[(essay date 2002) In the following essay, Burstein contends that gender identification is a critical factor in the romantic relationships of Malamud's male protagonists in A New Life,God's Grace,The Natural, and Dubin's Lives.]
When Bernard Malamud died I thought, among other sad things, that he would not have wanted God's Grace to have been his last book. This novel was a virtual parable for the failure of all human striving. Like Dickens' Hard Times, God's Grace seemed to write especially large the impossibility of collective human wellbeing. Remembering Malamud's earlier works--the promise implicit in Frank Alpine's painful and inspiring embrace of the law, the hopefulness of Seymour Levin's determination to commit himself to life "because [he] can"--I thought how sad it was that the sacrifice of Calvin Cohn and the regression to bestiality of his pupils should become Malamud's last word on the subject.
But the darkness of God's Grace is implicit in the earlier works. If you look only at the theme of love in four of his major novels: The Assistant, A New Life, Dubin's Lives, and God's Grace, you can watch the shadows gathering. As Malamud suspected, the problem that frustrates the collective effort at civilization frustrates as well the efforts of individuals to love. In both contexts the issue Malamud's protagonists can never resolve is the issue of difference.
Several contemporary theorists believe that the problems we have with difference are rooted in the process of differentiation: a "psychoanalytic term for the process by which children learn that they are not coextensive with the world (Eisenstein xx). When we learn to see ourselves as distinct from others we are differentiating, performing what Nancy Chodorow called an "early task of infantile development" (5). Like other such tasks, this one can lead to different conclusions. If we complete it successfully we learn to recognize other people as subjects who are both like and unlike ourselves. We can even learn to appreciate them apart from our own needs. But there are gender issues buried--like trip wires--in this process. And one of them accounts for the trouble Malamud's protagonists have with difference. Because in our culture women mother, the process of differentiation is not identical for male and female children. All infants, as we know, first identify and bond with their mothers. And that first bond is never forgotten. Thus, built into the core of male gender identity, theorists believe, "is an early, nonverbal, unconscious, almost somatic sense of primary oneness with the mother, an underlying sense of femaleness that continually, usually unnoticeably, but sometimes insistently challenges and undermines the sense of maleness. ..." As a result, "learning what it is to be masculine comes to mean learning to be not-feminine, or not-womanly" (Chodorow 12). This emphasis on the difference between oneself and others makes separation and distance crucial elements of male identity. Autonomy and independence become essential ingredients of maleness.
This early, negative understanding of oneself can make the process of differentiation problematical for men (16). And the effects...