Philosophy versus Religion
A central theme of this story is the conflict between the ideas put forth in modern philosophy (such as that of Spinoza), and the ancient beliefs held by Orthodox Chassidic Judaism. The protagonist, who considers himself a Jew, is alienated from the Jewish community of the shtetl in which he lives due to his unorthodox ideas derived from modern philosophy. Because of this, Dr. Fischelson is fired from his job as the synagogue librarian, and considered to be a “heretic” or a “convert” by the members of his community. As in many of his stories, Singer explores the theme of the Jew caught between the Enlightenment of the modern secular world and the ancient beliefs of Chassidic Judaism.
Redemption through Passion
Singer’s characters often find some sort of solution to their alienation through the experience of sexual passion. Dr. Fischelson attempts to live by the “rational” tenets of Spinoza’s philosophy, eschewing the physical world in the pursuit of philosophical scholarship. His marriage to Black Dobbe first brings him back into the fold of his Jewish community, through their traditional wedding ceremony in the synagogue, officiated by the rabbi, and attended by the (albeit snickering) members of the community. Even on his wedding night, he goes to bed with Spinoza’s book of Ethics but discovers a long-smothered sexual passion with his new wife. Looking up at the night sky, he declares his apostasy from rationalism and entry into life by his admission to Spinoza that he has become a “fool.”
Jewish Culture and History
Many of Singer’s stories take place in the now-vanished Jewish shtetl of Warsaw, Poland before the advent of World War II. While the story is centrally concerned with the personal life and thoughts of Dr. Fischelson, it takes place against the backdrop of the very specific historical circumstance of the events leading up to the advent of World War I in August, 1914. Singer’s stories address the indirect theme of nostalgia for the Polish Jewish communities desecrated by the Holocaust. Singer is credited with preserving the memory of this rich culture through the settings of his fictional stories in the context of the Jewish world in which he grew up. In addition, Singer’s stories, written in Yiddish and meticulously translated into English, in themselves represent an effort to preserve the Yiddish language, also severely devastated by the death of much of the world’s Yiddish-speaking population in the Holocaust.
The Cosmic and the Earthly
Dr. Fischelson’s only activity, beyond the study and contemplation of Spinoza’s philosophy, is looking through his telescope from the roof of his garret room. From this vantage Dr. Fischelson contemplates the cosmic, while below his window the life of the Jewish community occupies Market Street. Dr. Fischelson’s alienation from his community, the physical world, and participation in human life is represented by his focus on the cosmic and refusal to participate in the earthly. It is the “miracle” of his newly discovered sexual passion for his new wife that draws Dr. Fischelson down from the realm of the cosmic to the realm of the earthly, thus leading him back into the stream of life, and, almost ironically, a reentry into the Jewish community.
Alienation and Loneliness
Dr. Fischelson’s devotion to Spinoza’s Ethics, and his efforts to live by the rational tenets of the philosopher, have ultimately lead to his complete isolation and loneliness. He has been cast out of his synagogue, regarded with suspicion by the members of his community, and lost all ties with his fellow scholars. In his striving to live a rational life, he has cut himself off from human warmth. Black Dobbe, a mannish, homely “old maid,” who has been jilted twice, is also a figure of loneliness and isolation. The warmth and human contact she brings to Dr. Fischelson during his illness results in the end of both loneliness and alienation for both of these unlikely bedfellows.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Published by Gale Group, 2001.