Idiots First by Bernard Malamud

In Idiots First by Bernard Malamud we have the theme of desperation, selflessness, acceptance, connection, determination, kindness and mortality. Taken from his The Complete Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Malamud may be exploring the theme of desperation. Mendel urgently needs to get Isaac on the train to California. He knows that he does not have much time and as such races across the city trying to get the thirty-five dollars he needs for the train ticket. What is interesting about Mendel’s activities is the fact that those who can afford to help him (Fishbein), don’t help him. While those who can’t afford to help him do (Rabbi). This may be important as it might suggest that the Rabbi feels some type of connection with Mendel. While ironically Fishbein, who makes charitable donations to others, feels no empathy or connection with Mendel. It is also noticeable that Malamud opens the story with an alliteration. Something which gives the story the rhythm that Malamud manages to carry throughout the story.

The fact that Mendel pawns his watch may also be symbolically important as Malamud may be suggesting that Mendel is literally out of time. Something that becomes clearer to the reader when Ginzburg makes an appearance in the story. Ginzburg is an important character as he is a personification of death. He has come to take Mendel’s life and Mendel knows it, hence the sense of panic that Mendel feels throughout the story when he is engaging with others and looking for the thirty-five dollars. He knows that he only has until midnight till Ginzburg comes and takes him. This would explain the urgency that Mendel feels when it comes to getting Isaac onto the train. If anything Mendel acts selflessly throughout the story. Where some might have abandoned Isaac and focused on themselves. This is not the case when it comes to Mendel. His primary concern is Isaac’s well-being. He knows that Isaac will not survive in the city on his own and it is for this reason that Mendel wants to send Isaac to California where his Uncle Leo will look after him. How far Mendel will actually go is noticeable by the fact that he challenges Ginzburg, which leaves the reader suspecting that Mendel is not prepared to accept death. He will fight Ginzburg in order to secure safety for Isaac.

This may be important as some critics might suggest that an individual does not get a choice when it comes to death. However Malamud may be highlighting how determined Mendel is. Something that is also noticeable by the fact he exhausts every avenue he knows in order to get the thirty-five dollars he needs for the train ticket. Despite the fact that he knows he is going to die Mendel, due to his circumstances, knows that he has to do everything to avoid and fend off Ginzburg. There is also no doubting that Mendel has a deep bond or connection with Isaac. In reality Mendel is all that Isaac has and in many ways Isaac may be all that Mendel has. His wife is dead and his friend has died. It is as though Mendel also knows that he is facing an uphill battle, one that he knows he must win. Something which would further play on the theme of determination. Death may have its place in life but Mendel is attempting to choose the time that he dies. A difficult prospect for any individual as death is not something that is easily controlled.

The end of the story is also interesting as there is a sense that Mendel has defeated death for a brief period of time. Something that is clearer to the reader when the ticket collector allows Isaac to board the train. It is as though a weight has been lifted from Mendel’s shoulders. He knows that Isaac will be safe and that he has achieved his goal of getting Isaac to California. If anything Mendel is at his most relaxed after the train pulls out of the station. Something that is noticeable by the fact that Mendel ascends the stairs of the station to see what has become of Ginzburg. Symbolically this may be important as Malamud may be suggesting that Mendel is now ready to accept his fate. He is no longer running from death but rather he is walking towards it. Mendel had one task and that was to ensure Isaac’s safety, he has nothing left to do but to find Ginzburg. Not only is Mendel accepting that he is about to die but he also manages to do so on his own terms. Driven by his love for Isaac he has fought Ginzburg but now that Isaac is on his way to California. Mendel no longer needs to fight.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Idiots First by Bernard Malamud." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 30 Apr. 2018. Web.


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