1. Yakov’s life seems to be a chain of unfortunate events. How is this so? And what explanation for his life does Yakov come to believe?
Yakov regards his life as a series of misfortunes, one leading to another, from the time of his birth until his imprisonment for murder. He comes to understand that his suffering comes about because he happens to be Jewish in an anti-Semitic country.
Yakov tells Shmuel that he believes that his life was set on an ill path from the time he was orphaned as a child and left to eek out an existence as he could for thirty years. His life has been nothing but poverty and disappointment, and at the beginning of the novel he believes he might change that if he throws off his Jewish heritage and ventures beyond the Jewish Pale. God, he tells Shmuel, has turned a blind eye on him, and he refuses to believe such a God will save him in some way.
Once Yakov leaves the safety of the Pale, however, a series of events lead him to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. His kindness to Nikolai Lebedev and his daughter earn him the reward of a job, but this also places him in a lion’s den of anti-Semites. Even innocent purchases, such as flour for making bread and jam for sweetening bread, become fateful purchases when uses as evidence of murder. Then, when he helps the Hasid, he unwittingly provides those around him with just the proof they need to accuse him of the blood libel murder of a Christian child.
Why is it, Yakov wonders, that he of all people should have all his well-intentioned actions turn into misfortune? The answer comes from his readings of various religious interpretations of God—the Jewish, the Christian, and Spinoza’s—and from cold, hard facts. As his lawyer Julius Ostrovsky tells him, he is simply a Jew who happened to be on site when Russian Christians needed a Jew to persecute and justify their hatred of all Jews. There is no other explanation other than that Yakov’s Jewish heritage has made him guilty, even though he is innocent.
2. Yakov contemplates various interpretations of God during the course of the novel. What conclusion about God does he come to in the end?
Yakov’s perception of God changes throughout the novel until he sees that his belief in God is irrelevant. His Jewish heritage binds him to a God, whether he believes in such a being or not.
Yakovbegins the novel believing in a God that has turned a deaf ear to his troubles. He also believes that he can become a free thinker, a man with no religious affiliations, and make his way in the world. Before his arrest, he studies the philosophies of Spinoza, a Jew who posited that God was not some separate being but dwelled in the mind of men and in nature. Thinking men could reach him and understand him.
However, Yakov finds that Spinoza’s God is not much use to him. Such a god might have freed Spinoza, an educated man, but it seems useless to a poor, uneducated man like Yakov. Being a freethinker, as he told the Russian officials that he was, has not saved Yakov from being charged with his greatest crime: that of being a Jew.
While imprisoned, Yakov contemplates the Christian God, but he sees that a God who can allow men to inhumanely treat others in His name is no God at all. He concludes that he cannot believe in the existence of the Jewish God, a “blustering” yet ineffective God, nor can he believe in Spinoza’s more reachable yet equally ineffective God, nor can he believe in the Christian God. It is impossible to put faith in a God when all around him men are bent on crucifying him for being associated with the Jewish God that he has denied.
Yakov comes to see, finally, that it is himself, not God, who will bring meaning to his life. When he decides to stay alive in order to keep a pogrom from annihilating more Jews, he finds that act of humanity, much more than any thunder bolt from above, is what really saves him. It gives him meaning for his life.
3. How does Yakov’s life parallel Christ’s life in the novel? What is the significance of this parallel?
In many ways, Yakov’s life echoes that of Jesus’s throughout The Fixer, yet those parallels turn out to ironic. Christ died to bring others to cleanse others of their sins, yet it is, ironically, the Christians in the novel who sin against his teachings, and it is the Jew, Yakov, who practices Christian kindness and sacrifice.
Christ, who practiced the trade of carpentry, was a healer and a teacher to men, leading them to faith in God and the promise of eternal life. Yakov is a “fixer,” a handyman of sorts, who takes pleasure in fixing things to make others’ lives better. However, when he cannot fix his own life after Raisl leaves him, he loses his faith in his God, the Jewish God.
He still remains a fixer, though. Throughout the chain of events that land him in prison, Yakov seeks to help people. He is naturally humane. He cannot let Nikolai die in the snow; he cannot take advantage of Nikolai’s daughter for his own pleasure. He protects the Hasid from a beating, even though he no longer follows the Jewish faith. Yakov is naturally a teacher, too. Even while he rejects both the Christian God and the Jewish God, his suffering “saves” both Kogin and Zhitnyak, who both find it in themselves to stand up for Yakov or treat him more humanely.
Christ’s death on the cross was a sacrifice necessary to save Christians from eternal damnation. Yakov comes to see that his death, if it occurs, may make things worse for other Jews. If he lives, he believes, he can prevent further bloodshed among the Jews, and he embraces being a symbol of innocence to the Jews. The irony is that the very people who are forcing him to become that symbol are the ones who profess to be Christians. In exacting their vengeance for Christ’s death at the hands of the Jews, the Christians are behaving in the very way in which they accuse the Jews of behaving: with evil.
4. “Being born a Jew meant being vulnerable to history, including its worst errors. Accident and history had involved Yakov Bok as he had never dreamed he could be involved.” In The Fixer, how are Jews “vulnerable to history” and how is Yakov Bok in particular a victim of accident and history?
The Fixer makes clear that the Jewish people cannot be separated from their history—in Christian eyes at least. The Fixer also makes clear that, in Russian in particular, a hatred of the Jews sometimes becomes political policy.
