Because Mercy of a Rude Stream is thinly disguised autobiography, the characters in the novel are all based on real people, and the events in which they figure are based on real events in Roth’s early life. The verisimilitude is enhanced by the fact that the reader knows the characters to be real people under fictitious names.
The only character who is fully rounded and continuously developing throughout the entire novel is young Ira Stigman himself. The other characters are rather sketchily presented, but such presentation is not bad craftsmanship in a novel of this type; the people and events are ostensibly being described by a very old man trying to recapture fragments of a past so distant that it seems almost mythical to the modern reader and even somewhat dreamlike to the aged, absentminded narrator himself. Roth’s theme has to do with a boy’s struggle to survive and to find himself in the crowded, competitive, often hostile environment of America’s biggest city, where the contrast between rich and poor is stark and painful. His characters represent either the narrow ghetto he is trying to escape or the dominant, native-born, English-speaking, middle-class culture full of intellectual stimulation and vocational opportunities into which he aspires to be assimilated.
The author transmits a sense of young Ira’s character through detailed descriptions of his innermost thoughts and feelings. The other characters are...
(The entire section is 500 words.)