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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1055

Act 1

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In the first scene of Act 1, the audience meets Leon Tolchinsky, a thirtyish schoolteacher who has just accepted a new assignment in the remote Ukrainian village of Kulyenchikov. The year is 1890. Leon addresses the audience to explain his new job. He applied for and received the position by mail, so he is seeing the town for the first time. As he admires the town from its outskirts, he runs into Snetsky, the shepherd. Following introductions, Snetsky reveals that he has lost his sheep, which happens to him frequently. He also tells Leon that many, many schoolteachers have come before him, but none of them lasted even a day. He then tells Leon that everyone in Kulyenchikov is stupid, which makes Leon’s job nearly impossible. When Leon mentions that he has been hired by Dr. Zubritsky to tutor his daughter, Sophia, Snetsky informs him that she is especially dim-witted. The scene ends as Leon heads into town, somewhat nervously, to see if Snetsky’s description is accurate. The magistrate announces the time: nine o’clock in the morning.

In Act 1, Scene 2, Leon is further in his journey through Kulyenchikov. He encounters Yenchna, Mishkin, and Slovitch. Slovitch is the town butcher, Mishkin is the postmaster, and Yenchna is a street vendor. Like Snetsky, Yenchna, Mishkin, and Slovitch are very dumb, and their conversations with each other and Leon often go in circles. When Leon inquires about the location of Dr. Zubritsky’s house, each of them points in a different direction. Puzzled, Leon leaves and hopes to stumble upon it on his own. After he leaves, the three locals ponder whether Leon knows about the "curse."

The action shifts to Dr. Zubritsky’s house in Scene 3. The doctor is giving the magistrate a rather ineffective eye exam. As the doctor sends the magistrate on his way, Lenya enters excitedly to inform him that the new schoolteacher has arrived. Lenya feels very strongly that Leon might be the one to break the curse, but both she and the doctor have trouble remembering the word curse. When Leon enters, they ask him to demonstrate his learning by asking them questions. They are very excited about his questions but are unable to answer them. They inform Leon of the "Curse of Kulyenchikov" and let him read about it in a book. According to legend, Casimir Yousekevitch and Sophia Zubritsky were engaged to each other back in 1691. Sophia’s father was highly educated and refused to allow his daughter to marry the illiterate Casimir. When Casimir killed himself, his father (a sorcerer) put a curse on the Zubritsky family and the entire town of Kulyenchikov, robbing them of their intelligence. Leon vows to reverse the curse by tutoring Dr. Zubritsky’s daughter, who is also named Sophia.

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When Sophia enters, Leon confesses to the audience that he is completely taken with her. Leon tests Sophia several times, but she is unable to respond correctly to the simplest of questions. Still, Leon senses her passion to learn and agrees to return the next day to continue their work. After Sophia exits, Leon asks her father if she is available. Dr. Zubritsky tells him that Count Gregor Yousekevitch pursues her daily, but she refuses. Although he is foolish like the rest of the town, he knows that a marriage between a Yousekevitch and a Zubritsky would break the curse. More determined than ever to win Sophia, Leon leaves and talks to Sophia at her balcony. She reveals that she returns his feelings and the two share a kiss.

In Act 1, Scene 4, the action continues as Leon runs into Yenchna, Mishkin, Slovitch, and Yenchna. They inform him that a side effect of the curse is that there is no love in Kulyenchikov; therefore, Sophia may not be able to love Leon back. Gregor enters and attempts to propose to Sophia, who declines because she cannot make an informed decision. Leon, who has eavesdropped, reveals himself to the count as a rival. Gregor informs him of one more aspect of the curse: if Leon does not break the curse or leave the town within twenty-four hours, he will also lose his intelligence. After Gregor leaves, Sophia likewise warns Leon, but he remains committed to breaking the curse.

Act 2

The second act begins with Leon’s arrival at Dr. Zubritsky’s house at eight o’clock the next day. With only an hour to break the curse, Leon feverishly tries to educate Sophia with simple problems such as the sum of one and one. As each attempt fails, the Zubritskys and the townspeople wait anxiously outside, aware that Leon will lose his intellect at nine o’clock. Mishkin mentions that he has an important letter for Leon, but the group is preoccupied with the outcome of the lesson. Finally, the Magistrate announces that it is nine o’clock; Leon becomes confused. When the doctor questions him, Leon responds with the same lack of understanding as the rest of the town has. When they are alone again, Leon reveals to Sophia that the curse didn’t work and he still has his intelligence. He believes part of the reason the curse has been perpetuated is because everyone in the town believes it. He vows to marry Sophia the next day and break the “curse” once and for all. After he leaves, he runs into Gregor and convinces him that his efforts to woo Sophia have been and always will be fruitless. Leon suggests that Gregor adopt him so that he will be a Yousekevitch and his marriage to Sophia will break the curse. Gregor, eager for the approval of the town that despises him, agrees.

