“Defender of the Faith” by Philip Roth
One. Why does the narrator Sargeant Nathan Marx say he is “fortunate enough” to travel “the weirdest paths without feeling a thing”?
He wants us to know that he is world-weary and life-hardened, a man who “has seen it all,” but in fact he has not: He is not prepared to face the insidious evil of the homunculus parasite, Sheldon Grossbart, that kills us gradually, slowly, incrementally, through a thousand cuts. This is the story’s theme.
Our downfall is often not an immediate catastrophe. Rather, our downfall gradually overtakes us such as consumerism: “How in the hell did I get here?”
Two. What is the theme of tribalism and entitlement?
We often gravitate toward those whom we perceive as belonging to our tribe in part because they invite feelings of favoritism and entitlement.
Such behavior is corrupt, sycophantic, narcissistic, and immoral.
We call this cronyism and nepotism.
Marx tries to repel Grossbart from crossing the line by demanding to be called “Sergeant,” but Grossbart gradually weakens him with his sycophantic whining.
In contrast to favoritism, the story presents us the moral code of the meritocracy, treating people on their merits alone. No one should get special treatment, “for the good or the bad.”
Fairness based on merits is a religious principle. To be a “defender of the faith,” as the title suggests, means to show fairness, not favoritism. Therefore, to give special rights to those who belong to our tribe is a compromise of our defense of our faith.
Captain Barrett is skeptical of Grossbart’s motivations: “Seems awful funny that suddenly the Lord is calling so loud in Private Grossman’s ear he’s just got to run to church.”
Lots of people would rather attend a religious service than clean their barracks. We can infer, then, that Grossbart is a fraud and a mountebank trying to take advantage of the fact that he and Marx are of the same religion.
Marx makes the fatal error of opening the door to Grossbart. Once he opens the door, by acquiescing to Grossbart’s request, the boundary between them is vanished, and now Marx is vulnerable to the demon homunculus.
An authority figure needs a healthy distance between him and his subordinates, as does an athlete between himself and his competition. Bob Gibson, star pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, never fraternized with the other National League players when they played together on the All-Star Team because he knew he would pitch against them in games that counted. He wanted his competition to be scared of him, not familiar and comfortable.
Keeping a distance between others in certain situations is necessary.
We call this the Respect Zone. Certain boundaries are not crossed. I don’t go into my doctor’s office, sit on his desk, and call him by his first name in front of the patients.
If I do, I’ve crossed the line. I’ve moved out of the Respect Zone and into the Familiarity Zone. I assume we’re familiar (perhaps we play tennis together) and I can be “chummy” with my doctor. But in doing so in front of his patients, I violate the Respect Zone by moving into the Familiarity Zone.
If I get too familiar with my doctor, not paying my bill because, after all, “we’re friends,” I’ve moved beyond the Familiarity Zone to the Take for Granted Zone, the zone that affords the least respect.
This is where our demon homunculus Grossbart is maneuvering by getting Marx to do the first favor.
Three. What evidence is there that Grossbart is not motivated by piety?
At the religious service, we read, “I thought I heard Grossbart cackle, ‘Let the goyim clean the floors!’”
Grossbart is gloating and wallowing in the juices of privilege and entitlement. He is revolting, an example of faith gone bad.
Marx has evidence that his actions are not defending the faith.
Four. Do the favors stop at prayer services in place of cleanup duty?
No, prayer services are followed by requests for kosher food. Grossbart’s mom calls a congressman to make a stink about the Jewish soldiers not having access to kosher food.
Grossbart lies and says the goyim or gentile food is making him throw up.
Army duty is being downgraded to “summer camp.”
The Captain is not amused. He says, “There’s a goddam war on, and he wants a silver platter!”
Then Grossbart and his fellow Jewish soldiers want to up the ante. Not only do they want special services and special kosher food, they want to make sure they’re given assurances that they’re not transferred to the battlefront in the Pacific.
The rationale is that they don’t want their parents to worry about them.
They want Marx to enable them to be spoiled children while the rest of the soldiers fight a real war.
Grossbart relies on pathological lying to get his way. First he says he throws up; then he changes the story so that it is Halpern who is throwing up. He can’t keep his stories straight. And he’s a whiner. We can conclude that this demon homunculus has become a disease to his unit.
