With the exception of David Levinsky, who is drawn with much personal insight, the other characters in the novel remain stock figures. Although given distinctive individual characteristics, their function is to illustrate various common aspects of the Jewish experience in Russia and the United States. David’s mother sacrifices everything to help her son become a renowned Talmud scholar. Matilda is the typical young, secular Russian Jewish intellectual, sexually liberated and full of revolutionary fervor. Dora Margolis, easily the most sympathetic character in the novel, holds her family together, although she is unhappily married to a crude husband and regretfully watches her young daughter’s command of English and adaptation to the American environment far exceed her own. The Kaplan family, an Orthodox household transplanted to the New World, reminds David of his heritage and leads him to become engaged to Fanny, although he does not love her. Abraham Tevkin abandons the Hebrew poetry that made him famous in Europe, becoming a real-estate salesman in America.
In contrast, Levinsky is drawn with considerably more nuance and complexity. Cahan, who was a leading Jewish socialist, does not make his capitalist protagonist wholly attractive. Levinsky’s egotism, his chauvinism, and his driving materialism are presented realistically, but Cahan also describes Levinsky’s pain and frustration as an inexperienced immigrant, unsure of the customs and mores...
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