Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 853
Artur Sammler, a seventy-six-year-old Polish Jew of British education and temperament living in New York. Sammler survived the Nazi mass murder of European Jews during World War II, crawling out of a mass grave and leaving the machine-gunned body of his dead wife behind. A tall, slender, and...
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- Critical Essays
Artur Sammler, a seventy-six-year-old Polish Jew of British education and temperament living in New York. Sammler survived the Nazi mass murder of European Jews during World War II, crawling out of a mass grave and leaving the machine-gunned body of his dead wife behind. A tall, slender, and slightly stooped intellectual, Sammler observes the world with brutal clarity through one eye, the other having been crushed by a rifle butt during the war. Something of a voyeur, Sammler is fascinated by and yet highly critical of contemporary life and its barbarous, nihilistic, tragicomic, and sexually maladjusted ways. His encounters with a black pickpocket, a neurotic daughter, a dying friend, a strikingly sexual young woman, and a highly intelligent though fundamentally aimless young man become occasions for extraordinarily intense, private reflections on life on the planet.
The black pickpocket
The black pickpocket, a powerful, brutish, handsome, and elegantly dressed thief who works the Broadway bus between Columbus Circle and Seventy-second Street. Simultaneously fascinated and repelled, Sammler returns again and again to see the pickpocket at his work. Eventually, the pickpocket corners Sammler in the lobby of Sammler’s apartment building and exposes himself as a warning.
Angela Gruner, a voluptuous, sexually adventurous, provocatively clad young woman who tells Sammler all of her secrets. Deeply disturbing to both Sammler and her father, Elya, Angela provokes in these men intense reactions of anger and disgust in response to her powerful sexuality.
Shula Sammler, the daughter of Artur Sammler, reared in a Polish convent during the war and bearing the emotional scars of wartime experience. Eccentric, unkempt, and unpredictable, Shula is obsessed with trying to get her father to complete a memoir of H. G. Wells, whom Sammler knew in London before the war. As a part of this effort, she steals the manuscript of Dr. V. Govinda Lal so that her father can read it. Her concealment of the manuscript and Lal’s attempts to recover it drive much of the novel’s plot.
Margotte Arkin, a niece of Sammler’s dead wife, Antonina, and the wife of Usher Arkin, recently killed in a plane crash. Margotte is short, round, and full; by temperament she is generous, liberal, and romantic. To Sammler, a realist, she is a good-hearted but typically foolish woman. Sammler lives in a room in Margotte’s apartment.
Dr. Elya Gruner
Dr. Elya Gruner, a wealthy gynecologist, widower, and benefactor of Sammler and Shula. He is dying of an aneurism. Gruner is alienated from his children, whom he considers failures or “screw-ups.” A man who keeps a beautiful suburban home as well as a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce with “MD” license plates, Gruner wants to die a proper death and leave his complex financial affairs in order. There is some suggestion of his involvement with the mob, perhaps as a performer of illegal abortions. Gruner’s slow dying offers Sammler many occasions for considering the meaning of life and death.
Wallace Gruner, Elya’s son and Angela’s brother. He is extraordinarily intelligent, yet his aims in life lack focus. His latest scheme is an aerial photography business in which he photographs homes of wealthy suburbanites and identifies the foliage on their property. He also believes that his father has a hidden cache of money in the suburban house and spends much of his time trying to find it, with disastrous results.
Eisen, Shula’s former husband, a wife beater. He survived the battle of Stalingrad, though his toes were amputated as a result of frostbite. Unusually handsome, he has come to New York to become an artist and to peddle his harsh, brutal-looking metal sculptures. Sammler loathes him, though he also sees in him another example of the war’s deforming effects. Eisen is capable of brutality, as shown by his attack on the black pickpocket at the climax of the novel.
Lionel Feffer, Wallace’s business partner, a young, unanchored, energetic, and entrepreneurial New York Jew who admires Sammler and who convinces him to deliver a lecture at Columbia University titled “The British Scene in the Thirties,” a subject in which Sammler is an expert. The lecture is a disaster and helps to confirm Sammler’s conception of contemporary youth as barbarous, ill-educated, and unwashed. Fascinated by Sammler’s encounter with the pickpocket, Feffer photographs the thief in the act and thus provokes a violent encounter near the close of the novel.
Dr. V. Govinda Lal
Dr. V. Govinda Lal, a diminutive East Indian who has written a manuscript titled The Future of the Moon, which Shula steals. The only man who can exchange views at Sammler’s intellectual level, Lal is something of a utopian, for he sees the colonization of the moon as both inevitable and beneficial for humankind. Having known utopian thinkers in the past, namely H. G. Wells, Sammler is attracted yet skeptical.
Wharton Horricker, Angela’s lover, a physical culturalist.
Walter Bruch, Sammler’s Old World acquaintance, an apelike man who suffers a very old-fashioned, nineteenth century form of fetishism.