by Chaim Potok
Coming-of-Age, Family Drama, Historical Fiction, Postmodern, Jewish Literature
It might be helpful to split the four genres into two parts. After we see how the first two fit together, and how the second two fit together, we’ll have a better idea of how genre operates in the novel.
Not all family dramas are coming-of-age stories, but all coming-of-age stories are family dramas. The protagonists of such stories are young people transitioning from the homes they were raised in to the homes they will make for themselves in the world. Some such characters are trying to get away from their families, others looking for their families, still others clinging to tightly to their families, or moving in harmony with their families.
In the case with Reuven and Danny of The Chosen, there will be some sort of intense family drama going on – even if it’s all in the minds of the characters. We first meet Reuven and Danny when they are "going on sixteen." Their intertwined journey over the next five years allows us an intimate and complex vision of family, home, and America.
As we discuss in "Setting," The Chosen is complicated by war. The drama hits major highs and lows when the details of the Holocaust are made public after World War II comes to an end. In novels like A Farewell to Arms and Tender is the Night, the authors were looking for a way to express their reactions to World War I. And that’s how the genre "Modernism" was born. Nobody could believe World War I took place. The world as they knew it was broken apart. Modernist artists tried to find a way to express this fragmentation, and to do something helpful with the pieces. World War II brought the horrors of war to a whole new level. Between the Holocaust and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the deaths of soldiers and civilians alike, the world became a graveyard of intense sadness. Postmodernism is a reaction to this.
Chaim Potok’s novel isn’t overtly Postmodern. The genre was still in its infancy when he wrote The Chosen, and he’s obviously influenced by his Modernist predecessors Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nonetheless, it does exhibit some Postmodern tendencies.
The spider web that Reuven blows away is a good example of a Postmodern moment. As we see in his "Character Analysis," when Reuven saves the fly by destroying the spider’s home, he’s suggesting that saving the world is easy. Here, we are reminded of the state of the world during and after World War II. Many flies and spiders had to scatter when their homes became uninhabitable. What makes this a Postmodern moment is that Reuven blows away the spider’s web before he knows about the Holocaust and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In retrospect, this should remind us that we are reading a past tense account of the events, or, as we say in "POV/Narrative Voice," a narrative memory.
With the knowledge of the details of World War II, Reuven’s act takes on a different meaning, and becomes, in a way, a foreshadowing of the news of the war that comes out later. Think of the battle maps on Reuven’s wall – all the lines on the map are like the strands of the spider’s web. The web is both the spider’s home, and a map of it. After the war, the lines on the map were altered, just like the spider’s web. Chances are, you know what we mean, but are confused just the same. That’s because it almost, but doesn’t quite, makes sense, and we struggle to order our thoughts. Which means that Postmodernism is doing its job. It’s meant to be confusing, to represent the confused state of the world. It isn’t supposed to bring you to any conclusions. Postmodernism is often call the "indefinable" genre because it’s often characterized by what it is not – that is, by the things left out of the stories we read. If you want to read more on Postmodernism, here’s a link.