Volume VII, Number 2, Fall 2011

"Irony and Self in Bernard Malamud's ’Angel Levine’" by Katalin Szlukovényi

Katalin Szlukovényi is a Ph.D-student at the Modern English and American Literature Program of the Doctoral School of Literature, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, writing her dissertation on “Self-irony in 20th-century Jewish American Fiction.” Her research fields also include 20th century and contemporary American and Hungarian poetry. For her first book, “Kísérleti nyúlorr” (2005), she received the “Attila Gérecz” Prize for best first poetry book of the year. She also translates from English and German. Email:

“Should he say he believed a half-drunk Negro was an angel?” (165) asks himself Manischevitz in Bernard Malamud’s short story, “Angel Levine.” The dilemma is a matter of life and death for the Jewish tailor since his wife is fatally ill and only miracle could help. Indeed, miracle is offered – but by an unexpected guest, a young black man claiming himself to be “a bona fide angel of God” (159). Set in the realistically depicted New York of the mid-fifties, Manischevitz can respond to the suggestion with nothing else but doubts. “The tailor could not rid himself of the feeling that he was the butt of a jokester. Is this what a Jewish angle looks like?” (160). “Carrying the jest further” (159), he tested his guest demanding him to “say the blessing for the bread,” and “Levine recited it in sonorous Hebrew” (160). Later on they take turns, and now it is Levine who tries to ridicule Manischevitz by mimicking biblical language at a night pub. Manischevitz seems to ask rightfully: “What sort of mockery was it – provided that Levine was an angel – of a faithful servant who had from childhood lived in the synagogues, concerned with the word of God?” (159). Considering that “Angel Levine” is a carefully precise paraphrase of Job’s parable, the reader might have the impression that Malamud’s short story has a striking amount of irony.

Before taking a closer look at the text in an attempt to specify the nature of irony in certain passages, I need to emphasize that irony is a rather heterogeneous notion. Numerous approaches articulated from antiquity to postmodern times fit in as diverse fields as rhetoric, philosophy (especially epistemology and aesthetics), and literary criticism (with emphases on different aspects of the concept regarding drama, poetry and fiction). Taking into account the great and growing number of theories engendered by an interest in irony renewing from time to time, “it seems to be impossible to get hold of a definition” (de Man 164). As authors of summative overviews on the history of “ironology” have proved – D. C. Muecke in English or, lately, Éva Antal in Hungarian, for instance –, many of the theories are interrelated or overlapping though, it is a vain effort not only to find a comprehensive, consensual definition but even a least common denominator for all of them. Therefore, the critic intending to apply the term apparently should make a choice between its different interpretations first. That is, however, what I am reluctant to do, because my paper has two aims. First, I want to demonstrate how rich Malamud’s story is in different types of irony, or, in other words, in how varied ways irony can operate in this text; consequently, I will designate somewhat different theoretical frameworks to each of my examples. Secondly, and as a result, I will point out that none of the available theories on irony can fully explain the climax of the story, therefore I suggest the introduction of the term “self-irony”, not as a sheer sub-category of irony, but rather as a concept opposed to it.

The simplest, rhetoric sense of irony was defined in The Orator’s Education by Quintilian. He writes that irony is a kind of “allegory, in which what is expressed is quite contrary to what is meant … and which is understood, either from the mode of delivery, the character of the speaker, or the nature of the subject” (Quintilian VIII. 6.54). This is what happens when Manischevitz tries to identify Levine at their first encounter. The “tailor, in his fifty-first year suffered many reverses and indignities” (157). He lost all his money due to a fire in his workshop; his son was killed in war; his daughter eloped with a lout; he is so sick he can hardly work and his wife is dying. In this desperate situation a young black man appears out of the blue in his living room introducing himself as Alexander Levine. “In spite of his troubles Manischevitz felt a smile growing on his lips. … You are maybe Jewish?” (159). It is obvious from the circumstances that his question is ironic as it implies a statement about the absurdity of the sheer idea that the black visitor can possibly have anything to do with Judaism.

