Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

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Alienation, a theme in several of Nathan Englander’s stories, is also evident in “The Twenty-seventh Man.” The title reflects the plight of an individual; however, twenty-six others were also caught up in the Stalinist purge of Jewish writers. Although alienation usually refers to the struggle of an individual against others, the twenty-seven men are emblematic of the alienation of Jewish people in Russian society.

Another theme in this story is the struggle of the individual against society. It is pointed out that Stalin ordered the murder of the Jewish writers not because he hated them but because he questioned their loyalty. Those arrested wrote in the Yiddish language rather than in Russian. The government of a society whose members refer to one another as comrades apparently had difficulty accepting any thoughts that are not the party line.

The twenty-seven Jewish writers are identified as one unit because they are all intellectuals criticizing various issues. Although Korinsky wrote positively about Stalin’s government, he was still identified among the Jewish dissident writers. The free, creative thinking of Zunser, Bretzky, and other Jewish writers was threatening to Stalin’s government. The influence of the Jewish writers is reflected in Pinchas’s reaction at his arrest: He thinks that merely reading Zunser is enough to justify his arrest.

Even in the inhumane setting of the prison cell, the incarcerated individuals are able to exhibit some acts of kindness to one another. Bretzky and Zunser make an effort to cover Pinchas’s bare feet with their shoes and socks. They also make an effort to help Pinchas after he is beaten for acknowledging the greatness of Zunser.

Korinsky, the writer who tries to appease the Russian government by writing favorably of it, acts less kindly toward Pinchas. Even though Pinchas is able to quote Korinsky’s ode by heart, it is not until they are about to be taken out into the yard to be shot that Korinsky acknowledges the significance of Pinchas’s story within the story. Thus Stalin, through his error of including an additional writer in his purge, provides an emerging writer with his own private audience and his moment of recognition.

The story Pinchas tells reinforces the plight of the twenty-seven men who are about to be exterminated. The focus is on death and obedience to the rules of Jewish law. Pinchas’s story has two characters, Mendel Muskatev and a rabbi. Mendel, a person in a small community, awakens to find all of his possessions missing and, thinking he has died, says a prayer for the dead. When he discovers that he is alive, he thinks he has committed a sin by saying his own death prayer and seeks his rabbi, a religious sage, to ask if he has sinned. When Mendel arrives at the rabbi’s home, he finds all of his possessions in the home of the rabbi. Mendel then asks which of them should say the prayer for the dead. The question becomes: Who will say a prayer for any of them when they are all exterminated?