Singer’s Restless Spirits in the City That Never Sleeps
Written by Mary Roche
Illustrated by Amanda Leiserowitz
Take a moment to imagine New York City. Almost immediately, visions of streets clogged with traffic, the constant crush of hurried bodies and subways chocked full of impatient commuters come to mind. Like any densely populated metropolis, The Big Apple bustles with ceaseless activity. It’s a city that magnetizes countless people, a place where dreams are born, and the sky, although jagged with skyscrapers, is the limit — so we are told by familiar tropes. It’s seldom associated with the supernatural. Tireless Gotham in much of American literature is the backdrop for dreamers, a land of unlimited opportunities. Therefore, it makes an unusual setting for a ghost story. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story, “A Wedding in Brownsville,” readers are taken off guard as they discover some of whom reside in the city that never sleeps indeed remain restless even in spite of death. By incorporating unassuming realism with thoughtful ambiguity, Singer offers an atypical ghost story in the most unlikely of places.
There’s no indication of supernatural forces at work when the story of Dr. Solomon Margolin commences. On the contrary, it begins with ordinary realism — Margolin is conflicted about attending a wedding in the far reaches of Brownsville. A self-proclaimed agnostic, yet an active member of the Jewish community, he is tormented by his obligation to attend. He thinks of the wedding as more so a burden than a call for celebration. Attending would undoubtedly widen the rift with his wife, who is adamant about declining the invitation while her husband was at liberty to indulge in a “feast of poisons” (1). To complicate matters, the occasion falls on the one available evening they would otherwise spend together. Gretl, his shiksa wife, has endured her husband’s commitments to the Jewish community throughout their marriage and another night spent apart will undoubtedly cost Margolin marital bliss or perhaps more practically, some much-needed sleep: “Dr. Margolin admitted to himself that his wife was right. When would he get the chance to sleep?” (1). We are immediately acquainted with the tenuous dynamics of Margolin and his wife’s relationship, as well as his estrangement to his faith, yet the persistent mention of his need for rest initially seems insignificant.
The subtleties of Singer’s writing are so sophisticated, they nearly go undetected. Sleep, or lack thereof, gains prominence as the story progresses. Margolin’s lethargy is noted repeatedly before the wedding, so much that it shows while he makes an assessment of himself in the mirror: “Today of all days he looked his age: there were bags under his eyes, and his face was lined. Exhaustion showed in his features.” (1). Margolin’s exhaustion persists throughout the afternoon. After breakfast he spends the rest of the day napping and reclining on the sofa in a state of deep introspection. In repose, he takes inventory of his life’s achievements; he was a prodigy as a child, a devoted student of the Talmud and became a successful, cultured, and well-traveled physician. Despite this, he still thought less of himself: “But secretly, Margolin had always felt like he was a failure. “ (2). His disappointments outweighed his achievements, especially the loss of Raizel, the true love of his life. Plagued with the pain of outliving his family and the loss of hope for humanity, Margolin regards himself as tormented.
As a young man, Margolin managed to escape the Nazi’s sweeping tirade in Europe during World War II. He was one of few survivors from his hometown Sencimin. Margolin among a handful of others, later known as the Senciminer Society, managed to immigrate and begin a new life in New York City, which was known as the destination of infinite possibilities. Meanwhile, Sencimin fell in ruin and the majority of their loved ones, including Raizel, met brutal deaths during the Holocaust. This passage of Margolin’s introspection is reminiscent of life passing before one’s eyes. He steeps in unanswered questions and his deepest fears. He has witnessed and survived the real-time horrors of human atrocity. This liberal use of realism stretches well into the story and the only evidence of haunting initially appears to be Margolin’s inner turmoil. This spiritual interlude seems nothing more than the typical pre or post-sleep stream of consciousness, but I’d argue this may be the moment Margolin’s death transpires.
The ambiguity of Margolin’s death only becomes apparent after rereading the story and reconsidering the moment of his demise. His final interaction with Gretl may allude to this. She enters the room where he is resting on the sofa and offers him a vitamin, which he refuses and as she leaves the room she wavers: “And slowly she walked out of the room, hesitating as if she expected him to remember something and call her back.” (2). One might question why Gretl is reluctant to leave the room. Indicative of a longstanding intimate relationship, perhaps she was sensing something unusual about her husband’s lack of energy, surely, he would call out to her if something was amiss. Although not implied this was the moment of his death, one may wonder why this scene takes place before he readies himself for the party only a half-hour later with renewed vigor. The timeline is muddled here. The expanse of hours is lost between the time he laid down on the sofa until he leaves for the party.