The center of the whole situation – and of the whole story – is the issue of identity. The first description on Manischevitz represents him reading his newspaper in the moment “he realized, with some astonishment, that he was expecting to discover something about himself” (158). When his unexpected visitor arrives, his first guess is that the stranger might be “a case worker from the Welfare Department,” so he is “waiting for the investigator to … begin asking questions” (159). But instead of being inquired about himself, he ends up posing the question: “Who are you?” (159). That opening sentence of their conversation as well as the meticulous answer of the guest brings the theme of the self in the foreground: “If I may, insofar as one is able to, identify myself, I bear the name of Alexander Levine” (159). The uncertain, circuitous phrasing of the black character’s very first utterance involves irony in at least two ways. Firstly, it is ironic in the ancient Greek sense of the word, since antique Greek comedy had two stock characters: the eiron and the alazon, “the smart guy and the dumb guy” (De Man 165). While the alazon acted as if he knew more than he actually did and became a target of ridicule as a result, the eiron‘s pretended ignorance helped him to gain ultimate victory over the alazon. In the first dialogue of the tailor and Levine, the latter speaks as an eiron repeatedly calling attention to the limits of his knowledge while Manischevitz seems to take the role of the alazon, apparently thinking he has the competence to decide whether his partner is an angel or not.

The other direction in the realm of irony to which Levine’s utterance points is early German Romanticism. His doubts regarding the possibility of self-identification root in the ideas of Fichte, Solger and the Schlegel brothers, who introduced the interlinked problems of subjectivity, self-reflection and irony to philosophy. Friedrich Schlegel discussed irony – sometimes referred to by its synonyms “wits” and “humor” – as a major principle of poetry in many of his fragments. In his Aetheneum Fragment 116, for instance, he says that

Romantic poetry … should poeticize wit … it can … hover at the midpoint between the portrayed and the portrayer, free of all real and ideal self-interest, on the wings of poetic reflection, and can raise that reflection again and again to a higher power, can multiply it in an endless succession of mirrors (Schlegel 175).

While Schlegel was aware that no poet or poem could ever grasp or express the transcendental meaning directly because the former is always finite and the latter is infinite, he suggested that through the ironic multiplication of meanings poetry can yet indirectly refer to the unspeakable. Levine, by his reluctance to name himself in a simple, straightforward way, performs this Schlegelian gesture of pointing to his transcendental origin or aspect precisely by admitting the impossibility of directly paraphrasing it in human terms.

Such German Romantic views on irony are reinforced at the end of the first scene, when “The tailor could not rid himself of the feeling that he was the butt of a jokester. … if God sends to me an angel, why a black?” he asks (160). In other words, he feels like the victim of a transcendental irony, which is a thought originating in Hegel’s synthetic summary of Romantic ironology and especially in his concept of Weltironie. Manischevitz seems to be right, for the plot truly unfolds according to the logic of the irony of events, which makes the outcome of actions turn against rational expectations.

In addition to the ontological and epistemological questions regarding identity, the plot is also organized along its racial aspect. “Angel Levine” was written in 1955, the year of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which brought civil rights in the foreground of public interest in the US. Desegregation was significant not only for the era in general but for Malamud in specific too, as we know from his novel The Tenants entirely devoted to the theme of a conflict between two neighbors, a black and a Jewish writer. The problematic nature of racial issues is addressed in “Angel Levine” several times as well. “A black Jew and angel to boot – very hard to believe” (161), contemplates Manischevitz, who ranks the socially unusual and the irrational equally beyond his comprehension. Prejudices work the other way round as well. When he enters a pub in Harlem later on, he is told “Exit, Yankel, Semitic trash” (165). In themselves, any of the racist statements above would be mere offenses, but positioned next to each other in the story they ironically question each other, since this structure highlights the automatic nature of discriminative utterances cancelling the possible validity of any such statement and revealing the negative aspect of the person discriminating someone else rather than that of the one being discriminated. Here irony works as Northrop Frye defined it: “a pattern of words that turns away from direct statement or its own obvious meaning” (Frye 40).

But Malamud does not restrict himself to suggesting that we should reconsider our social presuppositions. He calls our attention to the fact that one necessarily filters reality through one’s preliminary knowledge, and he does that with the same ironic technique of turning a direct description of a person into the indirect description of the one observing him. While Manischevitz mostly remains an abstraction for the reader regarding his physical body or outfit, we get detailed information on the outlook and especially on the clothes of the people represented from the tailor’s point of view. E. g. we learn about Levine that “the cuffs of his sleeves, Manischevitz noted, were frayed to the lining, and the dark suit was badly fitted” (159). These details tell just as much about Manischevitz, who sees the world with a tailor’s eyes, as about Levine.

Besides a story reflecting on mid-twentieth century racial tensions, “Angel Levine” can also be read as a paraphrase of the biblical account on Job’s sufferings. Religious references become more and more frequent as the story unfolds. Although Manischevitz’s instinctive response to his black visitor was rejection, his wife’s medical condition turns worse, so he goes to Harlem to find Levine. He does not know his address and when he inquires about him in the neighborhood, he does not get an answer as long as he asks about Levine, only when he calls him an angel. Not only does this distinction reveal a possible distance between one’s arbitrarily, socially attached name and inner, spiritual essence, but also stresses that the story actually consists of two, more or less incompatible narratives. On the one hand, it is a highly realistic tale about two ordinary New Yorkers acting and speaking just like their contemporaries. On the other hand, it is a traditional parable, which functions according to the logic of faith.

