Idiots First Summary
by Bernard Malamud

Start Your Free Trial

Download Idiots First Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Idiots First Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Idiots First” begins with the stopping of Mendel’s clock as the old man awakens in fright. The importance of time in the story is foreshadowed in the opening paragraph when the reader is told that Mendel “wasted minutes sitting at the edge of the bed.” Once moving, he dresses, summons his son Isaac, and, pocketing a paper bag containing his modest savings, leads his son into the night. The old man seems very fearful, and he warns Isaac to avoid Ginzburg, who came to see Mendel the day before. “Don’t talk to him or go with him if he asks you,” Mendel cautions. Then as an afterthought he adds, “Young people he don’t bother so much.”

Though Mendel always refers to him as a boy, Isaac, who has “thick hair greying the sides of his head,” is not the child his father perceives him to be. Rather, he is the “idiot” of the title, a thirty-nine-year-old man with the mind of a child. Facing his own death, Mendel attempts in the course of the story to provide for Isaac in the only way he can, sending him by train to California, where he will live with his Uncle Leo. The story traces Mendel’s efforts to raise train fare to secure Isaac’s safety before his own time runs out.

Their first stop is the pawnbroker’s shop, where Mendel tries to get the thirty-five dollars he needs to make up the difference between his savings and Isaac’s ticket to California by pawning his watch. Despite Mendel’s protestations that it cost him sixty dollars, the pawnbroker will allow him only eight dollars for the old watch. Though Mendel’s desperation is obvious as he despairs of finding the money he needs, the moneylender ignores his pleas.

Next Mendel and Isaac visit Mr. Fishbein, a wealthy philanthropist. He proves no less hard-hearted than the pawnbroker as he, too, turns down Mendel’s entreaties. Insisting that his “fixed policy” is to give money only to organized charities, Fishbein shows scorn for Mendel’s plight and contempt for Isaac’s condition. Though he does offer to feed them in his kitchen, the philanthropist throws the pair out of his house with the advice that Mendel should put Isaac in an institution.

As they approach a park bench to rest, a shadowy, bearded figure arises before them. Mendel pales and waves his arms, Isaac yowls, and the stranger disappears into the bushes. The clock strikes ten. From earlier hints, the reader suspects this figure to be the mysterious Ginzburg. He is encountered again when Mendel takes Isaac to a cafeteria for food and they flee from a “heavyset” man eating soup.

His other options exhausted, Mendel now goes to see an old rabbi, to whom he appeals for charity. Although his wife insists that they cannot help, the old rabbi, though he has no money, gives Mendel his new fur-lined coat. The wife tries to snatch it back, but Mendel tears it from her. As Mendel and Isaac run into the street, the wife chasing them, the old rabbi diverts her attention by falling to the floor in an apparent heart attack. As they “ran through the streets with the rabbi’s new fur-lined caftan,” after them...

(The entire section is 823 words.)