Act 2, Scene 2 opens with the wedding of Sophia and Leon the next day. Gregor disrupts the wedding by revealing that the adoption was phony and he plans to wed Sophia himself. Leon then lies about his special letter from Mishkin and tells the crowd he is distantly related to the Yousekevtiches. When he marries Sophia, there is a huge thunderclap and the whole town falls to the ground. As the townspeople get up, they happily test their newfound intelligence in areas such as math, politics, and geography. Leon addresses the audience and reveals the (mostly) happy futures of the residents of Kulyenchikov, including his marriage to the very bright Sophia.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1699

Author: Joan Silber (b. 1945)

Publisher: W. W. Norton (New York). 255 pp.

Type of work: Short fiction

Time: 1923–2011

Locale: New York City, Paris, Mumbai, and other cities

In a series of interconnected stories, Joan Silber offers a private history of radcal American politics and spirituality over several generations. The history is that of ordinary people swept up in large social issues who are trying to find personal answers to the questions raised by those issues.

In 2013, the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Alice Munro (b. 1931), a Canadian writer of short fiction whose stories are usually linked to one another and feature the same characters in the same places, usually in rural Ontario. When Munro began collecting her interconnected stories in Lives of Girls and Women (1971), she was almost unique in the kaleidoscopic view of people's lives at different ages under different circumstances. Other writers took note, including New York-based writer Joan Silber, who followed suit in her volume of short stories Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories (2004), the subtitle of which could also be applied to Silber's latest collection of short fiction.

Fools takes its title from the opening story, which begins, "A lot of people thought anarchists were fools." There are fools for ideas and fools for God, fools for money and fools for love. So observes Vera, the first-person narrator. Her name means "faith" in Slavic, but she has abandoned the evangelical religion of her childhood for anarchism—specifically, the anarcho-syndicalism that evolved with the labor movement of the 1920s, a noncommunist faith in workers and unions rather than in government or capital. She marries out of high school and moves with her husband to a Greenwich Village flat shared with three other anarchists. They hand out leaflets for causes such as the retrial of Sacco and Vanzetti. No one in the flat amounts to much, though their friend Dorothy Day becomes famous after she converts to Catholicism and helps to found the Catholic Workers Union. The other woman in the flat leaves her husband to live with the owner of her favorite speakeasy. The husband writes a sad memoir of their time in the Village. Among its few readers is a gay African American lawyer who finds a copy, decades later, in the country home of friends who are trying to help him through a serious bout of depression. The memoir gives him encouragement of a sort he had previously found only in the writings of Gandhi. As the title of this story suggests, things will get "Better."

Joan Silber received the PEN/Hemingway Award for her first novel, Household Words (1980). She has published three other novels and two story collections as well as a critical study of time in the novel. Silber teaches at her alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, which is in the New York suburb of Bronxville.

(© Barry Goldstein)

Four of the six stories that make up Fools have been published separately, and the other two would hold up just as well on their own. In the final story, "Buying and Selling," a professional fundraiser tries to persuade a wealthy French woman to contribute to a leper house in India. Both are hard pressed in the days following the financial collapse of 2008. When he shows her photos of lepers who have been helped, she asks about a church in the background. It turns out to be part of a religious mission mentioned in the first story—a mission that figures only vaguely in the memories of that story's narrator, whose father worked there. The French woman remarks that she has given the bulk of her charitable donations to a fund for homeless musicians, and readers learn that she remembers having made an American musician homeless after stealing his money nearly a half-century earlier—a key episode in yet another story. The law of karma seems to be at work. The past shapes the future for families as well as individuals.

Four stories have first-person narrators. Two of them are women. Vera and her daughter Louise have both been raised to be completely honest, but both rebel in their own ways: Vera by becoming an anarchist, Louise by marrying the son of a soldier who died in World War II. Louise, whose father was imprisoned as a pacifist, thinks she can have two opinions about war and still be truthful but finds she must be careful.

The two male narrators take very circuitous paths in life. Anthony, the narrator of "The Hanging Fruit," grows up in the fashionable Florida hotel his parents run, getting to know celebrities, while Gerard, the narrator of "Going Too Far," is raised by the hotel bookkeeper, a single mother living in straitened circumstances after the departure of her gambling husband. Both flee to places where money is less important—Anthony to Paris and Gerard to Berkeley. They face different challenges in the new locations. Each finds love and loses it. In the end, both find new lives in New York. The titles of their stories are telling, each pointing to the underlying reason for the protagonist's failed relationships. These last two narratives, among the strongest in the collection, are the only ones not published elsewhere.