On his first trip, Manischevitz recoils from the sight of Levine when he finds him at a night pub drinking alcohol, playing cards and frivolously dancing with a lady “in a purple evening gown” (162). Just like the tailor’s ordeals were a clear adaptation of Job’s trials to 20th century circumstances, this scene with its black and red colors, cards – the devil’s Bible – and chaotic tumult is a modern version of common visualizations of the evil underworld. As his wife is dying, Manischevitz pays a second, desperate visit to Harlem. Missing his way, he ends up first at a synagogue in which a small group of black men are reading and discussing the Torah. A textual link with Schlegel’s previously mentioned Aetheneum Fragment 116 can be easily detected, in which poetic reflection hovered at the midpoint between man and the world, or between the poet and the transcendental meaning, while here the passage chosen from the Torah tells about the transcendental spirit also hovering in the middle, creating the world. “On de face of de water moved de speerit” (164). If the bar reminded the reader of hell, the synagogue should associate heaven. But the strange mixture of religious quotations, philosophical jargon and urban black dialect makes an ironic effect in a way similar to the double language detected by Paul de Man in the chapter “Eine Reflexion” by Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde, “which reads like a philosophical treatise or argument (using philosophical language …) but … what is … being described is … sexual intercourse” (168). While on the thematic level thorough, erudite answers are given to questions regarding Neshama, the Jewish notion of the soul, the parodistic scene with an old, an adolescent, a humpbacked and a bubble-eyed participant and their diction tell about the inadequacy and obscurity of human knowledge: “’I don’t see what is dat immatierial substance. How come de one gits hithced up to de odder?’” (164). This ironic effect of two contexts mutually questioning each other is repeated in an intensified way in the ultimate dialogue of Levine and Manischevitz. The tailor finds the angel in the same pub as last time, sitting at a table in the company of a bottle of whiskey and a whore, chatting and laughing. He addresses Manischevitz in a solemn, archaic style: “Kindly state the pu’pose of yo communication with yo’s truly” (165). His words would completely fit their conversation and Manischevitz’s salvation story, nevertheless in the pub they sound as sheer mockery: “Bella laughed piercingly. ‘Stop it, boy, you killin me.’” (165).

The climax of the story comes in that deeply ambiguous scene. Manischevitz cannot hesitate any longer for his wife is on the verge of death, and Levine orders him to “speak now or fo’ever hold off” (165). Staying within realism, he should call someone an angel who has just ridiculed his faith. Considering the situation in a biblical framework, he should consent to the devil.

Manischevitz was recalling scenes of his youth as a wheel in his mind whirred: believe, do not, yes, no, yes, no. The pointer pointed to yes, to between yes and no, to no, no it was yes. He sighed. It moved but one still had to make a choice. “I think you are an angel from God.” He said it in a broken voice, thinking, If you said it, it was said. If you believed it, you must say it. If you believed, you believed. (165-66)

The mental process described here seems remarkably compatible with Richard Rorty’s ideas set forth in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. He calls one’s final vocabulary the “set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. … They are the words in which we tell … the story of our lives.” (Rorty 73); and he uses the word “’ironist’ to name the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires” (Rorty XV). Right before his announcement, not only does Manischevitz revise his final vocabulary – formed in his youth – but he also faces the fact that it is partial, it does not give him a clue to this situation, and whatever decision he makes, it will necessarily be contingent. The logic following the announcement is also that of the ironist, leading from utterance to faith, admitting that knowledge is constructed as a result of language. Although literally the opposite is said: “If you believed it, you must say it”, it is made clear by the playfully repetitive syntax – “If you said it … you believed” – that articulation precedes belief, and that speaking and knowledge are inseparably intertwined, in accordance with Rorty’s theses.

Stating his admittedly contingent faith, Manischevitz’s voice is broken, he speaks like a helpless victim of God or of language, and most theoreticians also tend to see a danger in irony. Aristotle disapproves of the eiron (the “mock-modest man”) as someone untruthful, although he does not consider him as culpable as the alazon (“the boastful man”) (IV.7). Friedrich Schlegel gives a long list of different cases of irony, at the end of which he cries out: “What gods will rescue us from all these ironies?” (267). Paul De Man’s argumentation in “The Concept of Irony” is primarily based on Schlegel, and he comes to the similar conclusion that irony “undoes any narrative consistency of lines” (181), and “that any theory of irony is the undoing, the necessary undoing, of any theory of narrative” (179). Even Rorty, whose ideal is the liberal ironist, admits that “there is something potentially very cruel about” irony, since it “results from awareness of the power of redescription. But most people do not want to be redescribed. … For the best way to cause people long-lasting pain is to humiliate them by making the things that seemed most important to them look futile, obsolete and powerless” (89).

