Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Importance of Parallels
The Chosen is a bildungsroman, a novel that traces the intellectual, moral, and psychological growth of a young protagonist. What makes The Chosen unusual is its focus on the development of two main characters rather than one. As a result of their friendship, Reuven and Danny develop along parallel lines. To reinforce the importance of Reuven and Danny’s relationship to their respective developments, Potok fills his novel with a seemingly endless array of pairs, parallels, complements, and contrasts. Some characters’ parallel relationships are important because they fulfill similar roles. For example, David Malter and Rav Gershenson parallel each other because in David Malter’s absence, Rav Gershenson becomes Reuven’s wise instructor. Other parallel characters are important because they complement one another by sharing knowledge. Reuven and Danny are one such pair: Danny introduces Reuven to his broad yet rigorous method of analyzing Talmud, while Reuven teaches Danny patience and open-mindedness when Danny is frustrated with experimental psychology. Still other parallel characters are important because they contrast with one another. For example, while David Malter and Reb Saunders are both fathers and religious scholars, they demonstrate fundamentally different beliefs about parenting and religious tolerance.
In addition to creating parallel characters, Potok pairs abstract concepts as well. He relates Reuven’s experience with near-blindness to Danny’s experience with silence. He points out the similarity between Danny and Reuven’s apartments. He even connects events, such as David Malter’s heart attack after FDR’s death.
On one level, the use of parallels makes us aware of how important relationships are in Potok’s world. Potok argues that every person, every object, everything in his the universe is intimately connected to something else. For Potok, there can be no growth, no development, and no progress without an awareness of this ever-present connection.
On a deeper level, Potok’s pairs echo the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan. Lacan was a French psychoanalyst and student of Freud’s works. His most famous contribution to psychology was his formulation of what he called the mirror stage. According to Lacan, there is a crucial stage in human development when, as infants, we first see ourselves in a mirror. This marks the first time in our lives, Lacan explains, when our interior sense of ourselves is associated with an external image of ourselves. It is a moment of important identification, when we begin to develop a sense of our own identity. Lacan argues that we need external images, reflections of ourselves, to define our sense of who we are. The parallels in The Chosen are structured in this way. The complements and contrasts in the world are mirrors the characters use to develop their sense of the world and themselves.
Silence As a Path to the Soul
Chaim Potok’s working title for The Chosen was A Time For Silence. Silence is present throughout the novel, although its importance is obscure until the novel’s resolution. Potok often inserts the word “silence” in the text, leaving us to figure out its meaning. For example, in Chapter 4, Reuven notes that a “warm silence, … not in the least bit awkward” passes between him and Danny. At first glance, this use of the word “silence” seems unrelated to the mysterious silence between Danny and his father. But later, we learn that silence, like communication, can help people better understand each other.
Reb Saunders reveals his reasons for his silence toward Danny in Chapter 18. By depriving Danny of a certain physical stimulus, Reb Saunders forces him to cultivate other senses of perception. In other words, the imposed silence forces Danny to mature. Danny’s experience with silence parallels Reuven’s experience with blindness, forcing him to turn inward, and thus develop a better sense of his soul, a greater empathy for others, and a better sense of the world and his role in it.
Yet Potok does not completely endorse Reb Saunder’s treatment of Danny. When Reuven meets Danny, he is not accustomed to silence. Reuven’s relationship with his father is based on a constant, easy flow of conversation; as a friend, Mr. Malter is a good listener and offers sound advice. As a result, Reuven thinks of silence as something strange, dark, and empty, and he considers Reb Saunders’s silence toward Danny inexplicable and cruel. At the end of the novel, after Reb Saunders explains his silence, Reuven and his father continue to wonder whether its benefits outweigh its drawbacks.
Silence is alternately frightening, confusing, warm, and welcome, but it always leads to introspection, allowing the characters’ humanity, spirituality, and empathy for others to grow. Reuven is blind to moments when silence is comfortable, warm, and inviting, but Potok is careful to show that silence is not always harmful, despite Reuven’s initial ignorance of its nuances. Silence occurs between every pair of major characters at some point in the novel. Danny and his father are the most prominent example, but silence exists also between David Malter and Reb Saunders, who never speak to each other in the novel. Danny and David Malter do not speak after their encounter in the hospital until the very end of the book; Reuven and Danny have silence imposed upon their friendship by Reb Saunders; David Malter imposes a kind of silence on Reuven by refusing to explain Reb Saunders’s way of raising Danny; and Reuven imposes a silence on Reb Saunders when he ignores the rebbe’s requests for conversation. Again, Potok shows that silence exists everywhere, in many forms, and has as much meaning in a relationship as words.
The Conflict between Tradition and Modernity
Though Potok disagrees, many critics believe the conflict between Hasidic tradition and American secular modernity is the central theme of The Chosen. Much of Jewish-American literature focuses on the tension between traditional Jewish values and modern American mores, and The Chosen can be read as part of that tradition. What is unusual about the novel is how little we see of the world beyond Danny and Reuven’s Jewish community in Brooklyn—even the hospital keeps kosher. We never see any of the characters interacting directly with the outside world. Even when David Malter speaks at Madison Square Garden for the first time, Reuven does not attend, making the event seem far away and reinforcing Reuven’s distance from the world beyond his Jewish community.
