(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In the Chmielnicki massacres (1648-1649), the Cossacks kill Jacob’s wife and children. He survives by fleeing his native Josefov, but his fate is little better than his family’s: Captured by brigands, he is sold as a slave to Jan Bzik.

Wanda, Jan Bzik’s daughter, falls in love with Jacob. When he tends the cattle in the mountains during the summer, she brings him special foods from the village. When he is sick, she cares for him; when he is bitten by a snake, she saves his life. Because he remains an Orthodox Jew, Jacob will not work on the Sabbath—thus, Wanda performs his chores for him. She wants Jacob to marry her or, if he will not marry, to live with her.

For a long time Jacob resists. Wanda is not Jewish, so he cannot marry her, and without marriage he refuses to sleep with her. Finally, though, his love and lust overcome his scruples. Further, despite Polish law, which makes the conversion of a Gentile a capital offense for both the convert and the Jew who has caused the conversion, Wanda embraces Judaism.

Jacob’s life with Wanda ends abruptly when Jews from Josefov ransom Jacob from slavery. Back in his native village he teaches Hebrew, serves as beadle in the study house, and restores damaged sacred texts. The Jewish community wants him to remarry and finds a rich widow for him. One night, shortly before the marriage is to occur, he dreams that Wanda is pregnant with his child; the next morning he sets off to...

(The entire section is 534 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

On the most superficial level, The Slave is simply a historical novel, set in the seventeenth century, about a Jewish man, Jacob of Josefov, who, at a time when many Jews were being massacred, was fortunate enough simply to have been captured by robbers and sold to a farmer, Jan Bzik, in a remote area of Poland. There are, however, many kinds of slavery described in the book. If at first Jacob is enslaved by the Poles, later he is the slave of lust and then a slave of the prejudice both of the Christians and of his Jewish brothers.

The Slave is also the story of alienation. Because he is a faithful Jew, Jacob is an alien among the Christians; however, because of his forbidden love for a non-Jewish woman and his deepening religious awareness, he is also an alien among his own people. Singer’s choice of his protagonist’s name underlines the importance of the theme of alienation. After the biblical Jacob’s lost son, Joseph, rose from the depths of slavery to become the pharaoh’s adviser, it was Jacob who moved his family to alien Egypt.

The Slave is divided into three parts. In the first part, Jacob is desperately trying to keep his religious laws among debased and violent peasants who, though they think of themselves as Christians, are actually primitive pagans, governed by no moral law. When Jacob attempts to keep himself physically clean, when in obedience to his dietary laws he refuses to eat their nonkosher meat, and, above all, when he avoids taking part in their drunken debauches and sexual orgies—in other words, when he emphasizes his otherness—most of the peasants become distrustful and angry. Only the protection of Jan Bzik and the sympathy of his daughter, Wanda Bzik,...

(The entire section is 712 words.)