Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Cahan uses the life of David Levinsky to explore three interrelated themes. From the opening paragraph, in which Levinsky asserts that although he is a millionaire he is not a happy man, Cahan examines the ambiguous meaning of success and the personal and psychological cost of achieving material gains. Success distances Levinsky from his friends—the companions who came to America with him and those who helped him during his early and difficult years in the New World. His great wealth overawes them, making them uncomfortable in his presence. In turn, Levinsky can never be certain whether people associate with him out of friendship or because they hope to get some of his money. His business success is accomplished through methods that are unethical when they are not illegal, in violation of the values he learned as a child. Appealing to the Social Darwinist creed of “survival of the fittest” to justify his actions, Levinsky is too insecure psychologically to be certain he is, in fact, truly one of “the fittest.”

A second major theme is the development of the American ready-to-wear clothing industry and the surprisingly rapid rise to prominence within that industry of recent Russian Jewish immigrants. Levinsky’s success illustrates how this occurred, but the contradictions between his methods and his inherited values make the meaning of success ambiguous.

The third theme, the process of adaptation to American life by Russian Jewish immigrants of Levinsky’s generation, takes up large segments of the novel. Levinsky experiences the teeming Lower East Side, with its peddlers and markets, its storefront synagogues of recent immigrants, their poverty-stricken homes, and their vigorous intellectual life. As he rises in wealth, Levinsky describes the overfurnished homes of the wealthy, their religious compromises, and the lavish resort hotels that also serve as marriage marts. The novel contains a social history of Jewish immigrants in the years before World War I, as they adapt to a new American reality.