Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Singer has said that writing can rely on words or action; he has always sought to portray deeds. The Slave is faithful to this intention, for it is full of adventure and suspense. Will the peasants kill Jacob? Will he and Wanda be reunited? Will the Jews of Pilitz learn Wanda’s secret identity? Singer never forgets that one reads a novel first of all for the story.

The Slave also offers many passages of great lyricism: Singer is a master of words as well as of action. When Jacob looks at the night sky, he sees that “the stars looked like letters of the alphabet, vowel points, notes of music.” He likens the snow to “fleece and the dust of diamonds.” Singer evokes the life of the peasantry and the benighted spirit of seventeenth century Poland.

Beneath this brilliant surface lies a profound metaphysic. Here is the eternal battle between good and evil, the sacred and the diabolical, fate, foreknowledge, and free will. Though he writes from a modernist perspective, Singer nevertheless worries about the salvation of his characters’ souls, for he believes in souls, salvation, and damnation. Perhaps even more significant, he makes his reader worry about this issue also. For Singer, God is alive, ruling the world wisely if not mercifully. In later works, Singer steps back a bit from such optimism, but in The Slave he expresses a belief in the triumph of virtue and of man’s capacity for redemption. Like the biblical story that the novel retells, narrative serves philosophical and religious ends.