Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 715

Writing in Yiddish about Yiddish-speaking Jewish communities in Poland, Isaac Bashevis Singer established the reputation that in 1978 won for him the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although later works about Holocaust survivors in the United States have won high praise, The Magician of Lublin, in setting, plot, and characterization, is typical of the fiction that brought Singer his initial fame and ensured his lasting popularity.

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The plot of The Magician of Lublin is not as simple as it seems. It begins as a picaresque novel; Singer establishes an interesting character and then follows him on his travels, pointing out how, through trickery, his protagonist manages to survive, though not always unharmed. However, there is a second story line in the novel, a second journey involving the same character. Even while he pursues fame, fortune, and Emilia, without realizing it, Yasha is traveling in quest of God.

The historical setting of the novel also involves a duality of perspective. The villages Singer describes appear to be self-sufficient, insulated from the outside world. Within them, the characters may quarrel and reconcile, suffer and survive, but actually their lives move in a pattern as inevitable as the seasons, as old as their religious heritage. Even a rebel like Yasha knows this; he counts time not only by the coming of spring but also by the coming of Shabuoth.

However, The Magician of Lublin contains reminders that this apparent permanence is an illusion. When the villagers talk about the power of czarist Russia, they are not aware of what Singer’s readers know: that, within a few decades, there will be no czar in Russia. When they arrange marriages and plan the futures of their children, they have no way of knowing that a half century later, a set of conscienceless criminals will murder Jews by the millions, wipe out their villages, and destroy their way of life. One’s knowledge of this historical fact, in particular, contributes to the poignancy of novels that, on the surface, are comic or perhaps tragicomic in tone.

Singer’s characterization, too, is more complex than one might think. Yasha’s women, for example, are initially presented almost as stereotypes: Esther, the devout and devoted wife; Magda, the girl so unattractive that she cannot catch a husband; Zeftel, the vulnerable, deserted wife; Emilia, the widow who, though desperately in love, is virtuous. In the course of the novel, however, Emilia and Zeftel prove to be more practical than sentimental, Magda reveals a capacity for tragic intensity, and Esther discards her dignity in a vain attempt to get Yasha back into her bed.

Yasha, too, begins as a stereotype, in his case as a folk hero. There is nothing he cannot do, no feat of magic he cannot perform, no lock he cannot pick, no acrobatic stunt that is too much for him, no woman who does not adore him, no role he cannot play. Later, however, Yasha is perceived as less perfect than his admirers thought him to be. In one way or another, all of his mistresses desert him, and when he attempts burglary, he fails to pick a simple lock and also falls and injures his foot. It can be argued, of course, that it is not a matter of Yasha’s having been overrated; it is that God chose to humble him to bring Yasha back to God.

Clearly, it is the meaning of this change in Yasha that is crucial to any interpretation of The Magician of Lublin. It has been suggested that Reb Jacob the Penitent is as foolish as the original Yasha, for surely, as the rabbi suggests, a sensible man would search for a mean between two extremes. However, it seems more likely that, instead of rebuking his ascetic protagonist, Singer understands his need to retreat from the world. By nature, Yasha is not moderate; his imagination is as excessive as his appetites. It is not surprising then that, for him, there is no middle way, such as that represented by the practical Catholic, Emilia, or the worldly Lithuanian Jews. For Yasha, there are only two possibilities: the street or the synagogue. His God is uncompromising. Singer may be suggesting that, unpalatable as the idea may be to modern minds, this is the very nature of God.

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Critical Context