The Book of Daniel

The Book of Daniel Summary and Analysis of “Several Explanations” – End of Book One


Daniel begins his new section, “Several Explanations”, with more memories from childhood. He continues his depiction of his grandmother’s bouts of madness and frailty, which Rochelle attributed to not the stresses and torments of her life. This madness, in Paul’s opinion, was due to a life based on superstition. Similarly, the major problem faced by the Bolsheviks was educating the peasants. For centuries they had been illiterate, subsisting on faith; God was a tool of the Czar. During lucid moments, Daniel’s grandma would tell him about her suffering and how she had “too much life.” She once told him that the “placing of the burden on the children is a family tradition.”

Daniel writes of a medical textbook containing a diagram of his grandma, mother, and Susan. A red line runs through each of their hearts, connecting them. The red line is “the progress of madness inherited through the heart.”

Daniel thinks of one of his professors who encouraged him to apply for a fellowship. Daniel knows he would never be accepted because he would be unable to commit to the attached loyalty. His relationship with the country that killed his parents would always be degrading and torturous. He would never be able to do anything radical or extreme because it would confirm “their” suspicions and the lineage of madness. Daniel feels impotent in this way. He thinks of how countries use their people in their wars and end up responsible for their deaths, for “all governments stand ready to commit their citizens to death in the interest of their government.”

Daniel recalls his move to Brookline, Massachusetts as a child. Robert and Lise Lewin move the family to the neighborhood after Robert gets a job near Boston College. Ascher chose Robert and Lise to take in the Isaacson children since they were smart, stable, liberal Jews. For Daniel, the ghosts that haunted their house were not spirits but slips of the tongue, gestures, and the deeper meanings behind words that alluded to the Isaacson’s parents and history.

On Memorial Day of 1967, Daniel pulls Susan’s Volvo up to his childhood home. He checks the mail and finds a letter from Susan addressed to him there. From its short content he discerns several things: by addressing it to this Lewins’ house, Susan ignored Daniel’s own adult life; she spoke of a previous Christmas that was not merry for the family; she was going to go ahead with her plans for the Foundation for Revolution; and she did not accept that he existed anymore. The Foundation was to be named after their parents and the money the children were to soon receive from their trust funds would be used, signifying their unanimous dedication to the Isaacson legacy. Daniel and Susan fought over her involvement in the foundation. He wondered why the family name needed to be attached to it and she thought he was not committed and did not want to support the family and its legacy. To Susan, Daniel was to be eradicated from her consciousness through the eradication of her own consciousness. He was to be purged.

The next section is entitled “1947”, taking place during his grandma’s wake. The Isaacson house was crowded with people. Young Daniel was comforted by the pleasant smells and sounds because it meant that when someone died, not everyone died. The one thing that disturbed him was his mother’s unhappiness. He wandered into the living room and watched his father smoke a cigar and talk about the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Mundt-Nixon Bill – a bill stating that if the Communist party does not register, it is not legitimate but if it does register then it is breaking the law. There was one man there whom Daniel did not know; he was speaking loudly and authoritatively and Daniel found him “show-offy” and prideful. Daniel went outside and wandered around the neighborhood. He recalled how one time he saw a woman carrying groceries get hit by a car and thrown into the chain-link fence. The image of her lying on the ground and broken milk bottles mixed with blood haunted Daniel.

After leaving the schoolyard and espying his parents saying goodbye to the man, whom Daniel discerned was not actually a friend of his father’s, he walked around a bit longer outside and thought of how things might be better without his grandma and her moodiness and strangeness. It came to him that he should visit Williams, the black man who lived in their basement and fixed things. Williams was a constant source of fear and amazement for Daniel; he knew the basement was filled with William’s anger.

Williams commented that his grandma was really gone and Daniel boldly said she was crazy. Williams looked at him and said matter-of-factly that she was not as crazy as some - meaning Daniel’s parents. Williams insulted Daniel by saying he was dumb for being afraid of the old lady and Daniel claimed he was not. Finally Williams lost his temper and yelled at Daniel to leave, which he did as fast as he could.

Daniel concludes his memory by summing up his feelings as a child: “I could never have appreciated how obscure we were…I thought we were big-time. I thought we were important people. I thought the world revolved around my family.” He knew that the place in the Bronx where they lived was obscure, but his mother always took pains to distinguish her family from others in the neighborhood. His parents did not choose their friends by accident; they chose to associate with people that were “interesting.” Daniel ends Book One with some more “David Copperfield kind of crap” such as where he was born (Washington D.C.) and hearing about the atom bomb being dropped in Japan.


