The Book of Daniel
Holden Caulfield and Daniel Issacson: Much in Common?
Daniel Issacson, the narrator of Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, is perhaps not as beloved and well-known as Holden Caulfield, the voice behind Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It could be that we can empathize more easily with a misguided teenager than a moody, radical adult. Nonetheless, Daniel and Holden have much in common. Both are faced with a past in which a senseless death shapes their view of the present; they become the walking wounded, it’s them versus the world. Holden and Daniel stumble through their worlds pursuing a mission that they cannot seem to complete. It is this failure that torments them both.Holden and Daniel were both faced with death at an early age. For Holden, it was the death of his younger brother, Allie. Allie’s death isn’t mentioned until about forty pages into the book, but once we learn of it, we gain a greater sense of who Holden is, and why he struggles. Allie died of leukemia, a death that was beyond his – or anyone else’s – control. Allie was not at fault for his death. He didn’t deserve it, and Holden couldn’t protect him from it. He died as an innocent child, and from this, Holden’s mission is born: he becomes the catcher in the rye. He is to protect the innocence of children, as he could not protect Allie. He must make sense of Allie’s death.In the same fashion, Daniel struggles to make sense of the death of his parents. Their death, of course, is more controversial than Allie’s – some would argue that it wasn’t at all senseless, but necessary. However, to Daniel as a young child, his parents were seemingly taken away from him for no reason. This, in turn, shapes his view of the world, as it sahpes Holden’s view of the world. Daniel knows that he is marked by what his parents died for. He laments: “I live in constant and degrading relationship to the society that has destroyed my mother and father” (p.72). Daniel’s world is shaped by seeking to understand this society and the role he is to play in it.Stemming from the losses each has experienced, then, Holden and Daniel are both thrust into a kind of mission, a life’s purpose. Holden views Allie’s death as a fall from innocence, a premature departure from the sanctuary of childhood. In an attempt to preserve childhood and innocence, Holden envisions himself as the metaphorical “catcher in the rye.” He explains to his younger sister, Phoebe:You know what I’d like to be?…I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all…and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me…What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff…That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye (p.173).Holden seeks to protect these children as he could not protect Allie. It’s the only way he can come to terms with his senseless death.The death of Daniel’s parents also gives him a sense of a mission, but this mission is thrust upon him, more so than in Holden’s case. Daniel becomes the unwilling inheritor of his family’s struggle. His grandmother lays it out for him: “Or perhaps it is that I recognized in you the strength and innocence that will reclaim us all from defeat. That will exonerate our having lived and justify our suffering…Just remember, though, this placing of the burden on the children is a family tradition” (p.70). Daniel is faced with more than a personal mission; it’s his family’s mission, a mission they could not complete. This is why Daniel struggles – he is attempting to function in a society that destroyed his parents. He wants to act out, to rage against this society – but he can’t.Thus, we are presented with another commonality that binds Holden and Daniel: both have a mission that they cannot complete. Both want to act out, but are misguided and don’t seem to know where to direct their anger. They are aware of their missions. Holden is to preserve youth; Daniel is to avenge his parents’ deaths. They know their purpose, but cannot find it in themselves to act. Holden’s inaction is apparent in the following passage:But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody’d written ‘Fuck you’ on the wall. