Thursday, 1 September 2011

Defender of the Faith

Philip Milton Roth served the US army for two years and he used his experience there to write his first novel: Goodbye, Columbus, published in 1959. The book is divided into a short novel and five short sotories. Defender of the Faith is the one I decided to read.

As Marcus Cunliffe points out in his Literature of the United States: "In the early twentieth century the general or WASP tradition did appear to control the nation's cultural life", but later, in the same chapter he states: "By the 1950s Jewishness became a big theme in American culture. Gentile prejudice was one sub-topic. Jewish self-dislike, real or alleged was also analysed".

So, the subject matter of this story in particular is Jewishness and the relationship between Jewish soldiers and the army during II World War. Hypocritical religious convictions are under analysis as well as disicipline and social relations within the army. From the psychological point of view, rank status and shared religious feelings are an excellent excuse to launch a personal struggle between segeant Marx and private Sheldon, who plays the guilt trip on the former and tries to bring him round on doing what he wants.

If we explain some of the story plot, the comments above made will be better understood: Just before the end of II WW, sergeant Marx is sent to a traning camp in Missouri. Once there, he meets private Sheldon. They are both Jewish and Sheldon tries to take advantage of this situation to get special favours or even confidential information. Emotional blackmail is Sheldon's main strategy and, even though Marx is an experienced soldier, he ends up doing what Sheldon wishes.

The story follows a very straightforward chronological order; from May 1945 and covers - approximately - three months afterwards. The story is written in the first person singular and sergeant Marx is both narrator and main character. From the beginning, the reader gets the impression that he/she is in front of a personal diary, except because there are many dialogical structures. The action is a mixture of personal thoughts and reflections as well as a set of dialogues in military settings: the chow line, the headquarter's office, the parade yard or the shooting or range line.

Even though we are in a military context, the language used is quite informal, full of idioms, phrasal verbs and ordinary people's language.

In my opinion, the author is trying to show the conflict between religious duties and patriotic feelings; the clash between self-indulgence and sacrifice. In other words, he is denouncing the attitude of some American people towards the war in Europe.

There is another topic I think is worth making a comment on: the author makes is quite clear that even in a free democratical society, politicians take advantage of certain situations in order to get electoral profit. The letter that Sheldon writes to a congressman and its consequences are a clear example of that.

The reading of this story was interesting. It makes the reader think about different cultures and religions, world social and political order and the power of words.

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