Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592
Mendel Singer, a children’s teacher of Hebrew and the Bible. Thirty years old at the beginning of the novel, he is “pious, God-fearing, and ordinary, an entirely commonplace Jew.” When he learns that his fourth child, Menuchim, is physically and mentally retarded, he accepts this as the will of God. When he later finds his daughter Miriam with a Cossack, he fears shame to the family and immigrates with her and his wife to America. Years later, he still dreams longingly of Menuchim, left behind in Russia. Already aged and bent in his early sixties, he loses his remaining family to death and mental illness, and in his anguish he blasphemes God for His cruelty. The appearance of Menuchim, who was long believed dead, restores his faith and gives him hope for his last years.
Deborah, Mendel’s wife. She is unhappy with her husband’s lowly status, his meager earnings, and the hardships of her life with four children. More resolute than he, she believes that God helps those who help themselves. She therefore enables her son Shemariah to escape conscription by having him smuggled across the border. In New York, she is embittered by her pinched circumstances, and she misses Menuchim. After learning that Shemariah has fallen as an American soldier in World War I, she dies of grief.
Jonas, the eldest son. Robust and earthy, he behaves more like a peasant youth than an orthodox Jew. He loves horses and drinking, and he sleeps with the village girls. Wishing to be a soldier, he joins the czar’s army, thus placing himself beyond the bounds of Jewish religious law and practice. Later, the news that he is missing in the war compounds his father’s grief.
Shemariah (sheh-MAHR-ee-ah), the middle son. Slight but quick-witted, in America he assimilates, casting off his Old World Jewish garb and renaming himself Sam. With his friend Mac, he runs a small department store and speculates in real estate. He provides the steamship tickets for the family’s immigration, but his material success as an American brings no joy to his father.
Miriam, the daughter. Lovely and self-willed, she indulges her strong sexual urgings with soldiers of the nearby garrison. She resents her father’s traditional ways and longs for the freedom of America. There she works in her brother’s store and keeps company with Mac, but she is overcome by psychosis and is confined in an asylum.
Menuchim (meh-NEW-kihm), the youngest son. When, after the war, he finds his father in New York, he is in his early thirties, is married with two children, and is a famous musician in Europe. As a rabbi in Russia had foretold, the once severely retarded boy has grown wise, good, and strong. At the end of the novel, he awakens hope in Mendel for Miriam’s recovery and for a reunion with Jonas, who was reported to be alive.
Sameshkin (sah-MAYSH-kihn), a Russian carter in the Singers’ village of Zuchnow. He drinks and behaves coarsely but is good-natured. Driving Mendel home from the emigration authorities in Dubno, he comforts the sorrowful Jew.
Kapturak (kahp-TOO-rahk), a hardened, solitary man of indeterminate age. He earns his living by writing letters, appeals, and postal checks for illiterate peasants and Jews and by smuggling conscripts and deserters, Shemariah among them, out of Russia.
Mac, Shemariah’s business partner in New York and his messenger to the family in Zuchnow. He is large, good-humored, and loud, radiating American exuberance.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 295
Mendel Singer is the dominant figure in this book. Joseph Roth develops him in detail and in depth. He is seen awake and asleep, at work and at prayer, most often with his family, who constitute the center of his consciousness and his life.
Superficially, this seems to be poor narrative strategy, for Mendel Singer is neither remarkable nor distinguished, in no way exciting. In this “story of a simple man,” Roth centers on the kind of shabby, nondescript figure most readers would not look at twice, the common man shambling through dusty lanes without a significant life of his own. Yet this figure stays in the memory; it is easy to attach an identity to it and thus to identify with it. Roth capitalizes on this; he makes one wonder what could happen to such a man and makes one put oneself in his place. The “simple man” becomes Everyman. His simple, repeated actions become the routine of daily life.
Like Mendel, the other characters are typecast. Deborah is the devoted, devout, and superstitious mother, suffering in the absence of her children; Roth even describes her as a wife like other wives, sometimes driven by the Devil. Jonas and Schemarjah are typical first and second sons, the former a bit more daring, the latter a bit luckier at landing on his feet. In her headstrong desire to follow her sexual inclinations, Miriam seems more individualized, yet she is essentially identified with that single trait. Menuchim, on the other hand, is a literal grotesque, but even in that, he is one-dimensional, the incarnation of the “baby” of the family. Roth uses simple, homely details to invest all these typed characters with particularity. It is significant that all are driven by forces which they cannot control.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 58
Bell, Robert F. “The Jewish Experience as Portrayed in Three German Exile Novellen,” in South Atlantic Bulletin. XLII (1977), pp. 4-12.
Powell, Ward H. “Joseph Roth, Ironic Primitivist,” in Monatshefte. LIII (1961), pp. 115-123.
Sanger, Curt. “The Experience of Exile in Joseph Roth’s Novels,” in Exile: The Writer’s Experience, 1982. Edited by John M. Spalek and Robert F. Bell.