Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2036
First published in 1973 in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collection of short stories, A Crown of Feathers, “Lost” develops a mysterious tale of demonic possession, one in which the rational conflicts with the irrational and the immutable laws of nature seem to crumble before unknown and unknowable supernatural forces. The story is characteristic of Singer’s body of work, taking the reader into the religious and cultural heritage of European Jews. His fiction, however, surpasses ethnic distinctions as it explores profound questions about truth and the nature of reality itself.
In his New York Times book review of A Crown of Feathers, critic Alfred Kazin observed two major influences that informed Singer’s writing and created its remarkable literary complexity: the author’s Jewish heritage and his secular education. Kazin described Singer as “a rarity among Jewish novelists,” one who was “necessarily secularized” but who had been steeped in “the mystical Jewish theology” of his father, grandfathers, and uncles—rabbis all. According to Kazin, “The world to Isaac Bashevis Singer still represents the mind of God,” and his characters merely “pass through” as “part of a mysterious creation.” Their “notable temporariness,” Kazin asserts, “may express their flight through the mind of God.”
The ideas of a mystical world hidden beneath the appearance of reality, and the temporary nature of human lives as they pass through it, lie at the heart of “Lost.” The story is a frame tale, and its structure is unusual in that Singer himself narrates the short story as if its fantastic events had been told to him by an elderly Jewish immigrant, Sam Opal, who unexpectedly appears in his office in New York City late one Friday afternoon. Singer as narrator and Sam Opal (born Shmuel Opalovsky in “the old country”) are the only characters in “Lost,” but the story Sam relates to Singer includes his wife, Anna, and their daughter, Natasha. Anna’s former fiancé, Vladimir Machtei, plays an important role in Sam’s story, although the old man had never met Vladimir, and his very existence becomes increasingly doubtful.
When Sam Opal, an elderly Russian Jew wearing a long black coat, appears in Singer’s office, he presents a striking figure with his stooped back, white goatee, and tired eyes. Singer mistakes him for a recent immigrant but soon learns that Sam, at eighty-three, has lived in America for more than sixty years. Sam is nearing the end of his life but is still haunted by certain events from the distant past and wants to share his story with Singer; he wants Singer to help explain the unexplainable. When the old man begins to speak of demons and hidden, mysterious powers, Singer is drawn into his tale.
As Shmuel Opalovsky, Opal had emigrated from Russia as a young man to avoid serving in the Czar’s army. On board the German ship that carried him to America, he met a beautiful, refined Jewish girl, Anna Davidovna Barzel. She was immigrating to America to meet her fiancé, Vladimir Machtei. Traveling alone, Anna made Sam’s acquaintance, and the two became shipboard friends. When Anna appeared late at breakfast one morning, Sam realized from her appearance and manner that “something terrible had happened to her.” He later found her leaning far over the ship’s rail and feared she was about to take her own life. Sam begged her to tell him what had happened and to let him help her.
In desperation, Anna told Sam that on her journey she carried all her money and a small notebook with Vladimir Machtei’s address in a small pouch worn around her neck. The evening before, she discovered the money and notebook were gone, and in the pouch she found only her ticket stub and other unimportant papers she always kept in a valise. Anna was positive her money and notebook had been in the pouch the previous morning, and she knew she had not replaced them with the worthless contents she found in their place. Hearing her story, Sam was reasonably skeptical; he suggested “lightly” that perhaps she had become involved with some young man on the ship who had stolen her belongings. Hurt and insulted, Anna refused to speak to Sam again during the voyage, and he avoided her.
Upon arriving in New York City, Sam saw Anna again while she was attempting unsuccessfully to leave the ship and enter the country. She had no money, her fiancé had not come to meet her, and she could not communicate with the customs agents because she did not speak English. Sam saw this as an opportunity to make amends, so he helped Anna clear customs. Once in the city, he provided her lodging at a hotel, and together they searched for her fiancé; however, no trace of Vladimir Machtei could be found. Sam believed for a while that Machtei had never existed, but the letters Anna had received from him and letters she subsequently received from his aunt in Russia convinced Sam that Anna’s fiancé had simply abandoned her. Eventually Sam and Anna married; two years later their daughter, Natasha, was born.
Sam Opal tells Singer that truly strange events began to occur at this time; he became convinced he was married to “a person not of this world.” Anna lived in silence, generally speaking only when she had lost one of her possessions, which was a frequent occurrence. As Sam recalled:
The fact is that things literally disappeared before her eyes and sometimes before mine.
A book vanished; a diamond ring disappeared; money placed carefully in her purse was not to be found thirty minutes later. Chaos and turmoil infused their marriage. “A demon follows me—a fiend,” Anna would despair, but Sam rejected the idea of a malevolent supernatural presence in her life and dismissed Anna’s fears. Distance grew between them in their marriage.
