Saul Bellow begins “A Silver Dish” by focusing on Woody Selbst, the protagonist, at age sixty. He is a successful businessman, the owner of a tile distribution company, living alone in an apartment on the top floor of his company warehouse. It is Sunday morning, and the bells are ringing in churches all around the South Chicago neighborhood where he lives. Woody reflects on the death of his father, Morris “Pop” Selbst, earlier in the week. He thinks of other people in his life: his mother, whose conversion to Catholicism hastened her husband’s abandonment; his two weak-willed sisters, who are in their fifties and still living with their mother; his wife, from whom he has been separated for fifteen years, and Helen, his mistress; and Halina, the woman for whom his father left the family when Woody was fourteen and with whom his father lived for over forty years. He has a particular time of the week allotted for each of them. Sunday has always been his day to spend with Pop.
The church bells and thoughts of his father lead Woody to recall an incident that happened during the Great Depression, when Woody was seventeen. He was attending a seminary, with his tuition paid for by a rich patron, Mrs. Skoglund, a friend of his aunt and uncle. They all took an interest in him because he was Jewish and had converted to Christianity. One day, his father came to him and said that Halina had stolen money from her husband so that he, Morris, could pay a bookie and that he had to put the money back or the husband would beat Halina and possibly kill her. He wanted Woody to take him to Mrs. Skoglund’s house, so that he could ask the wealthy woman for a loan. Woody knew that Mrs. Skoglund did not approve of Selbst and that there was a danger that she might quit paying his tuition if she thought that his father had too much influence on him, but out of loyalty to his father he agreed. They traveled by trolley car from the south side of Chicago to the affluent suburb of Evanston, north of the city, during a blinding blizzard.
At the Skoglund mansion, Woody talked their way in the door past the suspicious housekeeper, Hjordis, who opposed the idea of showing them any kindness at all. Mrs. Skoglund came to meet them and took them into a parlor where Woody introduced his father and then stepped back, quietly allowing Pop to make his case. Morris explained that he was a hard-working man who had gotten himself into financial trouble, making the case that he would be able to help children if she would just give him a break. When Mrs. Skoglund and Hjordis left the room to pray to God about the best course of action, Pop went to a cabinet, pried open its lock with his penknife, and, to Woody’s dismay, removed a silver dish. He explained that it was just in case Mrs. Skoglund did not give him the fifty dollars he needed; he would put it back if the money did appear. Woody tried to take the dish from his father, which resulted in their rolling on the floor, wrestling with each other. They broke their hold and stood up just before Mrs. Skoglund returned. Having prayed about it, she decided to give Morris a check for the money. Woody accompanied her to her office as she wrote it and gave it to him, asking him to pray with her for his father’s soul.
Once they left the house, Woody asked Pop if he had returned the silver dish to its proper place, and he said that of course he had. Because of the snow, they spent the night at the Evanston YMCA, and in the morning Pop went straight to Mrs. Skoglund’s bank and cashed the check. A few days later, the dish was discovered missing. Woody denied knowing anything about it but was forced to leave the seminary. When he confronted his father about it, Pop gave him the ticket from the pawn shop when he had hocked it and invited him to redeem it. In his apartment, Woody now remembers his father’s final days. In particular, he remembers being in the hospital room when Pop tried to pull the intravenous needles out of his arms. To stop him, Woody had taken off his shoes and climbed into the bed beside him, holding his arms, denying him what he wanted for once. Prevented from removing the tubes with his hand, Pop had just shut his metabolism down, letting the heat seep out of his body until he was dead.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Saul Bellow, Published by Gale Group, 2010