The remaining stories are third-person narratives. They are the shortest in the collection and make connections with the longer stories. For instance, in "Better," Marcus has a positive reaction to the memoir that one of Vera's former flatmates wrote in Paris years later. Similarly, in "Buying and Selling," Rudy hopes to raise funds from the widow of a wealthy Moroccan sheik. Readers get to see Anthony's French lover in a new light and discover that her American friend of many years is Louise's younger sister.

Far from disrupting the book's unity, the change from a first- to a third-person narrator helps to organize Fools into two distinct parts of three stories each. The first half is framed by the mother-daughter narrations of Vera and Louise, with the story narrated by Anthony, the son of Vera's former flatmate, sandwiched in between. The second half is framed by the stories about Marcus and Rudy, with the story told by the young man who goes to Berkeley shortly after his "sleazy" contemporary Anthony has fled to Paris. The stories of Marcus and Rudy in the book's second half show the strong impression that India left on their lives, while the story of Vera, which opens the book, shows a reaction against the missionary work of her parents.

Silber has revealed that she wrote "Fools" after a trip to India and its Gandhi museums left her feeling much as Marcus feels in "Better": disturbed by the sheer need. She thought of Dorothy Day and her beginnings as a Village anarchist in the 1920s. She then looked for thematic connections. Vera tells her husband that she got her true "faith" when she saw a leper on the streets of Madras. Marcus and Rudy find something other than faith on their visits: Marcus finds a lover, Rudy a cause. They all are struck, however, by economic inequality and make different responses to it in activism, tenant law, and fundraising. Other characters make other choices based on their conviction that they can or cannot live without money. Betsy leaves for Florida hoping for more; Anthony goes to Paris, thinking he can live on much less. His Parisian girlfriend takes to stealing money but ends up giving it away, realizing her happiness came from elsewhere.

Silber has inserted enough references to historical figures that the characters are clearly situated in American history. Vera protests on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti and reads about the exiled anarchist Emma Goldman. She is a personal friend of Dorothy Day and remarks that she won fame as a writer for the Catholic Worker. She also tells her husband about the work of Margaret Sanger, the founding president of what is to become Planned Parenthood. Anthony rubs shoulders with celebrities such as Cary Grant and sits on the knee of Rita Hayworth. In Florida, he listens to the music of Miles Davis and Big Joe Turner. Later, in Paris, he tries to play his clarinet in the style of Benny Goodman. Betsy invests her savings with Bernie Madoff, and her daughters realize how foolish that was. Three of the book's four epigrams are taken from authors the characters know and admire. Two are from Gandhi (on conduct and happiness), another is from Day (on problems created by the "filthy, rotten system" of free-market capitalism), the fourth, unknown to the characters but highly relevant to their stories, is from a proverb written by eighteenth-century English poet William Blake, "If a fool would persist in his folly he would become wise." Anthony especially is such a fool throughout much of his story but gains wisdom in the end.

Place is also central to the narratives. All the major characters either live in New York City or have lived there at some time. Some, like Vera's daughter Louise, never leave the city. The first-person narrator of "Two Opinions," Vera spends most of her life in a long-distance marriage, unable to get a security clearance to accompany her new husband to a job teaching English on a military base and not overly displeased when he decides to retire overseas. Many characters travel, however. One goes to Palm Beach for the moneyed life, another to Berkeley for the California lifestyle. Two go to Paris for the expatriate experience, two others to India where they are overwhelmed as Vera's father was by the sheer extent of the need. Most travelers return home, but their lives are forever touched.

Fools has received favorable press in the United States, though little attention in other English-speaking countries. Reviewers vary about their favorite stories, but all agree that the characterization is remarkably effective. Fools was also a National Book Award nominee.

Review Sources

  • Brady, Michael Patrick. Rev. of Fools, by Joan Silber. Boston Globe. Boston Globe Media Partners, 4 June 2013. Web. 2 Jan. 2014.
  • Dark, Larry. "Joan Silber Makes Thematic Connections." TSP. TheStoryPrize.org, 7 Aug. 2013. Web. 2 Jan. 2014.
  • Rev. of Fools, by Joan Silber. Kirkus Reviews 15 Nov. 2013: 41–42. Print.
  • Rev. of Fools, by Joan Silber. Publishers Weekly. PWxyz, 4 Mar. 2013. Web. 2 Jan. 2014.

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