Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

An important theme in Nathan Englander’s “The Tumblers” is the struggle of the individual against society. The story takes place during the Holocaust, when being identified as a Jew in areas controlled by the Nazis was a death sentence. It offers a quasi-humorous escape route for the Mahmirim, who are strict observers of Jewish and civil laws. The group is repulsed by the more liberal-thinking Mekyls, who bend the Jewish and civil law to suit their own purposes. The implication is that because the Mekyls behave in a stereotypically greedy manner, they are not as able to shed their acquisitions and thus become trapped by the Nazi regime.

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Another point associated with the theme of the struggle of the individual against society is related to how Jews are perceived by the greater populace. If Gentiles view Jews as clumsy and farcical, that perception would be difficult, if not impossible, to erase. The audience laughs at the acrobats, who they believe are mimicking Jewish behavior. When the final scene includes heckling from audience members who demand a longer performance, Mendel impetuously puts his hands out as if he were testing the waters to see if he was safe. There was no other place in the realm of his experience that he would have been able to act as spontaneously.

The entire story is filled with self-deception and self-discovery. From the start, when the townspeople of Chelm hold Gronam in high regard because he renamed all that was scarce as all that was plentiful, it is evident that these people prefer to be deceived rather than to accept the reality that they are trapped in a ghetto. They continue to deceive themselves while they are in the town, but when they are faced with boarding the death train, they must choose between deception and discovery. The Mahmirim discovered that by shedding their possessions they gained an advantage over those who deceived themselves by thinking that everything would return to normal.

Friendship and brotherhood is also an important theme. Mendel is a friend to the Mahmirim and saves their lives by sharing information learned from befriending a Gentile musician from the circus on the train. The Rebbe serves as the leader of a brotherhood of Jewish followers who survive by listening to his advice.

Another theme is illusion and reality. The illusion of the Mahmirim, dressed in their long underwear, being acrobats helps disguise their identity as Jews and protects them from extermination. The revelation of the magical trains that made huge numbers of Jews and others disappear is presented as illusionary but actually is reality. The horror of the Holocaust is masked by absurd scenes of pious individuals in gray long underwear that has been decorated with trinkets and discards from the diner car. Envisioning men and women tumbling in such strange outfits creates a jovial image in an otherwise abhorrent scene.

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