In Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the readers are introduced to an assemblage of characters entrapped by social, political and economic constraints who desire to escape these burdens and be liberated from their state of confinement. As the novel is set in the late 1930’s, the protagonists endure the hardships and gloom of two concurrent global catastrophes: the Second World War, taking place in Europe, and the Great Depression, occurring in America.
The former setting portrays Josef Kavalier threatened by the oppression of Hitler and the Nazi Regime in Prague, while Sammy Klayman struggles with stigmas surrounding his homosexuality in Brooklyn. As well, both protagonists, and the whole of American society, grapples with mundanity and tedium of routine. To escape the doldrums of the economic depression and the monotony of everyday life, society indulges in the distraction provided by entertainment, namely comic books and magic, and through these media, Chabon constructs the ultimate symbols of freedom. Houdini, a famous escape artist, and the Escapist, a superhero creation of Josef and Sammy, inspire the protagonists to express their repressed desires as well as escape their self-perceptions of incompetence, becoming blazing emblems of liberty within the novel. By portraying the downfall of these symbols in stark contrast to their creation, Chabon conveys the futility of escape and the collapse of freedom. A cycle of entrapment and escape ensues, accompanied by a continuous variation in tone from euphoric to dejected, which furthers the idea that complete freedom is unachievable.
To gain a thorough understanding of the theme of escape, which is the main focus of this essay, as well as the historical context of the book, the novel, a literary review of the novel and a few historical journals were consulted. Each stage of repression, including the initial state of confinement, the attainment of freedom, the gradual loss of liberty, and the ensuing cycle of imprisonment and liberation, will be examined to decipher the underlying truth regarding escape and freedom. II. State of ConfinementThe protagonists, when introduced, exist in a unique state of confinement from which they desire to escape. Josef faces the oppression of Hitler, who, after the occupation of the Sudetenland and the creation of the Munich Pact in 1938, unleashes anti-Semitic terrorism throughout Prague (Moskowitz 275), Josef’s hometown in Czechoslovakia. Josef’s family is endangered as the Nazis begin to seize Jewish institutions and arrest thousands of Jews within the city (Moskowitz 275). Josef’s circumstances are paralleled by the struggles of Sammy under societal constraints due to his sexuality, occurring in Brooklyn, America.
Sammy, who is gay, endures the persecution of homosexuals in New York City. During the 1930’s, homosexuals were prone to public humiliation from authority figures and police harassment (Minton 449), and were isolated by social stigmas perpetuated by medical studies which likened homosexuality to a psychological disorder (Minton 453). The adversities of both protagonists are encapsulated by the overarching ubiquity of the “oppressive national mantle of tedium” (Chabon 86) in society, which is induced by the mundanity of daily life and routine. Chabon effectively uses metaphorical descriptions of physical bonds and traps, likening them to mental burdens, to depict the sense of imprisonment experienced by the characters. Sammy, who is unable to pursue the career of his dreams, is “sealed and hog-tied” in his room (Chabon, 3).
Josef is “imprisoned by invisible chains” and “walled in” living under Hitler’s dictatorship (Chabon 23) while Sammy’s father must break free from the “constricting nets” of his family’s relations to him (Chabon 103). By comparing the internal feelings of restraint with physical forms of restriction, Chabon creates a visual image of the abstract concept of psychological confinement and associates a physical sensation to an internal stress. Utilizing third person omniscient point of view aids with these descriptions as Chabon is able to reveal the inner thoughts of every character, thus granting the readers full access to their perceptions of entrapment and distress. Chabon also employs setting to further enhance the atmosphere of strain and confinement. Sammy sleeps in a “narrow bed” in a bedroom “hardly wider than the bed itself” (Chabon 6), and he is raised in the “airtight vessel” that is Brooklyn (Chabon 3), and these images of narrow, restricting spaces parallel the internal discomfort Sammy experiences. Chabon manipulates the characters’ physical environments to emphasize their state of unease. To escape from Prague and the strict immigration laws set by the Nazi regime, Josef is transported out of the country in a coffin, in which he is forced to lie motionless for a day.
