Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories Analysis
Singer draws on the rich tradition of myths to tell his stories. The most immediate source of his legends and fables is the pietistic literature familiar to Eastern European Jews. Such literature is known in Yiddish as bubah meises (roughly translated as “tales my grandmother told me”), serving to transmit lessons and values from generation to generation. As pointed out by Canadian critic J. A. Eisenberg, Singer’s fiction derives its emotional charge from the principle that the greater the fall, the more forcefully the intended “ethical concept” comes through. Adding to this effect is the stories’ shtetl setting, its intensely religious atmosphere heightening the tension between ideal and practice.
Because such archetypal figures as the Devil play vital roles in shtetl consciousness, Singer is able to blend seamlessly the real and the mythical in his tales. By providing a mythological framework integral to the character’s lives, he avoids an artificiality and abstractness that can deaden allegorical writing, especially for young readers.
Contributing to the immediacy of Singer’s style, as well as effectively dramatizing inner conflict, devils and demons personify drives that torment the psyche. While some critics might be concerned about the risk that their grotesqueness might traumatize young readers, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim would argue that the more monstrous the opponent, the more effectively are embodied a child’s anxieties and the greater the release provided by the opponent’s defeat. Bettelheim therefore cautions against adults’ misguided efforts to sanitize fairy tales or other folk literature. His theories also help explain the enduring popularity of this literature with children.
In the world of myth, not only are powerful demons vanquished but a helpless creature such as Zlateh can assume heroic proportions as well. Zlateh’s simplicity and innocence, which appear to be weaknesses, are revealed as strengths in the light of love and understanding. While Singer, a vegetarian, is clearly protesting the butchering of animals in “Zlateh the Goat,” he is also championing the undervalued and overlooked in the world. This story, as well as “The Devil’s Trick,” show that such individuals have reserves of power that require only the proper key to be unlocked. Stories culminating in the triumph of the insignificant and the underestimated are naturally satisfying to young children.
Laughter is also satisfying to children. Their ability to laugh at a schlemiel distances them from his folly and ill fortune. Traditionally, the schlemiel is plagued by bad luck that is somehow of his own making, as he mistakes his delusions for conditions as they actually are. Children, who are in the process of acquiring their culture’s values and standards, can gain a sense of belonging as they, too, understand the joke in a schlemiel tale.
Forging a sense of self in the spheres of family and community is a task that begins in childhood. Celebration of the Hanukkah festival, reinforcing family and community ties, figures prominently in three of the stories: “Zlateh the Goat,” “The Devil’s Trick,” and “Grandmother’s Tale.” A wedding, symbolizing the union of male and female, the foundation of the family, happily concludes “Fool’s Paradise” and “The Mixed-Up Feet and the Silly Bridegroom.” A wedding also ritually affirms faith in community tradition.
The characters’ anticipation of integrating self and community is made poignant by Singer’s dedication of the stories in the collection to “the many children who had no chance to grow up because of stupid wars and cruel persecutions.” Singer here is paying tribute to young victims of the Holocaust. The Nazi’s Final Solution dealt a blow to shtetl life from which it never recovered. Singer the storyteller evokes the power of memory and imagination to overcome the loss, because for “the writer and his readers all creatures go on living forever.”