The Book of Daniel

The Book of Daniel Themes

The power of electricity

Images, suggestions, allusions, and references to the power of electricity are scattered throughout the text. Electricity's dual function as a benign and beneficial agent of light in darkness is contrasted with its ability to kill human beings, as it does with Paul and Rochelle Isaacson. The electrical metaphor is seen in descriptions of Daniel's grandmother's hair with its " electric wire," Rochelle and Williams' electric passion and rage, the fiery furnace from the biblical Book of Daniel, and more. Daniel uses electricity in his daily life and this makes him wonder if he is somehow complicit in his parents' execution. Electricity is a far less frightening and threatening force than the other methods of punishment discussed in the dissertation, yet it was the mode by which his parents died. Electricity functions as a conduit to enlightenment regarding the true nature of the state and the individual's role and complicity within it.


Radicalism is expressed in both the Old Left and the New Left's rhetoric and behavior. The Communist Party of the 1920s-1950s was very different from the student radicals of the 1960s and 1970s. The Old Left was slower, more methodical, and, as some of New Left critics complained, actually complicit with the system that they believed they advocated overthrowing. As the critic T.V. Reed explains, "Paul Isaacson's radical complicity lies in the way his abstract dialectical certainties simultaneously underestimated and overestimated American liberal justice." Paul is passionate about his theories of the intrusive dangers of government but rather naively believes that his country could never kill one of its citizens for their thoughts.

The New Left was more theatrical, more spontaneous, more technologically savvy, and less romantic. Like Artie Sternlicht claimed, they wanted to overthrow the United States with "images" and "television." They attempted to harness the power of the media to accomplish those ends. Of course, this strain of radicalism had its own problems as it the modes of rebellion made the movement susceptible to co-opting by the mainstream.

Daniel bridges the gap between the Old and New Left and struggles to find his identity among both movements. The Old Left abandoned his parents when they were put on trial and the New Left both mocks the Isaacsons and seeks to use their imagery to promote their cause. His ideals are complicated by the fact that, as Susan calls it, both movements are "still fucking" them.


The theme of incest permeates the novel. During puberty, Susan acted out by behaving flirtatiously with her brother - often flashing her underwear at him and describing her sexual partners. Daniel's own feelings for his sister are very strong and range from love to rage to frustration to pity. One of the most uncomfortable scenes of voyeurism in the novel occurs when Daniel watches Susan in her room at the asylum where, in her state of inertia, she writhes upon her bed and unconsciously reveals her unclothed genitals to her brother. At the relation of this Daniel forcefully breaks into the narrative and tells his readers that "more than once I have asked myself if I'd like to screw my sister" (208). He concludes that he does not because his involvement with her has more to do with rage, "which is easily confused with unnatural passion" (208). Despite Daniel's conclusion, incest is a disturbing underlying tension between the brother and sister. It may be attributable, as most of the problems of Daniel and Susan's adult lives, to their fragmented and traumatic childhood and their reliance upon each other.

The sins of the father

It is a common literary (and biblical) trope that children are punished for the sins of their fathers. In this The Book of Daniel, Daniel and Susan are forever scarred by their parent's lifestyles, decisions, and eventual fate. Susan's suicide and Daniel's twisted personality traits are a direct reflection of the turmoil they suffered throughout their childhood. Linda Mindish is also indelibly affected by her father's participation in the trial. The heated conversation Linda and Daniel have regarding their parents reinforces the idea that children cannot escape the legacies their parents bestow upon them.

The fear of the "other"

As with the Sacco and Vanzetti trial from the 1920s, The Isaacson/Rosenberg trial of the 1950s stands as an apposite example of how American xenophobia can rear its head during periods of tension and transition. The 1950s saw a changed postwar period and heightened conflict with the "red menace" of the Soviet Union. The fear of Communism and its concomitant, anti-Americanism, was rampant. The Isaacsons are Communist, Jewish, and atheist. They are a strange "other" to mainstream America and hence become a convenient scapegoat for the problems of the day, as Ascher points out. Rationalism and reason cannot prevail in this climate; the Isaacsons are sacrificed for the comfort and peace of mind of the rest of America.

The problem of sequence

Daniel savagely writes that sequence is evil as his narrative creeps closer to the execution. He asserts that "sequence is monstrous. When we are there why do we withdraw only in order to return?...The monstrous reader who goes from one word to the next. The monstrous writer who places one word after another..." (245-246).

Sequence is monstrous because it attempts to make things rational and real. Linear storytelling invites complicity between the reader and the writer, as Geoffrey Halt Harpham explains in an article. Daniel's account explicitly avoids sequence as it bounces around from the past to present and interrupts itself with letters, history lessons, and random anecdotes. Even though Daniel is seeking order and truth, he quickly realizes it cannot be accomplished with sequence.

The nexus of history and fiction

E.L. Doctorow's two most famous novels, The Book of Daniel and Ragtime, are works of fiction that utilize actual historical figures, events, etc. Doctorow has been publicly critical of fiction which seeks to ignore political and social dimensions; he blurs the lines between fiction and history purposefully to challenge the institutionalized and enshrined narratives of the regimes of power. His work disrupts and destabilizes such regimes' monopolies on truth and experience. Doctorow makes it clear that truth is elusive and it is difficult to pin down the differences between history and fiction. Doctorow's transformation of real historical figures into fictive ones is, as literary scholar Robert Detweiler says, a way to "create a symbol, to make the figure stand for something other than what she or he was, yet without forgetting that figure's historical identity." The reader can, ironically, get closer to the humanity of the real figures through this process. Overall, Doctorow is able to make profound political and aesthetic statements through this ambiguous mode of storytelling.