‘The Last Mohican’ by Bernard Malamud: Short Story Analysis
‘The Last Mohican’ is a modernist realistic short story penned by one of the best American Jewish writers of the twentieth century, Bernard Malamud. Malamud was a Pulitzer Prize winner and is famous for his novels, a few adapted for the big screen. He is well remembered for the short story ‘The Last Mohican’ which he penned in 1958. The short story was first published in the collection titled ‘The Magic Barrel’ in 1958 and later in another short story collection titled ‘Pictures of Fidelman’ in 1969. The story is about a failed painter Fidelman who had come to Italy in Rome to study Giotto, an Italian painter and architect from Florence during the late Middle Ages. Fidelman is a Jew, and the story takes place during the period after the Second World War. Fidelman meets with Susskind, a fellow Jew, who is a refugee. Susskind is a predator, a leech, and a stalker. He liked living life on his terms and conditions and was a stubborn man. Susskind is fond of playing the victim card wherever he goes and in whatever he does. He coaxes Fidelman to give him a suit just because Fidelman was a fellow Jew. The short story chronicles how Fidelman is forced to hand over his expensive suit to Susskind and loses the first chapter of his book on Giotto because of Susskind.
The story is simple to read, highly engaging, and full of suspense. It indirectly highlights the Jewish community’s situation after the Second World War and how they were surviving in a post-war Europe. Fidelman is a Jew but is from the state of New York and therefore is an American citizen. As I have mentioned before, he is a failed painter and has used the hard-earned money of his sister Bessie to come to Italy to study Giotto’s work. Fidelman is a person who is studious and diligent. However, his repeated encounters with Susskind, a leech and stalker, stirs up despair. When he loses the pages of the first chapter of his book on Giotto, along with his pigskin briefcase in which it was contained, he goes off balance. He is then shown to be an irrational character. He refuses to go on with his life and work because he wants to find his first chapter. He is confident that Susskind is the person who had pinched his manuscript to irritate him because he had not given Susskind what the stubborn Jew wanted most, a suit like a blue gabardine. The latter part of the story chronicles the way Fidelman searches for Susskind like a man on a mission. He is not ready to re-write the first chapter because:
- He could not remember the chapter that well.
- The first chapter’s notes were in a barrel back in America in his sister Bessie’s attic in Levittown. He could not possibly go back and get them, nor would it be possible for Bessie to search for the right notes and send them to him. He is sure that this is a dead-end because she would not know what he needed and send the wrong notes. She had five children, and that is why Fidelman did not want to trouble her unnecessarily.
- He could not write that chapter again with the same ardor with which he wrote it first.
- He knew the chapter was with Susskind and would only write again after he would find Susskind. This shows how disturbed he was and how disgusted he was with Susskind’s act of spite.
- He could not even write the next chapters and continue the book because he was a bit eccentric like all writers and artists. He only liked to continue writing if he had had something substantial written in the past, his first chapter.
There are several instances in the short story titled ‘The Last Mohican’ that deal with the Jews of the post-World War Two and post-Holocaust era. Susskind plays the victim card to his advantage with Fidelman. He tells him that he kept moving from place to place to get away from the fascists hopping from Germany to Hungary, to Poland, et al. Fidelman immediately tells him that he had nothing to fear now as the danger for Jews had ended. The Second World War had taken place a long time ago. It may have happened a long time ago for American Jews like Fidelman, but for Jewish refugees like Susskind, he had seen the worst of the war. He was a Holocaust survivor and was sent to Israel, where he was supposed to do heavy labor that he did not like and so came to Rome. Susskind had no job because he was a Jewish citizen and would only be employed by Jewish firms who did not want or need him. He lived in a poor Jewish ghetto in Rome on the margins of society. He lived in a shanty as cold as an icebox during winter, which only contained the barest of necessities. He peddled for a living or stalked people like good and tender-hearted Fidelman. He hunted and harassed people like Fidelman because of one particular reason that they were Jews, and as they shared a common religion and were of the same race, well off Jews should help him out just for that fact. Susskind liked to ‘piggy-back-ride’ his fellow wealthy Jews because he felt they shared a similar history and future. In the latter part of the story, we are shown the miserable behind the scenes lives of the Roman Jewish community living in their ghetto through the eyes of Fidelman as he searches for Susskind, his wrongdoer. Another Jewish element in the story is when Fidelman goes to the synagogue to pray or search Susskind’s whereabouts. Few others are the Jewish cemetery where there is even an empty grave for a child who lost his father through the hands of fascists at the Auschwitz concentration camp. One can see that the aftermath of the Jewish Holocaust has genuinely changed how Jews looked at the world and how the world looked at them.
