The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The characters in Malamud’s novel function both as individuals and as stereotypes. Even though the characters of the two men are quite well developed, the writer clearly intends them to be types; the other characters are less developed.

Malamud uses names to suggest the character of people—an old technique used effectively, for example, in eighteenth century Restoration comedy. Willie Spearmint is possibly the most obvious, with its echoes of William Shakespeare; Harry Lesser is perhaps the “lesser man.” Mary Kettlesmith seems to tie in to the old adage about “the pot calling the kettle black.” Levenspiel is certainly a stereotype of the moneymaking Jew. None of the characters is particularly sympathetic. The Jewish writer who should represent a humanistic tradition is obsessed with “form” in art, while the black writer seems to represent raw talent and “experience” as the necessary component of art.

Harry is working on his third novel. He mentions a first one, good, and a second one, bad, which was bought for a film, and Harry is living from the royalties. His current book has been ten years in the process. He refuses to move because he wants to finish his book where it was born; the irony is that he cannot finish his book in his condition of self-imposed isolation from life.

Harry lives in fear of the jungle outside his apartment. His apartment is an island in New York City, a place of withdrawal. Harry’s fantasies are populated by islands— stereotyped romantic ones, mysterious and beautiful, with crashing waves, trees, flowers, and native dancing girls, specifically one beautiful Mary Kettlesmith. Harry also lives in fear of fire, a real enough fear in a deserted tenement. At one point, he cries, “Where can I run with my paper manuscript?” He carefully puts a carbon copy of his current writing in a bank-deposit vault. Ironically, all the copies of his manuscript are burned by Willie and...

(The entire section is 797 words.)