Margolin’s cryptic departure from the mortal world continues to puzzle the reader. When he takes a taxi to the wedding, the driver never speaks to him. This curious detail doesn’t quite reveal or refute the state of Margolin’s mortality, nor the moment that the cab comes to a screeching halt as they come upon a car accident. Only his meditative state in which he considers the precarious nature of life is apparent. The scene is written to appear as a brush with death but nothing more. Singer’s play with ambiguity persists until the closing scene. Margolin looks out of the window from the back seat and feels unfamiliar in his place of residence. An unsettling feeling of Margolin’s alienation to life itself is revealed when he observes people outside of a tavern: “The people at the bar seemed to have something unearthly about them as if they were being punished here for sins committed in another incarnation.” (3). It may be a complex indication that Margolin is traveling on to another dimension and merely passing through the neighborhoods of the afterlife. It seems deliberate his ultimate destination is just past a synagogue and a funeral parlor.
At the wedding, he is greeted by fellow members of the Senciminer Society, who cajoled him into the frenzied celebration oddly juxtaposed with bits and pieces of conversations about the brutal deaths of their kin during the war. One line that stands out is: “All of us are really dead, if you want to call it that. We were exterminated, wiped out. Even the survivors carry death in their hearts. But it’s a wedding, we should be cheerful!” (4). Whether these guests have perished or not, we learn that they are all haunted by their dearly departed.
The feverish quality of Margolin’s experience at the wedding reads like a dream sequence transitioning from the ordinary to the surreal. He can’t recall having a drop of alcohol, yet he feels intoxicated by the commotion and slightly disconnected from the other guests during brief moments of melancholy reflection: “The foggy hall was spinning like a carousel; the floor was rocking. Standing in a corner, he contemplated the dance. What different expressions the dancers wore. How many combinations and permutations of being, the Creator had brought together here. Every face told its own story. They were dancing together, these people, but each one had his own philosophy, his own approach.” (4). He considers the divine intervention that brought him together with the other guests.This hazy, out-of-focus scene seems somewhat disorienting to the reader. At this point, it is still uncertain why, despite his reluctance, Margolin ends up at this wedding.
It is not until he is reunited with Raizel that we know for certain Margolin has met his fate. Realizing that it is impossible for Raizel to not only survive the ravages of the Nazis but also manage to avert the wearing effects of age, he deduces his state of being:
“An eerie suspicion came over him: Perhaps he had been more than a witness? Perhaps he himself had been the victim of that accident! He began to examine himself as if he were one of his own patients. He could find no trace of pulse or breathing. And he felt oddly deflated as if some physical dimension were missing. The sensation of weight, the muscular tension of his limbs, the hidden aches in his bones, all seemed to be gone. It can’t be, it can’t be, he murmured. Can anyone die without knowing it?” (7).
After considering the car accident on the way over the loose threads of the narrative begin to weave together. Years of religious estrangement have suddenly come to an end at the celebration. Margolin likens an unexpected reunion with Raizel to the arrival of the Messiah (6). Now faced with an opportunity to have faith work in his favor and no longer obligated to the mortal world (i.e., Gretl), Margolin can finally spend eternity with his true love, and he revives the faith he had strayed from.
At first read, the story in its entirety prickles the nerves. Given the relatable quality of the characters and their everyday struggles or even the extraordinary challenges of post-traumatic stress and loss, Singer cleverly disarms the reader with magical realism. Suspension of disbelief does not require the reader’s direct participation. Singer has a way of seducing the reader by creating a credible world with only accents of the supernatural. His carefully deployed clues shimmer with enlightenment as the story unfolds. New York City, although not often associated with the spirit world, is successfully reinvented as the city of unlimited possibilities.
Singer, Isaac B. “A Wedding in Brownsville”. Commentary Magazine. Found on the web: https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/a-wedding-in-brownsville/ . 04/28/2019.