The Book of Daniel Summary and Analysis
“Beth David Synagogue” – “om om om omm omm omm omm om om ommmmmm”
In a letter to Robert Lewin, Ascher expresses his pessimism regarding the Isaacson trial and the understanding that his clients are being held accountable for the Soviet Union and the condition of the world. It is a heavy burden that they should not have to bear. The letter precedes a short blurb with the verdict - the Isaacsons are convicted of conspiracy to give secrets of the nuclear bomb to Soviet Union.
Daniel resumes the present-day narrative in Susan’s sanitarium. He recalls a scene from the previous week, when he ran through the place screaming for Duberstein after he learned shock therapy was to be administered to Susan. Duberstein was not there, and eventually Daniel was promised that Susan would not receive the treatment. Daniel realized he was learning to “be an Isaacson. An Isaacson does things boldly calculated to bring self-destructive results.”
After sneaking in through the window, Daniel sits by Susan’s bedside. He compares her to a starfish – an animal only a few degrees away from death. He notes with embarrassment that she is not wearing underwear. It crosses his mind that once or twice he had to ask himself if he wanted to sleep with his sister, but he knew deep down that he did not, as it was the proximity of rage to sexual tension that confused him. He observes her pale, lifeless, dying body and knew that “they are still taking care of us, one by one.” She lies motionless until a few tremors rack her body. Before he leaves, Daniel pastes a blown-up photograph of himself looking “scruffy and militant” high up on the wall for her to look at.
The next part of the narrative consists of a meeting between Daniel and New York Times reporter Jack P. Fein. In 1963, Fein wrote a reassessment piece of the Isaacson trial on the ten-year anniversary. Fein discloses his perceptions of the trial to Daniel. He explains that Paul and Rochelle never had a chance; between the FBI and the Communist Party they were done. He did not believe the Isaacsons were completely innocent - they were not chosen at random and their ideas were still subversive. Most importantly, according to Fein, “they acted guilty.”
Daniel’s next meeting is with Fanny Ascher, Ascher’s widow. She is polite but not particularly friendly; she blamed the trial for Ascher’s early death. According to Fanny, Daniel’s parents were difficult to work with and actually impeded their own defense by refusing to let Ascher call certain witnesses.
Some time after his visit to Fanny, Daniel visits the Lewins. His visits lately were sporadic and often filled with conflict and confusion. He noticed that his parents were looking frayed and that “their use of specialists has turned them into old Jewish people.” He tells his father that he needs to talk to him about the trial. Despite Lise’s reservations and warnings, Daniel persists. The mood is tense due to the incident at the sanitarium, Fein’s piece in the Times, and the legal issues regarding the trust and Susan’s guardianship. However, Robert diffuses the situation and begins answering Daniel’s questions. As far as he knew, the Isaacsons did not impede their own trial and he reminded Daniel that Fanny was bitter about Ascher’s death.
Robert continues, pointing out that today’s judicial system is much more stringent in terms of protecting the individual’s integrity; it would be much harder to convict the Isaacsons today. Robert talks about Ascher’s strategy of trying to discredit Mindish as a witness against the Isaacsons. He said that the prosecution might not have even intended the Isaacsons to be the defendants. It was presumed that the Isaacsons would answer their questions but when they did not, the case became about them. Ascher could have tried to prove the Isaacsons innocent by proving Mindish innocent, but Mindish was also questionable and a foreigner. Robert concluded that Mindish was ignorant and not capable of pure political passion but instead joined the Communist Party to have a more satisfying sense of self. Mindish could have been persuaded to believe in his innocence, or persuaded to believe in the guilt of his friends.
Those readers of the Book of Daniel who may have wondered about the subtle suggestions of incest between Daniel and his sister Susan are bluntly given Daniel’s answer to that very question in this section. After explaining how a young Susan was flirtatious with her brother, showed him her underwear, and bragged about her sexual partners, Daniel’s voyeuristic visit to Susan in the asylum prompts him to wonder aloud what, he assumes, everyone is wondering - did he want to have sex with his sister? He writes, “More than once I have asked myself if I’d like to screw my sister. I mean I have not asked myself, I have examined myself to see if that was what I wanted. But in our history I don’t think I have ever wanted that. My involvement with Susan has to do with rage, which is easily confused with unnatural passion” (208). He flat-out denies the possibility of incest, but suspicions linger.
