Bernard Malamud presents the idea that art and beauty are difficult taskmasters. When Rubin measures himself as an artist, what scale is he to use—perfection in beauty and form? Indeed, is he to compare himself with one of the world-acclaimed master painters, Rembrandt? If these are to be his standards, then how is Rubin to measure up? In case he should try to stop thinking about the quality of his art, the comic Arkin is sent to keep him on his toes. Here Arkin serves much the same purposes as the troublesome Susskind in Malamud’s “The Last Mohican.”
Arkin reminds Rubin about Rembrandt, hence of Rembrandt’s beautiful achievements in art as well as the recognition the world has accorded Rembrandt. Rubin, on the other hand, has had only one exhibition of his work—seven years ago—and has produced little or nothing of merit since then. Rubin is painfully aware of this himself. At forty-eight years of age toward the story’s end, Rubin has few years left to produce beautiful work, and somehow his welded iron triangles do not produce much hope in the reader’s mind. This is the reason for the sadness Arkin notices in Rubin’s eyes. Since Rubin shares his pursuit of beauty with some of the greatest artists of the past, however, perhaps one may hold out hope for him. At the least, perhaps the pursuit of the beautiful is its own reward.
A second theme that Malamud pursues is the difficulty of human relationships. Arkin, a well-meaning fellow if ever there was one, despite his best intentions frequently wounds Rubin. When he finally realizes, however, that he is responsible for alienating Rubin, Arkin apologizes and asks forgiveness. Thus, Malamud demonstrates effectively that despite their difficulty, human relationships are possible so long as one is willing to make the effort and take the responsibility.