Singer, Isaac Bashevis. "The Lecture".
The first-person narrator is a Yiddish writer, a Polish Jew who fled from the Nazi regime and became a naturalized American citizen. He travels by train from New York to Montreal where he is to deliver an optimistic lecture on the bright future of the Yiddish language. He watches the fellow travellers and wonders how comes that they are so carefree, as if they never heard about Hitler and Stalin’s murder machine. He recalls his train journeys in Poland where Jewish passengers were not allowed into the cars and strikes often halted the crowded trains for hours.
His trip to Montreal is at first almost idyllic. The car is clean and pleasantly warm, though it is a chilly winter. Then the evening falls, the train stops in a sparse wood and the heating stops working: ‘The American dream gradually dissolves and harsh Polish reality returns’. The passengers form discussion groups and complete strangers start chatting with one another. The narrator sits alone and does not talk to anyone: ‘a victim of my own isolation, shyness, and alienation from the world’.
The train arrives to Montreal at half past two and naturally nobody is waiting for the narrator any more. There is an old crippled woman with her daughter who approach the narrator and identify him as Mr N. The aged woman admires his writing and insisted on waiting for him the whole night. The nameless woman is a Polish Jew. She did hard labour at Hitler’s camps where she lost her health. Seeing a fellow sufferer, she starts talking in some length about her experience. They read the narrator’s stories even in the camps and she thanks him for his writing.
The old woman forgot the name of the hotel where the narrator has a reservation from the lecture club, so she offers to accommodate him for the night. They take a cab and drive into a murky, seedy street with wooden houses. The place where the two women live is poor, dirty, and cold. They ‘managed to bring with them the whole atmosphere of wretched poverty from their old home in Poland’. The narrator is put on a rickety squeaking cot. He is freezing and cannot fall asleep despite his exhaustion.
The narrator realizes that he lost the manuscript of his lecture which he is unable to deliver without it. He thinks it a fitting incident because he was dissatisfied with the optimistic tone of the essay from the beginning. He imagines himself back in Poland under Hitler in wartime. Suddenly Binele, the young woman, throws the door open and cries that her mother is dead. She is desperate and helpless, she wants the narrator to call the doctor though it is too late. The narrator tries to find some matches to light a candle but there are none. He suggests to Binele to fetch a neighbour, but the man speaks French only and does not help.
The old woman died of the strain of coming to the railway station to wait for the narrator. The narrator is seized by superstitious fears when he remains in the dark and chilly room with the corpse: ‘My years in America seemed to have been swept away by that one night and I was taken back, as though by magic, to my worst days in Poland, to the bitterest crisis of my life’. He fears that his American life was but a dream from which he now woke up. Only with the morning dawn he recollects himself. He comforts Binele and promises not to abandon her.
The story focuses on Polish Jews who survived the Nazi regime and started new lives as naturalized American citizens. It is clear that the experience of persecution, working and concentration camps, and constant threat of death does not cease to haunt the lives of the survivors. They may have adapted themselves to their new environment, but their former lives hang upon them as a heavy burden. Is is both in common incidents of everyday life and in moments of crisis that the painful memories are evoked. The narrator recalls travelling in Polish trains when he is comfortable in an American one, he keeps on thinking of a concentration camp when he uncomfortable in the cold cot, and for a moment he succumbs to a crippling fear of death when he is confronted with the decease of the old woman.
It is interesting to notice that both the first-person narrator and the old woman remain nameless. Only the young woman has her name. This may emphasize the universality of their experience. It is not only the three individual characters in the story but the whole nation that suffered in the same way. The young woman is the one who is best adapted to the American life. She hushes her mother when she keeps on recalling her concentration camp life, she also wears American rather than Polish clothes. The older woman does not seem to be assimilated at all. Her American house is not any different than the one she had in Poland, also her living conditions are not much better. The story makes it obvious that the WWII atrocities did not mare only the lives of the victims but also the minds of the survivors.
AuthorSinger, Isaac Bashevis. (1904 - 1991).
Full Title"The Lecture".
First PublishedIn: Playboy, 1967.
Singer, Isaac Bashevis. ‘The Lecture’. The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. 489-503.