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The Chosen

The Chosen

by Chaim Potok

Analysis: What’s Up With the Epigraph?

Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.

There are actually five epigraphs in The Chosen, two at the beginning of the novel, and one at the beginning of each of the novel’s three sections.

  1. "When a trout rising to a fly gets hooked on a line and finds himself unable to swim about freely, he begins with a fight which results in struggles and splashes and sometimes an escape. Often, of course, the situation is too tough for him.

    In the same way the human being struggles with his environment and with the hooks that catch him. Sometimes he masters his difficulties; sometimes they are too much for him. His struggles are all that the world sees and it naturally misunderstands them. It is hard for a free fish to understand what is happening to a hooked one." –Karl A. Menninger
  2. "True happiness/Consists not in the multitude of friends,/But in the worth and choice." –Ben Jonson
  3. "I was a son to my father…/And he taught me and said to me,/ ‘Let your heart hold fast my words…’" –Proverbs
  4. "Silence is good everywhere, except / in connection with Torah." – The Zohar
  5. "A word is worth one coin; silence is worth two." – The Talmud
Chaim Potok appears to be a total epigraph maniac! Luckily, there is much meaning behind his epigraph mania. The five epigraphs provide us with a nice frame of the novel, and also help us locate the novel’s heart, the deeper meanings that lie beneath the events that occur.

  1. The author of the first quote, Karl A. Menninger, was an American psychiatrist. This, of course, makes us think of Danny Saunders, who wants to be a psychiatrist. He’s the hooked fish, and Reuven Malter is the free fish.

    Danny, as we are constantly told, is brilliant. David Malter says that a mind like Danny’s is seen only once in a generation. And Danny’s brilliant mind wants to roam free, to explore everything there is to learn in the world. Yet, he carries the burden of his people on his shoulders, or so he believes. Everyone expects him to take his father’s place, and that’s about the last thing he wants to do, even though he thinks he’s supposed to.

    Reuven, on the other hand, is content with his life. It affords him all the freedom he needs. He desperately wants to see Danny free, but, as the two friends discuss many times, he can’t really understand what it’s like to be trapped.

    Since this is the big epigraph that acts as an umbrella for the entire novel, this conflict between the two friends must be pretty important, even though it doesn’t seem to stand in the way of their friendship. And, since the novel is narrated by Reuven in the past tense, at some indistinct time after the events of the novel, the entire narrative might be his attempt to understand what he couldn’t understand while the events were happening – what it’s like to be trapped. With that in mind, we could make an argument that Reuven, not Danny is the hooked fish. He’s hooked, or trapped, by Danny’s story. What do you think?
  2. The author of the second epigraph, Ben Jonson, was a poet, actor, and author during the time of William Shakespeare. This seems like an easy one, right? Especially the first part. You can’t find happiness in popularity. We’ve heard that a thousand times. But the second part makes it a little tricky. It sounds slightly weird when we read it. That’s because there are words missing! "In the worth and choice" of what? In the worth and choice of friends, that’s what. And now we have a double meaning on our hands. The verse means both that true happiness is found in choosing a few good friends and in the choices those friends make.

    For example, when Rabbi Saunders asks Reuven what books Danny’s been reading, Reuven chooses to reveal some information and to omit other information. Behind his choices lies a deep reverence for his friendship with Danny – and, he knows that what he chooses to do in that moment will impact Danny’s life, one way or another. And it does.

    And, now that we have a basic understanding of the novel’s second epigraph, we can take a deep breath, read it aloud, and see how pretty it sounds – rich, reverent, serious, and complicated – like the friendships in the novel. It sets the mood, and helps put us in a place to appreciate the beauty of Danny and Reuven’s friendship, and, perhaps, even to take a deeper look at our own friendships.
  3. The epigraph to Book One of the novel is from Proverbs. Proverbs is a part of the Torah and contains words of wisdom that are supposed to help people learn how to do the right thing in life. It’s easy to see how this proverb applies to the novel. By placing it at the beginning of Book One, the author lets us know right away that father-son relationships are extremely important to the novel, urging us to pay careful attention to the nuances of such relationships.
  4. The epigraph to Book Two is from The Zohar. The Zohar, like the Talmud, is a commentary on the Torah, and also is considered to be the most important book of the Kabbalah, or the book of Jewish mysticism. This epigraph sets us up for the major problem of Book Two: Reb Saunders will only talk to Danny about the Torah. This is very complicated issue, and chances are, you will be conflicted about it long after the story ends.

    To complicate things even more, Book Two is where we see World War II coming to an end. Up to then, there was much silence concerning the Holocaust. The end of the war broke that silence, and changed the characters’ views on silence forever. Silence is a big deal in The Chosen, and this epigraph hints that, during Book Two, we should pay close attention to what isn’t said – that is, the information missing from the novel.
  5. The final epigraph, the epigraph for Book Three, is from The Talmud, and sounds an awful lot like the one for Book Two. It seems to be praising silence, but this is at odds with our narrator’s position. But, that shouldn’t surprise us – the novel is all about debate and dialogue. This epigraph talks about "silence" being "worth" coin, or money. Does this imply that silence can be sold, for money? Or, does it mean that we must earn the currency by which to buy silence? Or is silence a kind of currency itself, which can be used like money?

    But, wait, don’t we have to know how the author of this epigraph felt about coin, before we can even figure out what the passage means? The characters in The Chosen would say "yes" to that last one. And, they would spend five days arguing about the epigraph if we asked them what it meant.

    We won’t do that, though you are free to if you wish, but we will suggest that the passage says something about power — which is what we want money for in the first place. Money can help us be freer to do the things we want to do, and that is power. The passage is saying that silence is one kind of power. That, if we understand it, we can use it to live our lives the way we want to. It gets trickier consider Reuven’s position. He thinks the Reb abused his powers of silence when dealing with Danny. The Reb himself isn’t sure. It’s messy and complicated. Many questions about silence remain unanswered at the end of the novel. But the characters, and the readers, if they’ve been listening, are forced to think about it in new ways.

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