"Take Pity" by Bernard Malamud

Seminar Paper 2003 18 Pages

American Studies - Literature



I. Introduction

II. Bernard Malamud

III. Bernard Malamud’s “Take Pity”
III.1 “Take Pity”
III.2 Major Characters
III.3 The Realistic and Fantastic Elements in “Take Pity”
III.4 The Compassion in “Take Pity”

IV. Conclusion

V. Bibliography
V.1 Primary Literature
V.2 Secondary Literature

I. Introduction

In 1958 Bernard Malamud published his first short story collection The Magic Barrel. Whereas stories like e.g. “The Magic Barrel” or “The Lady of the Lake” were frequently discussed, “Take Pity” got only little attention from the critics, although the story offers a wide spectrum of possible interpretations and contains several stylistic devices. The main focus of this term paper is the discussion of the realistic and fantastic elements in chapter III.4 and the different dimensions of compassion throughout the story in chapter III.5.

II. Bernard Malamud

The esteemed novelist and short story writer Bernard Malamud was born on April 28, 1914, in Brooklyn, NY and grew up on New York's East Side where his Russian-Jewish immigrant parents worked in their grocery store sixteen hours a day. He attended high school and college during the height of the depression. His family's experience was clearly echoed in his fiction. Whereas the setting varies in his novels, in his short fiction it is most often the East Side of New York. Malamud was also strongly influenced by classic nineteenth-century American writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Henry James. Moreover, Malamud's works reflected a post-Holocaust consciousness in addressing Jewish concerns and employing literary conventions drawn from earlier Jewish literature. He began his career in the early 1940s by publishing stories in non-commercial magazines. His first major period of work extended from 1949 to 1961 when he was teaching at Oregon State College. During this period he produced three novels and a collection of short stories. Malamud won several fiction prizes, including the National Book Award in fiction for The Magic Barrel in 1959. After Malamud had move d back to Bennington College, his second working period (1961-1970) began, and both his stories and his next two novels took a more cosmopolitan and international direction. During his life, Malamud proved to be a reclusive character, giving only few interviews. Within his brief, to-the-point responses to questions regarding his life, Malamud reflected his belief that the tale was far more important than the teller. After his death in 1986, several collections of interviews, speeches, and lectures were published.

III. Bernard Malamud’s “Take Pity”

III.1 “Take Pity”

The short story “Take Pity” by Bernard Malamud contains two different levels. The first level is Rosen’s report about what took place between him and the widow Eva Kalish. After the death of Axel Kalish, Eva’s husband, Rosen got emotionally affected by the fate of the widow and her two children who live d in poverty. Rosen wanted to help them and tried several times to help offering money, accommodation, etc. But Eva strongly refused any kind of “charity.” Each refusal intensified Rosen’s intent to help, “to give .” This to and fro culminated in the act of violence of Rosen with intend to bequeath all his assets to Eva. The second level frames the first; it is the peculiar situation of Rosen while reporting to Davidov, the census -taker of a non-specified institution.

The story starts, for the reader at first not apparent, sometime after Rosen had tried to commit suicide and was made to report to the bureaucrat Davidov. At the end of the story both levels suddenly merge, when Eva occurs in front of the window after Davidov has raised the window shade of the dark and sparse room.

III.2 Major Characters

Rosen is an ex-coffee salesman and bachelor with only one kidney. He is well off and owns, among other things, a two-family house. Even if he is not in good health, he tries to be helpful to the widow Eva Kalish. His intent to help grows despite or due to her refusal to be helped.

Davidov is a census taker of a non-specified institution. Businesslike and unemotional with a slide of disillusion he makes Rosen talk about Axel Kalish's death and about his relation to Eva Kalish. Davidov takes notes, using an old-fashioned language that they don’t use nowadays.

Eva Kalish is the thirty-eight-year-old widow of Axel Kalish and mother of two daughters, Fega, five years old, and Surale, three years old. She has no further relatives and wants to go on with the grocery store she inherited from her deceased husband. Filled with bitterness she constantly refuses Rosen’s offers to help her.

Axel Kalish, a Polish refugee, was Eva’s husband until he died while having a conversation with Rosen. He worked hard to save three thousand dollars to buy a grocery store in a “dead neighborhood.”1 Rosen wholesaled coffee for his store.

III.3 The Realistic and Fantastic Elements in “Take Pity”

There are two main directions for the interpretation of “Take Pity”. One possible interpretation is to assume that “Take Pity” is a fantastic story that deals with one realistic level, the relationship of Rosen and Eva before Rosen’s ultimate action of putting his head in the stove, and one unreal level, the conversation of Rosen and Davidov. The other way of seeing “Take Pity” is to assume that it is a realistic story containing two realistic threads, connected with each other, interspersed with fantastic elements.