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant…I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it…I kept picturing myself catching him at it, and how I’d smash his head…But I knew, too, that I wouldn’t have the guts to do it…That made me even more depressed (p.201).Not only is Holden unable to do anything, he is achingly aware of it, which only intensifies his internal struggle. He wants to make these wrongs right, yet can’t seem to do it.Daniel’s internal struggle stems from his inability to act, as well. His family’s burden has been passed down to him; responsibility lies in his hands. The weight of what his parents represented would make it unsurprising, in fact, if Daniel were to act out, were to be a revolutionary. He is aware of that, and he despises it – and perhaps, for that reason alone, he does not do anything. This is best illustrated in Daniel’s struggle with his sister, Susan, over the issue of creating a foundation for revolution in their parents’ names. Susan is all for carrying out a mission in the name of her parents; Daniel, on the other hand, is reluctant. Perhaps we can better understand Daniel when we examine his feelings during his march on the Pentagon:I come under the awful conviction of everyone’s greater right to be here…Itseems to me that practically everyone here…has taken possession of the event in a way that is beyond me. I feel as if I have sneaked in, haven’t paid, or simply don’t know something that everyone else knows: that it is still possible to do this, perhaps (p.254).It could be that Daniel simply knows something that all of these young people don’t: that revolution is futile. That, after all, is the lesson he learned from his parents. Their death jaded him, in a sense. They fought for a cause, and for what? They still lost in the end. Maybe, then, this is why Daniel cannot act – because he simply doesn’t see the point.This feeling of helplessness, on the part of both Daniel and Holden, seems to convince them that the world is conspiring against them. They cannot possibly function in a society that, to them, seems at times frightening, absurd and frivolous. In this sense, then, they are able to act out – their action is simply misplaced. Holden rebels against authority – he fails out of school, he disobeys his parents – for authority represents adulthood, which is the opposite of childhood and innocence. He wages war on authority, because that, in a way, brings him closer to his mission. Daniel moves through life feeling as though he is marked by who his parents were. Society brought them down, so it must be attempting to bring him down, too. “And it seemed to me then that I was marked,” Daniel explains. “Because they seemed to have a lot more power than we had” (p.36). He wants to challenge the societal structures that killed his parents. Daniel is helpless, though, and he acts out where he can. He abuses his wife. He is irresponsible, moody, and hot-tempered. It’s him against the world – just as it is Holden against the world.The only people that both Holden and Daniel seem to have any control over protecting are their younger sisters, Phoebe and Susan. The difference is that Daniel is the unwilling protector of Susan, in a sense; he was forced into it, it was passed on to him. Holden, on the other hand, makes himself Phoebe’s protector. He seeks to save her. He couldn’t save Allie, but he still has a chance with Phoebe. Daniel’s tie to Susan is different: he has had to step into a parenting role, almost. His need to protect Susan is more real than Holden’s need to protect Phoebe, for Phoebe isn’t in any real danger. She has loving parents and a home. Susan, on the other hand, lost her parents at a young age, and Daniel is all she has. Daniel speaks of the imprint Susan leaves on him: “The small warm hand in my hand. It is given to me and not withdrawn” (p.174). Both Daniel and Holden act as the protectors of their sisters. But while this position comforts Holden, it brings Daniel grief, for he knows that he cannot protect her as she needs to be.They are the walking wounded, Holden and Daniel. Daniel was wounded as a child with the loss of his parents, and the scar he carries is what they died for. Holden’s pain stems from the loss of Allie. There is an image of Holden as the walking wounded – he imagines himself walking around with a bullet in his stomach: “I started that stupid business with the bullet in my guts again. I was the only guy at the bar with a bullet in the guts…I didn’t want anybody to know I was even wounded” (p. 150). Holden and Daniel are martyrs, in a sense. Imperfect and misguided martyrs, but martyrs nonetheless.Perhaps that is what draws us in to the stories of Daniel and Holden. They are unlikely heroes – and yet neither are quite heroic. They stumble, and they fail. And that makes them real. Daniel may be a less noble, less likable version of Holden. Daniel is unapologetic while Holden expresses remorse for his actions; Daniel is crude and unappreciative, while Holden seems more genuine and vulnerable. Nonetheless, the two characters almost seem to be modeled after each other. They are the same in both their sense of mission and their difficulty in carrying it out. And while we want everything to work out for the two of them, we can’t be certain, at the end of either book, that the two will find peace. Daniel could surely appreciate Holden’s humorously cynical observation: “You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write ‘Fuck you’ right under your nose” (p.204).
