(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Heir to the Glimmering World is Cynthia Ozick's intense yet darkly comic fifth novel. In it, she introduces the Mitwissers, refugees from Adolf Hitler's Germany who are attempting to make their way in the prewar confusion of Albany, New York. Rose Meadows is the narrator but certainly not the center of this book; Professor Rudolf Mitwisser, his unhappy wife, Elsa, and the corrupted alcoholic James A’Bair are the major characters.

The novel reads, in part, like a twenty-first century version of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847). Not coincidentally, Ozick lays out a number of parallels: Rose's mother died of leukemia when the child was nearly three, and emotionally Rose is orphaned, like Jane Eyre, long before she loses her bitter father. Like Jane, Rose is, in language eerily reminiscent of Brontë's heroine, “eighteen, an unformed creature, and (as people say) ignorant of the world” when she is first employed in an unfamiliar household. While Jane became governess to the ward of the formidable Mr. Rochester, Rose is hired as a research assistant to Professor Mitwisser, a Jewish scholar who is tall, dark-haired, and rather intimidating. Although Rose's official duty is to type his notes, she is soon pressed into service as a maid and nanny to this dysfunctional family of refugees, “a hireling, never an intimate.” Near the end, Rose will offer physical support for a debilitated Mitwisser, leading him, much as Jane Eyre led the blind Rochester, even holding his tormented head as he weeps in her arms. Elsa Mitwisser becomes the madwoman in the attic, or in this case, on the third floor.

Unlike Jane, Rose is more narrator than character, an observer with little life of her own, emotionally distant from others and largely dispassionate: “My silence concealed watchfulness…. I had a kind of practical invisibility.” It is often difficult for the reader to notice her, because her focus is almost always on someone else. At the beginning she lives with her father, a widower, whose only tender emotion is linked to an inaccurate memory of his wife's death. Jack Meadows is a swindler, liar, and nonobservant Jew who perversely teaches his algebra students that King Solomon, not Euclid, invented geometry. In addition, he alters his class grades so that his students will seem better than those of a rival teacher. Jack routinely denigrates his daughter, arguing that she is incapable of learning algebra because she is female, but when he attempts to falsify her math records he is fired. Rose, who by now is able to see him clearly, endures his insults but is constantly humiliated by his behavior, believing that her father's vices disgrace her.

After Jack finds another position at a boys’ prep school, he becomes a housemaster and informs Rose that she cannot live on the school grounds with him. Instead he sends her to live in Albany with Cousin Bertram, a hospital pharmacist and distant relative, and to attend a teacher's college, which she hates. (A potential scholar, she wants to read, not teach.) Jack encourages the delinquency of his students by driving them to Saratoga Springs on weekends to gamble, until he and one of the boys are killed in a car crash.

Bertram takes over Rose's tuition payments. Fastidious but dreamily political, he is flirting with the Communist Party and is strongly attracted to a vocal agitator called Ninel (Lenin spelled backward). When Ninel decides that Bertram should move in with her, Bertram gives Rose money to continue her schooling, but she realizes that she must find a job. She is hired as a live-in typist for Professor Mitwisser, whose name in German identifies him as one who has secret or special knowledge. In fact, he does; he is a student of religious history specializing in a study of the Karaites, obscure eighth century Jewish schismatics who rejected the rabbinical commentaries of the Talmud, accepting only the written Scriptures of the Torah that God delivered to Moses. As his wife, Elsa, explains: “They denounced …every addition, every embellishment. What has fallen from the hand of God must remain precisely as it was received. What is first is eternal. To add is to undermine.”

In Berlin, the Mitwissers were a respectable German family with money, servants, and privilege, but because he was a Jew, the professor lost his position at the University of Berlin. Daughter Anneliese tells Rose how the family was forced to live in a rented limousine before they finally escaped from the Nazis. Fortunately, a group of Quakers from a local college brought them to Albany,...

(The entire section is 1864 words.)