Trust and Betrayal: An Overview of the Literary Elements in Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel

April 4, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

Read more
Leave a comment
Order Creative Sample Now
Choose type of discipline
Choose academic level
  • High school
  • College
  • University
  • Masters
  • PhD

Page count
1 pages
$ 10