Summary and Analysis
Book 1: Chapters 2-4
Mr. Galanter, the coach of Reuven's softball team, takes Reuven to Brooklyn Memorial Hospital, where Reuven has surgery to remove glass from his left eye. The next morning, Reuven introduces himself to the man in the bed on his left, Mr. Savo, a boxer, and the youngster in the bed on his right, Billy, who was blinded in a car accident.
Reuven's father, Mr. Malter, visits Reuven in the hospital and tells him that he will recover completely from the accident. He also says that Danny's father, Reb Saunders, has called him to ask about Reuven's condition. According to Reb Saunders, Danny is very upset about the accident. But Reuven believes that Danny deliberately set out to hit him. Reuven's father disagrees with his son's analysis of the situation and asks him not to speak this way about Danny.
Reuven goes to sleep. When he wakes up, Danny Saunders is standing at his bedside. Danny tells Reuven that he is truly sorry about the accident, but Reuven verbally attacks him. Danny tries to convince Reuven that he is sorry, but to no avail. Finally, he leaves.
When Danny returns the next day, Reuven is surprised at himself because he is happy to see Danny. The boys talk and begin to accept each other, discussing their career aspirations. Danny says that he will become a rabbi and succeed his father as leader of his group of Orthodox Hasidim in the accepted way — the son becomes tzaddik after the father. If he weren't required to become the tzaddik for his sect, Danny would become a psychologist. Reuven says that he may become a rabbi, but his father would like him to become a mathematician.
The next day, Danny tells Reuven about the books he reads unbeknownst to his father, who is very strict about what Danny reads. Danny reads so much because he gets bored studying only Talmud. He says that he met a man at the library who has been advising him on what to read (Danny later learns that the man is Mr. Malter, Reuven's father). Reuven observes that Danny looks like a Hasid but doesn't talk like one. Danny admits that, because of his secular interests, he is in a difficult position, but he also says that somehow he will work out the situation. Yet to Reuven, he seems sad.
Friday comes, and the doctor removes the bandage from Reuven's left eye and finds that his eye seems to be healing properly. Mr. Malter and Reuven leave the hospital.
In Chapter 2, Potok introduces us to the two patients who share Reuven's hospital room: Tony Savo and Billy Merrit. Tony Savo, in his middle thirties, is a professional boxer who is in the hospital because of an injury to his right eye. A rather brash but happy-go-lucky man who likes joking with the nurses, he befriends Reuven; Reuven, however, has trouble understanding Mr. Savo and sometimes just nods in response to whatever he says. Billy, whom Reuven guesses is ten or eleven years old, plays a more important role in this chapter. Billy is blind, which greatly upsets Reuven, for Reuven begins to realize just how lucky he is — he is likely to regain sight in his left eye; Billy will not. Billy's blindness also affects Reuven's father, David Malter. When Mr. Malter looks at Billy and Billy's father talking and realizes that Billy is blind, he is momentarily stunned. Reuven notes of his father's watching Billy and Billy's father, "He looked at them a long time. Then he turned back to me. I saw from his face that he knew Billy was blind." Billy's blindness seems to draw Reuven and his father closer together. They appreciate each other's presence.
Reuven is confused when his father tells him that Danny's father, Reb Saunders, has called him twice, asking about Reuven's health. Reuven cannot believe that Reb Saunders would care about him, for he characterizes Reb Saunders like Danny: mean, haughty, and thoroughly detestable. Earlier in Chapter 2, Reuven thinks of how much he hates Danny and therefore hates Danny's father. Of Danny, Reuven thinks, "That Danny Saunders was a smart one, and I hated him . . . . That miserable Hasid!" He per-ceives — selfishly and incorrectly — that Danny and his father must be alike; therefore, if he hates Danny, he must also hate Danny's father. Mr. Malter wants to correct his son's misperceptions but stops himself from doing so. Reuven must learn on his own.
The hatred that Reuven feels for Danny blinds him to any good qualities that Danny possesses. He cannot believe that Danny is sorry for hurting him, even when Mr. Malter tells him that Danny is. At the end of Chapter 2, note that Reuven cannot comprehend what it would be like to be blind. He thinks to himself, "I couldn't imagine what it was like to know that no matter whether my eyes were opened or closed it made no difference, everything was still dark." Ironically, however, at this point in the novel Reuven is metaphorically blind: He cannot accept the possibility that Danny might feel truly sorry for hitting him in the eye with the ball.
