Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 413
Cynthia Ozick developed the character of Ruth Puttermesser over several decades. The character and the everyday, material world she inhabits change with the times. Ruth is a self-professed feminist, who studies law in the 1960s, goes to Yale law school, and finds a niche as a bureaucrat in New York...
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- Critical Essays
Cynthia Ozick developed the character of Ruth Puttermesser over several decades. The character and the everyday, material world she inhabits change with the times. Ruth is a self-professed feminist, who studies law in the 1960s, goes to Yale law school, and finds a niche as a bureaucrat in New York City. As a career woman, she sets aside conventional female expectations such as marriage and children until, as she grows middle-aged, power shifts in her agency force her out. Instead of a monogamous marriage, she had a married lover, but he also leaves her. The novel is loosely structured from earlier Puttermesser stories and longer chapters, or novellas, that trace these aspects of Ruth’s “real” life.
But the reasons that Ruth has not found love, emotional security, family, and community are actually not related to feminist careerism—fairly typical tropes of much late twentieth-century women’s literature. Instead, Ruth is an ardent romantic and a deep-thinking intellectual. Rather than too involved in this world, she is far too detached from it. When Rappaport, her lover, leaves her, it is because she cannot be bothered to make love to him—she “only” has a few hundred more pages to read in her book before she pays attention to him. Absorbed in reading Socratic philosophy at the same time as she contemplates her childless status and biological clock, she conjures up a Jewish fantasy figure, the golem, as a surrogate daughter, who is named after his (famously “shrewish”) wife. As Ruth immerses herself in fiction and fantasy, she also finds a romantic partner who matches, at least temporarily, her vision of what true love should be. Yet this would-be husband may be as unsubstantial as the golem-daughter; Ruth cannot really distinguish him as an actual person from the projection of her own desires.
These multiple layers of contradiction within a single character also cause the reader to wonder about the author’s intention: is she meant to be one believable character or an archetype with diverse manifestations? Ozick complicates the situation through the third-person narrator, who seems omniscient as they are privy to Ruth’s every thought and emotion. But occasionally, this narrator takes a step back and seems to become the reader, who addresses Ruth’s “biographer.” We are encouraged to wonder if Ruth herself is narrating her own story but referring to herself in the third person. Ozick does not offer the reader secure knowledge of her—or perhaps Ruth’s—intentions.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 226
Ruth’s perspective as a limited omniscient center of consciousness guides the reader through the story. Her reading and her memories of passages from biographies of Eliot present a backdrop for the exchanges between Ruth and Rupert and for Ruth’s inward musings, sometimes perceptive, but more often delusory. The chasm between the authentic personal sympathies of Eliot and Lewes, and the ersatz, almost trivial developments between Ruth and Rupert that she grasps at as ideal friendship, creates sustained irony, intensified by section titles with ambiguous applications to both Eliot’s and Ruth’s lives.
Adding to the irony is the suggestiveness of the titles of paintings that Rupert copies. The first, Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates (1787), implies an end to the rationalism by which Ruth has formerly described herself and its replacement by the subjective reality she and Rupert pursue each night. This recalls the reflections of the bridges in the River Seine that Rupert claims compete with the bridges over the river to be perceived as the true world. Other subjects suggest Rupert’s mastery, through assertion of his perception, over mythology, the natural world, a domestic scene, and a painting of Venice’s Grand Canal, presaging his reconstruction of Cross’s mentally disturbed leap into that water. Only at the end is that mastery dramatized, as Ruth must drop her sentimentalizing.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2070
Cynthia Ozick—a distinguished novelist, short story writer, playwright, poet, essayist, literary critic, and translator—has collected, in The Puttermesser Papers, two short stories and three novellas that have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and Salmagundi over the past fifteen years. The story “Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife” and the novella “Puttermesser and Xanthippe” have also been published in Ozick’s Levitation: Five Fictions (1982). All center on Ruth Puttermesser—her name translates as “butterknife”—as she attempts to make sense out of her life.
The first section, “Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife,” relates, in a few pages, those things listed in the title. Puttermesser, in her thirties, realizes that, while others are being promoted in the law firm where she has been employed for a few years, she, a woman and a Jew, will not be promoted; she leaves, taking the position of assistant corporation counsel for the city’s Department of Receipts and Disbursements. Again the top positions are denied her, this time because of political patronage. Although her days are spent in the grayness of a bureaucracy, her evenings are enriched by her imagination. She envisions being in paradise, sitting with fudge on one side and a stack of books on the other indulging her desire to study everything from anthropology to chemistry to Roman law. In reality, she studies Hebrew with Uncle Zindel, or so the reader is led to believe until the narrator cries out, “Stop, stop! Puttermesser’s biographer, stop! Disengage, please. Though it is true biographies are invented, not recorded, here you invent too much.” The truth (or is it?) is that her uncle died long ago; in fact, Puttermesser has never met him. Likewise, her sister is also an invention. Living by herself in the Bronx apartment of her youth, Puttermesser, her parents having retired in Florida, is lonely, and she replaces reality with fantasy. The chapter concludes with the question: “Hey! Puttermesser’s biographer! What will you do with her now?”
