The Fixer Essay Research Paper Malamud

The Fixer Essay, Research Paper

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


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 ). 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 have 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 earlocks, 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…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 Zhenia Golov. He is poisoned, strip searched, chained, and nearly frozen to


The fixer was chained to the wall all day,and at night he lay on the bedplank, 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


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. He is essentially fighting a war in this

literary work. He achieves a strong victory , especially considering when this book was




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