by Chaim Potok
Reuven Malter is our narrator, and, as we discuss in "POV/Narrative Voice," he is not the hero of his own story – Danny is. Reuven's own story is surely compelling, but he chooses to highlight the stories of others. If you’ve read our discussion of "Style" you’ll see that understanding Reuven as a character becomes much clearer when we understand that he’s a teacher. A good teacher – the kind who doesn’t have all the answers, and teaches to learn. Reuven is teacher and student rolled into one. He is the window through which we can see the events of the novel. By "teaching" us Danny’s story, Reuven hopes to see it better himself.
The Value of Eyes
As we said, Reuven is our window. But, before we, or Reuven, can see Danny’s story, the window has to break. It’s pretty crazy. Danny has to break Reuven’s window (or glasses) before Reuven can see Danny. Reuven’s ability to see Danny, and thus become his friend, is what helps Danny see himself. One purpose of Reuven’s character is to teach and learn about the nature of vision, and to show that, sometimes, in order to see clearly, a little glass must break.
I just don’t understand!
In contrast to his visionary aspect, at times, Reuven seems to be misunderstanding personified. He is constantly questioning, often to the point of exasperating the other characters, and talking about how he doesn’t understand something. This is a very important to the novel as a whole. It gives the other characters the opportunity to voice their views. The less Reuven understands, the more he asks questions, and the more information we get as a result. See how neatly that fits into his teacher-student thing we’ve been talking about? That aspect may be neat and tidy, but Reuven’s misunderstanding is not.
While Danny’s journey toward independence is fulfilled over the course of the novel, Reuven’s journey for understanding is left at loose ends. This is a major point of the novel: no matter how intensely we interrogate our world, we will never completely understand it. There is always more to learn.
By the way, do you ever get the feeling Reuven is bluffing with the whole "I don’t understand" thing? He says he doesn’t understand what David, the Reb, and Danny do understand: how to listen to silence. Yet, right before he meets the Reb for the first time, he says that "the silence that followed had a strange quality to it: expectation, love, eagerness, awe." What? Did Reuven forget how to hear silence, as we suggest in our discussion of "Genre," or is he just pretending to misunderstand to make us think about it more?
The Spider and the Fly
Like Danny, Reuven has a 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. Danny and Reuven's meta-fictional moments are intimately related, which cleverly comments on Danny and Reuven’s connection to each other, and the nature of their friendship. We hope when you read about Reuven saving a fly from a spider, it reminded you of Danny’s description of Frederick Henry’s ants on a log from Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. If you didn't catch that connection, go check out Danny’s "Character Analysis," the "Spiritual Leader" section, to be exact.
OK, while Danny and Frederick feel like they are personally responsible for saving the world, but can’t figure out how, Reuven sees his path clearly before him. He wants to save the world, too, by accepting what Danny wants to refuse – becoming a rabbi. He has confidence when he blows away that spider web. For Reuven, saving the world is as easy as saving a spider from the fly, or becoming a rabbi, take your pick.
As we point out in our discussion of "Genre," Reuven saves the fly from the spider before he understands what World War II is about. He doesn’t bring up the spider and the fly incident afterwards, but you can bet your boots he doesn’t think saving the world is so simple anymore. Yet, he knows that, for him, the rabbinate is still his best chance, and his plans don’t change over the course of the novel. This highlights the steadiness and consistency of Reuven’s character, and the subtle ways he grows over time.