Themes and Meanings
The Substance of Fire examines the dynamics of a dysfunctional family. Baitz sets this small social unit against the larger unit of a business—one that is falling apart due to inner conflicts—and to the European Jews, who fled the Holocaust and must cope with survivor’s guilt in the New World. This parallel between microcosms demonstrates that at each level or grouping of society, people can behave with extraordinary cruelty toward one another.
Isaac’s family was destroyed during the Holocaust, and he feels enormous guilt that he was able to escape and come to the United States rather than end up tattooed and dead in a concentration camp. To atone for the atrocities done in the past, he devotes himself to publishing book volumes about the Nazis. He does not realize that his focus on the past is blinding him to the needs of the present and the future, most important of which are his relationship with his children and the stability and success of the publishing firm created by his father-in-law.
Isaac’s children are different enough from one another that the presence of their father can cause them to strengthen as well as to forgo their affections and alliances. Aaron is homosexual, though neither Isaac nor Baitz emphasizes the fact. However, Aaron’s need for his father’s approval is crippling, as is proved by the fact that he is not able to save the company when he ousts his father. Sarah hosts a children’s television...
(The entire section is 448 words.)