Furthermore, the society of New York as a whole is brought up in “narrow stairways and crowded rooms” (Chabon 473). The depictions of these tight, cramped environments creates a suffocative mood, and augments the characters’ urgencies to escape these oppressions. To advance the tension created by the atmosphere of oppression, Chabon describes the characters’ desires to achieve greatness and their fantasies of a life of freedom, which heavily contrasts their given circumstances.
Sammy covets the life of his father, who is “free as a goddamn bird in the bush” (Chabon 98), and dreams of being revered by society for his intelligence. (Kalfus) Similarly, Josef, while living in Prague, envisions a life of sophistication as a famous magician and escape artist. Thus by employing metaphors, imagery and setting, Chabon effectively constructs the scenes of the two protagonists who are helplessly trapped and desperately seeking a way out of their confinement.III. A Short-Lived EscapeIt is evident that the tension built up by Chabon will eventually be relieved through escape. Just as the characters find themselves being oppressed by varying sources, there are different forms of escape presented in the novel.
The prevalent form of escape is a derivative of Escapism, that is, the act of distracting oneself from unpleasant realities by indulging in entertainment or fantasy. Within the novel, society exercises escapism through a few different media. Comic books are a ubiquitous means for escape and distraction used by society in the novel. The Second World War, the time period in which the novel takes place, is coincident with the height of the comic book industry, known as the Golden Age of comic books (Darowski 90). Chabon recounts the flourish and prosper of the production of comic books during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, concurrent with one of the darkest events in history, as society uses the exhilarating and invigorating tales of superheroes to escape the malaise of their own lives. When Josef and Sammy invent their own comic book character, the Escapist, it becomes an instrument for them, and many others in society, that can be used to escape. Through the Escapist, Josef and Sammy channel their own desires of escape and freedom, and the bonds that the superhero is described to be breaking free from are reminiscent of the imaginary bonds that confined the two cousins in the past. He is a symbol of their liberation, and by creating him they are able to escape their feelings of incompetence.
Josef uses the Escapist to express his hatred for Hitler and Nazi Germany, and is hopeful that the comic will push America to enter the war and end the suffering of his family (Chabon 166), while Sammy uses the Escapist to fulfill his dream of creating a famous comic book series and attaining “fabulous sums of money” (Chabon 7). Those who read the comic book escape mundanity and boredom and enter a separate world of heroism and grandeur, albeit only temporarily. The Escapist allows Sammy, who is crippled, as well as an “entire generation of weaklings, stumblebums, and playground goats” (Chabon 177) to reach a sense of ephemeral fulfillment as they find their desires for strength and fearlessness expressed through the superhero. The authors of the comic book, on the other hand, while writing the story, are able to transcend all thought while focusing solely on the expression of their art . Josef is described to have fallen into the “raffish embrace” (Chabon 177) of the “great, mad new American art form” that is the comic book (Chabon 167), and is so absorbed in his work that he forgoes sleep and meals while drawing out his panels. For the duration of this chaotic creative process, Josef’s thoughts of “the yawning gap, the long unretraceable path that separated him from his family” temporarily “recede from his mind” (Chabon 119) as he instead becomes preoccupied with his drawings.
Thus the Escapist not only allows the creators to unleash their repressed desires, but also acts as a passage to escape from their torments and all thought in the process of its creation itself.Magic is another form of entertainment used to escape the harsh circumstances of reality. Society is fascinated with illusions and tricks since, like comic books, they provide a distraction and entertain the thought of the existence of an exciting and supernatural world beyond the ordinary. Chabon conveys this idea using a metaphor with which he compares the lives of a group of orphan children to a “slow, dull, dark submarine” which “abruptly surfaced” as they watched Josef performing a stunt (Chabon 530). Chabon, through diction, suggests that the children were plagued by banality and tedium before seeing the magic trick, and were liberated from their monotony, filled with a “crippling nitrogen of wonder” (Chabon 530).
