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.