David Malter's bringing a radio to Reuven's hospital room so that Reuven can listen to how the war is progressing is an example of Mr. Malter's belief that Jews should not shut themselves off to the outside, more secular world. He says to Reuven, "You should not forget there is a world outside." His statement contrasts our perception of Reb Saunders, who, according to Mr. Malter, is concerned only with religious life.
Chapter 3 begins apparently on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when Allied forces landed at Normandy, France, and began the military operation designed to force Nazi troops stationed in France into submission. Note that Reuven, while listening to the war news on the radio, initially gets out his prayer book, remembers that he is not allowed to read because of the strain on his eye, and prays instead. Reuven does not reject a secular life — represented by the war news — for a completely religious life, but neither does he choose an exclusively secular life over religion; he balances both secular and religious worlds, as does his father. In the opening scene of Chapter 3, we also learn that Reuven's father wants Reuven to become a mathematician. Reuven, however, is unsure about this career choice, for he toys with the idea of becoming a rabbi.
Danny's first visit to the hospital to see Reuven is disastrous. Reuven simply cannot accept that Danny would be truly sorry for hitting him in the eye with the ball. No matter how profusely Danny apologizes, Reuven refuses to believe Danny's sincerity and mocks his repentant visitor: "How does it feel to know you've made someone blind in one eye?" When Reuven notices the sad tone of Danny's apologies, he resorts to anger rather than try to understand the sadness in Danny's voice. Intentionally, it seems, Reuven will not accept Danny's attempts at reconciliation. However, Reuven is chastised by his father for not listening to Danny. Mr. Malter explains to his son that the Talmud directs, "If a person comes to apologize for having hurt you, you must listen and forgive him." Reuven's anger has blinded him to the Talmud's teachings. Selfishly, although understandably, he does not recognize that perhaps Danny needs Reuven's forgiveness and is extending a hand of friendship. Mr. Malter understands Danny's motivations; Reuven does not.
Having listened to his father's words about forgiveness, Reuven is more responsive to Danny the second time that Danny visits him in the hospital. Reuven is even surprised at how happy he is to see Danny. That the two boys freely express themselves and at least tentatively accept each other's apologies demonstrates a newfound level of maturity in both of them. They are on the way to becoming mature adults. For Danny, although he cannot yet understand why he wanted to hurt Reuven physically during the ballgame, he at least begins questioning his motives.
Reuven and Danny's discussion about Danny's photographic memory leads to Danny's revealing that he does not want to inherit his father's rabbinic position within the Hasidic community. The situation is ironic in that Danny does not want to be a rabbi but is expected to become one; Reuven, on the other hand, does not want to become a mathematician, as his father wants him to, but wants to become a rabbi. The two boys' perceptions of each other are actually misperceptions. For example, when Reuven learns that Danny is considering becoming a psychologist, he humorously thinks to himself, "Danny Saunders, in his Hasidic clothes, seemed to me to be about the last person in the world who would qualify as an analyst." Reuven unfairly compartmentalizes Danny not as an individual person but as only a Hasidic Jew.
Danny's comments about his father at the end of Chapter 3 reveal the silent family life in which he has grown up and recall Book One's epigraph, from Proverbs, and especially the line, "Let your heart hold fast my words." Here at the end of Chapter 3, Danny notes of his father, "He says that words distort what a person really feels in his heart," and that his father, puzzlingly, "wishes everyone could talk in silence." This theme of silence as a language is explored throughout the novel. Danny apparently contemplates for quite a while Reuven's statement that Reb Saunders must be "quite a man," as though Danny is deciding if his father indeed is all that Reuven perceives him to be. However, Danny's silence suggests that he has serious doubts about Reb Saunders, both as a person and as a father.