The clash between Christians and Jews, as Yakov recalls, centers in Christ’s death upon the cross, a death for which the Christians blame the Jews. The Christian attitude of vengeance, for some, festered into a hatred of Jews as well as a desire to “get back” at them for Christ’s murder. This attitude is rampant in Russia in particular during Yakov Bok’s lifetime. Both Bibikov and Ostrovsky educate Yakov about how Russian politics is bound up with anti-Semitism. They explain that once, the Tsar was inclined to be lenient towards the Jewish immigrants in Russia, even allowing them a say in government. However, many Russians regarded the Jews with such “wild superstition and mysticism” that they wanted nothing less than the eradication of all Jews. Groups with political clout, such as The Black Hundreds, arose to incite pogroms against the Jews and to pressure the Tsar to revoke much of the freedoms he had given the Jews.
When Yakov imagines talking to the Tsar, he depicts the Tsar as a weak-minded ruler who easily caved in to those around him who, under the banner of nationalism, sought to “purify” Russia of all minorities, but especially of the Jews. In effect, the government became a tool for annihilating Jews.
In Yakov’s case, he happened to go to Kiev at a particularly fractious time, when Russians were ripe for a pogrom and seeking justification for one. Yakov was in the wrong place at the wrong time, a Jew they could get their hands on and hold up as a symbol of all that was evil about the Jews. He was blamed for a blood libel murder, and people were more than willing to believe testimonies from such “experts” as Father Anastasy, whose knowledge of the Jews was founded on willful misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Jewish religion. The authorities in the case, such as Grubeshov, justified the inhumane treatment of Yakov on political grounds, trying to make him—and all Jews—appear as a threat to the state.
Yakov, then, cannot escape the deep history between the Jews and the Christians, and he cannot escape the political history of Russia. As he discovers, in Russia, “no Jew was innocent in a corrupt state, the most visible sign of its corruption its fear and hatred of those it persecuted.”
5. The language of The Fixer is a blend of plain, matter-of-fact information, Jewish speech, and brief, evocative metaphors. How does this blend of styles support the novel’s grim, horrifying subject matter?
The Fixer is, for the most part, a plain novel composed of the hard, matter-of-fact details of Yakov’s experience.Yakov’shuman voice is lost in the machinery of Russian politics. However, Malamud uses Jewish dialogue and brief, lyrical language to remind readers that Yakov is indeed human—and still alive—throughout his ordeal.
For the most part, Yakov’s story is told in lists. Yakov lists the misfortunes that have occurred in his life one after the other: he was orphaned, he became a fixer with nothing much to fix, he was betrayed by his wife, he went to Kiev for work, he was accused and imprisoned for murder. Once he is arrested, Yakov is faced with enormous, fluctuating lists of evidence—of words—against him throughout his imprisonment. These lists in the form of testimonies and investigative reports serve to make the accusations against Yakov seem heavy as chains. His moments of protest are nothing but an ant trying to be heard among giants determined to crush him. His voice is nothing. The only voices he is allowed to hear are those of officials, especially after Bibkov is murdered. Otherwise, he is kept in solitary confinement and the guards are told not to speak to him.
The indignities he suffers in jail are also presented as a running list of punishments, beatings, and deprivations that seem to pile up so high that they might smother Yakov. His body withers, and his mind struggles to keep sane. His days become routines of nothingness: sweeping ashes, sweeping the floor, sleeping. When his only occupation, the broom, is taken from him, he almost goes crazy. When he is allowed to read anything, he devours it with hope that it will counter the mounds of accusing words and the horrible silences that would bury him.
Yakov’s accusers seek to strip him of his humanity, but readers are reminded of that humanity in the voices of Shmuel and Raisl when they visit Yakov. With their Jewish speech patterns and expressions, they bring a human element back to the novel. Shmuel’s conversation with Yakov in jail is sprinkled with Jewish belief: “‘Money is nothing. I came to see you, but if it paves my way a foot into Paradise it’s a fine investment,’” “‘Yakov, we’re not Jews for nothing. Without God we can’t live. Without the covenant we would have disappeared out of history. Let that be a lesson to you. He’s all we have but who wants more?’” “‘For misery, don’t blame God. He gives the food but we cook it.’”Shmuel’s words sound almost folkloric and timeless in contrast to the harsh, matter-of-fact accusations (which, ironically, are complete fairy tales). Raisl’s voice as she tells him of her troubles takes Yakov right back to the shtetl and his life before arrest; that life now seems comparatively good. When Raisl breaks down, “As she wept she moved him. He had learned about tears.” It is the visits of both Shmuel and Raisl that show Yakov that he is still human, and after their visits he acts with even more humanity, deciding to live to keep other Jews from harm and agreeing to claim Raisl’s child as his own in order to stop the child’s misery from being like his own.
To further remind readers of Yakov’s humanity as he is being crushed by the weight of Russian bureaucracy, Malamud intersperses lyrical moments that act almost like forgotten songs heard on the wind, like those Yakov hears the first night he leaves the shtetl. In particular, the passing of time is portrayed in evocative metaphors: “In the winter, time fell like hissing snow through the crack in the barred window and never stopped snowing.” “Time blew like a steppe wind into an empty future.” “When one had nothing to do the worst thing to have was an endless supply of minutes. It was like pouring nothing into a million little bottles.” Metaphors such as these throb with pathos in contrast to the formidable words of the indictments Yakov waits for. They strike the reader almost like slaps, to awaken readers and remind them that Yakov is a human being, suffering, yet still hoping.