The third mean of escape presented in the novel is the pursuit of love. This idea is introduced when Kornblum, Josef’s magic instructor, says, “Only love could pick a nested pair of steel Bramah locks” (Chabon 535) while recounting the tale of one of Houdini’s stunts during which his wife had handed him the pick for his locks. In this metaphor, Chabon compares the oppressions of life to a pair of locks, and indicates that love is the only way to free oneself from these oppressions. This notion is established as the characters slowly begin to abandon their predicaments to pursue a romantic relationship. Josef, after meeting Rosa, relinquishes his fight against Nazi Germany and focuses more on the development of his art form, and Sammy, after meeting Tracy Bacon, is freed from the social pressures placed on him to foster a relationship with a woman. After Josef returns from the navy at the end of the war, Josef is liberated from isolation and routine by the love of his son, and is urged to return to his family. Even the wife of Sheldon Anapol “allayed his anxieties” regarding Empire Comics through their nightly conversations (Chabon 281).
It is through the relationships with their partners and children that the characters are able to reach a peace of mind and detach themselves from their afflictions. To convey the liberation and bliss experienced by the characters, Chabon uses various figures of speech. Chabon utilizes a hyperbole to express Josef’s complete lack of internal burden as he “sailed toward freedom as if he weighed nothing at all” on the last leg of his journey to America from Prague (Chabon 66). When Josef and Sammy conceive the idea for the Escapist, Sammy feels that the “wild cataracts of money” and the “racing river of his own imagination” will carry him to the “boundless freedom of the open sea” (Chabon 87). In this case, fame and fortune, the embodiment of success for Sammy, is likened to an open sea, a peaceful image. By using these metaphors as well as third person omniscient point of view, Chabon reveals these innermost thoughts and associates their sense of liberty with peaceful images, creating an atmosphere of tranquility.
Chabon also frequently employs pathetic fallacy and imagery to create a happy mood, furthering the characters’ contentment. Descriptions of the environment are used to emanate an elated atmosphere following each step in the characters’ journeys to liberation. As Josef finishes drawing out an issue of the Escapist, the colour of the sky is a “bright Superman blue” (Chabon 165), and when he is told his brother is coming to America from Prague, the sky is “shining like a nickel” (Chabon 264). As Thomas’ boat finally leaves for America, the sky is “as blue as a Nash” and “cloudless but for one lost lamb overhead” (Chabon 384).
These images Chabon creates of a bright, saturated sky are coincident with accomplishments in Josef’s battle against the Nazis, which associates his advances towards liberation with this elated atmosphere. Similarly, as Tommy skips school to visit his father at the Empire State Building, the skies are “alive with men in capes and costumes” (Chabon 516), which parallels his sense of exhilaration and bliss as he escapes from the suffocating societal constraints placed on him by his teachers and classmates. Tommy views himself to be a superhero, “soaring up from the underground” (Chabon 516) like the heroic figures reflected in the sky, as he travels through New York City, propelled by the heroism of his defiance of cultural norms. Even as Sammy takes his first step towards freedom from societal expectations by kissing a man for the first time, the sky behind him is “veined with fire” (Chabon 352), producing an image of wild, uncontrollable passion, which is the epitome of freedom and independence. By utilizing pathetic fallacy, Chabon constructs an atmosphere of jubilation to emphasize the elation that the characters experience following their escapes.To describe the liberation and contentment of society as a whole during the Golden Age, Chabon uses imagery and personification. Contrasting one’s expected mentality during the world war, which is one of “siege, panic or grim resignation to fate” (Chabon 340), the mentality of the society of New York is one of “toe-wiggling, tea-sipping contentment of a woman curled on a sofa, reading in front of a fire” (Chabon 340), which composes an image of comfort and warmth.
