Themes and Meanings
This story reveals the preoccupations that appear in much of Jacobson’s writing: the conflict between fathers and sons, the experience of Jews in South Africa, and the conflict of the races. Much of its power derives from the reader’s realization that, in spite of Harry’s obvious cruelty and his family’s insensitivity to the grandfather, no one is really to blame for what happens. Harry feels a great guilt for his part in his father’s death, but he is himself the victim of the burdensome duty that he has borne all of his life as the head of the family. The Zeide has always been incompetent and foolish, and even as a boy Harry had to fill his father’s role. In a sense, the Zeide has always been his child.
At the same time, Paulus, though he is called a “boy” in the racist society of South Africa, is more of a man than Harry and more of a son to the Zeide. Indeed, the Zulu and the Zeide, in spite of their lack of a common language, communicate with each other more than Harry is able to communicate with his father. Harry’s household is, in fact, a microcosm of the larger society of South Africa. Harry himself was once a “raw boy” from the country (Europe, in his case) and an outsider; he came to South Africa to make his way and, as Paulus hopes to do, to bring his family after him. Paulus and the Zeide are both victims of the bigotry of Harry’s household. Both are wanderers in the streets, scorned by the white men, who look away when they see them because they cannot bear to see the “degradation” of the old man, reduced at the end of his life to the care of a “Kaffir.”
It is the realization that he himself is an advanced version of Paulus, a noble and heroic figure toward whom he has always felt only contempt, that breaks him down at the end of the story. Paulus, working mightily to bring his family to town, is a painful reminder to Harry of what he himself once was and an even more painful reminder of his own inability to love.