A New Life Summary
by Bernard Malamud

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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A New Life continues Malamud’s treatment, begun in The Natural and refined in The Assistant, of the search for self-definition. This most picaresque of his works follows the struggles of S. Levin, a young professor from New York who hopes to redeem what he perceives as a failed life through relocation to a technical college in the Northwest. Set in the 1950’s, the novel substitutes the mythic placelessness of Malamud’s earlier novels with a Stendhalian realism replete with topical allusions to the Cold War, McCarthyism, and liberalism versus loyalty oaths.

The novel is actually two books in one. On one level, A New Life functions as a satire on academic life. Amid a world of drab parties, hateful faculty meetings, and dull classes, Malamud introduces a cast of mentally crippled faculty members whose only goal seems to be to hang onto their jobs no matter what sacrifices of intellectual or moral principle must be made. The students are no better; they find little interest in things intellectual and see no ethical problem with cheating to pass their classes. On the second, and more important, level, Malamud deals with his ever-present theme of the quest. The characters and incidents that Levin encounters at Cascadia College are the obstacles in his mythic journey to self-discovery. As in all Malamud’s novels, the hero must ultimately make a choice that will determine his destiny. In A New Life this choice involves, as always, a definition of freedom. To complete his quest, Levin must come to terms with the suffering involved in gaining true freedom.

Malamud’s satirical pen is sharp, with barbs directed both at the academic establishment and at his hero’s excessive idealism. From Levin’s arrival in Eastchester, the home of Cascadia College, it is apparent that this former drunkard and professed liberal is out of his element in the stifling atmosphere of this land-grant institution devoted to giving its students a practical education. He is told flatly that the liberal arts (which he believes “feed our hearts”) have no place in the school’s conservative English department, devoted to drilling students with the anachronistic chairman’s text, The Elements of Grammar.

Against this backdrop Levin encounters a series of disillusionments as he attempts to shape a new life filled with success in his academic career and a oneness with the beauties of the natural world. Be it teaching, departmental relationships, or encounters with nature, Levin’s lofty expectations arising from his overblown, often comic romanticism doom him to comic failure. A modern-day Don Quixote, he sees his efforts to impose his ideals on an insensitive world end in bumbling disaster: Attempting to inspire his students with his own enthusiasm for learning, he lectures with his fly unzipped; thinking he has found a role model in a “liberal” colleague, he discovers only an arch antifeminist reduced to trivial causes such as opposing “indiscriminate garbage dumping and dogs that run loose and murder his chickens.” Filled with an intoxicating joy in the beauties of a pastoral scene, he steps in cow dung.

Indeed, Malamud fashions Levin as a more intense version of Roy Hobbs or Frank Alpine—the hero who is his own worst enemy. Levin’s attempts to escape the ghosts of a failed love affair, the suicide of his mother, and a two-year lapse into drunkenness have proved futile. Relocation to another part of the United States and a beard grown over the face he cannot stand to look at fail to exorcise the old self that haunts his every action. Levin is given to fitful dreams and long bouts of melancholy in his room. So intense are these battles between what he desires and what he realizes he must accept instead that Levin at times seems at the point of insanity.

Levin’s disillusionment with the academic life leads to loneliness and a need for female companionship. Even in the arena of love, however, Levin’s romanticism dooms him to an almost clownlike failure....

(The entire section is 1,716 words.)