Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The epigraph of Book One of The Chosen is a quotation from Proverbs that highlights the importance of father-son relationships in the novel: “I was a son to my father. . . . And he taught me and said to me, ‘Let your heart hold fast my words. . . .’” Because it is from the Bible, this quotation also points to the connection between obedience to one’s father and obedience to God and religion. The critic Edward Abramson explains that The Chosen’s “stress upon fathers parallels a similar stress in Judaism, where God is King, Judge, and Father. . . . [T]he father can be viewed as a fount of wisdom, one who takes upon himself some of the aura of the Godhead.” David Malter and Reb Saunders both possess profound knowledge and deep spiritual commitment, qualities they pass on to their sons. Yet, the two fathers interpret Judaism in contrasting ways. In particular, they have different beliefs about what their commitments to the outside world should be. These differences in beliefs inform how each father teaches and relates to his son, and how each son develops and matures.
As both Reb Saunders and David Malter emphasize, we are able to choose our friends, but not our fathers. This difference between friendships and father-son relationships adds another shade of meaning to the novel’s title: fathers and sons cannot choose each other, but this lack of choice does not make their relationships any less meaningful. By the end of the book, all the characters have learned that one must strike a balance between what one can choose and what has been chosen for one. Danny chooses his own path, but he has also learned the value of being a tzaddik and the value of his family’s heritage. Potok’s message is that although we do not choose our fathers and sons, we must appreciate and respect them.
Ten of The Chosen’s eighteen chapters conclude with references to eyes, seeing, watching, looking, or listening. Perception and vision is the novel’s dominant motif, bridging the entire text from Reuven’s eye injury at the beginning to the final passage, in which Reuven watches Danny walk away after perceiving an “almost blinding” “light” in Danny’s eyes. Vision in the novel symbolizes the ability to see the world, to see oneself, and to see beneath the surface and into the heart of a matter. As Danny and Reuven mature over the course of the novel, they develop clearer pictures of themselves and of the world around them.
After Reuven’s eye accident, he remarks that “everything looks different.” His experience in the hospital gives him a newfound appreciation of his own health. Later, his friendship with Danny teaches him to look beyond superficial appearances. Their friendship broadens and deepens Reuven’s perception of the world and allows him to relate to and empathize with others’ suffering.
As the novel progresses, Potok focuses on other senses besides vision. In Chapter 7, Reb Saunders scolds Danny for hearing but not listening. When Danny reads in the library, he covers his ears to block out sound. As Danny’s friendship with Reuven develops, he learns to be a better listener. As a result of Danny’s experience with silence—which parallels Reuven’s experience with blindness—Danny learns to appreciate words. Furthermore, Reuven’s development is apparent in his descriptive language, which becomes more specific throughout the novel. As he becomes more aware of the world around him, his descriptions become more detailed, displaying Reuven’s improved command of his senses. The novel’s final passage mentions four of the five senses, showing the development both Reuven and Danny have experienced over the course of the novel.
The characters in The Chosen experience some suffering: Reuven is hospitalized after being hit by a baseball, Danny struggles with his father, and David Malter suffers two heart attacks. For the most part, however, the characters lead calm, happy, fulfilling lives, while the world suffers in the background of the novel. For instance, in the hospital, Mr. Savo, Billy Merrit, and Mickey all suffer far more than Reuven does. David Malter’s heart attacks are overshadowed by the news of FDR’s death and by the terrible revelations of the Holocaust.