Through Fidelman’s eyes and Susskind’s words, we get a picture of what life was like for a Jew in post-World War Two Europe. It was a world where Israel was considered the only place where these holocaust survivors could go and find peace. It showed the poverty of the Jews living in the ghettos and their poor conditions. We see the Jewish community through these two prime characters in the short story ‘The Last Mohican’. To Fidelman, Susskind was indeed the last Mohican of the Jewish people who still felt they were being persecuted and should be given charity. However, is Susskind the real ‘last Mohican’, or is it Fidelman or the entire Jewish race that is the ‘last Mohicans’?. This is debatable as we muse over the Jewish community’s thought and reality as a whole after their severe persecution. The title of this short story ‘The Last Mohican’ means the final remaining or surviving person or thing of a particular group, kind, or race. It is taken from the 1826 novel’s title by James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans. I was awed by Cooper’s, The Last of the Mohicans, a classic I read as a child. I highly recommend this classic to all literature lovers. To learn more about how to inculcate the habit of reading the Classics in children, you can check out my multiple award-winning book Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them. You can get this book on the products page of my blog or Amazon.
In this short story titled ‘The Last Mohican’, Fidelman encounters Susskind wherever he goes. He can’t shake him off and has to offer him money to drive him away. Susskind sadly represents the stereotype we have and had about Jews before we reformed our way of thinking – that they are only interested in money and money dealing. Both Fidelman and Susskind looked alike and were both Jews. However, Fidelman was well-off while Susskind was a pauper. Fidelman is a man of learning, a man of letters, and a former painter, while Susskind is a poor peddler who is drowning in his sorrows. Fidelman makes us see Susskind as a predator of the meek. However, it is because Susskind steals the first chapter of Fidelman that Fidelman suddenly starts doodling angels again and later decides to get back to painting. It is because he was searching for Susskind’s whereabouts that Fidelman visits the Jewish community in Rome. Earlier, he had only seen the grandeur which Rome and its monuments, sculptures, and paintings had to offer, he now saw the reality of the Jewish people who lived there, and the sight was not pretty. Notice that Susskind has brought Fidelman back down to earth by making him visit his roots. Susskind also burns Fidelman’s first chapter because he feels it had no spirit, thus saving Fidelman from writing something that would not get him any money or fame. Susskind feels he has thereby done Fidelman a favor, but Fidelman is furious.
The suit pertains to the clothing of both men – Fidelman and Susskind. Fidelman dressed like an American and wore a suit for style, Susskind wears meager clothing and whatever he does wear is the way traditional Jews dress up. Susskind keeps on begging for a spare suit from Fidelman as he needs clothing to protect him during summer and winter. The only suit that Susskind had was ruined when he fled from Germany during the Second World War. He needed the suit but only wanted to get it from Fidelman because Fidelman was a fellow Jew. In a strange sort of anger, Susskind steals what is most dear to Fidelman so that he can make Fidelman feel the pains he had gone through as a Jew in fascist Europe. Therefore, he steals the first chapter of Fidelman’s manuscript. Ultimately because of a dream in which he sees St. Francis gift his robe to an old knight, Fidelman realizes that the only way he can get his chapter back is by giving the gaberdine suit to Susskind at his hovel. He does so as a forced act of charity, which awareness of the Jewish condition forces him to do. Fidelman realizes indirectly that only if he is ready to give up his suit will he be able to get rid of Susskind once and for all. The story’s ending is a cliff-hanger where Fidelman runs after Susskind to give him the suit and get back his chapter. This is symbolic of the debt, privileged or American Jews owed the persecuted Jews of Europe. However, even this act of charity could not erase the debt people owed to this one race of people who suffered so much in World War Two. That is why Susskind is seen running into the distance.
