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Free Study Guide for The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

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The fixer wanted to do what fixers do, to fix things, anything. Aside from the pleasure that working would give him, he wanted to earn a few kopeks so that he could buy clothing that he needed. But, he was not allowed to work. He then asked for something to read, but was again denied.

Yakov asked Zhitnyak why he had given him poisoned food. Zhitnyak admitted that it was the Deputy Warden's idea.

As a substitute for what Yakov wanted, work or reading material, he was given a twig broom.

The number of daily body searches increased to three. The searches left him upset.

Two times so far, Yakov had been allowed into the bath house when it was empty of prisoners, to bathe himself.

A prayer shawl and phylacteries (very small leather boxes containing scripture) were left one morning while Yakov was in the kitchen getting his breakfast. He used the prayer shawl by placing it under his coat. It helped him by keeping out some of the cold.

Yakov's coat was torn and Zhitnyak loaned him a needle with some thread to repair it. When Yakov told Zhitnyak that he had lost the needle, Zhitnyak became angry. Yakov had, in actuality, hidden the needle in the stove.

Zhitnyak spied on Yakov with the hope of finding him at prayer. But, that never happened.


Notice that Zhitnyak said that the poison was the Deputy Wardenís idea. The Deputy Warden is worse than the warden.

One wonders what such infrequent bathing would do to a person. He only bathed twice in all that time.



To wipe himself, Yakov was given newspaper cut in strips, but was forbidden to read it. The guard explained that the rule against reading was because he was an enemy of the state.

To escape his misery, sometimes Yakov remembered things he had learned about Spinoza. Or, he remembered the biology and history he had studied. He brought back to his mind tales about Peretz. He recalled pieces he had seen in the paper by Sholem Aleichem. He remembered stories by Chekhov. He recalled psalms that he had heard in the synagogue. Some psalms that he remembered he was not aware that he knew. From fragments that he remembered, he put together verses to say aloud. He attempted to translate the Hebrew into Russian. He knew that Kogin, the guard, listened to his recitals at night.


Sholem Aleichem wrote stories of the same time period and location as this book. He wrote novels and many short stories. (Bernard Malamud, the author of this book also wrote many short stories.) Sholem Aleichemís work, Fiddler on the Roof, was adapted for the stage many years after his passing.



Yakov recalled his life with Raisl. He remembered the day he first saw her and her parents. That was the day they came to his town. It was also the day that Raisl's mother, Shmuel's wife, died. His wife's grave tied Shmuel to the area. At first, Yakov had avoided Raisl. He avoided her until shortly after he returned from the army. Her father was glad to see him when he visited their place. Yakov helped improve their hut. Sometimes he ate chicken dinner with them.

One day Yakov and Raisl had sex. Afterward, Raisl was unhappy about that. So, Yakov suggested that, before it happened again, they get married. Raisl wanted him to talk about love. She stated that she could not marry him unless he loved her. Her father talked to him. He told Yakov that she would be a good wife. Yakov said the word she wanted to hear and they got married. After they were married, Raisl wanted the three of them, her father included, to leave Russia. Yakov wanted to wait a few years, but she thought that they should leave sooner. If they did not leave then, they might not ever leave. But, despite her pushing, they did not leave. Years went by. Things stayed the same. They were still in the same town. They were still poor. And, they still had no children.

Raisl was depressed. And, she always complained. Around this time, Yakov read more. Instead of going to bed with his wife, he read and then frequently slept on a bench in the kitchen. His reading, including a pamphlet about the Tsar's father, Nicholas I, convinced Yakov that Raisl's idea was correct. They should leave Russia and do so soon. Concerns about how they could survive if they left kept them where they were. Yakov was disappointed that they had no children And, Raisl was now frantic because they had no children. Yakov stopped sleeping with her. Soon, there was gossip in the taverns about Raisl. Then she was gone.



Yakov maintained his sanity by taking mental trips outside the cell. For example, he would think that he was in the shtetl, at a friend's home. He would have a snack. He would do some work, some sawing and some hammering. In the evening, he would look at the sky above the shtetl. But, the bad part of these mental trips was when they stopped and he saw that he was in the cell.

Yakov kept track of the days using pieces of wood. The relatively larger pieces represented months and the smaller pieces represented days.

Yakov had several minutes of sunshine in one spot in his cell each day that there was sunshine. He valued those few minutes.

The fixer's only light after dark was from the fire in the stove during those times when he left the door ajar.

Time weighed heavily on Yakov. It weighed so heavily that, one cold winter day he tore off all his clothing. It tore easily because it was ready to fall apart. He was left that way. The guard did not light the stove. The Deputy Warden came by and told him that, by morning, he would be frozen stiff. The warden also came by. He said something about a naked Jew being indecent and left replacement clothing. Soon, Yakov was back to feeling the weight of time.


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