This story is told from the first person limited perspective, meaning that the reader is given only information which the narrator, also the protagonist of the story, also has. This is effective in that, while the story centers on the suicide and religious crisis of Isaac Kornfeld, the ”pagan rabbi,” it is portrayed as a reflection upon the religious and identity crisis of the narrator himself. The reader is presented with the events and characters only from the perspective of the narrator. Thus, each element of the story further develops the character of the narrator.
As in many of Ozick’s stories, this one is built upon multiple types of story framing. The first person narrator begins by narrating the events of the ”present” time in the story, which begin when he learns of the suicide of rabbi Kornfeld. The narrator, however, explains the significance of the present events in relation to past events, which are related in a sort of “flashback” mode, jumping between past and present. When he goes to visit Sheindal, the rabbi’s widow, she in turn narrates to him the story of her husband’s behavior leading up to his suicide. When she gives the narrator the rabbi’s notebook, the story unfolds through the narrator’s discussion of direct quotes from the rabbi’s writings. Later, when Sheindal hands him the letter Isaac left, the narrator is reluctant to read it; instead, Sheindal reads the letter aloud to him. This narrative technique creates a kind of “Chinese box” or Russian tea doll effect, whereby a story is revealed through multiple framing. The narrator is telling a story which is based on Sheindal’s story of the rabbi, which is based on her reading aloud the rabbi’s letter.
Ozick’s writing is known to be difficult due in part to the erudite literary references that play a significant role in her stories. In describing Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld’s reading habits, the narrator explains that, “One day he was weeping with Dostoyesvski and the next leaping in the air over Thomas Mann.” It would be important to know about the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyesvski and the great German writer Thomas Mann to appreciate the significance of these references to the themes of the story. In reading Isaac’s notebook, the narrator mentions a number of literary references. The rabbi jotted down passages and quotes from various writers, which the narrator describes as ”the elegiac favorites of a closeted Romantic.” The narrator here is referring specifically to the literary period of Romanticism, which flourished in the early nineteenth century. The narrator cites some of the most renowned romantic poets from the rabbi’s notebooks: “He had put down a snatch of Byron, a smudge of Keats…”
In his pursuit of the worship of Nature, the rabbi turns to Greek mythology. In his notebook the narrator finds the statement, “Great Pan lives.” This refers to the Greek god Pan, half goat, half man. The goddess of Nature who seduces the rabbi into paganism is given the Greek-sounding name of Iripomonoeia.
Most of the characters in this story have names taken from the Old Testament. The rabbi’s name is Isaac. Isaac is the only son of Abraham and Sarah. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his own son; Abraham demonstrates his faith in God by preparing to carry out this command, but at the last minute, God commands Abraham to spare the boy’s life. This biblical tale points to both the unquestioning faith of Abraham and the mercy of God. In Ozick’s story, Isaac’s daughters also have biblical names such as Naomi, Esther, and Miriam. Each name thus refers to a biblical character and story. Learning more about these biblical references would shed further light on the themes of the story.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Cynthia Ozick, Published by Gale Group, 2001.