Written at a time when Americans, young and old, were perplexed by “the generation gap,” this story explores relationships between the generations of a quintessentially American family. Like many characters in ancient and modern literature, Woody finds the search for his identity inextricably tangled with his genealogical roots. From his parents, he inherits seemingly incompatible impulses toward sincerity and mischief, instinct and refinement, recklessness and responsibility. Woody is “leading a double life,” the narrator says, “sacred and profane.”
Coming to terms with his own identity is, therefore, largely a matter of reaching an understanding of his father’s vices, an understanding that goes beyond the righteous scorn or kind forgiveness of his mother and her circle. The episode involving the silver dish brings Woody’s emotional conflicts into sharpest relief; he gathers from it a comprehension not only of his father’s energetic though immoral imagination but also of his female relatives’ insipid religiosity. His immediate reaction to the theft was like theirs, but ultimately he sided with his father against them.
Perhaps the most intriguing insight in this study of generations is the way the author has made the father more immature than the son. Morris’s impulsiveness, his puerile sinning, and his financial irresponsibility often seem more juvenile than Woody’s foibles: Consider the irony of a son physically punishing his father for stealing; imagine a fourteen-year-old boy financing his own father’s desertion. Often the child plays father to the man.
For all the individuality with which these two characters are drawn, they assume mythic dimensions inasmuch as they stand for two of the nation’s most interesting generations, those that made the 1920’s roar and the 1960’s soar. An immigrant, Morris is a typical burly, passionate, broad-shouldered Chicagoan who survived the Great Depression. He wants his son to be “like himself, an American.” By the time his father dies, Woody has grown “fleshy and big, like a figure for the victory of American materialism.” With his Lincoln Continental, his tile business, and his foreign vacations, Woody typifies mid-century generations of Americans who brought seeds planted by indigent immigrants to fruition. Born a Jew, converted to Christianity, and finally lapsed into agnosticism, Woody embodies the dynamic religious mélange of American culture. The tensions and anxieties he suffers from the competing claims of these traditions are those of the nation as a whole.