“Defender of the Faith” is a short story by Philip Roth. It was first published in 1959 in The New Yorker.
The story is about a Jewish serviceman named Sergeant Nathan Marx, who is stationed at a military base in Missouri during World War II. Marx has been raised in a Orthodox Jewish household and is very religious. However, he begins to question his faith after meeting a group of fellow Jewish servicemen who are not as religious as he is.
Marx eventually decides to write a letter to his rabbi back home, asking for guidance on how to deal with his doubts about his faith. The rabbi’s response is unexpected, and it leads Marx to reevaluate everything he knows about himself and his religion.
Philip Roth’s The Defender of the Faith is a short story that exemplifies the Jewishness portrayed by the characters of Sergeant Marx and Sheldon Grossbart. There is a recurring theme in the narrative concerning Sergeant Marx’s decision to act as either a top sergeant, Jewish man, or human being (Paterson, 136). Marx’s internal conflicts, on the other hand, cause him to doubt his values throughout the story, forcing him to wage an arduous battle in order to keep his faith.
Defender of the Faith serves as a story that strengthens ones belief in the Jewish religion, by providing a glimpse into the mind of a man who is fighting to keep his. Roth first introduces Sergeant Marx as a highly decorated war hero, which provides readers with an initial understanding of his character. It is not until later in the story when Roth gives small details about Marxs personal life, such as his difficult upbringing and current occupation as a night watchman, that readers are able to see him as more than just a war hero.
These insights allow for readers to feel empathy towards Marx, which ultimately makes it easier for them to understand his actions and motivations throughout the story. For example, when Grossbart tries to get out of paying his rent, Marx could have easily taken advantage of the situation and kicked him out.
However, instead, Marx chooses to show compassion and gives Grossbart an extension, even though it is clear that Grossbart does not deserve one. The reason Marx does this is because he can understand what it feels like to be in a difficult situation and not have anyone to help you. This act of kindness further cements Marxs position as a Defender of the Faith because he is able to see beyond Grossbarts faults and treat him with respect.
In addition to showing compassion, another way in which Marx displays his Defender of the Faith status is by constantly questioning his own beliefs. For example, after hearing Grossbarts side of the story, Marx begins to doubt his own Jewishness. He wonders if he is being too hard on Grossbart and if there is anything different he could be doing to help him. Marxs internal struggle to maintain his beliefs is what ultimately makes him a Defender of the Faith because it shows that he is willing to fight for what he believes in, even when it is difficult.
The story of Defender of the Faith ultimately serves as a reminder of the importance of staying true to ones beliefs. Sergeant Marx provides readers with an example of someone who is constantly questioning his own Judaism, but is still able to maintain his faith in the end. By displaying compassion and understanding, Marx proves that anyone can be a Defender of the Faith, no matter how difficult it may be.
The plot is built around a group of German soldiers in the first chapter, which leads up to and reflects upon the Dachau trial. As the narrative progresses, Roth employs problem via Nathan Marx, the protagonist and lead character (Searles, 102). Sheldon Grossbart makes use of Marxs Jewish identity in several situations by attempting to exploit their commonality. Marx’s real nature and attitude are revealed through his use of this issue throughout each encounter.
Roth further uses this device to develop the plot and create suspense as Marx must make life-altering decisions. While dilemma is a key component in Defender of the Faith, it is not the only literary element at play. Roth also employs satire to criticism American society during the late 1940s and early 1950s. By using Jewish stereotypes, Roth is able to take aim at American anti-Semitism while also poking fun at the Jewish community itself. In doing so, Roth creates a work that is both humorous and thought-provoking.
Defender of the Faith is a complex and nuanced work that relies on a number of literary devices to tell its story. From dilemma to satire, Roth masterfully weaves together a tapestry of elements that come together to create a truly memorable work.
While Grossbart’s Jewishness earns him sympathy from the sergeant, Marx is aware of his devious methods, yet he always gives in to his demands. Despite being a die-hard soldier who has been conditioned and committed to train his men for war, Marx displays the reader a sympathetic side that breaks free of his duty-minded ideas (43).
When Grossbart begs Marx to go somewhere else for Yom Kippur, Marx must decide whether or not to allow him out even though it was expressly forbidden.
Instead of denying Grossbart his request, Marx gives in and says, You can have tomorrow off. But dont tell anybody I said so, and dont be late getting back here (Roth, Defender 43). This instance reveals that Marx is not as merciless and strict as his military rank might suggest.
In addition, Marx could have easily refused Grossbarts request and given him a punishment for even asking, but he did not. Granted, part of the reason why Marx may have let Grossbart leave was to get rid of him for the day so that he would not have to listen to any more of his complaints; however, it is also probable that Marx truly felt bad for Grossbart and wanted to show him some leniency.