Susskind presumes that the grass is greener on Fidelman’s side as he could afford cab fare, lend a few dollars, had two suits and a lot of clothing to wear, and had money to travel. However, all was not rosy for Fidelman. He was indebted to his sister for all the luxuries afforded him and lived according to his means and not beyond them. Only after Susskind steals Fidelman’s first chapter that Fidelman lives beyond his means by thinking impractically, prolonging his stay in Rome by three months searching for Susskind.
Susskind had this knack of making someone, especially a Jew, feel like he owed him something. He would frame his sentences so that he would beg but made it look like someone was investing in something profitable to them instead of just plain charity. Susskind was a difficult man to shake off and perused his quarry until his victim gave up and handed whatever he needed to Susskind. Susskind was also a person who was never satisfied in life. He was a grumbler, and even the grumbling would sound like he was indeed a victim of his circumstances. In a way, he was, but he should have been more proactive with his life. Then again, how proactive can you be with a system that is out to get you in every way? I am especially reminded of India’s Dalit community. If you want to read up more on this community in India who suffer oppression at the hands of the upper castes, you can check out my memoir titled Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. You will find the book on my blog’s products page or Amazon. You can buy and read my short story on a fictional Dalit family’s based in nineteenth-century India titled ‘Caste Metal’. Do check these books out and leave a review.
Fidelman describes himself to Susskind as the character Trofimov from Anton Chekhov’s play ‘The Cherry Orchard’. Peter Trofimov is the “eternal student”. Fidelman loves to learn and educate himself. That is why he came to Italy to research Giotto, even though he has not got an educational grant and is spending his own and his sister Bessie’s hard-earned money on this lofty project. He wanted to spend most of his time in Florence rather than Rome but stayed for a more extended period in Rome searching for the elusive Susskind, who has pinched his first chapter. To Fidelman, it was an honor for a simple middle-class American Bronx boy to be able to walk around Rome amidst all the vast history surrounding him. The Bronx is the northernmost borough of New York City, between the Harlem River and Long Island. Fidelman loves studying history but finds it burdensome, mysterious, and a sensuous learning experience. I agree with him that history is a mesmerizing subject but overloaded with so much detail that you can get lost in it. But no true lover of history will mind that. History is beautiful, meaningful, relevant, and eternal. I can relate to this part of the story because I, too, am a history student and hope to do my masters in the subject one day. Most of the books I love to read are history books. To know more about the books I like to read, review, and analyze, subscribe to my blog insaneowl.com. I recently read an excellent non-fiction book, The Secret History of the Gnostics by Andrew Phillip Smith. You can check out the review on my blog.
Although ‘The Last Mohican’ ends with a cliff-hanger, we realize that the ‘skeleton’ of the Holocaust will never disappear from the Jews’ history and neither for Fidelman. He was indeed ruined because he wouldn’t gift one suit to Susskind. He would never be able to research more about Giotto nor stay in Italy for long. Fidelman came to Italy to study a different cultural history but lands up studying, through observation and senses, the life history of his Jewish brethren before and after the Holocaust and World War Two, a period in history from which we have still not been able to recover.
I enjoyed analyzing this short story by American Jewish writer Bernard Malamud. I hope to read, review, and analyze more books, short stories, essays, and non-fiction pieces by American writers in the coming days. This is because the most significant American election is taking place at this moment. You can check out the other American short story writers’ works that I have reviewed in the past few weeks.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out the products page on my blog. There is a lot of good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
Copyright © 2020 Fiza Pathan
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