Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith” raises questions about identity and identification, and the complexities that arise when different aspects of a person’s self-concept are in conflict with one another. The story also invokes the ethical dilemmas that identification creates, forcing its characters and the audience to confront competing allegiances. Published in 1959 as part of Roth’s first collection, the story takes place in 1945, as World War II is winding down. The issues that it addresses are equally salient right now, when, in a time of war and increased tensions over immigration, ethnic Americans seek to maintain their identities while feeling pressured to prove their patriotism.
The narrator of “Defender of the Faith” is Nathan Marx, a Jewish noncommissioned officer who has returned from a two-year tour of duty in Europe to serve out his time with a training company in Missouri. As Marx’s name suggests, his situation is humorous (Groucho and Harpo) but also potentially dangerous (Karl), as he finds himself serving as an unwilling mediator between his American superiors and his ethnic subordinates. Marx’s doppelganger and nemesis is a trainee with the noticeably Jewish name of Sheldon Grossbart. A character whose behavior is as repellant and over-the-top as his name implies, Grossbart appeals to a shared sense of heritage to manipulate Marx into giving special accommodations to him and two other Jewish boys, Halpern and Fishbein. These privileges include excused absences from cleaning details, special leave, and even a favorable duty assignment. Although some action does occur over the weeks that the trainees spend preparing to ship out, the story takes place mostly in Marx’s head as he seeks to cope with Grossbart’s shenanigans and to justify his methods to himself.
Two fundamental ambiguities occupy the heart of the story: Who is the defender and what is he defending? A case can be made for both Marx and Grossbart as the defender, for both Judaism and American patriotism as the faith. Furthermore, speech is an important medium in the text, which features both actual dialogue and internal conversations. Indeed, it is language itself that provides the chink in the armor that lets Grossbart know that Marx is indeed “one of them” (165), as Marx slips into using the Yiddish term shul to refer to the Jewish house of worship, as opposed to “Jewish church” or “Jewish Mass” as the gentiles on the base call it. Chain-of-command issues are also significant and arise through language, as Grossbart tricks Marx into calling him by his first name and stubbornly refuses to stop calling Marx “sir.”
In challenging us to untangle the questions raised by the title, Roth forces us to pay particular attention to the questions of who speaks for whom and in what capacity. In his initial interactions with Grossbart, Marx finds himself taking on the role of military superior: “My tone startled me. I felt I sounded like every top sergeant I had ever known” (163). Grossbart, however, is not intimidated; he seems to have appointed himself the defender of Judaism and the spokesman for his fellows who are too shy or inept to speak for themselves. And yet Jewish though he might be, Grossbart is not religiously observant. He does not pray during the evening service he insists on being able to attend, and he marks the service’s end by chugging down the ritual wine. Similarly, when he prevails upon Marx to arrange for him to celebrate a religious meal with a relative, he takes Marx an egg roll instead of the promised gefilte fish, a parody of the unofficial American Jewish ritual of getting Chinese food on Christmas. Furthermore, Grossbart literally (and dishonestly) speaks for his father by forging a letter in his father’s name, writing to his congressional representative to protest the Jewish boys’ treatment. For his part, Marx is made to speak for Jews in general when his superior asks him to account for Grossbart’s dietary requests and the behavior of his parents. As distasteful as it is to him, Marx finds himself defending Grossbart to the non-Jewish military officials. Against his will, Marx is led to accept a responsibility to his fellow Jew.
If Grossbart is parading his religious faith (or at least his religious affiliation), Marx is not exactly passing passing for gentile. He does not hesitate to affirm his Jewish heritage when confronted by his commanding officer. And yet Marx is also a red-blooded American boy, the pitcher for the camp’s softball team. When Marx seeks to subterfuge the special arrangement Grossbart makes for his assignment by manipulating a Corporal Shulman (another recognizably Jewish name, and a play on the Yiddish word for synagogue, shulman), Marx calls on his teammate, Wright, who begins the conversation by asking, “How’s the pitching arm?” (198). It is true that Grossbart embodies some of the worst stereotypes about Jews: He is manipulative, cunning, and deceitful. But if Marx is Jewish, then Grossbart serves to some extent as a mirror. Interacting with Grossbart forces Marx to confront the negative parts of his own personality; hating Grossbart analogously becomes a form of self-hatred.
By the end, Marx has become polarized. Philip Roth once said, “I am not a Jewish writer; I am a writer who is a Jew” (qtd. in Ozick 158). At the beginning of the story, Nathan Marx might have correspondingly offered, “I am not a Jewish soldier; I am a soldier who is a Jew.” By the end, however, Marx has allowed the Jewish aspect of his identity to override the neutrality of the American soldier of the story’s opening pages and he singles out a Jewish trainee. Was it fair for the first man in the alphabet randomly to get the favorable assignment? Assuredly. But Marx does not orchestrate it to be fair. He does it to get even, to use Grossbart’s manipulations against him, something the Marx of the beginning would not have done. The final sentences of the story move from faith to fate: “With a kind of quiet nervousness, [the trainees] polished shoes, shined belt buckles, squared away underwear, trying as best they could to accept their fate. Behind me Grossbart swallowed hard, accepting his. And then, resisting with all my will an impulse to turn and seek pardon for my vindictiveness, I accepted my own” (200). Grossbart’s fate, however, is not ordained by mysterious and unknowable forces, but rather by Marx himself. Marx’s desire to seek pardon suggests a need for atonement, and yet his acceptance of his fate suggests a recognition that his experiences have changed him—paradoxically not his experiences in Europe fighting the enemy but his experiences in Missouri, fighting with one of his own. Like it or not, Marx’s fate and Grossbart’s are intertwined.
Roth, Philip. “Defender of the Faith.” In Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories. 1959. Reprint, New York: Vintage International, 1993.
Ozick, Cynthia. Art and Ardor. New York: Knopf, 1983.