Chabon personifies the economy, which experiences “perceptible movement in its limbs” (Chabon 340), and this construed mobility reinforces the impression of emancipation. However, as the means for attaining freedom are engendered through escapism, the momentary evasion of ones’ problems, it is anticipated that the escape will only be temporary and that the protagonists’ repressions will eventually be restored.IV. The Gradual Transition to EntrapmentAs the novel progresses and the Golden Age comes to an end, the feelings of imprisonment gradually return, expressed through Chabon’s violent tactile imagery. Josef feels incompetent and that his efforts towards ending the war have been trivial, and he feels guilty to be in possession of his freedom, which had been at the cost of most of his family’s belongings.
When fear restrains him from enlisting in the navy, which he believed would allow him to make a more significant contribution to the war, he “suffered sharp stabs of regret and self-reproach” (Chabon 190). When it is revealed that his brother Thomas has drowned on his way to America, Josef “ached in his joints and his chest, his lungs, burned as if he had been breathing smoke or poison” (Chabon 416). Chabon uses this imagery to create an atmosphere of discomfort and agony which enhances the devastation and loss of hope Josef experiences. Sammy, while he had felt that he was creating success for himself, begins to see new flaws that progressively diminish his happiness.
Though he now possesses the fortune he previously believed to define success, he fails to acquire respect and acknowledgement from his mother nor the writers that are more established and accomplished. His relationship loses its joy as he begins to feel inadequate and small compared to Tracy’s other gay friends. As Sammy enters into adulthood, he falls into a routine and experiences once more the ennui he had worked so hard to escape. He finds an average job and settles into a “deep and narrow groove at the third-tier magazine houses” and the “once-mighty pulps” (Chabon 480).
Chabon utilizes diction to indicate the mediocrity of his job and to illustrate the decline of his career since the days of the Golden Age. Chabon repeatedly uses physical constraints as a metaphor for internal burdens to depict the characters’ mentality, and they are figuratively placed into a small, cramped environment, similar to the setting that Chabon described in the first part of the novel. Josef can no longer use comic books to escape, since they only remind him of the futility of his efforts, and the “quadrangular panels” become a “prison from which he had to escape” (Chabon 319).
When Sammy acquires the position of editor-in-chief at an inferior comic book production company, he “allowed the world to wind him in the final set of chains” and “climbed, once and for all, into the cabinet of mysteries that was the life of an ordinary man” (Chabon 547). Sammy begins to regard his career as “the walls of a prison, an airless, lightless keep from which there was no hope of escape” (Chabon 620), as the fear of tarnishing his reputation in the comic book industry was what had prevented him from openly harbouring a relationship with a man. As soon as Josef and Sammy begin to feel entrapped, Chabon uses the metaphor of tight and confined spaces to set an atmosphere of claustrophobic panic and distress, exhibiting the characters’ lack of freedom in a visual image. Through the downfall of Jack Ashkenazy and Sheldon Anapol, the executives of Empire Comics, Chabon illustrates the ruination of the hope-filled, optimistic Golden Age era and the reestablishment of dullness and tedium in society. Jack Ashkenazy returns to working at a “fourth-rate pulp-magazine house” (Chabon 485), having lost all of his money, and Sheldon Anapol is forced to sell Empire Comics due to the failing comic book industry. Jack and Sheldon find themselves in the middle class once again, in the state they had been in before the invention of the Escapist, and all trace of the greatness they had once possessed has vanished. As all of the characters eventually lose their sense of liberation and fall into a state of confinement once more, the idea that true escape is impossible is presented. Chabon indicates that complete freedom cannot be attained due to the preservation of cultural and economic constraints and the ephemerality of escapism, which only provides temporary escape.
V. The Futility of EscapeThroughout the novel, Chabon presents a continuous cycle of freedom and constraint through symbols. Though escape is frequently attempted, the attainment of complete, absolute freedom is never achieved and confinement is reestablished. In most cases, the characters’ perceptions of imprisonment are more severe than in their initial states of confinement, after having revelled in the empowering tastes of freedom. This idea is foreshadowed in the beginning of the novel, through Kornblum, who says, “Forget about what you are escaping from… Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to” (Chabon 37).
