“The Shattered Flask: Creation Gone Awry in Bernard Malamud’s God’s Grace.”
This article appeared in Studies in American Jewish Literature. I analyze Malamud’s last novel, a harrowing vision of a dystopic human future.
“A recurring image appears in Bernard Malamud’s God’s Grace that is critical to an interpretation of the text but has been overlooked by critics. This image is a flask, to which the protagonist, Calvin Cohn, likens the shape of the island during a land survey conducted early in the narrative. In the narrative, as it seemed to Cohn, the island “was shaped like a broken stubby flask…its bottom had split off” (43). The island had been broken by an earthquake resulting from the recent Day of Devastation. Further on, the narrator states:
The island, [Cohn] figured, was about twenty miles in length, and maybe six miles across, except at its midpoint where it seemed to bulge to nine or ten; and at its northernmost end, where it shrank to two across for three miles or so—the mouth of the flask (44).
The word “flask” has many meaning, but, as becomes clear later, Malamud uses it to denote a glass bottle—the kind used in laboratory experiments. The author employs this image to highlight a central theme: the role that humanity plays in God’s creation. Contrary to Cohn’s decision to name the island after himself, it would be better named “God’s island,” because, as Cohn himself discovers, on this island flowers self-pollinate, fruits heal themselves, and coconuts go up, not down. However, Cohn is too blinded by grief, rage, and hubris to see what is occurring on God’s island, and his actions interfere with God’s work. What Cohn fails to recognize throughout the novel is that God is conducting an experiment on His island that involves the very act of creation, and when Cohn arrives, the experiment is already underway. The baboons discovered three years later have been reproducing all along and without Cohn’s help—hence the bulge in the flask.”
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