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Fact, Fiction, and History in Philip Roth’s “Eli, the Fanatic”
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“Your work has always been to intertwine the facts with the imagination.”

—Philip Roth (Facts 166)

This essay uncovers the factual and historical foundation for the dramatic situation in Philip Roth’s short story “Eli, the Fanatic” (1959) and explores Roth’s manipulation of that historical foundation as he constructs the fictional world of his story. Roth’s use of historical facts in this early story is all the more interesting given that, over the course of his long and prolific career, Roth has grown increasingly and more explicitly preoccupied with the ambiguous boundary between fact and fiction. With the creation of his fictional alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, who first appeared as a primary character in The Ghost Writer (1979), Roth aroused readers’ curiosity about the border between autobiographical fact and fiction—a curiosity he subsequently complicated and exploited in works featuring a protagonist and first-person narrator named “Philip Roth” (such as Deception [1990], Operation Shylock [1993], and the alternative history The Plot against America [2004]). In these novels, Roth creates implicit meta-narratives in which the factual and the imaginary are each ironized in relation to the other. Operation Shylock begins with the author’s prefatory claim for the veracity of the narrative: “For legal reasons, I have had to alter a number of facts in this book. These are minor changes that ... are of little significance to the overall story and its verisimilitude” (13). This disclaimer—a throwback to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century convention of novelists insisting on the authenticity of the subsequent narrative—is then given a postmodern twist in Roth’s postscript “Note to the Reader,” in which he now confesses, “This book is a work of fiction” and concludes with the final ambiguous statement, “This confession is false” (399). Which confession? The one comprising the body of the novel or the final “confession” he has just made, that the “book is a work of fiction”? The ambiguity is, of course, Roth’s postmodern joke, which he doggedly perpetuated in promoting the novel. Yet the seeds of the later Roth’s overt, postmodernist play with fact and fiction can be found in the covert manipulation of historical fact in his early story “Eli, the Fanatic.”

“Eli, the Fanatic” was first published in the April 1959 issue of Commentary magazine, just months before it appeared in Roth’s first book, Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories (1959). Briefly, “Eli, the Fanatic” is the story of the attempt by the prosperous, acculturated Jews of suburban Woodenton, New York, to evict from their community the small group of Orthodox Jewish “DPs” (Displaced Persons) who have just purchased a “sagging old mansion” in Woodenton to use as both a yeshiva and a home (249). Young lawyer and soon-to-be father Eli Peck has been enlisted to represent his fellow Woodenton Jews; his foil is the yeshiva headmaster, Rabbi Leo Tzuref, who—along with his mute, unnamed assistant—has charge of eighteen young orphans. All of the new arrivals are survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. The Woodenton Jews are alarmed by the sight of Tzuref’s assistant when he appears in town on errands, with a beard and sidelocks, a black coat and wide-brimmed hat. Eli’s argument to Tzuref that the yeshiva violates local zoning laws prohibiting the establishment of “a boarding school in a residential area” (251) is a convenient rationalization, masking the Woodenton Jews’ deeper anxieties about how the sudden and unexpected presence of such insistently strange and alien Jews might jeopardize their own precarious (as they see it) position in this affluent, suburban Protestant community. Eli is caught up in a crisis of both morality and personal identity as he shuttles back and forth—both literally and figuratively—between the assimilated Woodenton Jews, whom he represents, and these Orthodox yeshiva Jews, whom he comes to see as representing something essential, if suppressed, about his own identity.

The witty and trenchant satire of Roth’s story has generally been much admired. Hana Wirth-Nesher summarizes the critical assessment of the story as “an allegory about the perils of assimilation, ... a fable for his time” (106). Yet while critics have explicated the symbolic and...


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