Themes

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Last Updated on September 17, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609

Individual Responsibility and Community Identity

One of the key lessons learned by Fidelman during the course of this work is the importance of his participation within the Jewish— and more broadly the human—community. In learning this lesson, Fidelman, an American scholar, mirrors what America as a society learned during the years of World War II—that the isolationist policy it had pursued since the conclusion of World War I had been both immoral and impractical. Fidelman comes to terms with his communal responsibilities slowly. Initially, he objects to the notion that he is obliged to his fellow man altogether, as in his second meeting with Susskind in the hotel. But by a moral impulse that he is unwilling to acknowledge, he subsequently comes to support Susskind in his poverty with practical aid, such as with food and clothing. Only later in the story, having wandered across Rome looking for the other man, and having experienced for himself the privations of the Jewish ghetto, does he come to realize the more nuanced truth: that he is not an individual at all, but rather part of an organism, and that his responsibility is not to support his fellow man through charity, but to become involved with him on a personal and emotional level.

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The Endurance of the Jewish People

At the beginning of the story, Fidelman’s Jewish faith is of little consequence to him when compared to other aspects of his character, such as his material possessions and his scholarly pursuits. As an American Jew, he has assimilated a great deal of gentile culture and so feels detached, as gentiles do, from the sufferings endured by the Jewish people during World War II. Susskind, whose appearance and mannerisms recall the stereotype of the wandering peddler, reminds Fidelman of a more orthodox form of Judaism that has endured since Roman times. There is significance in the fact that Fidelman encounters Susskind in Rome, the city that was responsible for dispersing his ancestors across the world and condemning them to the centuries of nomadic existence that would culminate in the years just after World War II with the formation of a Jewish state. The implication is perhaps that the old Judaism that Susskind represents endures eternally, coming ultimately to occupy the city that had once come close to destroying it. Susskind’s desire to take Fidelman’s suit symbolizes his desire to remove from him the aspects of gentile capitalism that have corrupted his identity as a Jew and prevented him from feeling genuine solidarity with others who share his religion.

Appearance versus Reality

As an art scholar, Fidelman is trained to see subliminal meanings in the world around him and to take meaningful lessons from visual cues. His response to Susskind and the community Susskind represents follows the patterns of artistic analysis, in that he sees first what his prejudices have taught him to see but gains greater insight upon reflection. He at first considers Susskind’s rough clothing and rundown appearance to characterize the man as a trickster with no concern other than for his own financial gain. Once his manuscript is stolen and he pursues the thief into the Jewish ghettos of Rome, however, Fidelman comes to understand Susskind, and the people he represents, as being far more complex than he initially thought—both by the mundane encounters he has with impoverished people and places and in the more spiritual encounters he has with memorials to the Jews who died during the war. Linguistically, there is a clear symmetry between Giotto, the artist Fidelman has come to Rome...

(The entire section contains 896 words.)

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