The birth of their daughter did not assuage their difficulties; Natasha’s presence only deepened Anna’s silence and Sam’s confusion. The child’s toys were often lost and never found, and the sudden disappearance of Natasha’s teddy bear resulted in a terrible scene between Sam and Anna. When Anna cried, “The fiend tore it from her little hands,” Sam called his wife a liar. Although Anna rarely shed tears, Sam’s words made her weep. Thereafter, she seldom left Natasha’s side; Anna now feared that her daughter would disappear as well.
Sam Opal’s formal education and grounding in rationality fail him as he then relates to Singer what happened next, in June 1898. The old man pauses to take a drink of water and collect himself before continuing. Because Anna never learned to speak English, Sam recalls, he always took her to do her shopping. One day while accompanying her, Sam grew impatient and returned to work, leaving his wife looking into the window of a New York City shoe store. “If I don’t find the shoes I want,” she had told him, “perhaps I will try Fifth Avenue.” Those were Anna’s last words to her husband; she did not come home, and Sam never saw her again. Although he reported Anna as missing and a thorough police investigation was conducted, no trace of his wife was ever discovered. She had, Sam explains, “disappeared like a stone in the water.” Sixty years after leaving her side, Sam is convinced Anna had “vanished in broad daylight here in Manhattan.”
Sam Opal’s personal conflict becomes clear as his conversation with Singer continues. He does not believe the various theories offered to explain Anna’s disappearance. He is convinced she had not run away with a lover or found her lost fiancé, Vladimir Machtei, of whom no news had ever been received. He is certain in his soul that Anna would never have left Natasha, as her baby was “dear to her.” Sam rejects these rational explanations for Anna’s disappearance, but he cannot believe intellectually that a demon claimed her. There is in Sam Opal, however, a deeper level of truth he recognizes:
Deep inside me, I knew the tragic and unbelievable truth: that Anna was by nature or fate...a person born to lose and to be lost.... I say “deep in me” because my reason would never accept anything so irrational.... If matter can turn to nothing, all of nature is a nightmare.
As Sam’s visit draws to its close, Singer asks if Anna might still be living “somewhere.” Sam acknowledges the possibility, but the idea seems outlandish to him: “Where? A woman in her eighties.” He could be satisfied with a theory, Sam explains, “but it would have to make sense.” Singer reminds the old man of a story in the Book of Genesis—Enoch “was not; for God took him”—but Sam’s thoughts immediately turn away from the spiritual reference. He wonders instead what a scientist would say about Anna’s disappearance: “He would have to find some solution.”
As Sam rises to leave, Singer offers his own “unscientific theory,” that Vladimir Machtei was himself a demon who pursued Anna, caused all her misery, and finally spirited her away. Demons, Singer explains, are drawn to those who are shy and beautiful. When Sam protests that Machtei did, after all, have an aunt in Russia, the story ends with Singer’s chilling reply: “A demon’s aunt is also a demon.”
“Lost” is indeed a complex story that creates questions without answers and invites literary interpretation. Most obviously, it is a tale of mystery, a ghost story developed through a series of bizarre occurrences that cannot be explained except in terms of the supernatural. For a person to go missing in New York City is not bizarre, but when placed within the context of Anna’s personal history, her sudden disappearance becomes quite ominous. On two separate occasions in the story, Anna speaks of the “fiend” that torments her. Singer’s stories often incorporate demons as well as other diabolical spirits with the power to possess; he believed in their literal existence apart from their symbolic connotations. Anna’s fiend, when viewed as a real physical presence, makes “Lost” an eerie narrative of demonic possession.
When interpreted thematically, however, the story assumes a more profound significance; it pits human intellect against events that defy intellectual comprehension. In his obsession to find a rational explanation for the loss of Anna’s physical possessions and for the eventual disappearance of Anna herself, Sam Opal represents the human need to intellectualize reality, to place it within the limits of human understanding. Sam is haunted and will remain so because his task is an impossible one. Neither he nor anyone to whom he tells his story will solve this mystery because the human mind, Singer suggests, cannot know the mind of God. Reality exists beyond human reason. Only when Sam abandons conscious thought does he sense for a moment the “tragic and unbelievable truth” of Anna’s loss as she, to use Kazin’s terminology, “passes through” the natural world.
Finally, the title of the story suggests other themes. They are less philosophical perhaps but compelling in their examination of human relationships and in their expression of the author’s compassion for the “lost souls” of this world. Sam Opal lost his wife one afternoon in front of a shoe store, but their relationship suggests he had lost Anna long before her actual disappearance. Perhaps he lost her when he first questioned her moral integrity on the ship—or later when he responded with objectivity instead of compassion to her crippling fear of the demon. Perhaps Sam lost Anna the day he called her a liar, making her unbearable anguish more unbearable.
The innocent Anna Davidovna Barzel becomes a lost soul long before her physical disappearance. Living among strangers whose language she cannot speak, in a country forever foreign to her, Anna retreats into silence and endures life with a husband who doubts her essential goodness and questions her sanity. Anna has nowhere to turn when reality becomes a nightmare. She is lost in a terrifying world, surrounded by an imminent, invisible danger she can neither understand nor overcome.