Bernard Malamud’s key framework involves the use of the journey-quest motif joined with pursuit and then reversal, so that Fidelman, initially the one hounded by Susskind, becomes the pursuer. The episodes consist of sharply focused encounters between the two key characters, though some critics find Susskind to be the central character of the story. In review, however, the reader will sense the balance between the mythic characterization of Susskind, the survivor, and Fidelman—the man who would have faith—learning through their interaction. When Fidelman begins the pursuit of Susskind, he enters Susskind’s life, and Fidelman’s quest for knowledge shifts from “static” words in the libraries and the scrutiny of the pictures on the walls to an awareness of the hidden life that generated Giotto’s compassion. For Fidelman, this hidden life is found in the synagogue, in the reminders of Auschwitz, and in the freedom-seeking connivance of Susskind.
Within this journey-quest framework, Malamud sets dream sequences that show the reader the subconscious awareness growing in Fidelman. Susskind, the magical, appears and vanishes in dreams as he does in Fidelman’s conscious life. In the dream of Jewish catacombs, Fidelman acknowledges his “sightlessness” without the seven-flamed candelabra. His final “vision” rests on the last dream, which interprets the gift that Giotto portrays in the mosaic—the compassion, the awareness of suffering that can thus lead to Fidelman’s final epiphany.
Content and construction blend in this story to make the conscious and subconscious accessible, to make Susskind at once a schnorrer and a savior, to render Fidelman capable of an act of faith, one that links him with humanity, not with mere scholarship.