Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 919
Dr. Nahum Fischelson is a Jewish intellectual who has studied in Switzerland and has achieved some fame as a commentator on the works of Benedict de Spinoza, the seventeenth century Dutch philosopher. As the story opens, Fischelson is a poor old man with a stomach ailment that the doctors cannot diagnose. He lives on an annuity of five hundred marks provided by the Jewish community of Berlin. In an attic room overlooking Market Street in Warsaw, he pursues his study of Spinoza’s Ethics, brooding on the great philosopher’s ideas about the divine laws of reason and about the infinite extension of God. He views the stars through his telescope, seeing in them examples of Spinoza’s insight and vision, while below him in the street humankind, blind to Spinoza’s sense of ethical propriety, pursues its finite passions.
The chaotic crowd on Market Street is composed of shopkeepers, peddlers, thieves, prostitutes, thugs, police officers, and drunks. Across the street, Jewish boys are toiling over books in the study house. Fischelson is remote from them all, having become more and more isolated over the years. When he first returned from Zurich as a doctor of philosophy, much was made of him in his community. He became the head librarian of the Warsaw synagogue and more than one rich girl was offered to him for marriage. He would not marry, however, preferring to remain as free as his idol Spinoza, and he lost his job as librarian because his ideas clashed with those of the rabbi. He supported himself as a tutor in Hebrew and German, but then he became sick and had to give it up. He no longer goes to the café as he had, for intellectual stimulation and the company of his peers. The Revolution of 1905, moreover, brought such chaos to the society with which he was familiar that it further isolated him. Ideas and even language have changed for the worse, as far as he is concerned, and the crowd-pleasing philosophy of the time infuriates him, despite Spinoza’s warning against emotions.
Then World War I starts, and fear is added to Fischelson’s illness. Military convoys pass through Market Street, and his subsidy from Berlin is abruptly cut off. He returns to the café he once frequented, but no one there is familiar to him. He seeks out the rabbi of the synagogue where he was head librarian, but the rabbi and his wife have left, ostensibly on vacation. He considers suicide, but he remembers that Spinoza equates it with madness. Thinking that the world has gone mad, he takes to his bed, convinced that his own end is near. He has a confusing dream then about being ill as a boy, being kept away from a Catholic procession passing by his childhood house, and about the end of the world.
At this point, Black Dobbe, an ugly spinster who lives next door to him in the attic, enters his room to get him to read a letter to her from her cousin, a shoemaker who emigrated to New York. Black Dobbe used to peddle bread in the street, but she quarreled with the baker and now sells cracked eggs there. She was engaged three times; each time, though, the engagement was broken. The two boys she was going to marry backed out, and the rich old man to whom she was engaged turned out to be married. She has a low opinion of men—not simply because of her bad luck with them, but because she knows how the underworld on Market Street treats women, sometimes kidnapping them to...
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be prostitutes in foreign countries, a fate she herself once escaped.
At first thinking that Fischelson is dead, Black Dobbe throws a glass of water in his face when she discovers that he is not. She undresses him and makes his bed, then cooks soup for him and cleans his room, which she finds already tidy. That evening she cooks for him again and, though briefly imagining that he might be in league with evil powers, asks him if he has converted from Judaism. He says no.
Fischelson’s health takes a turn for the better. Black Dobbe continues to visit him and cook for him. She keeps him up to date on the progress of the war, and he, having told her about his own background, questions her about hers. This is the first time that anyone has ever done this to her. When Fischelson asks her if she believes in God, she says that she does not know. He says that he himself does, and that God’s presence is not restricted to the synagogue. Black Dobbe then shows him the trousseau she has collected and carefully preserved.
A short time later, Fischelson and Black Dobbe, much to the amusement of the neighbors who attend the ceremony in the rabbi’s chambers, are married. That night, despite his prior warning to Black Dobbe that he is an old man in ill health, Fischelson makes love to her with the feeling and vigor of a young man. Afterward, while she sleeps, he looks at the stars out his window as he did at the beginning of the story, and as he concentrates on the aspect of heat, diversity, and change in Spinoza’s divinely determined universe, he asks the spirit of the great philosopher to forgive him for giving in to the world of passion—this source, it seems, of joy and health.