The Book of Daniel

The Book of Daniel Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What are the various ways in which Daniel and Susan are affected by their parents' trial, conviction, and execution?

    Daniel grows up with a perverse, sadistic streak and abuses his wife and child physically and verbally. He is obsessed with finding out the truth of his parents' trial and devotes his dissertation to his quest and its concomitant discoveries. He engages in radical behavior and fits the role of the moody, intellectual leftist. He is judgmental and quick to anger, arrogant and tendentious. Susan grows up an exhibitionist. She is bold, carefree, smart, wild, and sexual. She retains her wide-eyed innocence, however, which is no doubt what leads to her eventual suicide. She is also involved in her parents' legacy by desiring to set up the Foundation for Revolution in their name. Her radical behavior is much more pronounced than Daniel's. Both have a difficult relationship with their adoptive parents, who love them very much. Both suffer greatly from the tragedy of their youth.

  2. 2

    How is the Old Left contrasted with the New Left?

    The Old Left is accused by the New Left of being irrelevant and actually complicit with the system they advocated overthrowing. As Artie Sternlicht says, "they were into the system. They wore ties. They held down jobs. They put people up for President. They thought politics is something you do in a meeting" (150). The Isaacsons, the avatars of the Old Left, played by the government's rules at their trial. By contrast, the New Left is spontaneous, amorphous, technology-driven, and completely antipathetic to the prevailing norms and mores of American society and culture. It is about overthrowing everything and doing so with the power of images. People should not talk, they should act. For Artie, the embodiment of the New Left, "all that is less than being it and therefore not it, and therefore never will be it. A revolution happens. It's happening! It's a change on earth! It's a new animal. A new consciousness! It's me! I am Revolution!" (137)

  3. 3

    Why does Susan attempt to commit suicide?

    Susan is a complex character. The reader only approaches her through Daniel and is thus only able to use the information he gives them to try and ascertain who she was and why she tried to take her own life. Nevertheless, from what Daniel explains, she "died of a failure of analysis" (301). She obviously has a little bit of madness about her; she is self-absorbed, exhibitionist, and very obsessed with her parents' legacy. Her radical activity took up a lot of her time in her last few years and brought her face-to-face with the tragedy of her youth on a daily basis. The New Left's problems and the Isaacsons' complex and painful legacy they bequeathed to their children are no doubt behind Susan's most famous phrase: "they're still fucking us" (9). Even as a child she clearly had a more difficult time than Daniel dealing with what was happening; she frequently wet the bed as a response to the fragmentation of her life. Overall, as Daniel put it, "nothing Susan did lacked innocence" 275), and her consciousness finally splintered under the terrible weight of what happened during her childhood. She had to become the starfish to unify her senses and feelings - which, ultimately, were too much for her to bear.

  4. 4

    How are Paul and Rochelle's responses to their situation different?

    Paul adjusts better to the demeaning quality of life in prison, but seems more inclined to madness. He loses weight and appears to shrink. His red face also suggests madness; this is manifested in his strange collection of dead insects and the way he behaves when his children come to visit. Rochelle was able to approach her incarceration in a more dignified manner, but clearly her ego was more affected by prison. Her natural tendency toward order, cleanliness, pride, and snobbery were challenged by her condition. She adopted a facade of coldness, stoicism, and reticence. To her children she seemed dead already. Another difference is that Paul, ever the innocent, could never quite come to terms with what was happening to them, particularly the electrocution. Rochelle, however, knew from the outset what the conviction would be and merely waited for the sentence.

  5. 5

    What is Doctorow suggesting about America?

    America during the Cold War is characterized by anxiety, tension, fear, and ignorance. The Cold War brought the realities of nuclear war into the living room. The American government's outflow of anti-Communist propaganda helped Americans realize who was their enemy - not only the Soviet Union but anyone who espoused viewpoints akin to the Communist "red menace." Those with eastern European looks, communist or socialist or anarchistic political beliefs, or, more generally, any anti-American sentiment were looked on with suspicion or hostility. The House Un-American Activities Committee and the trials of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs encapsulated the repressive measures and hysteria fostered by the Cold War. The institutions of power were responsible for denying the traditional rights of due process and administering a death sentence to a couple who may very well have been innocent. America is depicted as callous and motivated by fear and ignorance.

  6. 6

    How does The Book of Daniel deviate from the traditional structure of the novel?