One manifestation of the cycle of escape is the tumultuous storyline of Thomas’ journey to America, and his eventual death. Josef’s attempts to help his brother escape from Europe become a long and laborious struggle as new obstacles are introduced with every accomplishment. Josef laboriously secures a spot for Thomas on the ship and the departure of the ship is promptly delayed. The ship is finally ready to sail and Thomas’ visa is revoked. This series of events is accompanied by a constant transition in tone from hopeful and excited to dejected and disheartened, which parallels the cycle of escape and confinement experienced by many characters in the novel. The tension is convincingly relieved when the Ark of Miriam departs for America, however, the sinking of the boat disturbs the jubilant mood and establishes one of failure.
This abrupt change in mood, following Josef’s tiresome endeavour to transport his brother to America, reinforces the idea that true escape is unattainable. When Chabon reveals that Thomas’ death was not precipitated by the attack from the German U-boats as was previously believed, and was instead caused by an unforeseen storm, the impossibility of escape is indicated further, since Thomas’ death is likely to have occurred without interference from the German navy, suggesting the ultimate futility of the struggle for freedom. Chabon also utilizes the motif of drowning to further the notion that escape is futile. Each incident of drowning is engendered by one’s attempt to escape, and is precedented by an atmosphere of anticipation and excitement. Josef almost drowns in an attempt to break away from mediocrity and receive acknowledgement from the Hofzinser Club, Thomas drowns pursuing freedom outside of Europe, and Salvador Dalí almost drowns attempting to transcend normalcy by expressing his artistic beliefs at Longman Harkoo’s party. The excitement gives way to the aura of failure permeated by their unsuccessful endeavours, advancing the perception of the impossibility of escape. During the incident, Dalí’s eyes are “abulge with terror and asphyxia” (Chabon 242) and Josef “flopped wildly on the floor like a gasping fish” (Chabon 399), and the images of their physical torments heightens the underlying sense of continuous and prolonged struggle.
The two symbols of liberation within the novel, Houdini and the Escapist, are also used to convey the futility of escape. Houdini, a master escape artist and inspiration for both Kornblum and Josef in their pursuits of a career in magic, was the ultimate representation of liberation and the real life embodiment of the Escapist. Near the end of the novel, Chabon describes an event in which Houdini fails to escape from his locks, and a defeated mood is produced by the “air of desperation” of the orchestra and the recession of the “tide of hope and goodwill” (Chabon 534). As Houdini’s failure is representative of the failure of all escape and also coincident with the pinnacle of Josef and Sammy’s entrapment, it conveys a sense of defeat and signals the decline of hope and freedom. Similarly, the Escapist, another symbol of liberation, undertakes a similar downfall to express the same idea. From the moment of the Escapist’s conception, Josef and Sammy are warned against depicting the annihilation of Hitler and the Nazi Regime within their comics, and at one point, Sheldon threatens to dismiss them in the face of their refusal to comply to this demand.
However, for Josef, Sammy, and the readers of the comics, the Escapist was a symbol of independence and freedom, allowing Josef to fight against Hitler and express his frustrations through his art and allowing Sammy to achieve greatness and fulfill his repressed desire of forming a partnership. The Escapist’s abilities to break free of all constraints also allowed society to fulfill their need to escape. Thus when Sheldon takes the Escapist out of circulation and suspends his ability to liberate others, it is a representation of the complete desertion of hope and symbol of the failure of escape. VI. ConclusionTo answer the research question, “What does Michael Chabon convey about the nature of escape and freedom in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay?”, the themes of escape and freedom, as well as the tools of the writer utilized by Chabon to establish these themes, were analyzed.
Employing metaphorical descriptions of physical constraints, setting and imagery, Chabon illustrates the imprisonment and oppression encountered by the protagonists. Ultimately, Chabon conveys that true escape is unachievable, and through the cycle of imprisonment and escape experienced by the characters, he depicts the cyclical nature of confinement and freedom. By portraying the repression of the two symbols of freedom, Houdini and the Escapist, Chabon presents the futility and impossibility of escape, and brings forth the idea that it is impossible to achieve a sense of complete liberation.