The Chosen | Critical Review by Granville Hicks

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Chosen.
This section contains 1,130 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Granville Hicks

Critical Review by Granville Hicks

SOURCE: "Good Fathers and Good Sons," in Saturday Review, April 29, 1967, pp. 25-6.

In the following review, Hicks offers praise for The Chosen, which he describes as "a fine, moving, gratifying book."

The impression one gets from most contemporary fiction is that youth today is both disturbed and disturbing. Everyone knows about J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, who, with the best of intentions, gets into one mess after another. But Holden's troubles are nothing compared to the difficulties of other young people we read about. Wright Morris's Jubal Gainer whirls away on his (stolen) motorcycle from crime to crime. John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom runs and runs. The college students in John Nichols's The Sterile Cuckoo major in alcohol and sex, but they are tame in comparison with the undergraduates in the late Richard Farina's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. John Hersey, in Too Far to Walk, presents the newest lost generation, complete with LSD. And we are reminded of the hoodlums in the lower depths by such books as Hubert Sclby's Last Exit to Brooklyn.

We are likely to be startled, therefore, when we are introduced to two brilliant, studious, serious boys, as we are in Chaim Potok's The Chosen. Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter are fifteen when we encounter them and they encounter one another, and we leave them after they have been graduated from college, both summa cum laude. They have their problems, of course, but these arc not the problems that we are used to reading about.

It is a critical commonplace that good boys, like good men and good women, are likely to seem pretty dull in fiction, but Potok succeeds in making his boys interesting as well as credible right from the start. He begins with a Softball game, which is essential to the plot and at the same time seizes the reader by his lapel. The scene is Williamsburg, and the time is June of 1944. As a result of the war-time spirit, some of the teachers in the Jewish parochial schools have organized a kind of little league "to show the gentile world that yeshiva students were as physically fit, despite their long hours of study, as any other American student." Reuven Malter, who tells the story, sometimes plays second base and sometimes pitches for the yeshiva he attends. He describes the outlandish appearance of the rival team:

There were fifteen of them, and they were dressed alike in white shirts, dark pants, white sweaters, and small black skullcaps. In the fashion of the very Orthodox, their hair was closely cropped, except for the area near their ears from which mushroomed the untouched hair that tumbled down into the long sidecurls. Some of them had the beginnings of beards, straggly tufts of hair that stood in isolated clumps on their chins, jawbones, and upper lips. They all wore the traditional undergarment beneath their shirts, and the tzitzis, the long fringes appended to the four corners of the garment, came out above their belts and swung against their pants as they walked. These were the very Orthodox….

The almost demoniacally belligerent leader of the very Orthodox is Danny Saunders, son of the rabbi of a Hasidic synagogue. After a dramatic accident he and Reuven become close friends, and the novel focuses on this friendship and on the relationship between the two sons and their fathers. Reuven's father, a teacher at his yeshiva, is Orthodox but no fanatic, a man of wide knowledge and true tolerance. Reb Saunders, on the other hand, is a zealot, consecrated to the purity of the small sect to which he belongs and held in the utmost reverence by his followers. Both fathers believe in the most rigorous sort of intellectual discipline, and it is no wonder that their sons, one led on by love and the other driven by unsparing severity, excel in school and college.

Because of Reb Saunders's fanaticism his relationship with Danny becomes more and more difficult, and it complicates Danny's relationship with Reuven. It takes time for the situation to develop to a satisfying conclusion, and Potok handles the passage of the years with marked skill. After the revelation of Hitler's slaughter of the Jews—one million, three million, six million—Reuven's father becomes a staunch and eloquent supporter of Jewish nationalism, and almost wears himself out for the cause. Reb Saunders, however, is an anti-Zionist, arguing that there can be no true Jewish state until the coming of the Messiah. Reuven grows bitter at this, but his father tells him: "The fanaticism of men like Reb Saunders kept us alive for two thousand years of exile. If the Jews of Palestine have an ounce of that same fanaticism and use it wisely, we will soon have a Jewish stale." There are times, he has himself learned, when it is not enough to be broad-minded.

Whatever happens, the center of the novel is always the conflict between Danny and his father. It has been taken for granted from his birth that Danny will become a tzaddik, a great leader of his people, like his father and grandfather. But, though Danny is a brilliant Talmudist when he is fifteen, he becomes interested in psychology, and before he is graduated from college he has resolved to become a psychologist. The climax towards which the novel builds is the decisive confrontation between Reb Saunders and Danny, which is as surprising as it is moving.

One of the important literary phenomena of the past twenty years is the number of novels written by and about Jews, some of them in the highest rank of contemporary fiction. As has often been pointed out, the persecution and near-extermination of the Jews of Germany and its neighbors had the effect of making Jews in this country acutely aware of themselves as Jews. It has also been said, and I think accurately, that the Jewish writers, in exploring their own predicament, have expressed the sense of alienation that is felt by many men of our times.

The Chosen points to an even more significant conclusion, for it suggests that almost any situation, no matter how unfamiliar to the population in general, may have meaning for the multitude if the author goes deep enough. Who cares about the Hasidim? Not many people, I suppose. But we all know about fanaticism and can recognize that it may have power for good as well as evil. And many of us are either fathers or sons or both. As I began by saying, it is hard to make good boys credible and interesting; it must have been even harder for Chaim Potok to bring to life a pair of good fathers, good in such different ways. But he succeeded, and the result is a fine, moving, gratifying book.

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This section contains 1,130 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Granville Hicks
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