Malamud ‘s The Fixer is a novel which was written in a time of extreme prejudice and inequality. Malamud fought this struggle in a very powerful way – through writing. Perhaps the strongest styles he used to fight against the Jewish oppression are irony, and the use of dreams and hallucinations. Irony is an overpowering force in Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer. The sequence of events which Yakov Bok goes through makes the entire novel ironic. The chief irony of the novel lies in the fact that what Bok is attempting to escape, he cannot escape.
To understand the irony in the novel, it is necessary to examine two major events in the circular life of Yakov Bok. Bok is attempting the escape his life in the shetl. He is wrongly persecuted for a ritual murder and attempts to escape his physical and mental torture. In each case, Bok is attempting to escape his Jewishness.
The novel has an overall ironic tone. Bok leaves the shetl in which he has lived the majority of his life to go to Kiev. In Kiev Bok hopes to find opportunities for work and education. Mainly, though, Bok seeks relief from his earlier shame of being cheated on by his wife. While in the shetl Bok sees himself as a victim of his wife’s barrenness.
The irony lies in the fact that that even after escaping the shetl and being in a different kind of hell, prison, Bok’s life in the shetl comes back to haunt him. Bok learns of a child that Raisl has had with her lover and gives his bitter sentence of “a black cholera upon her” (Malamud 254).
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The one thing that might have given him happiness in his life before has now gone to someone else. This event brings Yakov shame that he could not father a child with Raisl while another man could. Thus, the problems of the shetl which Bok has tried so desperately to escape hav come back to haunt him once again. Bok’s life is very circular.
Later in the novel, Raisl visits Yakov in prison in an attempt to end her own ostracism in the shetl. Yakov could here exact some kind of revenge upon Raisl by allowing her to be ostracized for having an illegitimate child the way he was ostracized for being cheated on. However, Yakov eventually signs the document which says “I declare myself to be the father of Chaim, the infant son of my wife Raisl Bok… Please help the mother and child, and for this, amid all my troubles, I’ll be grateful” (262).
Bok, now having on paper what he once wanted most, a son, cannot enjoy it. The second event which exemplifies the ironic and circular nature of Yakov Bok’s life is his attempt to escape his Jewishness.
In leaving the shetl Bok shaves his beard and cuts his ear locks, and on the ferry across the river to his new hell drops his prayer things into the water. Bok is not only attempting to turn his back on his own history, he is attempting to turn his back on the history of his race. The poor fixer should have known better, for he is arrested for the ritual murder of a young Christian child. His accusers believe that Bok used the blood of this boy for the making of matzos. While in prison Bok realizes that “being born a Jew meant being vulnerable to history, including its worst errors” (Malamud 206).
Furthermore, the prosecuting attorney, Grubeshov, tells Bok: A Jew is a Jew, and that’s all there is to it.
Their history and character are unchangeable. Their nature is constant. This has been proved in scientific studies by Gobineau, Chamberlain and others. Our peasants have a saying that a man who steals wears a hat that burns. With a Jew it is the nose that burns and reveals the criminal that he is. (130) Here the irony partly lies in the fact that Bok is treated so badly because of something which he was in the first place trying to escape.
The other irony is that Bok decides to defend his Jewish heritage to his captors. He is offered his freedom if he will denounce the Jews. He refuses, stating that “he is against those who are against them… he will protect them to the extent that he can…
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this is a covenant he has made with himself” (189).
When he is brought the confession by Raisl, he signs the line where his name belongs with the statement, “Every word is a lie” (262).
Bok’s ordeal in prison occurs because of the religion which he was attempting to turn his back on when he left the shetl. However, while in prison Bok seems to discover something of value in the old Jewish religion (Tanner 336).
Bok’s existence is once again shown to be very circular and full of irony.
Irony is definitely a constant in Bernard Malamud’s novel The Fixer. Two elements best illustrate the irony in the life of Malamud’s protagonist, Yakov Bok: first, his attempt to escape his life in the shetl; and second, Bok’s attempt to escape his religion. Each event contributes to the ironic atmosphere in The Fixer. Secondly in Malamud’s The Fixer, almost all of Yakov Bok’s time is spent in prison.
The Fixer is an examination of freedom and its compliment, commitment. Though Bok has no physical freedom, the longer that he is imprisoned, the more true freedom he obtains. Bok is able to attain this freedom through his dreams and hallucinations. These sequences are important because they prevent the story from becoming static, but more important, they illustrate that true freedom lies within one’s self. Yakov Bok is tortured in the government’s attempt to obtain his confession to the ritual murder of Zhen ia Go lov. He is poisoned, strip searched, chained, and nearly frozen to death: The fixer was chained to the wall all day, and at night he lay on the bed plank, his legs locked in the stocks…
the leg holes were tight and chafed his flesh if he tried to turn a little… the straw mattress had been removed from his cell… now in chains, he thought the searches of his body might end but they increased to six a day, three in the morning and three in the afternoon. (236) These tortures leave Bok with no conscious energy to focus against his captors. Thus, it is only through Bok’s dreams and hallucinations that he can escape and deal with his imprisonment.
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One of the most important freedoms which Bok finds within himself is the freedom to accept his religion. In one of his dreams he dreams that his father-in-law, the only father that he has really known, has died. When he wakes, Bok says to himself, “Live Shmuel, live… let me die for you” (287).
Bok experiences a kind of panic after awakening from this dream. He cannot fathom that he will not see this man again, even though he knows that their ever meeting again is nearly impossible.
Bok realizes through this dream his true feelings towards the old man whom he called “father.” Furthermore, Bok knows that through his death for a crime he did not commit, he can save many of his Jewish brothers from death in the riots which would ensue if he were released. Therefore, Bok’s saying “let me die for you” is directed not just to his father-in- law, but to all those who, had they been in the wrong place at the wrong time as he was, could just as easily have been accused of this same crime. Through a dream as small as this, Bok has realized much about the greater purpose which he now serves. Bibikov, the Investigating Magistrate, is one of Bok’s only friends in the novel. After Bibikov’s death, Bok hallucinates a conversation with his old friend.
In this hallucination Bibikov tells Bok that “the purpose of freedom is to create it for others” ( 336).
This event again illustrates that Bok’s hallucinations are important to his discovering an inner freedom. Bok holds this statement especially dear because of the fact that it comes, although in a dream, from someone he trusted and believed in. Bok now realizes that his freedom is not the important issue.
It is the freedom of those who will come after him that really matters. Realizing that his freedom is not important strangely gives Bok a greater sense of freedom. He now knows what the purpose of his life must be: Bok must be a martyr for his people, the very people that he had tried to abandon. Bok’s dream sequences and hallucinations are a key part of The Fixer.
They allow Bok and the reader to see that it is possible to find freedom within oneself. Proportionally, Bok’s dreams and hallucinations take up a large part of the novel because of his lengthy stay in prison. They are also of great significance to the novel as a whole. The Fixer is a novel which searches for the meaning of freedom and how one can achieve it under the direst of circumstances. Bok finds his freedom because of revelations which he has because of his dreams. In conclusion, Malamud rebels against “the bad guys” in two main ways: through the use of irony and the use of dreams and freedom.
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