A Silver Dish Themes
by Saul Bellow

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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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.


(Short Stories for Students)

Familial Love

Woody Selbst loves his father much like an indulgent father might love his irresponsible, yet self-serving son. Woody loses the opportunity to have his education paid for because of the selfish actions of his father. Because he loves his father, he gives him his savings when the old man wants to hire a taxi and leave the family. Because he loves his father, he takes him to the house of his patron, Mrs. Skoglund. Having gone that far against his better judgment, Woody distances himself from his father after the older man steals the silver dish. The brief wrestling bout on the living room floor is caused by the son trying to keep the father from misbehaving. Acting out of love rather than anger, Woody tries to restrict his father, just as later he climbs into the dying man’s bed to prevent him from disconnecting his tubes.

The narrative states explicitly that Morris Selbst loved his son, too, listing him second only to Halina, his mistress, in the older man’s life. Though Morris tries to take advantage of Woody, in his own mind, Morris wants to spare Woody the indignities of having to associate with people who only pretend to care for him.

Snobs and Snobbery

Pop Selbst justifies his behavior by characterizing the people who have converted Woody and his mother to Christianity—Mrs. Skoglund, the Reverend Doctor Kovland, and Aunt Rebecca Kovland—as snobs, who look down upon him...

(The entire section is 1,372 words.)