"Defender of the Faith"
by Philip Roth
[Teacher's lecture notes]
There are actually two stories going on at the same time in "Defender of the Faith." One is the story of Marx's recovery from his war experiences. The other story is Marx's conflict with Grossbart. Both conflicts are closely intertwined, as Roth explores the struggle one man undergoes to discover which values outweigh others. Marx must decide which he will be first: a good sergeant, or a good Jew, or a good human being.
The reader is informed immediately of the first conflict taking place within Marx. "I had been fortunate enough," he says in the first paragraph, "to have grown an infantryman's heart," which "finally grows horny enough for him to travel the weirdest paths without feeling a thing." As anyone who is confronted on a prolonged, daily basis with misery, violence, tragedy, and death, Marx has had to harden his heart to the point where he could not feel the pain he perpetually witnessed during the war. Yet, he is an intelligent, introspective man who is aware that this state of mind, while understandable, is not normal, and during the course of the story, his heart slowly begins to warm-up, to soften. It is this slow recovery from his war experiences that makes him vulnerable to Grossbart's manipulation and machinations. Having witnessed atrocities never believed possible in human history, Marx is keenly aware of his Jewishness as he's never been before. One senses that prior to the war, Marx took his Judaism and his ethnicity for granted. Now, he has a heightened since of his heritage and beliefs. Thus, he is a prime target for Grossbart. This is why Grossbart finds it relatively easy, at first, to manipulate Marx: Marx is vulnerable and off-balance. Yet as the story progresses, Roth allows us glimpses into Marx's recovery: the parade ground at dusk evokes childhood memories that reach deep into his heart to touch him; later, he begins to send for law school catalogs and to write old girlfriends.
This internal conflict runs apace with the external conflict Marx has with Grossbart almost from the moment he steps foot on base. Marx has scarcely had time to stow his gear before Grossbart is before him, insinuating himself, as a fellow Jew, and trying to get special consideration and privilege. And what makes it difficult for Marx is that Grossbart raises worthwhile questions that the army, at that time, never considered. Why don't Jews get to worship on their Sabbath? Why doesn't the mess hall serve kosher food? Yet, Marx realizes quickly that Grossbart is no serious Jew. He wants to attend shul to get out of work. He isn't bothered by non-kosher food; he just wants to manipulate the system. He likes special privileges. He continues to push Marx until the turning point when, after Marx allows Grossbart, Fishbein, and Halpern to go off base for a supposed seder, they return bringing Marx not matzo, as he had requested, but eggroll, something that is as non-kosher as food can get. Why does Grossbart fling it in his face, so to speak? Why does Grossbart rub it in that Marx has been had? Because Grossbart doesn't need Marx anymore -- he's found another source to get his orders changed from the Pacific, so Grossbart smugly flaunts the fact that he has used Marx; he wants to make sure Marx knows it, too. But this is where Marx draws the line. He turns the tables on Grossbart and gets the orders changed back.
This story is full of complex irony. The phrase "defender of the faith," according to Laurence Perrine, usually suggests a staunch religious champion, but insofar as Sgt. Marx fills this role, he does so against his will, even against his intention, for his motivation is to give fair and equal treatment to all his men-- he does not want to be partial to Jews. Unwillingly, he is trapped into being a "defender of the faith" by Grossbart.
The next morning, while chatting with Captain Barrett, I recounted the incident of the previous evening. Somehow, in the telling, it must have seemed to the Captain that I was not so much explaining Grossbart's position as defending it.
At the end of the story, however, when Marx has Grossbart's orders changed to the Pacific, the irony is that he becomes most truly a defender of his faith when he seems to be turning against it. "You call this watching out for me -- what you did?" asks Grossbart. "No," answers Marx. "For all of us." The cause of the whole Jewish faith is set back when Jews like Grossbart get special favors for themselves, for other people will mistakenly attribute Grossbart's objectionable qualities to the Jewish people as a whole. (It's called "stereotyping.") Thus Marx is unwillingly a "defender of the faith" when he helps his fellow Jew, yet he becomes truly a defender of the faith when he turns against him.
One more note about this story: Roth wrote several versions of this story. His final version of choice (not the version in your textbook) differed from your version in only one way -- his treatment of Capt. Barrett. In earlier versions, Barrett's speech is littered with four-letter words and barrackroom terminology. The later version toned down Barrett's language. Roth explained that he did this because he wanted Barrett not to appear overly crude and/or stupid for he wanted Marx's dilemma to reside purely between himself and Grossbart, and not with an overbearing superior officer as well.