Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 319
Ruth Puttermesser embodies the main themes of Cynthia Ozick’s novel. One theme is the challenges of aging alone. Ruth is an apparently successful, single career woman who decides she needs more in her life than her work as an attorney can provide. A related theme is the need for balance...
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- Critical Essays
Ruth Puttermesser embodies the main themes of Cynthia Ozick’s novel. One theme is the challenges of aging alone. Ruth is an apparently successful, single career woman who decides she needs more in her life than her work as an attorney can provide. A related theme is the need for balance between the romantic and the pragmatic aspects of life. Ruth veers over to the romantic, and even fantastic, side. Her interest in 19th-century novelist George Eliot turns into an obsession; moreover, the salient part of that obsession is imagining that she will find her perfect soulmate, as Eliot had in George Lewes. More generally, an important theme is the shallow pretentiousness of 20th-century urban life. Ruth believes that one obstacle to finding true love is the New York social milieu in which she travels. Certainly the characters Ozick creates in that world seem overly materialistic or bound up in intellectual pursuits for which average people have little concern.
As Ruth tentatively locates that true love, Ozick complicates the apparent satire with genuine questioning about the nature of love. The reader must take a step away from judging Ruth’s preoccupations after she seems to find the man of her dreams. The theme of the relationship between reality and copying, or authenticity and simulacrum, is extended to Rupert’s miniature paintings. Ozick explores the playing out of Ruth’s fantasies with Rupert’s efforts both to please her and, it seems, to con her into believing he is the man of her dreams. The author then juxtaposes that situation to the art that Rupert makes. To an observer, it seems what he is doing is copying other artists’ paintings. Because he renders them in miniature, however, he insists on his own originality. Ruth objectifies the man—in a way more often associated with men’s behavior toward women—in wanting him to represent a symbol rather than be himself.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489
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 that he makes. Unable to reenact the masterful mind that was Lewes, he reconstructs the less daunting Cross as a figure whom he can mimic. Ruth’s retreat from the life around her, the thirst she feels for a time machine to take her to her image of life with Lewes, a life of courtliness and distinction, leaves her vulnerable. She is unable to recognize herself as one of many lonely singles, such as those in the personals advertisements. Although she protests consciousness of her stunted experience and secluded loneliness, she deludes herself into believing that Rupert will and can be Lewes to her, that their marriage will be a wedding of soulmates. Overwhelmed by her sense of diminution as an aging woman, she snatches at Rupert’s energetic immediacy as a stimulus for her own revitalizing, as evidence that she is not the crone she sees in her mirror.
Ruth is among the “lonesome atoms” that make up the nonrelational world as her neighbor, Raya Lieberman, describes it, a motif in the story. Absorbed by her idealizing, she lacks perception about the world around her; for example, she wears patent leather high heels out into the snow, instead of the galoshes worn by the others. From Rupert’s perspective, individual perception and interpretation create mastery, so that his imitation is not fraudulent, as Ruth sees it. His impersonation of Cross, which leaves Ruth feeling routed, undermines Ruth’s ideal of virtue and knowledge. He has, at least, invented himself.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 205
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.