Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519

The most important theme in the story is that of overcoming illusion. Not only the boy but also his entire family avoid facing reality. While it is largely anti-Semitism that leads them to this condition, it is also anti-Semitism in its most vicious form that shocks the boy out of his illusions. The narrator recalls what it was like for him as he lay on the ground with “tender pigeon guts” sliding down over his forehead: “I closed my solitary unstopped-up eye so as not to see the world that spread out before me. This world was tiny and it was awful. A stone lay just before my eyes, a little stone so chipped as to resemble the face of an old woman with a large jaw.” The detail here is so precise that one is convinced that the author experienced it exactly so—and that it was then permanently etched in his memory. These minute details impel the reader to enter the boy’s consciousness.

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Still lying on the ground, “in his new overcoat,” the boy hears hoofbeats in the distance—the pogrom: “Somewhere far way Woe rode across [the trampled earth] on a grezt steed.” He becomes aware of the very dirt beneath his nose: “The earth smelled of raw depths, of the tomb, of flowers. I smelled its smell and started crying, unafraid.”

All this description evokes in the reader a perception equal to that of the boy. It has the character of an awakening, a revelation—an epiphany. It includes the disturbing realization that violence and death are necessary to produce true understanding. For the boy, the experience becomes also a rite of passage, parallel to Bar Mitzvah. On that day, he became a man.

The pogrom takes on an unreal aspect as Babel describes Russians (and Ukrainians) happily looting and smashing or carrying aloft in processions icons, the Cross, a portrait of the czar. There is almost an invitation here to see the point of view of those others. However, the key to Babel’s true attitude lies in his treatment of Makarenko, whom the boy had actually looked on as a friend. The illusion of that friendship is the first illusion the boy loses, as the cripple turns on him like a snake. Although the reader might feel some slight inclination to pity the man bound to a wheelchair, Babel removes that inclination when he has Makarenko say, lamenting his inability to obtain all the booty he wants, “God’s picked on me, I reckon.” What he means is that God has picked on him to suffer. There might even be something noble in it—a supposition confirmed by Makarenko’s next utterance: “I’m a son of man, I reckon.” The phrase “son of man” is Jesus’s usual manner of referring to Himself in the Gospels. The vicious Makarenko is thus transformed by Babel into a grotesque Christ-figure, and anti-Semitism is revealed for what it is: an attribute of the Christian religion.

Babel dedicated this story to the writer Maxim Gorky. It was Gorky who published Babel’s first stories in 1916.

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