How does Potok weave together personal and political events in his novel? How do politics and world events contribute to the novel’s plot and character development?
The historical setting of The Chosen includes the final years of World War II and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. These political developments drive the novel’s plot. Danny and Reuven’s friendship, the novel’s central subject, is predicated on major world historical events. In the first chapter, Reuven comments that he never would have met Danny if not for America’s entry into World War II. Reuven explains that a growing patriotic awareness of the importance of athletics to the war effort led Danny and Reuven’s community to begin its softball league.
One of the major conflicts in the novel is Reb Saunders’s and David Malter’s difference of opinion about the proper way to respond to the Holocaust. In response to the murder of six million Jews, Reb Saunders says it is God’s will and that man can only wait for God to bring the Messiah. In contrast, David Malter believes that American Jews must give the Holocaust meaning by preserving the Jewish people and creating a homeland in Palestine. This fundamental difference of opinion between the two men ultimately drives Reb Saunders to end the friendship between Danny and Reuven.
Political developments are not just a backdrop to the novel; they motivate the novel’s character and plot developments. Potok implies that in the modern world, individual lives are inseparable from larger historical developments. He also asserts that it is important for people to actively engage the outside world.
How does Potok use silence as a narrative technique?
The epigraph to Book Two of The Chosen is a quotation from the Zohar that reads “Silence is good everywhere, except in connection with Torah.” The Zohar is the central text of Kabbalistic knowledge (see the Glossary for an explanation), by which Reb Saunders raises his son Danny. In accordance with the teaching of the Zohar, Reb Saunders never speaks to Danny except when they are discussing the Torah. At the end of the novel, Reb Saunders explains that the purpose of this silence is to teach his son to have compassion in his soul.
However, silence is not only a defining aspect of the way in which Reb Saunders raises his son, but also an important aspect of Potok’s writing style. Potok uses spare language. Characters often sit quietly, immersed in their own thoughts. Long pauses in conversation are found throughout the novel, even when the topic of conversation is silence itself. In the last scene of the novel, when Reuven’s father asks Danny if he will raise his own son in silence, Potok writes, “Danny said nothing for a long time.”
Often, a character says nothing in response to a statement about which he obviously has strong feelings. When Reuven learns that Danny has been teaching himself German, he is shocked. Even so, when Danny asks what is wrong, Reuven does not reply. Potok leaves gaps in his story and describes the characters’ silences because he intends for us to have the same experience as his characters. As readers, we must fill in the gaps, just as Danny must listen to his father’s silences and fill in the gaps. We must search within ourselves and within our understanding of human behavior to recognize what such pauses communicate.
Potok also uses silence in the novel’s thematic development. He refuses to reveal the meaning of Reb Saunders’s silence, creating a mysterious silence about silence that builds as the novel progresses. Like Reb Saunders’s silence, Potok’s silence forces us to examine more carefully the details Reuven relates—it leaves us with a deeper, more personal sense of Reuven and Danny’s world.
Discuss the meaning of the novel’s title. Who or what is chosen in the book? Which is more desirable: to be chosen or to make a choice?
The novel’s title refers to the idea that the Jews are God’s chosen people and therefore hold special privileges and responsibilities. Both Danny and Reuven fulfill their duty by studying Jewish liturgy, and they derive great pleasure from Jewish traditions. At the same time, both protagonists feel the burden of being Jewish—the burden of being a member of a persecuted minority. Reuven is saddened by the loss of lives during the Holocaust, and Danny struggles with the Hasidic tradition he was born into. In its reference to Judaism, the novel’s title refers to something the characters have no control over. This lack of control has both positive and negative effects on the characters.
Danny struggles to choose his life path rather than have it chosen for him. Danny is not only born into a religion; he is born into a very demanding culture with a strict set of customs and expectations. To Danny, being chosen is especially cumbersome, because his lifestyle and education are limited by the rules of his culture. As a Hasid, he cannot choose his wife, and as a tzaddik, he cannot choose his profession. Yet Danny nevertheless defies his father’s expectations and chooses another path, deciding to become a psychologist.
At the end of the novel, we learn that this path was in fact something Reb Saunders chose for Danny, when he made the decision to raise Danny in silence. At the same time, Reb Saunders’s method of parenting was chosen for him—he raised Danny the only way he knew. At the novel’s conclusion, we see that creativity, spirituality, and inspiration can emerge out of a situation in which one has no choice. Potok’s message is ambiguous. He shows us that being chosen has both positive and negative consequences; it has both unpleasant obligations and rewarding privileges.
1. Many critics have written that The Chosen is a distinctly American novel. They argue that the novel’s plot is centered on the concept of the American dream, the ideal that anyone can have the opportunity to become anything. Do you agree or disagree with this analysis? Could the novel take place in another setting?
2. Discuss Judaism in The Chosen. Why are there no important non-Jewish characters? Why is the novel restricted to a Jewish environment?
3. In The Chosen, every character, event, action, and idea seems to have a parallel, an opposite, or a complement. Identify several such relationships, and explain the purpose they serve in the novel.
4. Why do you think Potok chose to tell the story from Reuven’s point of view? What narrative advantages does Reuven have over Danny? What advantages does Reuven’s limited first-person perspective have over an omniscient third-person perspective?
5. Compare Reb Saunders’s political ideology to David Malter’s. At times, each father feels threatened by the other’s views. At other times, each father displays strong respect for the other. How are the two men different from one another, and how are they are similar? How can they both dislike and respect one another at the same time?
6. Where are women in The Chosen? How do they play a part in the story? If they are absent, why do you think Potok excluded women’s voices?
7. Throughout the novel, Potok uses imagery of eyes, glasses, and other items associated with vision and perception. What do these images symbolize? Discuss several examples, including at least two in which eyes reveal a character’s feelings.