Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Ruth Puttermesser is Cynthia Ozick’s protagonist in two earlier stories: “Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife” and “Puttermesser and Xanthippe.” In these stories, at the ages of thirty-four and forty-six, Ruth attempts, through fantasy, to create a significant role for herself in a world of values that she has created from literary sources. For example, she envisions William Blake’s mercy, pity, peace, and love reigning in New York, and she sees the Brooklyn Bridge as the harp that Hart Crane called it. In both stories, Ruth is returned to the limited and unpromising world of actuality. Ozick, through these and other stories and essays, has established herself as a writer whose themes depend in part on a sense of intertextuality with literature and history. Also related is her earlier story “Levitation,” in which a married couple, both writers, think of themselves as being like Eliot and Lewes, but their mental limitations and self-focus make the comparison ironic.

Similarly, Rupert the reductionist, who recognizes that his talent is only postcard-size, is an ironic impersonator, re-creating fully neither the art he copies nor the historical Lewes or Cross. As Ruth recognizes briefly, he shrinks mastery, dwindling it to a size he can call his own. Insisting that he cares not for the dead and past, that he is the one who is alive, he is driven to diminish the power of great artworks into the four-by-six-inch cards...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The novel is in many ways a meditation on mortality and the transience and ephemerality of human striving. Ozick announced in an electronic interview that The Puttermesser Papers can best be thought of in connection with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Where Hamlet believes that “readiness is all,” Ozick is interested in the moment after readiness; if one does not devour life or act decisively, then one decays. If, indeed, decay is all, then one is driven to confront the human condition and mortality. In Ruth’s tragicomedy of disappointments and thwarted dreams, she struggles mightily against meaninglessness, only to find herself engulfed by it at novel’s end.

One of the novel’s strongest motifs rests in its allusions to Socrates and his philosophic project. Socrates probably held the doctrine that human error is based on ignorance and that no one desires to do bad things; that it is worse to do injustice than to suffer it; and that human excellence is a kind of knowledge. While Ruth’s ethical idealism and dispassionate commitment to higher ideals seem to confirm her enlightened status in the novel, the end result of her sacrifices and sufferings point toward the vision of the world laid out in Ecclesiastes.