Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712
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, keep Jacob from being killed. Yet even Wanda, who aids Jacob in his religious observances, cannot understand why, although he will sleep with her, he refuses to marry her. She is so deeply in love with Jacob that she offers to take his faith, even though by doing so she would risk her death, as well as his. Then emissaries from a Jewish community arrive with ransom money, and Jacob leaves.
After he has settled in the village of Pilitz, Jacob finds that he cannot get along without Wanda. His feeling for her is more than lust; it is love. Therefore, despite the danger, Jacob risks his life to bring her out of the mountains. Wanda has no problem about becoming Jewish. Neither the Christians in the area nor the Jews of Pilitz, however, must know that Wanda was a Polish Christian. Therefore, Jacob and Sarah, as she is now named, decide that she will pretend to be a mute, because by speaking she could easily expose her own background. For a time, their deception is successful. She is accepted as “dumb Sarah.” When Sarah goes into labor, however, she calls out in Polish, thus betraying the fact that she is not Jewish. Shocked, as well as fearful of Christian retribution, the village immediately treats her as an outcast, refusing to feed her or to help her in any way. After she dies in childbirth, Jacob flees with the newborn baby, whom he has named Benjamin, after the youngest son of the biblical Jacob, whose mother also died at his birth.
In the final section of the novel, which takes place twenty years later, Jacob returns to Pilitz, planning to find Sarah’s body and to take it back with him for final burial in Israel, where Jacob now lives and where Benjamin is a lecturer in a yeshiva. Over the years, Jacob has grown spiritually, inspired by the example of Sarah, who was more devoutly Jewish than the people who scorned her. Jacob, however, is not able to take her to Israel. In Pilitz, he becomes ill and dies. While he is being buried in the Jewish cemetery, the grave diggers find Sarah’s body, which had supposedly been buried outside holy ground. They realize that when the cemetery was expanded, her burial place had been included, perhaps accidentally, but more likely as an indication of the judgment of Providence. Husband and wife are buried together, accepted and honored at last.
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