Trust and Betrayal: An Overview of the Literary Elements in Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel
As 1950s America engulfed itself in a widespread fear of Communism, government officials became extra vigilant in finding and punishing possible spies and traitors. Suspects were arrested for saying the wrong thing, being seen in the wrong place at the wrong time, and even for thinking the wrong thoughts. As mass nervosa ensued, Americans began to question the values and intentions of their own friends and neighbors, and suspicion and mistrust festered. This dark age in American history was fertile ground for authors wishing to comment on the trust men have in one another and the betrayal that too often follows. Through the elements of historical fiction, E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel uses the Red Scare of the 1950s as a backdrop for these themes of trust and betrayal.The themes of trust and betrayal saturate The Book of Daniel’s many layers. This is most apparent on the novel’s simplest level, the plot. The Book of Daniel is the story of two McCarthy era Communists, Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, and their children. Paul and Rochelle are accused of treason and, following a controversial trial, executed in the electric chair. Their son, Daniel, is a writer who reflects on the trial years later. “TREASON,” as Daniel states in the novel, “[is] the only crime defined in the Constitution (Doctorow 167).” In other words, treason is betrayal on a public scale, a betrayal of the United States government and the people it serves.The Isaacsons’ relationship with the United States government is a good example of the themes of trust and betrayal. The Isaacsons trust that the court will carry out its promise of justice and find them innocent. The court is not perfect, however, as Paul and Rochelle discoverwhen it betrays them. On the other hand, 1950s America trusted that the government would keep it safe from the Communists. The goverment, eager to keep its citizens politically happy, was overly cautious during this unstable time, victimizing anyone who even might be related to Communism, people such as the Isaacsons.Trust and betrayal are found not only in the relationship between people and the government, but also found in the relationships between and among characters in The Book of Daniel. Trust and betrayal occur between almost all major and many of the minor characters in the novel. One clear example of this is the relationship the Isaacsons have with Mindish, their friend. They trust him not to turn them in to the authorities. Mindish, however, eventually betrays that trust.Even the relationships within the Isaacson family aren’t immune from the looming shadows of betrayal. Daniel and Susan, the Isaacson children, naturally trust their parents. When the children sense tension in their household, they ask if their parents will be taken away. Paul and Rochelle assure them that they will not. Yet soon after, Paul is arrested. Rochelle tells the children that she will not go, but she is eventually taken as well. After Paul and Rochelle are both in jail they promise that they will not be executed, and of course, they are. Children trust their parents more than anyone, but in Daniel and Susan’s case, betrayal abounds.Daniel’s early disturbing experiences continue to plague him throughout his adult life. Phyllis and Paul, Daniel’s wife and son, are just as innocent as Daniel was during his childhood. Daniel betrays in numerous ways the trust his wife and child have in him as a caretaker in numerous ways. For instance, despite her pathetic protests, Daniel forces his young “Flower-Child” wife to remove her bell-bottoms and crouch in the passenger seat of a car while he burns her backside with the car’s electric cigarette-lighter. Later in the story, Daniel’s game of tossing his son in the air and catching him nearly turns into a fatal game of chance when Daniel puposely propels the child into the air and catches him low to the ground while the infant screams and cries.When Daniel visits his sister Susan in a mental hospital following her recent suicide attempt, she says to him, “They’re still fucking us. Good bye, Daniel. You get the picture (Doctorow 9).” Daniel repeats this expression of betrayal throughout the novel to elucidate trust and betrayal as themes. Much later in the book, Daniel writes,”THEY’RE STILL FUCKING US. She didn’t mean Paul and Rochelle. That’s what I would have meant. What she meant was first everyone else and now the Left. The Isaacsons are nothing to the New Left. And if they can’t make it with them who else is there? YOU GET THE PICTURE. GOODBYE, DANIEL (Doctorow 153).”The Book of Daniel explores the effects of betrayal on people and relationships, but it is also a very political novel. In the latter quote, Daniel restates the fact that everyone has betrayed the Isaacson children. Daniel feels betrayed by his parents and Susan feels betrayed first by society in general, and then by Progressivism, the political movement she and Daniel continue to support as adults. Susan realizes, with