The Magician of Lublin

by Isaac Bashevis Singer

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 622


*Warsaw. Capital of Poland. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s evocation of the city’s atmosphere around 1880 is one of his novel’s major achievements. At the time in which the novel is set, Warsaw is a large city with palaces and slum housing, served by railways, interior plumbing, and new gas lighting in some streets. Some affluent residents and businesses have telephones installed. There is culture in the shape of theaters and opera houses, high fashion, bookshops, and café society. Yasha is to appear at the Alhambra Theatre. The air smells of “fresh baking, coffee, horse manure, smoke from the trains and factories.” It is a bustling, noisy metropolis.

Singer mentions many of the city’s real streets, including Avenue Dluga, Marshalkowska Boulevard, Alexander Place, and Nalevsky Street. Yasha keeps a small apartment on Freta Street, containing books, antiques, and “his collection of billboards, newspaper clippings and reviews.” It is just large enough for him and his mistress, Magda. Kroleska Street has the apartment in which Yasha’s principal love, the widowed Emilia, lives with her daughter in genteel poverty. Though poor, they keep a servant, own a piano on which the daughter practices daily, have good-quality furnishings, as Emilia’s late husband was a university professor. Singer draws the sharp contrast between her home and that of Zeftel in Piask.

One night, Yasha attempts to burglarize the apartment of a rich landowner on Marshalkowska Boulevard but fails to open the owner’s safe in the dark and hurts his foot while descending from the apartment’s balcony. His failure costs him his girlfriends, profession, and self-respect.


Synagogues. Jewish houses of worship in which several important scenes are set. While traveling by horse-cart to Warsaw, Yasha and Magda are caught in a rainstorm and forced to take shelter in a synagogue. Yasha is Jewish but has not visited a synagogue for years and can scarcely remember the ceremonies, the prayer-shawls, the phylacteries. He takes away a damaged copy of a holy book, then pretends not to be Jewish.

Later, after Yasha bungles his burglary attempt, he again takes shelter in a synagogue. This time he is more humble, noting some familiarity when he sees young men in sidelocks, skullcaps, and sashes studying the Talmud and hears the cantor intoning. He accepts help in donning a prayer-shawl and recalls his promise to his father to remain a Jew.


*Lublin. Rural town in eastern Poland where Yasha owns a house, in which the novel opens and closes. The description suggests a small farm or smallholding, with barns, stables, and fruit trees. Yasha keeps chickens; he is considered a rich man. He has a loving and faithful wife; all he lacks is children.

At the end of the novel Yasha is living in a tiny shed in the courtyard in which he has had himself bricked up; he can communicate with the outside world only through a tiny shuttered window. With no space for a bed, Yasha lies on a straw pallet. He has a chair and a small table but little else; he has not emerged from this cell for three years.


*Piask. Small town on the road to Warsaw from Lublin that is home to two of Yasha’s girlfriends. Magda lives in a house just outside the town with her mother and younger brother. The mother accepts the fact of Magda’s affair with a married man. She welcomes Yasha’s presents of food, and makes no objection to Yasha and Magda sharing a bed in her house. Zeftel’s home is in the town. She is the widow or abandoned wife of a thief who has escaped...

(This entire section contains 622 words.)

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from prison. She lives in poor circumstances behind the town slaughterhouses.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 212

Alexander, Edward. Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Sees The Magician of Lublin as marking a new direction for Singer. Instead of the Jewish community, his subject is the individual, in this case the artist, as he vacillates between freedom and faith.

Allentuck, Marcia, ed. The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. A collection of essays on Singer’s works. Particularly helpful is one by Cyrena N. Pondrom, pointing out various opinions as the meaning of Yasha’s penitence.

Friedman, Lawrence S. Understanding Isaac Bashevis Singer. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988. Discusses the theme of identity in The Magician of Lublin. A good starting point for the study of Singer.

Lee, Grace Farrell. From Exile to Redemption: The Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. A chronological study of Singer’s works, intended to show how his views altered with the years. A perceptive section on The Magician of Lublin focuses on symbolism.

Malin, Irving, ed. Critical Views of Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: New York University Press, 1969. A number of essays on various subjects. J. S. Wolkenfeld’s “Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Faith of His Devils and Magicians” compares the moral choices of several major characters, including Yasha.


Critical Essays