The Tenants of Moonbloom

by Edward Lewis Wallant

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Characters Discussed

Norman Moonbloom

Norman Moonbloom, a thirty-three-year-old Jew who manages four small, deteriorating tenement buildings owned by his brother. Norman feels like a failure. A kindly, introverted, studious type, he is not cut out to be a businessman but was never comfortable as a student. During fourteen years at the University of Wisconsin, McGill University, the University of Mexico, and Bowdoin College, he tried accounting, art, literature, dentistry, rabbinical studies, and podiatry before becoming his brother’s overworked, underpaid agent. Every week, Norman goes around collecting the rents in cash. He and his brother are violating rent control laws by overcharging for scarce accommodations, and they give receipts for less than the tenants pay. Because Norman is exploiting the tenants, he does not want to get friendly with them. Whenever he shows kindness or sympathy, someone takes it for weakness and begins making demands. Norman knows the buildings are falling apart, but his brother allows him only enough to pay for minimal maintenance. The tenants have no respect for Norman; some insult or ridicule him. In spite of himself, he becomes involved with the lives of many tenants. In his eyes, they begin to represent all of suffering humanity. He sees old age, disease, alcoholism, thwarted ambition, grief over the loss of a child, unemployment, marital strife, physical and psychological abuse, and the debilitating fears that haunt most people who live on the edge of poverty. Some were prisoners in World War II Nazi concentration camps and have identification numbers tattooed on their arms. Eventually, Norman experiences a physical and mental breakdown from feeling torn between the conflicting demands of his tenants and those of his greedy brother. When Norman recovers, he is a different person. With the grudging assistance of Gaylord, the maintenance man, Norman begins renovating all four buildings. To economize, he contributes his own labor and even spends $2,000 of his own savings. He begins to have normal human relationships with his tenants. The experience of being useful to others and of being an integral part of humanity makes him feel more content with his role in life than he has ever felt before.

Irwin Moonbloom

Irwin Moonbloom, Norman’s older brother and his employer. He never appears in person but is continually telephoning to complain. Irwin is a typical slumlord interested only in money. He makes the hypersensitive Norman’s life miserable by forcing him to squeeze money out of the tenants while refusing to allocate any money for such badly needed services as plumbing repair, elevator maintenance, cockroach and rodent control, painting, lighting, carpeting, and repairs to obsolete heating and cooking appliances. Irwin’s character is the exact opposite of his brother’s. Irwin, who might be described as a social Darwinist, is blinded by greed and considers his kindly brother to be a useless dreamer doomed to be a hopeless failure.

Gaylord Knight

Gaylord Knight, the African American building superintendent who is responsible for the upkeep of Irwin’s properties. He feels doomed to be exploited and confined to menial jobs because of his race. He is understandably determined to do as little as possible for the miserable wages he receives and to try to get as much enjoyment out of life as he can. Irwin regards him as lazy and shiftless without considering that Gaylord has little incentive to work hard and is actually holding down a second part-time job as an elevator operator to make ends meet. Eventually, Gaylord is inspired by Norman’s example to find self-fulfillment in helping other people rather than bemoaning his fate.


Basellecci, a cultured old gentleman who makes a bare living...

(This entire section contains 775 words.)

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teaching his beloved native Italian language. He is dying of cancer of the colon but imagines that his constipation is the result of the terrible condition of his apartment’s ancient toilet. His politeness and forbearance make Norman feel especially guilty and help to precipitate the rent collector’s dramatic change of character.


Karloff, a powerful Russian-Jewish immigrant who has finally given up the struggle for existence at the age of 104. He speaks garbled English and Yiddish and feigns inability to understand his neighbors’ complaints about the roaches and mice he attracts with his atrocious living habits. His abominable apartment is Norman’s greatest nightmare and the first unit that Norman and Gaylord attack with detergent, paint, and insecticide.

Sheryl Beeler

Sheryl Beeler, a lusty young blonde who seduces Norman in an attempt to get a reduction in her rent. Norman’s sexual initiation, although sordid, gives him self-confidence and the ability to love, which inspire him to rebel against Irwin and begin his campaign of building renovation.