Dr. Nahum Fischelson, a philosopher, has devoted the last thirty years to studying and writing a commentary on the Dutch-German philosopher Benedict de Spinoza’s (1632-1677) central text, Ethics. Dr. Fischelson has spent years at this task, but has never actually completed his work. Nevertheless, he attempts to live by Spinoza’s rationalist philosophy, and often quotes him in making sense of his life and the world. He has severe stomach ailments, which he attempts to abate with various foods. He lives on a meager income, supplied by the Berlin Jewish community by mail every three months.
Fischelson lives in a garret apartment on Market Street, in Warsaw, Poland, and lives economically, with few, if any, physical pleasures. He had once been a minor celebrity in his community, due to his distinguished scholarship, but this attention has completely diminished. He is somewhat outcast from his Chassidic Jewish community, because his “heretical” following of Spinoza’s philosophy goes against Jewish theological doctrine. Dr. Fischelson had been the librarian at the synagogue, but has been fired due to his unorthodox views.
This July, Dr. Fischelson does not receive his quarterly pay from the Berlin Jewish community, and begins to go hungry. Meanwhile, rumors of war are leading up to the advent of the Great War (World War I). Dr. Fischelson goes out to buy food with his last remaining funds, but, due to the war, all of the stores are closed. He then goes to see the rabbi for advice, but the rabbi has gone with his family to the spas. He next goes to the cafe where he once had several acquaintances, but sees no one he knows. While at the cafe, he begins to feel ill, and is barely able to make it back home to his garret room and fall into bed, where he falls asleep and dreams, wakes up feeling more ill, and falls asleep again.
That night, Black Dobbe the “old maid” who is his neighbor knocks on his door in order to ask him to read a letter for her (she cannot read). She finds him ill in bed, feeling as if he is on the verge of death, and commences to feed him and nurse him back to health. She informs him of the progress of the war, that the Germans are marching toward Warsaw. Eventually, Black Dobbe demonstrates her entire trousseau to Dr. Fischelson, something that a young girl presents to her suitor. The two get married by the rabbi in the synagogue, with members of the community looking on in amusement. On their wedding night, Dr. Fischelson lies down in bed to read Spinoza’s Ethics but a “miracle” occurs, when Black Dobbe appears adorned in a silk nightgown, and the unlikely couple consummate their union with unexpected passion. Dr. Fischelson awakens to look up at the night sky, amidst the August meteor showers. The story ends with his “murmur”: “Divine Spinoza, forgive me. 1 have become a fool.”
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.