    Doctorow may be telling a story, but he is certainly doing it in an nontraditional manner. Daniel's narrative - which takes the form of a dissertation he is writing - vacillates from first to third person. There are pieces of historical scholarship, letters, excerpts from the trial, tendentious anecdotes, and more. Daniel even takes it upon himself to construct the thoughts and actions of his parents that he did not or could not know and presents them as fact. The swing from past (memory) to present is random and frequent. Daniel addresses the reader throughout his work, sometimes in a very hostile fashion. The whole narrative is a veritable collage, much like the one that hangs in Artie Sternlicht's apartment.

  7. 7

    Why does Daniel treat his wife so poorly?

    Daniel's treatment of his wife and son constitute some of the more disturbing scenes in the novel and may cultivate a feeling of revulsion in readers towards the protagonist. Daniel revels in exploiting his wife sexually; he withholds orgasms from her, puts her into embarrassing, painful, and demeaning sexual situations, and even surmises that he married her because she is a "sex martyr." Phyllis's personality is meek and gentle and Daniel takes advantage of her docility to fulfill his deep, base needs of exercising power over someone weaker than himself. The loss of control he experienced throughout his childhood may be manifested in his behavior toward Phyllis. Similarly, Daniel's verbal insults and insinuations that she is of a lower class intellectually reinforce his egocentric mentality - his belief that he is a "chosen one" like his biblical namesake. Finally, some critics see Daniel's behavior a response to his actual urge for incestuous relations with his sister. If Daniel desires to have sex with Susan, it is no wonder he acts in the manner he does with his wife. Clearly, whatever the reason, Daniel's perversity, sadism and masochism, and streak of cruelty make him both loathsome but extremely compelling.

  8. 8

    What is the significance of Daniel's final meeting with Selig Mindish?

    Daniel hopes that by talking to Selig Mindish he can find out the truth of his parents' guilt or innocence for once and for all. Mindish spent time in prison and many years have passed; thus, Daniel's hope for truth may very well be met with success and allow him to wrap up his narrative with the ultimate answer to the trial and execution. However, Daniel is not fated to get his answers. When he encounters Mindish at Disneyland he realizes from the old man's face that he is now senile and, even if he remembered anything about the trial, his answers would not be trustworthy. His eyes recognize Daniel's face and he grips the young man's neck to pull him down and give him a kiss upon his head. This symbolic blessing mirrors the same action Daniel's own father gave him earlier in the novel. It is an Old Testament-style blessing, a symbolic and moving act of closure. Daniel may not get his answers but he does receive something that is perhaps more meaningful. It gives him the ability to literally "close the book" and rejoin history.

  9. 9

    Why are the Isaacsons convicted and executed?

    As Daniel says with the verdict, "The Isaacsons are convicted of conspiracy to give to the Soviet Union the secret of the atom bomb. No - the secret of the hydrogen bomb. Or is it the cobalt bomb? Or the neutron bomb. Or napalm. Something like that" (205). Thus, in the most obvious answer, the Isaacsons are convicted and executed for espionage. However, there is much more behind this. They represent a convenient scapegoat for anti-American views and leftist sentiment. They are easily loathed for their status as the "other"- they are poor, Jewish atheists, intellectual, and members of the Communist Party. As Ascher explains, "they are held to account for the condition of the world today" (205). Also, the government did not even intend for the Isaacsons to be the defendants; they could have named other people or confessed. Someone was to be put on trial; it just so happened that it was the Isaacsons.

    It is clear that the way the Isaacsons behaved also had a part to play in the drama. Mindish's testimony passed the blame onto the Isaacsons, and, by refusing to do anything to clear their name in what they viewed as a misappropriation of justice, they could only be found guilty. Their status as "other" made it easy to ignore due process and bring the trial and sentence to their ultimate end.

  10. 10

    How are Linda Mindish and Daniel similar and different as the "children of trials?"

    Both Linda and Daniel have internalized their own family truths; the have strong sympathies for their own parents and believe the other person's parent(s) were responsible for the outcome of the trial and the trajectories of their own lives. Both evince bitterness and frustration, both are angry and beleaguered by the years of turmoil they experienced in their childhoods. Both were deprived of a "normal" childhood and both are ultimately victims. They both posses shrewdness, cunning, and coldness. However, Daniel has embraced some of the liberal, leftist ideology of his parents and has become a participant in the student protests of the era. His attire expresses his contempt for the regime and its oppressive measures. He is intensely critical of institutions of power, such as the government, the asylum, and the prison. Linda, by contrast, mostly embodies a "square" lifestyle through her choice of profession (dentistry), clothing, and fiance. Dale is the quintessential right-wing white man of the 1960s; he is shallow, hollow, and traditional in his dress and his personality. Linda's lifestyle evinces her desire to want to forget or move beyond the trial, while Daniel more clearly embodies his parents' ideologies.