Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 573
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...
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- Critical Essays
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 681
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 that she will meet a latter-day copy of George Lewes, Eliot’s intellectual companion and lover, and share with him the same transcendent intimacy of souls ascribed to Eliot and Lewes by her biographers and portrayed in Eliot’s letters. New York, however, seems to be filled only with the self-regarding egos of shallow and isolated failures at marriage, with the leftovers and mistakes who flirt superficially, mask their vulnerabilities behind flippancy, and neglect their children.
At a gathering at which she has chanced on such types, Ruth feels aloof and yearns to find virtue, knowledge, mutuality, and intellectual distinction embodied in a contemporary Victorian gentleman—another Lewes. Then she sees a man some twenty years younger than she is and connects him with her vision of Lewes. She is hurt that he does not even notice her.
Soon afterward, Ruth sits in the Metropolitan Museum, reading Eliot’s letters; gradually she becomes aware that a painter is copying one of the masterpieces to be used as a postcard. Striking up a dialogue about whether his work is mimicry or reproduction, she discovers that he is the same young man whom she recently noticed. His name is Rupert Rabeeno. Fascinated by his insistence that he does not duplicate but, rather, reenacts a process, she is convinced by his lively talk that she has found her Lewes and invites him home for tea. They begin reading Eliot’s novels together, which Ruth sees as reenacting the nightly reading by Eliot and Lewes and, therefore, as building the same mental and emotional intimacy that the nineteenth century couple had shared. Rupert often interrupts the reading to recount details of his past. When Ruth feels the time is right, she shares her dream of ideal friendship, directing Rupert’s attention to Lewes and believing that Rupert understands her as Lewes understood and sympathized with Eliot. He signals his apparent rapport by moving in with her.
When they begin reading Eliot’s biographies, Ruth is disturbed to discover that Rupert previously had known little of Eliot and nothing at all of Lewes or John Cross, the man twenty years her junior whom Eliot married after Lewes’s death. As they take turns reading aloud, reenacting Eliot’s life, Rupert shows far more energy and enthusiasm for reenacting the role of Cross, creating a Cross quite different from Ruth’s understanding of him, than he has shown for complying with Ruth’s wish that he try to make himself into Lewes. Although Ruth insists that Eliot and Cross were true lovers, Rupert maintains that Cross never consummated his marriage. Rupert believes that Cross’s attempt to make himself into an intellectual copy of Lewes to keep Eliot from feeling the loss of her longtime companion caused Cross’s nervous collapse and leap into the Grand Canal of Venice during their honeymoon. Rupert’s re-creation of Cross trying to be Lewes for Eliot is so convincing, so alive, that it leaves Ruth feeling that he has taken Lewes, the great mind and generous soul of her dream, from her and given her instead the athletically and practically focused Cross, man of the outdoors. When Rupert next proposes marriage, however, Ruth feels reassured that he really does understand ideal friendship and will be her Lewes. On their wedding night, Rupert repeats his reenactment, charging toward the window Cross-style, but leaving by the door, as Ruth calls after him, forced to acknowledge that he is only a copyist.