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The next morning, while chatting with Captain Barrett, I recounted the incident of the previous evening. Somehow, in the telling, it must have seemed to the Captain that I was not so much explaining Grossbart’s position as defending it.
I admit that I’m not sure what to make of Philip Roth’s short story “Defender of the Faith”. It’s included in my copy of The Best Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike and in my copy of The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. So apparently it’s considered a good story by many who decide whether stories are good. “Defender of the Faith” never went where I thought it was going and I thought it was going a number of different places as I read it. Perhaps this is why it might be considered a good story. Here’s my take on it:
There is a stereotypical idea that Jewish mothers are extremely adept at using guilt to get what they want. Roth takes that idea and applies it to a supposedly Orthodox Jewish Army private in basic training who guilts his nominally Jewish sergeant into allowing him special privileges – because he’s Jewish.
There are points in the story where I think Roth is aiming for a theme of prejudice in which the private and a couple of buddies (also Jewish) are truly being discriminated against. Then, Roth moves to a theme in which it appears he is lambasting those who use their religion to take advantage of others. Perhaps there is some path right down the middle? It’s just difficult for me to see.
I enjoy the confusion with which the sergeant reels at the constant demands of the private. I found myself saying several times “you’re the one in charge”! And I think there is a little bit of tongue-in-cheek in the title. It’s an interesting question as to who is the real defender.