this one last betrayal, that there is no progress; history repeats itself even though “the Left” promises otherwise.The conflict between trust and betrayal is also expressed through one of the most unique aspects of The Book of Daniel, its viewpoint. The story is told from Daniel’s perspective, but it switches back and forth between first and third person. This allows the reader to hear the story from an emotional first person perspective and an objective third person point of view. In the novel, the adult Daniel ponders the truth of his parents’ innocence as he writes the book. This inconsistency in viewpoint demonstrates his inner conflict over whether or not to trust his own childhood experiences and emotions, or to believe that his perception of those experiences betrayed him. The objectivity in his third-person writing helps him understand the past even though he never really learns the truth.Besides the unusual point-of-view, Daniel’s style of writing also conveys a sense of inner conflict. The style of writing is a melting-pot of sentence fragments, random thoughts and memories, riddles, poems, various essays concerning politics and history, and bits of writing in all capital letters. This variety of style further conveys the sense that Daniel is trying to trust his own memories and thoughts or finally come to the conclusion that all previous thoughts and experiences have betrayed him.The Book of Daniel also uses symbolism to portray the trust and betrayal themes. For instance, after a Communist rally a bus carrying the Isaacsons and many of their friends is attacked from the outside by patriotic citizens. Daniel’s father bravely saves the bus by leaving its safety to fight the attackers himself. Before he leaves the bus, Paul Isaacson calmly removes his glasses and gives them to Mindish, his friend and ultimate betrayer. This act symbolizes the trust Paul has in Mindish. Later in the book, after Paul is arrested, Daniel writes, “OH PAULY, OH MY POP, IT’S ALL RIGHT, IT REALLY IS ALL RIGHT. BUT WHY DID YOU HAVE TO GIVE YOUR GLASSES TO MINDISH (Doctorow 110)?” In other words, Daniel thinks that it was right that his father was arrested, that he probably did have it coming, but the Isaacsons wouldn’t have had such a horrible fate if only Paul had held less trust in Mindish.More subtle symbols play a role in adding to the rich texture of The Book of Daniel. Daniel often mentions the Isaacson’s house, the only separate residence on a street of apartment buildings. This shows how the Isaacsons had no one to trust or to lean on for support. The house is also not very well built and has no protection from the wind and weather due to the open schoolyard across the street. Daniel mentions how this makes him feel that he cannot trust his house to provide him with shelter, the main purpose of a house. He says that when the wind would blow, he felt like the house would blow away. This demonstrates the lack of protection and stability young Daniel felt in his life. Another minor symbol that adds to the theme of trust and betrayal in The Book of Daniel is an incident that occured across the street from this same childhood house. Daniel was sitting on his front porch one day watching a neighborhood woman carry her groceries on the sidewalk when a car swerved out of control and knocked her through the fence to the cement of the schoolyard two stories below. Both the sidewalk and fence symbolize security and trust. The car shattered both of these illusions.An important symbol used both figuratively and literally throughout The Book of Daniel is electricity. For example, early in the novel, Daniel describes his father as “full of electricity.” Later, when Daniel opens the door to the FBI on the morning of his father’s arrest, there is “an electric charge of life just outside (Doctorow 112).” At the very end of the book, Daniel describes Disneyland, the place where he confronts Mindish, as “a mindless thrill, like an electric shock (Doctorow 289).” At one point, with a touch of dark humor, Daniel remarks, “We are clients of a new law firm, Voltani, Ampere, and Ohm (Doctorow 254).” In the following segment of a riddle, Daniel refers to electricity: “What is it that lightens the life of man and comforts his winters and sings that he is the master of the universe; until he sits in it ( Doctorow 226).” The Isaacsons trusted electricity for warmth, safety, light, and comfort, but in the end, it betrayed them with death.History is a puzzle that has challenged the collective mind of of mankind since its beginnings. Throughout history, however, patterns and themes have emerged, including the theme of trust and betrayal, which can help each generation to better understand the human condition. Doctorow uses these themes and incorporates them into every aspect of The Book of Daniel, from the broadest plot to the most abstract symbol. In this novel, he has taken a small piece of the great force of history and has sculpted it into a political, philosophical, and literary masterpiece.Doctorow, E. L. The Book of Daniel. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1971.