Translation from Yiddish
Throughout his life, Singer wrote almost exclusively in Yiddish. As Yiddish is still spoken by only a relatively small number of people, most readers are acquainted with his work in translation. Later in his life, as he became more comfortable with his own command of English, Singer often translated his Yiddish stories into an English rough draft, and then worked with another translator on the details of the translation. This story retains only one phrase from the original Yiddish; when Black Dobbe appears before Dr. Fischelson in a silk nightgown on their wedding night, she says, ”Mazel tov.” This is a Yiddish phrase usually spoken on holidays and celebrations.
The narration is third person, meaning the narrator is not a character in the story, but is “restricted,” rather than “omniscient,” meaning that the events of the story are primarily told from the perspective of the protagonist. Only occasionally does the narrative perspective venture outside of Dr. Fischelson’s head, to describe some of Dobbe’s initial impressions of him.
Intertextual references are elements of a story that refer to texts, or books, which exist in reality outside of the story. Central to this story is the reference to the philosopher Spinoza’s philosophical work, Ethics. Dr. Fischelson’s life and career have been devoted to the study of Ethics, and his thoughts often refer back to the ideas presented in Ethics, and even to direct quotes from Spinoza. Full appreciation of this story requires a basic knowledge of Spinoza’s life, and a greater familiarity with his philosophy, particularly as set forth in Ethics.
The setting of this story is typical of Singer’s fiction. It takes place on Market Street, in a Jewish shtetl of Warsaw, Poland. Singer grew up in such an area in Warsaw, and his stories that take place there depict the conditions of Polish Jews in the early part of the century. Singer is credited with capturing this pocket of Jewish culture, which was lost forever as a result of the Holocaust.
The time period of the story is in July and August of 1914. This is very important because the very personal story of Dr. Fischelson and his marriage takes place in the context of the early part of The Great War (World War I). Dr. Fischelson hears about the coming war when he goes out to buy food, and learns that it has resulted in food shortages and the closing of shops. While he is sick in bed, Black Dobbe further informs him that the Germans are marching toward Warsaw. Dr. Fischelson’s philosophical preoccupations prevent him from thinking about the war from other than a very intellectual, distant perspective. Toward the end of the story, as he is looking up at the night sky, he thinks, “Seen from above even the Great War was nothing but a temporary play of the modes.” Nevertheless, a historical perspective on the part of the reader leaves no doubt that the war will eventually have an enormous impact on the Jewish population of Poland.
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.