Instead of coming from the world outside Reuven and Danny’s neighborhood, the tension in the novel is between two conflicting philosophies within the Jewish community: Reb Saunders’s isolationist fanaticism and David Malter’s more open-minded awareness of the world around him. Reb Saunders’s traditionalist mindset is stubborn and parochial. For most of the novel, he is unwilling to engage the outside world or interpret Judaism in ways other than his own. David Malter, on the other hand, remains tolerant of other points of view, even Reb Saunders’s. Most important, David Malter is willing to adapt his religious beliefs to engage modernity constructively. With his activism and scientific approach to Talmudic study, David Malter represents Potok’s ideal of the modern American Jew. He manages to fuse a traditional sense of devotion and spirituality with a commitment to the larger world around him.
At the end of the novel, Reb Saunders says that he wants Danny to be a “tzaddik for the world.” With this acknowledgement of Danny’s responsibilities to the world as a whole, we get a sense that Reb Saunders’s fanaticism has evolved into a more open-minded expression of religion and spirituality.
Choosing versus Being Chosen
According to tradition, Jews are the “chosen people,” somehow set apart from the rest of the world, especially in terms of their obligation to God. None of the novel’s characters actively chooses to be Jewish; it is an aspect of each character’s life that has been chosen for him by virtue of his birth. Each of the characters in the novel, though he loves his religion and does not resent it, struggles with what it means to be chosen in this way. For Reb Saunders, being Jewish means one must accept a special set of obligations to study Torah and serve God. For David Malter, being Jewish means a certain intellectual and spiritual obligation to fill one’s life with meaning. For Reuven, being Jewish means a joyful commitment to religious tradition and intellectual engagement. For Danny, being Jewish means carrying a difficult burden at the same time as it means respecting a proud intellectual tradition.
However, though Danny enjoys the Jewish tradition, the obligations he has as a result of his family’s Hasidic culture encumber him greatly. Like his religion, Danny’s culture and its values were not something Danny chose, but something chosen for him. By virtue of his status as first-born male, he is chosen to inherit his father’s position. Perhaps in another time and place, this obligation would not so upset Danny. But, as Reb Saunders himself acknowledges in The Chosen’s final chapter, modern America is a land of opportunity and choices. As an American, Danny does not have to passively accept the destiny that was chosen for him; he can actively choose what he wants to do with his life. Therefore, even though Danny does not rebel against his religion, the conflict between Danny and his father is a conflict between accepting what has been chosen and choosing one’s own path.
Reb Saunders also struggles with the concept of choice. He chooses to raise Danny in silence, even though he understands that doing so in America will probably drive Danny away from his Hasidic roots. Nevertheless, Reb Saunders believes it is more important for Danny to cultivate his soul than for him to continue the family legacy. At the same time, the method Reb Saunders chooses for Danny is the one that was also chosen for him. Reb Saunders only knows the tradition in which he was raised. He has chosen to raise Danny to be a fuller human being, but does not know how to do so without forgoing a fuller, closer relationship with his son.
Throughout the book, all the characters struggle with the tension between accepting what has been chosen and choosing one’s own path. Both options have advantages and disadvantages, privileges and obligations. Potok does not imply that actively making a choice is better than passively accepting what has been chosen. Rather, he stresses the value of both active engagement and passive reception.
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.
Over the course of the novel, Reuven and Danny develop and mature as they learn important truths about the world around them and about themselves. Throughout this journey, they become increasingly aware of and sympathetic to the suffering around them. This increased awareness then leads to empathy, humility, and a sense of responsibility—all of which make both Reuven and Danny better people. David Malter and Reb Saunders both display a deep awareness of suffering, and both stress to their sons the importance of empathy. Even though David Malter criticizes Reb Saunders’s zealousness and radical methods, he and Reb Saunders both want to teach Reuven and Danny to cultivate their souls and to care for others. Reb Saunders explains that our knowledge of the suffering of others erases our selfishness and makes us more empathetic and humble. It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are and of how much we must depend upon the “Master of the Universe.”
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Eyes and Eyeglasses
The prevalence of eyes and eyeglasses in The Chosen reflects the novel’s emphasis on perception of the world and of oneself. Eyes and eyeglasses represent vision, not only in the literal sense, but also in a broader, figurative sense. After injuring his eye, Reuven develops a better appreciation of his eyesight. At the beginning of Danny and Reuven’s friendship, Danny works to make Reuven more aware and more willing to open his eyes to the world. As Danny develops an increased awareness of the world beyond his Hasidic community, his eyes grow weary and he begins to wear glasses.
Eyes are not just used for looking; they are also meant to be looked at. The way characters’ eyes reveal their interior states implies that perception is a two-way process, not only about looking but about studying and receiving as well. When angry and withdrawn, David Malter’s eyes become dark. When pleased and proud, Reb Saunders’s eyes mist over. David Malter uses the eye as an example of the miracle of life, saying, “the eye that blinks, that is something.” Mentions of eyes in the novel symbolize the importance of perception, and also the way reciprocity can improve perception.
Throughout The Chosen, there is only limited discussion of the Torah, the Jewish Bible and most holy of texts, and almost no mention of the Kabbalah, the mystic literature that is very important to Hasidic tradition. Instead, Potok places an unusual emphasis on the Talmud, which contains a series of commentaries by rabbis. Study of the Talmud, as demonstrated in the novel, involves active engagement of its commentaries and a willingness to challenge the text and to resolve conflicting points. Therefore, Potok’s emphasis on Talmudic study in The Chosen symbolizes the importance of actively engaging tradition and pursuing knowledge in order to attain a unique and personal interpretation of Judaism and the world in general.
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