The answer, elect her mayor of New York City, is found in the next section, “Puttermesser and Xanthippe.” However, Puttermesser cannot accomplish this alone. The chapter opens with the end of her love affair with Morris Rappoport, occasioned because Puttermesser, now forty-six, prefers finishing Plato’s Theaetetus to making love. This is not her only loss: There is also the loss of bone around her teeth, signaling advanced periodontal disease; her Bronx apartment is destroyed by arson, resulting in the loss of childhood memorabilia; and she will soon lose her position with the Department of Receipts and Disbursements. Thinking herself indispensable because of her vast knowledge of the workings of the department, she is unprepared for her displacement by her boss’s college crony. She is demoted, with a corresponding pay cut, to Taxation. She dreams of a city where merit is the basis of appointment and promotion and where employees are educated, prepared, and diligent in their jobs.
Although Puttermesser accepts her unmarried state, she regrets the absence of children, a desire that leads to an extraordinary event: the creation of a golem. As represented in Jewish mythology, golems are voiceless, continually grow, and eventually must be destroyed. Puttermesser, using the dirt from her flower pots and performing ancient rituals, fashions a golem, a creature who, although newly formed, knows all that Puttermesser does and who will do Puttermesser’s bidding. Naming herself Xanthippe, the golem protests, in writing, when Puttermesser assigns her domestic chores, arguing that her capabilities are great. The next day, the golem, accompanying Puttermesser to Taxation, follows Puttermesser’s injunction to look busy by typing industriously. The pages that she types are later to be revealed as a plan for the “Resuscitation, Reformation, Reinvigoration & Redemption of the City of New York,” thoughts formulated by Puttermesser but recorded by Xanthippe. A memo from her former boss arrives requesting information on everything from a list of the city’s bank depositories to the procedure for stocking toilet paper in the washrooms, information deemed crucial to the functioning of his department. Puttermesser responds with a memo questioning why she was replaced. The next day, for the first time in ten years, she arrives late and is soon confronted with three additional memos: the first reprimanding her for refusing to provide information, the second for being tardy, and the third firing her.
Puttermesser is out of a job, but not for long. The golem exists for one purpose: “So that my mother should become what she was intended to become,” which is mayor of New York City. Puttermesser’s vision of “New York washed, reformed, restored,” already set forth in the document typed by Xanthippe, can now be realized. With Xanthippe’s aid, she is elected, and the period that ensues represents a paradise for New York: The gangs are disbanded, venereal disease disappears, and robberies are nonexistent, all of which is achieved with the guidance of the golem. However, the paradise cannot last. The fall is precipitated when the golem discovers sex, occasioned by a visit from Rappoport. Xanthippe, abandoning her duties as adviser to Puttermesser, searches out lovers in the administration, who, exhausted, soon quit. The city returns to its former squalor and Puttermesser, as the mayor, is ruined. The golem, two years into her existence, is out of control. As a creature of mud, she cannot procreate, but she “yearns hugely after the generative, the fructuous.” Reports abound of her attacking and seducing the captain of the Staten Island ferry and of her ravishing the president of the Chase Manhattan Bank.
Realizing she must uncreate the golem, Puttermesser recruits Rappoport, who awakened desire in the golem, as a snare, promising him the head of the department of his choice (her first political appointment, underscoring her decline). When the golem is lured back to her bed, Puttermesser reverses the rituals that bestowed life on her even though Xanthippe pleads in a newly found voice, “O my mother! Do not send me to the elements,” echoing her earlier request at her creation, “Do not erase, obliterate, or annihilate me.” Afterwards, Puttermesser has the resulting mound of dirt removed from her residence and buried, surrounded by red geraniums, in a city park.
In the third section, “Puttermesser’s Paired,” Puttermesser, now in her fifties and unemployed, is engrossed in a world of literature, “waiting for life to begin to happen.” She longs for a relationship, “a wedding of like souls,” of the kind that the Victorian novelist George Eliot experienced with George Lewes. One evening, Puttermesser, in delivering pizza mistakenly brought to her apartment, finds herself at a typical party replete with meaningless conversations. Escaping, she encounters her ideal mate, a young man wearing a cape who belonged in the Victorian era. Ignored, she realizes “youth is for youth.” However, on an excursion to the Metropolitan Museum in search of a new reading place, she discovers him making an exact copy of a painting. In the ensuing conversation, he insists, however, that what he does is not a copy but a reenactment.
Thus begins her relationship with Rupert Rabeeno, their time spent reading the fiction of George Eliot to each other. Just as Rabeeno duplicates the art of the great masters, she, although aware that she is twenty years his senior, yearns to duplicate the relationship of Eliot and Lewes. While Puttermesser envisions herself as Eliot and Rabeeno as Lewes, he sees Johnny Cross as his model. Cross, twenty years younger than Eliot, married Eliot eighteen months after Lewes’s death. On the day that Puttermesser and Rabeeno marry, he leaves, creating a version of Cross’s hurtling himself out of the window on his honeymoon.