There are several indications that “Take Pity” is indeed a realistic story. When the story starts, there is a detailed description about the place where Rosen is located. The room is described as clean but cold and sparsely furnished with a shut window. It is a description of a very earthly place, especially the “[…] small sink with a rough piece of green, institutional soap on its holder […]” (Take Pity 85) seems to be too ordinary to be fantastic. In addition, those or very similar circumstances and locations recur often in Malamud’s stories and gi ve no reason to doubt the realistic meaning. The characters are explicitly humanlike even if they do not behave humanly at any time; their reactions, motivations, desires and afflictions are very earthlike .2 Davidov, almost inadequate equipped - his fountain pen had run dry - needs to use a pencil stub that he has to sharpen “with a cracked razor blade.” “Take Pity” 86) He looks restless, is impatient and seems to be mentally exhausted. Indeed he behaves very humanly, when he limps into the room and argues with Rosen about the darkness because of the closed window shade. His astonishment and discomfort about the darkness is also a strong indicator of natural human behavior. A further indicator that Davidov is not a heavenly creature is his emotional imbalance; “Davidov’s face grew red” (“Take Pity” 87) when Rosen is mocking him. A contrary reaction takes place at the end of the story; Davidov’s “[…] book was full, so he tossed it onto the table, yawned, but listened amiably. His curiosity had died.” (“Take Pity” 94) As well as Davidov, Rosen shows no abnormal behavior in sense of unnatural. When Davidov enters the room, Rosen is sitting motionless, cross-legged on his cot with despairing eyes. His condition is unagitated and produces an impression of routine. Rosen also shows a very natural behavior when he appetites for a cigarette but does not want to ask for it. He misses any emotional distance or signs that he got over the past that one would have expected if he had left this world; it becomes obvious when he is almost moved to tears and “blew his nose” (“Take Pity” 90) while he is reporting to Davidov. Moreover, Rosen is (still) “a sick man” (“Take Pity” 88), with only one kidney and something worse, while having the conversation with Davidov. The fact that Rosen is sick confirms the interpretation of “Take Pity” as a realistic story that acts in this world; how could someone be ill and at the same time being dead? In addition, Rosen’s last scream, “Go ’way from here. Go home to your children” (“Take Pity” 95), supports the perception that even at the end all is natural. If Eva were dead she could not go home to her children.

The discussion about reality and fantasy concerning the relationship of Eva and Rosen is nonessential; their acting apparently plays in the real world and requires no further discussion at this point. The reason for Davidov’s mission remains at first dubious, he is an agent of an unnamed institution. But obviously he has routine and is not excited at all. When Rosen is talking about death, he gets Davidov’s full attention (Davidov makes his first note when Rosen mentions Axel Kalish’s dead). Very short lines before the story ends, the reader becomes aware that Rosen had tried to commit suicide.3 The reason for the interrogation becomes now clear. Suicide attempt is illegal in the United States and it stands to reason that Rosen had tried killing himself to bequeath his assets to Eva. It is apparent that such a behavior needs to be examined by an insurance company or any comparable organization. Rosen could be in a kind of remand center or even a sanitarium. Apart from an inspector of a state or private institution Davidov could be a doctor who tries to cure his patient.4

In opposite to the interpretation of “Take Pity” as a realistic story there are several signs that leave doubt that it is realistic. Therefore, “Take Pity” can also be interpreted as a fantastic story. ‘Fantastical literature’ can be understood as a comprehensive term for literature that exceed the realistic level in favor of the unreal, surreal, bizarre, supernatural or visionary one or different combinations.

What is fantastic in “Take Pity” or what can be doubted to be real? Davidov is a “census taker” of an unnamed institution, but an ordinary mental institution or insurance company would hardly have enough inmates to justify a “census taker”. A kind of netherworld, however, could afford any agent. The atmosphere of Rosen’s location seems to be unusual respectively not earthly - “It was perhaps something in the air. It did not permit you to retain what you remembered.” (“Take Pity” 86) Rosen obviously is taking a form of cure, more or less voluntarily - “That was part of the cure, if you wanted a cure.” (“Take Pity” 86) Now the description of Rosen as an ex -coffee salesman becomes important; it shows implicitly that Rosen will not return to his job even if cured. In addition, the phrase “Rosen spoke with ashes in his mouth” (“Take Pity” 88) foreshadows that Rosen is presumably already buried.


1 Bernard Malamud, “„Take Pity“,” in The Magic Barrel (Toronto: Ambassador Books, 13th printing, 1971), p. 87 / All further page references in brackets in the text/.

2 Hans Helmcke, “Bernard Malamud: ‘ Take Pity,’” in Frieder Busch (ed), Amerikanische Erzählliteratur 1950-1970 (Munich: Fink 1975), p. 209.

3 The interpretation of “Take Pity” as a realistic story includes the assumption that Rosen’s suicide attempt has failed; in opposition the interpretation of “Take Pity” as fantastic story assumes that the attempt was successful and will be discussed later.

4 Hans Helmcke, op. cit., p. 211.


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University of Paderborn – Faculty for Cultural Studies
1,7 (A-)
Bernard Malamud Take Pity Magic Barrel Amerikanische Kurzgeschichte american short story



Title: "Take Pity" by Bernard Malamud