This discussion refers to the story I published on line on January 20 and January 23.
As I explained at the outset, this is not a single tale. Though the main story belongs to the narrator, the most significant part of his experience is to listen to the shammes. The other characters who fill out the cast exist to flesh out the background for one of these two.
The mohel is a necessary figure at a crucial point in the story, but he gets little attention. Like the narrator, he has no name, though he makes a joke about his nickname (the flying clipper).
Like the mohel, Uncle Solly shows up briefly but is not developed as a character. He appears only long enough to represent an attitude that makes the narrator uncomfortable. He bluntly asks about a sexual family matter that should remain private information, shared only by a man and his wife. With his bluntness, in asking about when Abby went to the mikve, he helps us understand why the narrator and Abby have been alienated from the family for years.
The final background character in this story is Abby. We know much more about her than about the mohel or Uncle Solly because what she says relates to what the shammes says later. She talks about names, about choosing a life, about living a life instead of acting. As a foil for the narrator, she expresses much stronger opinions than her husband.
My ex-wife was not thrilled with the depiction of Abby when I showed this story to her even when I pointed out that I had given her all the good lines in the story. In fact, Abby is the only character in the story to possess a depth of reflection and a resolve to live a rich life. She is apprehensive about routine, and opposed to any life chosen for her by others. Abby is the only character in the story with spunk. Her defiant personality is in total contrast with that of the young shammes, uprooted and forced to live a life not his own.
Finally, there is the central symbol of the story, that of the mikve. Uncle Solly points out that immersion in the mikve is an essential part of traditional Jewish marriage. It is the central symbol of Jewish family purity. The shammes speaks of how its water can rejuvenate. Questions about its integrity are what breaks the town into factions in the first half of the story.
But the mikve falls short as a symbol of purity in this story. In one instance, its water comes from a garden hose instead of rain. In another, there is a dead moth floating on the surface.
In this story, things do not turn out to be what they appear to be. People are not who they seemed at first to be. Names are not real, pure water is not pure water.
This highlights another key difference between fiction and memoir. The writer of a memoir begins with events as they exist in memory. Any reflections that follow flow directly from those memories. But there is no single source of fiction. Sometimes events can exist largely to illustrate an idea, an orientation, a perception, and it might never even be mentioned in the story.
Here, for example, a key idea conveyed by the story is that there is sometimes more to our personal identity than we realize. But just as central to the story is the confusion of appearances and realities in other areas of life. I had a strong feeling that many things are not what they appear to be before I wrote “He that filches my good name”; but I never realized that idea was in the story until I began these essays.