The next section, “Puttermesser and the Muscovite Cousin,” charts the arrival in New York of Lidia, the granddaughter of Puttermesser’s father’s sister. Now in her sixties, Puttermesser, remembering her father’s grief concerning the family he left in Russia, agrees to help Lidia, who, she believes, is as politically and religiously oppressed as her other Russian relatives had been. To Lidia, however, America is a business opportunity. Eager for dollars, she cleans apartments, cares for children, and peddles Vladimir Lenin medals and other Russian trinkets. After amassing several thousand dollars, she returns to Russia and her boyfriend.
The final section, “Puttermesser in Paradise,” mixes the surreal with the realistic. As it happens, Puttermesser, now almost seventy, is thinking of paradise moments before she is brutally murdered by a robber angered over her lack of valuable possessions and, after having died, is then raped. The reader follows her to heaven. Mistaken in her earlier conception of paradise, Puttermesser learns that she will not read and study because, in paradise, all is already known. She discovers that paradise is within herself and is dependent upon her experiences and her imagination. Reliving her past (“Not the record of her life as she had lived it, but as she had failed to live it”), she rewrites the history of her first love. Instead of being intimidated and ultimately ignored by Emil, she marries him and has a child. In paradise, however, “nothing is permanent. Nothing will stay. All is ephemeral.” She understands that “a dream that flowers only to be undone will bring more misery than a dream that has never come true at all. . . . The secret meaning of Paradise is that it too is hell.” Puttermesser, in life, has found no happiness nor delight in family, friends, mythical creatures, or employment; even literature fails her when she tries to pattern her life after Eliot’s. In death, she concludes, “Better never to have loved than loved at all./ Better never to have risen than had a fall.”
In The Puttermesser Papers, Ozick paints a bleak picture of New York and, perhaps, of all city environments: “the poor lurked and mugged, hid in elevators, shot drugs into their veins, stuck guns into old grandmothers’ tremulous and brittle spines, in covert pools of blackness released the springs of their bright-flanked switchblades, in shafts, in alleys, behind walls, in ditches.” The city is overrun by vandals, arsonists, and rapists. The inhabitants are self-centered, unsympathetic, and uncaring. Although there is no joy, humor pervades the novel, such as in the portrayal of the inner workings of the city administration (based on the experiences of Ozick’s friends) or in the description of the foibles of the deftly drawn characters. For example, Puttermesser’s boss at Taxation believes he has been maligned in a novel solely because the protagonist also wears “bow ties and saddle shoes.” Her advice sought, Puttermesser encourages his interest in a lawsuit because she “believed in the uses of fancy.”
Ozick is often praised for her use of language, and rightly so. In The Puttermesser Papers, the reader finds elegant prose with carefully constructed sentences and rich descriptions. She writes as a poet would, understanding the importance of each word. Her fiction is indebted to her Jewish upbringing. Jewish myths, traditions, speech patterns, religious practices and customs, and historical experiences find their place in her fiction. The themes, however, are universal and resonate in all readers.
Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Cynthia Ozick’s Comic Art. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. States that Ozick writes comedy of character that exposes the flawed nature of her protagonists. Places her in the context of other Jewish writers and the tradition of rabbinical wisdom.
Finkelstein, Norman. The Ritual of New Creation: Jewish Tradition and Contemporary Literature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992. Only one chapter discusses Ozick, but she is placed in elite company with Harold Bloom, George Steiner, and Walter Benjamin as one of the twentieth century’s leading Jewish intellectuals.
Friedman, Laurence S. Understanding Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. A good general introduction to her fiction. Useful on the tensions between assimilation and separateness as they relate to issues in Jewish identity. Good on the role of fantasy and the golem in Jewish tradition.
Kauvar, Elaine M. Cynthia Ozick’s Fiction: Tradition and Invention. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. Good discussion of the role of Socrates, fantasy, and the Doppelgänger in Ruth Puttermesser’s adventures. An impressive study of Ozick’s achievement, especially in her short fiction.
Victor Strandberg, Greek Mind/Jewish Soul: The Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994. Excellent on Ozick’s biography and its connection with her art.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 150
Bloom, Harold, ed. Cynthia Ozick: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Cynthia Ozick’s Comic Art: From Levity to Liturgy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Friedman, Lawrence S. Understanding Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
Kauver, Elaine M. Cynthia Ozick’s Fiction: Tradition and Invention. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Lowin, Joseph. Cynthia Ozick. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Pinsker, Sanford. The Uncompromising Fictions of Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.
Rainwater, Catherine, and William J. Scheick, eds. Three Contemporary Women Novelists: Hazzard, Ozick, and Redmon, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.
Strandberg, Victor H. Greek Mind/Jewish Soul: The Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
Walden, Daniel, ed. The Changing Mosaic: From Cahan to Malamud, Roth, and Ozick. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
Walden, Daniel, ed. The World of Cynthia Ozick: Studies in American Jewish Literature. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1987.