This, of course, is after the creepy and disturbing scene where Daniel spies upon his sister unconsciously writhing on her bed and learns “from here I can see that the sanitarium does not require underwear” (208). It is also before he breaks into her room and holds her in his arms, whispering into her ear and kissing her lifeless eyes. The critic Robert Detweiler reminds his readers that Susan and Daniel’s sexual behavior is no doubt a response to their parents’ very open and unreserved sexuality. According to Daniel’s recollection, his parents had sex all the time and were not afraid to hide anything. Detweiler concludes, “among the many things the children had to face is their erotic relationship to their parents – whose death foreclosed closure – and to each other. It is one of the problems that Susan resolves by suicide. It is a problem that Daniel ‘works out’ by abusing his wife and child.” The Isaacson childhood trauma left many emotional developments stunted or abandoned. As adults, they grasp blindly at the control taken away from them as children.
Voyeurism is a major theme of the novel and this section. The American played the voyeur during the sensational trial, enjoying its peek into the lives of the Isaacsons. Daniel’s private sorrow occurred in the public eye; his tragedy played out over newspaper, television, on the playground, and in subsequent novels and works of historical scholarship. The act of writing his dissertation is, in a way, to indulge in the same voyeurism enacted on his life. It is a poor substitute for the relationship with his family he was robbed of by the trial. Susan responds to these events by, in her madness, becoming an exhibitionist and exposing herself. Detweiler writes, “in psychoanalytic terms, the public focus on her in her childhood, traumatic though it is, feeds a narcissism that, in her adulthood, increases rather than maturing into concern for others.” Daniel himself indulges in voyeurism in this section by watching Susan as a silent starfish in the asylum.
Daniel continues his path to enlightenment by visiting a reporter, Jack P. Fein, who wrote a reassessment piece of the Isaacsons ten years after the fact, Fanny Ascher and his adoptive parents. From Fein he learns of the many abuses of due process and Fein’s own theories that “your folks were framed, but that doesn’t mean they were innocent babes. I don’t believe they were a dangerous conspiracy to pass important defense secrets, but I don’t believe either that the U.S. Attorney, and the Judge, and the Justice Department and the President of the United States conspired against them” (213). Fein concludes that Daniel’s parents acted guilty – yet another person who felt the need to criticize the Isaacson’s behavior during the trial.
Fanny Ascher is also critical, but like Linda Mindish - whom Daniel encounters at the end of the novel - she believes the Isaacsons responsible for the destruction of her own life, namely because her husband’s health was ruined by his tireless efforts in their defense. Lise Lewin worries about Daniel’s obsession while Robert Lewin tries to provide more information and clarity to his son. Daniel has strained the relationship with his adoptive parents as well – “They have not forgiven me for Jack Fein’s piece in the Times. The threat I made on Duberstein’s life is fresh in their minds. A pattern of being denied their rights in Susan, their rights in me. they were not consulted about the changes in my appearance…” (219). This passage refers to what Daniel said earlier in the novel about how the Lewins couldn’t help but love he and Susan, even though they were both “terrible low down people” (14). Their love is rewarded by a denial of their status as parents. The Isaacsons have brought their baggage and problems into the lives of many other individuals, whether unwittingly or through their own selfishness and culpability.
The Book of Daniel Essays and Related Content
- The Book of Daniel: Major Themes
- The Book of Daniel: Essays
- The Book of Daniel: Questions
- The Book of Daniel: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- E. L. Doctorow: Biography
- The Book of Daniel Summary
- About The Book of Daniel
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of Start of Book One: Memorial Day - “Fire Sale! Everything Must Go!”
- Summary and Analysis of “Fire Sale! Everything Must Go!” – “A Note to the Reader”
- Summary and Analysis of “A Note to the Reader” - "Several Explanations"
- Summary and Analysis of “Several Explanations” – End of Book One
- Summary and Analysis of Start of Book Two: Halloween – “The Isaacsons are arrested for conspiring to give the secret of television to the Soviet Union…”
- Summary and Analysis of “The Isaacsons are arrested for conspiring to give the secret of television to the Soviet Union…” – "Sternlicht Rapping"
- Summary and Analysis of “Sternlicht Rapping” – “Alone in the Cold War with Franny and Zooey”
- Summary and Analysis of “Alone in the Cold War with Franny and Zooey” – End of Book Two
- Summary and Analysis of Start of Book Three: Starfish – “Beth David Synagogue”
- Summary and Analysis of “Beth David Synagogue” – “om om om omm omm omm omm om om ommmmmm”
- Summary and Analysis of “om om om omm omm omm omm om om ommmmmm” – “The Truman Doctrine will not be announced as a policy…”
- Summary and Analysis of “The Truman Doctrine will not be announced as a policy…” – End of Book Three
- Summary and Analysis of Start of Book Four: Christmas – “Disneyland at Christmas”
- Summary and Analysis of “Disneyland at Christmas” – End of Book Four
- The Yippies
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- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 5
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