme, Robert. Art and Idea in the Novels of Bernard Malamud: Toward the Fixer. The Hague: Mouton, 1974. Argues that the theme of the tension between suffering and responsibility runs through all Malamud’s work and provides a key to The Fixer.

Field, Leslie A., and Joyce W. Field, eds. Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975. Excellent choice of essays, prefaced by a revealing interview with Malamud.

Hershinow, Sheldon J. Bernard Malamud. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. Good general study of Malamud’s work, identifying his main themes.

Salzberg, Joel. Bernard Malamud. A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. A comprehensive listing of books, articles, and reviews of Malamud’s writings, with a brief summary of the content of each item.

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