Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 964
Three characters in this story—Harry, his father, and Paulus—are physically large men, and this is reinforced by the name Dan Jacobson chooses for Harry and his father: Grossman (as gross means “large” in German). However, though Harry has inherited from his father a great strength, the old man is no longer strong and senility has destroyed much of his mental capacity. On the other hand, his “passion for freedom,” which causes him constantly to run away from home, is his understandable desire to escape from a household in which he knows that he has no real place.
To Harry, the old man’s senile flights are a nuisance, a social embarrassment, and a source of resentment and guilt. The resentment is against a father whose past failures were the reason for which Harry had to work so hard as a young man. When his father, setting off for South Africa, was somehow diverted to Argentina, his wife was forced to go into debt to help him come home. Harry had to work for years to pay off the debt, to finance their passage to South Africa, and, because the old man could not hold a job, to support them when they got there. Because he was forced at an early age to fill his father’s economic role, he hates the old man, though he also cannot escape the sense that he owes his father filial affection. His guilt for his failings as a son is submerged in his bitterness about what he considers to have been his father’s exploitation. To make matters worse, the old man in his senility demands, “What do you want in my house? . . . Out of my house!”
Harry’s Zulu servant Johannes proposes using Paulus, a “raw boy” from the country, who, he claims, is his brother, as a caretaker for the old man. In fact, Paulus may only be his relative or someone from his own village. This close identification of the two Zulus with each other is important in the story because it contrasts with the mutual alienation that characterizes Harry’s household. The Jews also were once a tribe, but Harry and his family are incapable of thinking even in family terms, let alone in the tribal terms of Johannes and Paulus. Harry is suspicious of Johannes’s suggestion, but he consents because he thinks it would be a fine joke on his father and, because he considers Africans an inferior race, on Paulus as well.
Paulus solves the problem of the old man’s constantly running away in the simplest way: He goes with him. The two men wander through the streets of the city together, often getting lost because neither can read street signs, but in a strange way they become friends. The old man calls Paulus Der Schwarzer and Paulus calls him Baas Zeide, using the Yiddish word for grandfather that he has heard Harry’s children use. Paulus bathes and dresses the Zeide, trims his hair and beard, and even carries him to bed. Because Paulus clearly cares for the old man as Harry believes he himself should care for him, Harry feels a guilty irritation, yet he enjoys his joke: By reducing his father to the level of Paulus, he has reduced him to the lowest possible level in a racist society. When he makes his cruelty worse by saying that he plans to send Paulus away, he is frustrated by the response of the old man, who merely goes to Paulus’s room to sit there with him “for security,” as though realizing that Harry would never enter an African’s room.
Because of the affection between the Zulu and the Zeide, Harry’s rage is also directed at Paulus. Once, when he is accusing Paulus of tiring the old man needlessly by taking him too far—apparently forgetting that Paulus is the follower, not the leader, in the wanderings—he is enraged by Paulus’s inability to understand English, accuses him of willfully misunderstanding him, and ridicules his lowly status in society: “You’ll always be where you are, running to do what the white baas tells you to do. . . . Do you think I understood English when I came here?”
One day, Harry quarrels with his father when Paulus has the afternoon off. The old man calls for Der Schwarzer, and Harry tries to tell him that Paulus will return. Then he pleads with him to let him do for him what Paulus would do. “Please. . . . Why can’t you ask it of me? You can ask me—haven’t I done enough for you already?” By now the old man is weeping, as if in grief for the lost Paulus or perhaps in rage at Harry for sending him away at last. Finally Harry leaves him, and his father hysterically runs into the street and is hit and killed by a bicyclist. The argument that led to his father’s death is a terrible secret with which Harry is left for the rest of his life.
At the funeral, Harry’s wife and children and even Paulus weep for the old man. Harry, however, is unrepentant. He pays off Paulus and tells Johannes to tell him to leave; Johannes must remind the Baas that Paulus also wants his “savings” (wages withheld by the employer to keep a “boy” from wasting his earning on foolish things). When Harry asks contemptuously why Paulus would want to save money, Johannes says, “He is saving, baas . . . to bring his family to this town also.” At this point, something cracks in Harry, and on the verge of tears he stares at the two Zulus and with “guilt and despair” cries, “What else could I have done? I did my best.”
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