Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1111
Artur Sammler is a highly introspective, brilliant, and aging Holocaust survivor living in New York City. Loved by those who know him, he functions as their gentle, infinitely likable father-confessor. However, since his experience of crawling out of a mass grave in Poland he is “dry” inside. His “death” and “rebirth” in a Holocaust killing field leaves him with an eye that can distinguish only light and shade and a spirit that is often myopic and incapacitated. He is slightly confused, bitter, morally indignant, and constantly ready to sit in judgment upon others. He rarely ever expresses these feelings because he nevertheless loves and needs his circle of friends.
In spite of attempts to insulate himself from the modern world that he reluctantly was born into during the Holocaust, Sammler’s life on his planet is presenting him with many problems. His customary existence is upset because of the imminent death of Elya Gruner, the man who saved Sammler and his daughter from Holocaust Poland and who supported them in America. Furthermore, he is also involved with the intrigue of spying on an African American pickpocket, and the problem of his daughter, who steals the only copy of an important manuscript.
Sammler was spying for days on an African American male who pickpockets the riders of the bus he rides. He is fascinated by this man’s grace, his stylish dress, and most of all his audacity in always picking the same bus route for his exploits. Sammler next visits with his daughter Shula, who changes her name to “Slawa” that month because it is Easter, and Shula, who was brought up under that name for four years by Catholic nuns during the Holocaust, wants to participate in Ash Wednesday. Sammler is both amused and repulsed at Shula-Slawa’s Jewish-Christian identity and contemplates the divisions of the modern self.
Sammler then goes to Columbia University to give a lecture on H. G. Wells and the Bloomsbury Group on the insistence of a rather irresponsible student named Lionel Feffer. During the lecture, a bearded Marxist student stands up and violently attacks Sammler’s speech as “effete” nonsense. The student then calls him an “old man” and even goes so far as to question Sammler’s sexual prowess. Sammler abruptly leaves and, on the trip home, once again sees the pickpocket. When the pickpocket catches Sammler watching him, he follows and corners Sammler alone in his apartment lobby. Here, rather than mugging Sammler or silencing him with physical violence, the pickpocket calmly displays his genitalia as a “lesson” to the stupefied Sammler, who almost wants to watch. After this, he goes up to his apartment where Shula left him a note and a manuscript by Dr. V. Govinda Lal. Its title is “The Future of the Moon.”
Next, Sammler visits Angela and Wallace Gruner. Elya describes Wallace as a “high I.Q. moron” and Angela as “insidious,” “an apprentice whore,” and a woman who “sent the message of gender everywhere.” After talking with these two, Sammler visits Elya in the hospital, where Sammler learns that Elya is going to die soon, no matter what the doctors do. He spends more time with the Gruner family and notices their self-centered, casual attitude about their dying father. On the way home from the hospital, Sammler peruses Lal’s manuscript. He then meets Feffer, who tries to apologize for the incident at the university, and then informs him that Shula stole Lal’s manuscript, and it is the only copy. Sammler immediately jots off an explanatory letter to Lal, leaves the manuscript at his home so he can retrieve it, and returns to visit Elya. His anxiety about both the pickpocket and Lal’s purloined manuscript causes a flashback to his Holocaust experiences.
Sammler returns to visit Elya at the hospital, then visits with Angela, Wallace, and Eisen, the last returning from Israel as a would-be artist. Sammler has a flashback about his experience visiting Israel during the Six-Day War. Margotte phones Sammler and informs him that Shula-Slawa took the manuscript again, and that Lal is at Sammler’s house with a detective. Sammler talks to Lal, compliments his work, and Lal expresses his hopes to publish it before the first lunar landing. After he goes to Elya’s New Rochelle home with Wallace, Sammler contemplates the thefts and confronts Shula-Slawa. She informs him that the manuscript and a copy she made are then in lockers at Grand Central Station. Sammler and Lal finally meet, Sammler gives him the keys to the lockers, and both men engage in a long, far-reaching dialogue.
They notice that the floor is wet. In his search for his father’s hidden money, Wallace undoes the pipes in the attic. Lal saves the day by turning off the water, and they all retire to bed. Reflecting on the day’s madness, Sammler again thinks back to the Six-Day War. The next day, Sammler is left stranded in New Rochelle by Wallace and Lal but gets a ride into New York with Elya’s chauffeur, Emil. Sammler thinks deeply about Elya, but as they enter town, Emil points a fight out to Sammler, which turns out to involve none other than Feffer and the pickpocket. Feffer was spying on the man, this time with a hidden camera, and was caught. Reaching the scene, Sammler spots Eisen, who, after much confusion and struggle, ends the fight by repeatedly bludgeoning the African American with his art—crude metal figurines. The sheer murderousness of Eisen’s blows on the man horrifies Sammler, who tries to stop the violence but is too late. The man falls to the ground bleeding, his face torn open. At Feffer’s insistence, Sammler, weak from experiencing such violence again, leaves the scene and goes to visit Elya.
Entering the hospital, Sammler is once again delayed, this time by Angela. He offends her by asking for her to reconcile with Elya and intuits that, once Elya dies, he will probably lose all of his financial support. Sammler then gets a phone call from Shula-Slawa, who is ecstatic because she found money stuffed in a couch at Elya’s. He forbids her to take it. Sammler finally reaches Elya’s doctor but is told that Elya died. Sammler, distracted too long, missed Elya’s passing.
He finds Elya’s body and utters a prayer—almost a Kaddish—over his benefactor, friend, and nephew. Sammler then commends Elya’s life to God and says that Elya met, in spite of “all the confusion and degraded clowning of life . . . the terms of his contract,” and that this is what makes any life truly authentic.
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