In spite of all the possible negative implications of irony, the ultimate scene of Malamud’s story offers a proper happy ending. By the time the tailor gets home, he finds wife healthy and out of bed, the angel ascends to heaven, and the short story is closed by a cheerful remark. “’A wonderful thing, Fanny,’ Manischevitz said. ‘Believe me, there are Jews everywhere’” (166). It is easy to hear the parabasis, the authorial voice ironically speaking out of the text, stressing the keywords wonder and believe, right after the scene in which the resolving miracle could only take place when Manischevitz had suspended his traditional beliefs and accepted what was beyond the grasp of his final vocabulary. That is also in harmony with Alan Wilde’s concept about the suspensive irony of postmodernism, which is – in contrast to the disjunct irony of modernism – “the perception and acceptance of a world whose disarray exceeds and defies resolution” (133).

Although all the above mentioned theories of irony can easily be applied to Malamud’s short story, I have the impression, that all of them miss an essential point in “Angel Levine.” None of them in itself can explain the way in which irony leads, through the questioning and multiplication of meaning to the communication of individuals, who used to be excluded from each other’s mental reality. As a result, the self – Manischevitz’s self as well as Levine’s self – is reinterpreted and re-established.

Former theories of irony may not be apt to cover this complex process because they were concerned either with the ways irony operates in interpersonal relationships, or with the ironic situation of the self in the universe, but never with both, in other words, never with the way self-irony functions not only in its transcendental context but also in interpersonal relationships. In antique theories of irony, the participants were either enemies, like the alazon and the eiron, or accomplices, like the rhetor and his audience, laughing at the expense of their shared enemy or victim, the butt of the irony. On the other hand, romantic ironoligists and their 20th century followers seem to redirect their focus from interpersonal relationships to the relations between the individual, the transcendental and the text. But none of the theories make it completely clear how irony works if the ironist does neither laugh at another person, nor is he a lonely individual in the universe recognizing the absurdity of his existence, but he shares this experience of a good laugh at himself with another person, questioning and re-establishing his own self in the same moment. The aim of my dissertation in progress will be to clarify how self-irony fits in the diverse fields of theories on irony.

Bernard Malamud addressed contemporary issues, making much use of 20th century interpretations of irony. However, he also “lived true to his own eponymous self, serving as midrashic melamed (teacher)” (Zucker), interested above all in interpersonal relationships. Fables are supposed to have morals, and although irony is capable of disrupting any narrative coherence and defying any morals, the well-versed reader can suspect that in a story by Malamud there is something more than disruption or mere resignation to chaos. In this particular story, Malamud first introduces different ways of irony leading to the pivotal point, which is in my reading Manischevitz’s gesture of self-irony, the moment when he declares Levine an angel in the penultimate scene, in spite of his own common sense and his inherited religious customs. Irony may attack the other, but self-irony never does that. By the gesture of self-irony, one confesses his own limits, suspends his preliminary knowledge and thus opens up new ways for communication with the stranger, making miracles, like the one in “Angel Levine,” possible to happen.


Works Cited

  • Antal, Éva. Túl az irónián. Budapest: Kijárat, 2007.
  • Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. Transl. W. D. Ross. Access: 4 Feb. 2011.
  • De Man, Paul. “The Concept of Irony.” Aesthetic Ideology. Minnesota: U of Minnesota P, 1996. 163-84.
  • Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.
  • Malamud, Bernard. The Tenants. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1971.
  • Malamud, Bernard. “Angel Levine.” The Complete Stories. New York: Noonday, 1997. 158-66.
  • Muecke, D. C. Irony and the Ironic. London: Methuen, 1982.
  • Quintilian. Education of an Orator. Transl. J. S. Watson. Oxford: Oxford U, 1856.
  • Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.
  • Schlegel, Friedrich. “On Incomprehensibility.” Lucinde and the Fragments. Transl. Peter Firchow. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1971. 257-72.
  • Wilde, Alan. Horizons of Assent; Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1981.
  • Zucker, David J. “Malamud as Modern Midrash.” Judaism 43.2 (1994): 159-72. Access: 4 Feb. 2011. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0411/is_n2_v43/ai_15524311