The Puttermesser Papers Summary
by Cynthia Ozick

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The Puttermesser Papers Summary

The Puttermesser Papers follows the protagonist, Ruth Puttermesser, through her adult life and into her death and afterlife. Cynthia Ozick provides some background: Ruth grew up in the Bronx, New York, in a Jewish family. Ruth was a very smart, bookish girl who apparently became interested in the law through studying Hebrew with her uncle—or so the reader thinks, until another voice intrudes into the narrative to tell the reader that Ruth never knew this uncle. Rather than a straightforward biographical novel, Ozick creates a complex, many-layered fantastic exploration both of literary genres and of a single woman’s life in late 20th-century New York. Because this one fundamental “fact” is challenged, the reader realizes they cannot take any such item at face value.

Ruth is working at the New York City Department of Receipts and Disbursements when her newly-hired, and much younger, male boss tells her she is “out.” In her rejoinder to the firing, she claims she was editor of the Yale Law Review. Is this a fact? Or is this evidence of Ruth’s detachment from reality?

After Ruth leaves the job, she achieves retribution and satisfaction by becoming mayor of New York. Not only is she far more successful than the young boss, but she achieves her goal of cleaning up and improving the city. However, one way she accomplishes these goals is with the assistance of a mythical creature, or golem, in the form of a young woman whom Ruth dreams up. Again, any acceptance of reality—Ruth’s short tenure as mayor—must be tempered with the fantasy elements.

Much of the novel is devoted to Ruth’s love life and her dissatisfaction with it. While working in the financial office, Ruth had an affair with Morris, a married man. As she contemplates a childless future, Morris rejects her. Although he does not understand the full extent of her immersion in fantasy, he does see her as entirely too absorbed in books. Ruth’s fantasy of her ideal life is eating chocolate and reading to her heart’s content. In contrast, she also dreams of finding true love and being a mother.

In her fifties, the romance part comes true: a younger artist, Rupert, becomes her lover. Rupert copies Old Masters in museums, making miniature replicas that he nonetheless considers unique, original creations. Ruth’s ideal vision of love is a meeting of two like-minded souls, comparable to the writers George Eliot and George Lewes. Rupert, however, has a different view, and it seems they will not be compatible in the long run. Although they marry, he leaves her on their wedding day.

Another chapter is devoted to the visit of cousin Lidia from Moscow. As the kinship is rather distant, again the reader wonders if she is truly a cousin. Ruth, now in her 60s, romanticizes this relative in context of the Russian Jewish experience. Lidia has come to the United States to make money; she works in childcare and sells Russia-themed items, and then she returns home.

The novel follows Ruth through her demise, as an intruder rapes and kills her. In paradise, her ideal of constant reading is irrelevant given the total knowledge available. She can re-invent her past, getting together with a childhood sweetheart; she and Emil marry and have a child. Ruth’s epiphany, however, is in understanding that paradise is ephemeral, and even a dream coming true can bring misery.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Ruth Puttermesser, a New York attorney, has set aside gainful employment to live on her savings and think through her fate. In her fifties, she has a strong self-image of being brainy, cherishes a devotion to the nineteenth century novelist George Eliot, and finds herself very much alone. Dismayed to recognize her signs of aging, she decides she should marry. Ruth idolizes Eliot—another homely female intellectual, but one who found a happy fate—and lives in her subjective reality of “selected phantom literary flashbacks.” She has immersed herself in biographies of Eliot and in Eliot’s letters, nurturing a dream...

(The entire section is 1,894 words.)