Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 938

Two social concerns predominate in God Knows, both of which Joseph Heller has addressed in earlier novels. One is the breakdown of the family, which Heller first fully treated in Something Happened (1974; see separate entry). In God Knows we witness incredible violence, antipathy, and back stabbing within the family unit, made all the more complicated by the fact that David's offspring are from different wives. The other concern is the human fixation upon gaining and maintaining power, which Heller exposed in Good as Gold (1979; see separate entry).

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In God Knows, politics intrudes in the relationships between Saul and David and between David and his sons over succession to the kingship, and even in David's relationship with Bathsheba as she withholds sex to manipulate him to follow her will in choosing a successor.

God Knows focuses most intently upon the father/son relationship, particularly David's relationship with two embodiments of patriarchal authority, Saul and God. Indeed, David's monologue is a self-justifying attempt to come to terms with his rejections by these paternal figures. As Heller's title indicates, God knows the reasons David has been denied fatherly love; however, David is unable to comprehend why Saul at one moment tenderly addresses him as "son" and the next sends a javelin whizzing by his ear or why God would murder his beloved baby, the offspring of his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. Thus David attributes the unhappiness in his life to them: "Had Saul been just a bit more fatherly to me, I would have worshipped him as a god. Had God ever been the least bit paternal, I might have loved him like a father." Summing up his dilemma, he reveals, "I can't bear feeling alone."

Ineffectually, David attempts to substitute self-aggrandizement for fatherly love. Blind to the fact that he has indirectly caused Saul's melancholia and has provoked God's anger by sleeping with Bathsheba and arranging for her husband Uriah's death, David assumes a whimpering, "poor me" attitude:

. . . I've got this ongoing, open-ended Mexican stand-off with God, even though He might now be dead. Whether God is dead or not hardly matters, for we would use Him no differently anyway. He owes me an apology, but God won't budge so I won't budge. I have my faults, God knows, and I may even be among the first to admit them, but to this very day I know in my bones that I'm a much better person than He is.

Yet despite the braggadocio behind such a statement, David clearly yearns for a renewal of God's affection. He suffers from an emptiness that neither fantasies of sleeping one more time with Bathsheba nor his efforts to find warmth in the embrace of Abishag the Shunammite can dispel.

Although his rejections by Saul and God are the primary sources of David's psychological pain, his relationships with his own sons contribute also. He bears with Abigail a Mongoloid son, Chileab, who dies an early death. Ammon rapes his half-sister Tamar. Absalom kills Ammon to avenge his sister and leads an insurrection against his father. As David lies dying, Solomon, in his father's eyes a simpleton, and Adonijah, a petty politician, jockey for the kingship, currying their father's favor only for personal glory. His sons manifest little love towards David.

While the father/son relationship dominates Heller's novel, the husband/ wife relationship is also significant. David's memories center on three of his wives: Abigail, Bathsheba, and Michal. Each represents a female stereotype— the helpmate, the harlot, and the shrew. Abigail to David is the perfect woman. She is beautiful, intelligent, virtuous, and absolutely devoted to attending to her husband's needs. Bathsheba is the temptress, first to adultery and then to murder. It is Bathsheba who initiates David sexually, both verbally and physically, but then with the birth of her son Solomon, whom she insists will be king, abruptly withholds her sexual favors from her husband. And then, there is Michal, the Bible's first Jewish American Princess, with a fixation upon hygiene and an endless list of demands. "Celibacy has few pleasures, I know, but marriage has many pains," bemoans David. These marriages underscore Heller's primary thematic focus upon David's relationship with God, for his marriage to Abigail may be equated with the period of God's favor in David's youth, whereas the manipulations he endures from Bathsheba and Michal after Abigail's death can be linked to God's departure from David.

Heller begins God Knows with an epigraph: "But how can one be warm alone?" That pathetic question links the themes of problematic father/son and husband/wife relationships with a third issue: the difficulties of growing old. Perhaps Heller's major achievement in his fourth novel is his haunting depiction of aging. He elected to portray King David on his deathbed, sexually and politically impotent, his body racked with chills, his spirit disheartened. To sustain him, David has only the virgin Abishag, whose youthful beauty painfully reminds him of all he has lost and evokes bittersweet memories of the supremely confident hero he once was. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust—the author recognizes that ultimately we face death alone and that the encounter with one's mortality is often frightening. Heller's protagonist does not go gently into that good night, satisfied with a life fully lived. Quite the contrary, David's final words express a desire for what he no longer has—"I want my God back"—as he looks in a mirror and with horror beholds a sadder face than Saul's, then feels a murderous impulse to hurl a javelin at the vision of himself as "an eager, bright-eyed youth" with a lyre on his lap.

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