Summary: Chapter 9

On Monday morning, Reuven’s father takes him to Dr. Snydman’s office for an eye examination. The doctor pronounces Reuven’s eye perfectly healed and says he can read again. Reuven is excited to get back to his studies and to make up his exams.

That Friday, Reuven calls Roger Merrit, Billy’s father, to ask him about Billy’s eyesight. Mr. Merrit informs Reuven that Billy’s surgery was unsuccessful. When Reuven asks if he can visit Billy, Mr. Merrit says his company has transferred him to Albany, and Billy has already moved there. When Reuven gets off the phone, his hands are freezing, and he cannot concentrate. He sits on his porch and watches a housefly trapped in a spider web. Reuven blows on the web to free the fly and watches as the spider tumbles from the broken web and disappears from view.

Summary: Chapter 10

During the first month of summer, Reuven and Danny spend almost every day together. In the mornings, they study Talmud with their fathers—although Reuven spends three days a week playing ball instead of studying. In the afternoons, they read together in the public library. David Malter frequently joins them, quietly researching for an article he is writing. On Saturdays, Reuven and Danny discuss Talmud with Reb Saunders, but Danny’s father does not ask Reuven any more questions about Danny’s extracurricular activities. Danny and Reuven spend most evenings together, walking and talking, although occasionally Reuven goes to movies with his other friends, an activity from which Danny is prohibited. Reuven and his father devotedly follow the progress of the war in the newspapers, and Danny begins reading Freud in German.

One week, Reuven’s father travels to Manhattan to do research. Reuven spends the week studying with Danny at the library. During this period, Danny is frustrated with Freud’s German and seems stuck. Then one day, during a Talmud session with his father, Danny realizes that he must study Freud like he studies Talmud, with dictionaries and commentaries. Up to that point, Danny explains to Reuven, he had been reading Freud instead of studying him. He begins to make progress with this new approach.

Meanwhile, Reuven reads a book on symbolic logic. He lends Danny some books to read while Reuven and his father are at their cottage near Peekskill during the month of August. Upon Reuven’s return, the boys meet in the library, and Danny is excited to discuss what he has learned about Freud. The two agree to talk about it in the near future, but as the new school year begins, Reuven becomes too busy to talk with Danny about Freud.

Analysis: Chapters 9–10

In Chapter 9, Reuven’s conversation with Mr. Merritt about the failure of Billy’s surgery forces Reuven to confront the existence of unjust suffering as he did in the hospital. He realizes that he has no control over such senseless pain. He also realizes that such pain is the result of nothing more than bad luck. In the face of such arbitrary cruelty, Reuven wonders how to make sense of the world around him, how to reconcile the idea of an all-powerful, all-knowing God with such random, senseless suffering. This conflict within Reuven foreshadows the struggle that the world’s Jews—and the characters in the novel—face in the wake of the Holocaust.

At the end of Chapter 9, Potok abruptly changes the tone of the novel’s narration, filling Reuven’s description of the spider and housefly with symbolic language and imagery. The trapped fly symbolizes the cruelty and suffering that are an unavoidable part of the natural world. Reuven’s freeing of the fly reflects his desire to alleviate this suffering. At the same time, in trying to help the fly, Reuven hurts the spider, which suggests that helping someone possibly and perhaps even necessarily hurts someone else.

Chapter 10 accelerates the story, relating the events of the entire summer in just a few pages. Previous chapters took place over the course of a day or two, and the duration of all of Book I (Chapters 14) is less than a week. Chapter 10’s accelerated time frame, which continues for most of the remainder of the novel, reflects the accelerating maturity of both Danny and Reuven. They are growing up rapidly and acquiring more commitments and responsibilities. The frenetic pace introduced in Chapter 10 also reflects the increasingly frenetic pace of Reuven’s and Danny’s lives. At the end of the chapter, Reuven remarks, “for a long while I had no time at all to think about, let alone discuss, the writings of Sigmund Freud.” To show that Reuven and Danny have less time for discussion and introspection, Potok relates fewer of Reuven’s and Danny’s thoughts and words.

Chapter 10 also introduces a parallel between Danny’s study of Freud and his study of the Talmud. By teaching Danny how to analyze Talmud, Reb Saunders unknowingly has equipped Danny with the skills he needs to understand Freud. Furthermore, Danny is using methods gleaned from his religious study to learn material that subverts his religious faith. This parallel makes us question whether Danny will be able to reconcile his conflicting obligations to his father and faith on the one hand, and his desires to pursue secular thought outside the bounds of his tradition on the other hand.