Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1020
Yakov starts out very limited in his freedom and as the novel progresses finds he is losing more and more. From the beginning of the novel, he is limited in where he can live or travel or work since he is a Jew. Briefly, because he is willing to deny his Jewish heritage, he is free to go beyond his confines. However, this freedom does not last long and he is soon falsely accused of murder. While in jail, a period that makes up the bulk of the novel, Yakov becomes more and more confined. He loathes the first cell he is in because he is at the mercy of the other prisoners, but the solitary confinement he moves to is even worse. When he becomes accustomed to solitary confinement, his movement is limited further by being chained to the bed. And throughout it all the sadistic Deputy Warden conducts full body searches, looking in Yakov's mouth and anus while fully knowing that there is no way Yakov could have obtained a weapon: even the inside of his body is not free at this point. During his last days in jail he gives up on any hope of freedom, but on his ride to the courthouse, looking out of the carriage at all of his fellow Jews lining his route in defiance of the Tsar's government, he comes to believe in freedom. "Where there's no fight in it there's no freedom," he thinks. "Death to the anti-Semites! Long live revolution! Long live liberty!"
The political struggle between Christians and Jews depicted in this book has little to do with the actual beliefs of each group. More significant is the personal growth of Yakov as he goes from his initial disillusionment to embracing his identity as a Jew. In the beginning of the story he leaves the Pale of Jewish Settlement because he does not feel he belongs. "Torah I had little of and Talmud less," Yakov tells his father-in-law, Schmuel, "though I learned Hebrew because I've got an ear for language." With little work available, and his wife of six years having run away, he does not trust the consolations of his religious heritage. Instead, he has faith only in himself, as symbolized by his keeping his tool kit and dropping his prayer things into the Dnieper River
Ironically, it is the authorities who try to force a Jewish identity on Yakov while he is in prison. They force him to grow his hair long, in the Jewish style. They give him phylacteries, small leather boxes containing parchments with Hebrew scripture quotations, which Orthodox Jews wear strapped to their heads and arms; he reads them eagerly to alleviate boredom. They give him a prayer shawl, which he clings to for warmth. Their purpose in giving him these things is to make him seem more likely to be part of an Orthodox Jewish conspiracy, but as he stays in jail Yakov learns to value his Jewish identity. This point becomes clear in the end, when he objects to having the Orthodox ringlets cut from his hair.
In. general, the classes represented in this book correspond to religious affiliations, with the Russian Christians comprising the dominant social order and the Jews kept in the lower class by government constraints. There are, however, significant cases in which religious differences are put aside and people relate as class peers. When Yakov first comes to Kiev, for example, Lebedev is impressed with him as a person and as a worker, and offers him the position as an overseer in the brickyard based on what he sees in him. He tells Yakov that he also worked up from poverty, establishing a bond based on recognition.
Later, when Yakov is in jail, he fears that his cellmates will blame him for the child's murder of which he is accused. However, the convict Fetyukov shows that, despite Yakov being from the lower class, he knows better than to believe superstitions about Jews. "When I was a boy I was apprenticed to a Jew blacksmith," he explains. "He wouldn't have done what they say you did. If he drank blood he would have vomited it up." A Christian Russian of a higher social class would not have had a similar contact with anyone Jewish, and would therefore have accepted rumors as truth. The most telling case of class affiliation overriding religious affiliation is Kogin's sacrifice at the end of the book. Because his own son is in jail, Kogin is able to empathize with Yakov more than with the Deputy Warden, even though he and the warden are in a sense coworkers. After treating Yakov indifferently through most of his confinement, Kogin, despite religious differences, ends up giving his life in order to save Yakov, feeling that if the system can treat one prisoner harshly it is just as likely to be unfair to his son.
Modern American audiences often are outraged to read this story of a man held in prison for a crime he did not commit with no access to any help from outside. Because the U.S. Constitution specifically names the right to a speedy trial, and because organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union diligently watch out for abuses of this right, Americans take for granted basic civil rights that simply are not recognized in repressive, totalitarian countries. Many countries offer no guarantee of the right to legal representation: in some, political prisoners are left to rot in jail while their families are not even told whether they are alive or not. Political prisoners are often killed in jail with the transparent excuse that "they were trying to escape," as Ostrovsky warns Yakov against in the book, while others are tortured and then left with the means to commit suicide, as is Bibikov. One sign of Tsarist society's recognition of the rights of prisoners is that in this novel nobody questions the fact that Yakov will have a trial once his indictment is handed down: a society without rules would not be bound by any such commitment.