Bernard Malamud’s short story, The Last Mohican, follows American Fidelman in his travel to Rome, Italy, and his conflict with the itinerant Shimon Susskind. Fidelman, a self-described “failure as a painter,” arrives from New York to Italy to do a critical study of artist Giotto (417). Before he can even begin, his encounter with Susskind interrupts his precisely laid and budgeted plans for his studies and travels in Italy. He thinks Susskind is stalking him because Susskind wants one of his two suits. However, after his briefcase with his writing is stolen from his hotel, Susskind is suddenly nowhere to be found. When Fidelman finally finds Susskind to give him a suit in exchange for the briefcase he believes Susskind stole, he finds that Susskind has burned his writing, leading to Fidelman’s explosion of anger than grief. Malamud’s story explores several important themes, including being a foreigner, self-discovery, and class. Although it seems that the action of the story is little more than a cat-and-mouse chase, the details allow readers to realize it is not as simple as that. Fidelman arrives from America as a literal foreigner, staring at the sites of Rome saying, “Imagine all that history” (417). However, Fidelman’s encounter with Susskind demonstrates that Fidelman is a different kind of foreigner, a figurative kind of foreigner, because both men are Jewish, yet Fidelman appears to know nothing of the Israeli exiles living in Rome or even anything of the traditions of Jewish heritage. For example, when he meets Susskind who greets him with a “Shalom,” Fidelman says “Shalom . . . uttering the word—so far as he recalled—for the first time in his life” (418). When Susskind disappears and Fidelman goes to the synagogue hoping to either find him or get some news of him, and when an orthodox man asks him if he is from New York, “Half the congregation turned to see who” (428). This kind of effect he has on people cannot help but make him feel his foreignness. Though Fidelman’s stay in Rome becomes much lengthier than expected and very disordered as he descends into his distraction over his lost briefcase, Malamud’s point is to show that Fidelman is not only as a literal foreigner but also as a figurative one to his own history.
Self-discovery is another theme that Malamud subtly illustrates. In the second paragraph, as Fidelman experiences “the sensation of suddenly seeing himself as he was, to the pinpoint, outside and in,” he also “became aware that there was an exterior source to the strange, almost tri-dimensional reflection of himself he had felt as well as seen” (417). This reflection turns out to be Susskind. Whether or not Fidelman and Susskind look alike or quite different makes no difference; the important point is that Susskind provides Fidelman with a reflection that enhances his own self-awareness. While Fidelman may not consciously consider it, the reader must consider that during various Jewish exiles and pogroms, Fidelman could have easily ended up as an itinerant in Rome like Susskind rather than as a citizen of the United States. As an American Jew, Fidelman has no sense of the way the Jewish people are perceived outside his home country, and it is something he discovers as he talks to and seeks Susskind in Rome. Fidelman appears to believe almost until the end of the story that his own personal mission and goals are of the utmost importance, but at the very end, as Susskind runs away from him, he shouts, “Susskind, come back . . . The suit is yours. All is forgiven” (432). It seems that now Fidelman has placed so much emphasis on personal and past things such as history or his writing that he has failed to see what is interesting in himself and the world in the present. Susskind was a willing connection for Fidelman between the disjointed past and present, personal and communal-cultural aspects of life. Unfortunately, it appears that Fidelman’s realization of these things comes a little too late because once Susskind runs away, he no longer trusts Fidelman. However, it still allows Fidelman the self-discover of the importance of his own present life and his place in his community, culture, and world.
Finally, Malamud explores the idea of class within his short story. Even though Fidelman does not consider himself to be well off, after his visit to Susskind’s place in the Jewish ghetto of Rome, he finds it to be an unforgettable experience; from “the visit he never fully recovered” (431). He considers himself to be a prudent, frugal man of few luxuries and possessions. He thinks himself to be virtually poor, but his visit to Susskind’s room shows him a depth of poverty he has never imagined. In America, people are often taught from earliest schooldays that America is a classless society; people may be poor, people may be rich, but everyone supposedly has the same opportunities. Americans often forget that the idea that there are no classes in America is an illusion, but it takes Fidelman’s adventures in a foreign country in order for him to understand that class exists, justified or not. Even the title of the piece, The Last Mohican, illustrates the irony of the idea of the idea Fidelman has that it is a new day for mankind in which all have opportunities and all will be alike. Susskind is a Jewish man steeped in Jewish culture, but he is far from the last of his kind, as Uncas was in James Fennimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Fidelman represents a new kind of man, but his existence and the existence of others like him will not negate the others.
Malamud’s story, at first, is a bit of a mystery to understand because it seems very simple. However, when read again, like the layers of onion being peeled back, it reveals many levels of themes like foreignness, self-discovery, class, and more. Malamud provides an adventure story that, like Fidelman’s trip to Susskind’s room, creates memories never to be forgotten.
Bernard, Malamud. The Last Mohican. The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories. Ed. Daniel Halpern. New York: Penguim, 1986. 417-423. Print.