Reuven's father's visit to the hospital at the beginning of Chapter 4 affords Potok the opportunity to develop David Malter's character. Pragmatic yet sensitive to his son's needs, Mr. Malter advises his son to accept Danny as his friend. His insistence that Reuven and Danny become friends emphasizes the reciprocal needs of each boy to make the other boy a confidant. Mr. Malter apparently knows more about Danny and his needs than he lets on to his son. During his visit, note that his philosophy of life is very practical and open-minded. For example, when Reuven says that he wishes he were outside rather than cooped up in the hospital, Mr. Malter responds, "No one knows he is fortunate until he becomes unfortunate . . . . That is the way the world is." Here, we are reminded of when, in Chapter 2, Mr. Malter first realized that Billy, one of Reuven's roommates, is blind: He appreciates even more his son's eyesight and well-being, which is inferred in the emotions that he experienced and stifled: "His voice was husky, and it trembled." Later in Chapter 4, after listening to Reuven relate his conversation with Danny, Mr. Malter says, "People are not always what they seem to be . . . . That is the way the world is, Reuven." His repeated sentence, "That is the way the world is," demonstrates his pragmatism.
When Danny next visits Reuven in the hospital, Danny is much more open with his feelings and doubts than he was previously. The two boys even find a commonality between them: They were born in the same hospital. Much more important than their brief discussion about where they were born is Danny's doubts about his place in the world. Staring out the hospital room's window at people below, Danny says to Reuven, "They look like ants. Sometimes I get the feeling that's all we are — ants." And after once again explaining that his father never talks to him except about religion, he wonders aloud, "Sometimes I'm not sure I know what God wants." Danny questions his own worth in terms of religion and the secular world. He is at the point in life at which he's trying to discover what he wants out of life and what his place in the world is. To help him in this discovery, he has begun reading nonreligious texts, including fiction and works about evolution, secular reading that Reb Saunders certainly would not approve — if he knew.
The contrasts between the boys are outlined further in Chapter 4. For example, Danny, obviously more at ease around Reuven, comments how he is expected to become a rabbi but does-n't want to; Reuven, on the other hand, doesn't have to become a rabbi but wants to. When Reuven says that he's studying mathematics, and especially mathematical logic, or symbolic logic, Danny admits that he is very bad at math.
When Danny learns that the man at the public library who has been recommending books for him to read for the last two months is Mr. Malter, he is just as surprised as Reuven is. Here, then, is proof that Mr. Malter does know more about Danny than he let on to his son. We understand better Mr. Malter's previous insistence that Reuven make Danny a friend. Reuven can help Danny become more comfortable living in a secular, less strictly religious world; Danny can help Reuven broaden his own world view by introducing him to Hasidism. Their friendship symbolizes the hope that the two religious positions that they represent can be reconciled. Likewise, Mr. Malter's position as the person who has been recommending books to Danny also suggests that the two religious schools of thought can be reconciled.
Clop a colloquialism for a physical blow.
hit the canvas to be knocked down in a boxing ring.
Kosher an adjective describing Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. These laws require that animals intended for food be killed by specially trained men in such a manner that the animal feels little pain, that dairy and meat dishes not be prepared or eaten at the same time, and that certain animals not be eaten. Following these dietary laws, which come from the Torah, is one of the ways in which Jewish people retain their identity.
prelim man a less skilled fighter who boxes in matches staged before the main fight.
abba (ah bah) Hebrew word for father; a term of endearment.
tefillin (tuh fill in) A religious accessory used by Jewish men in morning prayer service, it consists of small boxes, containing Biblical quotations, attached to each other with strips of leather that the person praying winds around his hand and places upon his head as a symbolic binding of himself to God.
Caen and Carentan cities in northwestern France.
Isle of Wight a British island in the English Channel.
Normandy a region in northwestern France where Allied troops landed on D-Day (June 6, 1944) during World War II.
Royal Air Force bombers British planes or pilots who drop bombs.
Cockeyed askew; slightly crazy.
phylacteries (fill lack tuh rees) like tefillin (listed previously), objects used during Jewish prayer.
Blatt a page of Talmud.
Kiddushin (Key do sheen) a book of the Talmud.
Maimonidean (My mon uh day on) a reference to the great Jewish medieval scholar Maimonides.
Ivanhoe a novel set in the Middle Ages, by English author Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832).
Darwin Charles Darwin (1809-82), an English naturalist who theorized that humankind evolved from "lower" species.
Huxley Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95), an English educator and biologist who championed Darwinism and agnosticism.
Dynasty a succession of powerful rulers, often from the same family.
Russell and Whitehead Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and Alfred Whitehead (1861-1947), authors of the three-volume book Principia Mathematica, considered a landmark in the study of logic.
Agitated emotionally and physically disturbed.