This section is particularly fecund in terms of the questions posed by the text and the insights on punishment, racism, and the state that it offers. The first topic to take up is that of Williams, the statuesque and frightening “colored man” who lives in the Isaacsons’ basement. Here Daniel comes into contact with him on the day of his grandmother’s wake. He no longer wants to participate in the party and, after dawdling near his school, Daniel goes to the basement where he encounters the man who seemed neither young nor old, whose every action and word was “monumental,” whose “constant anger” and “overwhelming burning smell” filled the cellar. Scholar Michael Wutz discusses Williams in regards to Doctorow’s literary trope of trash/garbage/waste and, in The Book of Daniel in particular, the allegory of dirt and dust. He writes that Williams is “condemned to shovel coal and live amid trash as the material (and color-coded) equivalents of his social standing, a position further epitomized by his subsurface existence.” He is similar to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and “embodies not only the failed self-realization of African Americans and other minority groups in the U.S., but also the explosive potential of a political system of repression…underneath a social façade of harmony.” Both Williams and the Isaacsons are victims of the 1940s America that chooses to either ignore them or scapegoat them.

Another significant element of the narrative is contained within Daniel’s phrase “David Copperfield kind of crap” (95). This is an acknowledgement that the novel is partly a Bildungsroman, i.e., Daniel’s story of his childhood, young adulthood, and struggle to manhood. As John G. Parks points out, the novel is also a Künstlerroman, “the story of a writer discovering his identity and his fundamental conflict with his society.” Parks writes that it is also “the story of and by a survivor,” “a revenge story,” and “a story of a history graduate searching for a topic for his dissertation.” It is many things in one, and Daniel’s discomfort with writing a traditional Dickensian Bildungsroman is apparent throughout his narrative. His fragmentation of the text - switches from third to first person voices, inclusion of personal stories, history lessons, letters, newspaper excerpts, etc. - all serve to demonstrate the fallibility of the traditional form of narration. Parks writes that Daniel “sees that the story cannot be told in a straightforward, linear, chronological manner” and that only a “deconstructed narrative can destabilize the hegemony of official history enough to open up new possibilities for interpretation.” Daniel’s destabilized pastiche is the only way to challenge the power found in institutionalized discourse - it is the only way he can “recompose history after a great wounding.”

One component of Daniel’s “great wounding” is the symbolic impotence that afflicts him as a result of his parents’ execution. He writes about how he could never be drafted or get in trouble for burning his draft card or criticize the government or cause any disruptions that would garner the attention of the FBI. His file has always existed and the FBI has already anticipated any move Daniel might make. This, he concluded, meant that no matter what “political or symbolic act I perform in protest or disobedience, no harm will be befall me. I have worked this out. It’s true. I am totally deprived of the right to be dangerous” (72). Daniel cannot do anything publicly that will get the attention he wants unless he does something fiercely and publicly militant; in this scenario “all their precautions would have been justified” (72) and they would win. Daniel is thus rendered impotent by his government much as his parents were, albeit in a different way.

Finally, Daniel’s dissertation takes up the history of punishment; in this section he discusses drawing and quartering and later takes up knouting. Doctorow’s discussion of punishment was prescient, for the philosopher Michel Foucault would publish Discipline and Punish in 1975, a mere four years after The Book of Daniel. Foucault’s famous work described the move from public punishment centered on the body to private punishment preying upon the soul. His book opens with a detailed account of an instance of a public drawing and quartering in 18th century France. By the end of this century, however, public punishment as a spectacle was dying out and “whatever theatrical elements it retained were now downgraded.” Punishment became a hidden part of the penal process which declares “the certainty of being punished and not the horrifying spectacle of public punishment that must discourage crime.” The conviction itself is what now “marks the offender with the unequivocally negative sign: the publicity has shifted to the trial, and to the sentence; the execution itself is like an additional shame that justice is ashamed to impose on the condemned man.”

Foucault’s work is an apposite lens in which to view Doctorow’s Book of Daniel. Paul and Rochelle Isaacson are put to death in a private manner but their conviction is what serves as their official punishment in the eyes of the country. Their trial, not their actual deaths, is the spectacle. The effects upon their souls are seemingly far greater than those upon their bodies (for more on the trial, imprisonment, and death of the Isaacsons, see later analyses). Daniel’s fascination with punishment and its numerous inclusions in his dissertations reflect his continual processing of the manner in which his parents were punished and the guilt he and Susan inherited.