In fact, Captain Barrett reveals that Grossbart is motivated by false piety. Barrett says to Grossbart, “When you were in high school, Sergeant Marx was killing Germans. Who does more for the Jews—you, by throwing up over a lousy piece of sausage, piece of first-cut meat, or Marx, by killing those Nazi bastards? If I was a Jew, Grossbart, I’d kiss the man’s feet. He’s a goddam hero, and he eats what we give him.”
The lies get worse. Marx figures out that Grossbart wrote the letter to the congressman. His mother and father barely read and write in English.
Marx realizes that people who use religion to manipulate others for their own selfish gain are vile, unctuous, hypocrites.
Five. How does Grossbart embody the BS Principle of Diminishing Returns?
Grossbart exerts more time and energy BS-ing than he’d have to do to perform his assigned duties and responsibilities; however, he is so blinded and tantalized by the false promise of entitlement that he becomes dependent on a BS lifestyle.
Grossbart is forging letters, communiqués, and other sycophantic documents to push his agenda. He is a complete parasite.
Six. After Grossbart lies low for a while, what kind of shenanigans does he create for Marx?
He gets alone with Marx in a dark movie theater and first asks for one favor; then he asks for two favors. He wants to know where the unit is going and if there’s a chance he could go back to New York.
He lies and says going back to the States will afford him an opportunity to have Passover dinner with his family.
Worse, Grossbart wants Marx to break the rules and let him go on leave during the basic training.
It’s at this point that we see the demon inside Grossbart. He points his finger and hisses at Marx for reading the congressman’s letter, which in fact he desired Marx to read because of the letter’s abject sycophantism directed toward Marx.
Grossbart is a man of multiple layers of BS.
Then when Marx denies Grossbart his favor, Grossman compares Marx to Hitler.
Grossbart’s fraud continues when he musters a self-righteous, tearful pose and proclaims his religion makes him different. We see narcissism and tribalism in his refusal to be like everyone else and cooperate in the war effort.
He accuses Marx of closing his heart to his own.
Marx breaks down and gives Grossbart the visitation pass.
Grossbart abuses the privilege and wants to take his friends. He’s like a little child.
Max breaks down again and lets all three go.
Seven. How does Grossbart push Marx over the edge?
He lies about the dinner with his Aunt. He buys Chinese food. Marx then discovers Grossbart pulled strings to get assigned to New Jersey. Marx must impede Grossbart’s manipulations, and he does so. He will now have to live with his conscience.
This is a complex, powerfully imagined tale portraying a conflict of loyalties and delineating the difficulty of being a decent and fair-minded person in a world beset with opposing priorities.
For Grossbart, Jewishness has no devotional or ritualistic substance. He is a cleverly conniving barracks lawyer who poses as a defender of the Jewish faith to manipulate Marx and other authority figures into granting him undeserved privileges. He articulates litanies of whining and wheedling, flattery and hypocrisy—all in a consuming desire for special treatment.
Marx’s character is deeply layered: He wants to be a good person, a good soldier, and a good Jew—in that order. As a human being, he is at first vulnerable to Grossbart’s performance as the victim in danger of having his rights crushed by the dehumanizing institution that the army often is. However, as a soldier, he wants to treat his trainees equitably and humanely, balancing obedience to military regulations with empathy for the loneliness and confusion of young men uprooted from their families in wartime. As a Jew he has a particularly thorny dilemma: how to observe his tradition yet also fulfill his military duties; how to avoid the sentimental claims of Jewish solidarity when they contradict the ethical mandate for justice and equity; how to be strong without bullying; how to be compassionate without showing weakness.
Philip Roth concludes the story with a twist: Grossbart accepts his fate, to be treated no differently from his comrades, and Marx accepts his own fate after “resisting with all my will an impulse to turn and seek pardon for my vindictiveness.” Thus, Roth stresses the existential nature of the protagonist’s moral anguish: Marx finds training camp a far trickier moral terrain than the battlefield. He discovers that the best—for him, the only possible—way of defending the faith of Jews is to defend the faith of all recruits in the cause of a just community, to watch out not for one individual but “for all of us.”