by Chaim Potok
Danny is, in some ways, a classic hero. He has a distinct struggle, which lasts the span of this coming-of-age story and is resolved at the end. In other ways, Danny is a unique hero. At the beginning of the story, Danny is fifteen and he has a lot going for him. He’s totally brilliant. No joke. This guy has a photographic memory, and he devours almost a dozen books a week. He’s next in line to inherit his father’s role as spiritual leader of their Hasidic community, and has a good deal of power because of his position. Everyone in his community looks up to him, and practically worships him.
The problem is, he doesn’t want the job. Danny’s brilliant mind is hungry, very hungry, to understand itself and the minds of others. Which is why he wants to be a psychologist. But, unless he wants to be exiled from his family and community (which he doesn’t), Danny needs his father’s blessing, which is anything but easy. Yet, The Chosen suggests that this struggle helps him to gain a deeper understanding of life and himself before he goes out into the world. Let’s look at a few key moments to get an idea of the development of Danny’s identity.
Danny's Violent Side
There’s no getting around it. When we first meet Danny he’s creepy and alien. This is because our narrator, Reuven Malter, doesn’t know him yet, and judges him at face value by his traditional Hasidic clothing, the stereotypes he’s heard about Hasidic Jews, and the fact that Danny says he wants to kill him – and almost does, sort of. When we get to know him better, we learn that Danny carries around lots of anger, frustration, and loneliness.
His community members only look up to him because of his reputation for brilliance, because he’s his father’s son, and because he’s probably going to be their next leader. Every move he makes is watched. He has to sneak around to do what he wants to do. And he’s not sneaking around to do anything terrible or illegal, he’s sneaking around to read books. Ironically, he’s in America, where he’s supposed to be able to read whatever he wants. Anyway, he’s totally miserable and has nobody to talk to. He probably reacts so violently to Reuven because Reuven has what Danny wishes he had: the freedom to be a Jew and a citizen of the world.
Interestingly, Danny’s violent tendencies don’t define him, and don’t show up again in the novel. He remains angry, but his violence is dissolved by his friendship with Reuven. This is important to his character because it shows that he is capable of incredibly rapid, long-lasting, and positive changes in identity. It also highlights one of the huge points of the novel: friendship is a sacred and powerful enterprise, not to be taken lightly.
Hearing Silence and Suffering
Does anyone find Reb Saunders’ treatment of his son odd? Reuven certainly does, but Danny does not. His respect and admiration for his father are based in understanding. As much as he hates it, he understands that there is something important, perhaps vital, that he can learn from his father’s silence and restrictions. As his father hopes, by the end of the novel, Danny has learned two things that greatly impact his identity: 1) to hear silence, and 2) empathy. Empathy and silence are intimately twined in The Chosen. By suffering his father’s silence, Danny learns to hear the suffering of the world within that silence. He also learns to love his father even more, because, in a sense, he almost loses him.
This is a compelling aspect of the novel because it resonates. It stays with us for a long time, because it’s difficult to figure out, but somehow pleasant to ponder. Aside from Danny, nobody – including the Reb – knows quite how to feel about what Reb Saunders put his son through. Was there a gentler way to teach Danny those lessons? The Reb argues that because Danny is so brilliant, he runs the risk of cutting himself off from the suffering of others. Reuven can’t imagine that the Reb’s way was the only way to instill his son with empathy. Whatever we think about these complicated issues, we can see how these aspects of Danny’s identity help make him such a compelling hero.
Now, we are going to look at Danny’s big meta-fictional moment. What does that mean? Well, when a character in one book talks about a character in another book, that's a meta-fictional moment. This serves to remind us that we are reading a story, and, in this case, to highlight a character. Danny’s moment gives us some big clues to his identity. Remember when Danny tells Reuven about a passage he read in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms? It’s about "the hero" letting a bunch of ants die on a burning log in a campfire. Danny admits that he doesn’t understand the passage, but still ventures a conclusion. He says, "It shows how cruel people can be" (85). Not to diss Danny’s brilliance, but things are a little more complicated than that.
We happen to cover this passage in our guide to Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, under "Ants on a Log and The Failed Messiah" in Frederick Henry’s "Character Analysis." So, you might want to check that out before you read further. OK, so you’re back. Do you see any parallels? Like Frederick, Danny feels the burden to save the world, but can’t quite find his way. Danny knows that becoming the next tzaddik is not his way. He knows he would make a rotten spiritual leader. He tells Reuven, "It won’t be that bad, being a rabbi. Once I’m a rabbi my people won’t care what I read. I’ll be sort of like God to them. They won’t ask any questions." Whoa. What a chilling passage. Imagine if Danny hadn’t had the courage to refuse.
If he’d chosen to accept the identity created for him by others, it would have probably meant a lot of pain and hardship for himself and the people relying on him for guidance and leadership. See how far a meta-fictional moment can take us? It helps us understand that Danny is a hero because of the choices he makes. His identity is strong enough to keep him from turning into a villain by making weak choices.