Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

All three tales treat the subject of misplaced pity. Malecki feels sorry for the criminal rather than the victims and so loses his life. Karlowski pities his wife and her lover, neither of whom deserves his sympathy, and so loses his fortune. Rabbi Joseph pities Satan and thus postpones the coming of the Messiah. Later he pities Ptima and destroys himself. The blind Jeremiah provides a pointed commentary as he recites Psalm 135, which speaks of God’s mercy in slaying the wicked kings of Og and Sihon. Even God does not always forgive, at least not in this world; punishment is sometimes necessary if society is to endure.

Isaac Bashevis Singer does not reject compassion. Zalman says that “pity is virtuous,” and Meir reminds the reader that “the doors of repentance are always open.” Still, to be forgiven one must walk through them. Malecki’s pity would have been commendable had the criminals reformed; because they did not, however, Malecki does harm rather than good.

For each of the characters, pity is really a form of self-indulgence. Malecki’s motto is, “Each man should do what he wants.” Rabbi Joseph wants to revive Grisha only because he lusts for her; he refrains from killing Ptima because she promises him sensual pleasure. Singer warns the reader to examine his motivations, for behavior that seems virtuous may not be. Malecki’s blindness to the wickedness around him and Karlowski’s lack of perception are symptoms of still greater ignorance, that of their own folly. Singer’s message is the age-old warning, “Know thyself.” In Poland as in ancient Greece, the failure to heed that warning produces tragedy.