What do you do about death—in this case, the death of an old father? Take this matter of mourning, and take it against a contemporary background. How, against a contemporary background, do you mourn an octogenarian father, nearly blind, his heart enlarged, his lungs filling with fluid, who creeps, stumbles, gives off the odors, the moldiness or gassiness of old men. I mean!

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Saul Bellow Saul Bellow 's story "A Silver Dish" illustrates the skill of one of the greatest American authors of the twentieth century. The story spans a period from the middle of the Great Depression to the mids, showing the changes that time renders in both society and in one man's life.

The main character, Woody Selbst, is one of Bellow's finest creations. A lonesome, successful businessman, Woody reminisces about the circumstances under which his father, a con man and thief, caused him to lose his scholarship to a seminary school, an act that redirected his entire life. Bellow, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, fills this long tale with acutely observed details and characters who are so unusual that they feel like they could only come from real life.

Woven throughout the story are meditations about religion, death, and responsibility that one expects in Bellow's fiction. Long for a short story , "A Silver Dish" holds as much insight, humor, and wisdom as one may hope to find in a novel. This story was first published in the New Yorker in and was subsequently published in Bellow's collection Him with His Foot in His Mouth , which as of is in print. Saul Bellow is considered one of the greatest writers America has ever produced, having won every major writing award available, including the Nobel Prize for Literature.

He was born on June 10, , in Lachine, Quebec, Canada. His parents, who had recently emigrated from Russia, moved the family to Chicago in After high school, Bellow attended the University of Chicago for two years then graduated with honors from Northwestern University in , taking degrees in sociology and anthropology.

He went on to do some post-graduate work at the University of Wisconsin , but soon returned to Chicago, which is the city that he has been most closely associated with throughout his long lifetime. For most of Bellow's life, he was a teacher.

With money from a Guggenheim fellowship, he traveled in Europe after the war. After a stint as an editor at Encyclopedia Britannica 's "Great Books" program from —, he took positions at University of Minnesota —; — , and then the University of Chicago , where he became the Grunier Distinguished Professor in the university's acclaimed Committee on Social Thought, in Bellow's affiliation with the committee lasted for more than three decades, until He then went to Boston University and became a professor of English, a position that he held until his death in Bellow was productive and his writings won high critical acclaim.

After the publication of his first novel, Dangling Man , in , he produced ten novels and a few collections of plays, short stories, and novellas. In addition, he was a frequent magazine contributor and an editor of dozens of volumes of fiction. His works are celebrated around the world: a partial list of his awards includes the National Book Award Bellow is the only person to win it three times, for The Adventures of Augie March in , Herzog in , and Mr. He was also a controversial figure: in he was booed off the stage at a reading in San Francisco by protestors who objected to his conservative views, and, after the publication of To Jerusalem and Back , about a trip to the Holy Land in , critics characterized him as an opponent of Israel.

Saul Bellow died at 89 on April 5, , at Brookline, Massachusetts. He had had five wives, three sons, and with his fifth wife, one daughter, born when he was He is a successful businessman, the owner of a tile distribution company, living alone in an apartment on the top floor of his company warehouse.

It is Sunday morning, and the bells are ringing in churches all around the South Chicago neighborhood where he lives. Woody reflects on the death of his father, Morris "Pop" Selbst, earlier in the week. He thinks of other people in his life: his mother, whose conversion to Catholicism hastened her husband's abandonment; his two weak-willed sisters, who are in their fifties and still living with their mother; his wife, from whom he has been separated for fifteen years, and Helen, his mistress; and Halina, the woman for whom his father left the family when Woody was fourteen and with whom his father lived for over forty years.

He has a particular time of the week allotted for each of them. Sunday has always been his day to spend with Pop. The church bells and thoughts of his father lead Woody to recall an incident that happened during the Great Depression , when Woody was seventeen. He was attending a seminary, with his tuition paid for by a rich patron, Mrs. Skoglund, a friend of his aunt and uncle.

They all took an interest in him because he was Jewish and had converted to Christianity. One day, his father came to him and said that Halina had stolen money from her husband so that he, Morris, could pay a bookie and that he had to put the money back or the husband would beat Halina and possibly kill her. He wanted Woody to take him to Mrs. Skoglund's house, so that he could ask the wealthy woman for a loan. Woody knew that Mrs. Skoglund did not approve of Selbst and that there was a danger that she might quit paying his tuition if she thought that his father had too much influence on him, but out of loyalty to his father he agreed.

They traveled by trolley car from the south side of Chicago to the affluent suburb of Evanston, north of the city, during a blinding blizzard. At the Skoglund mansion, Woody talked their way in the door past the suspicious housekeeper, Hjordis, who opposed the idea of showing them any kindness at all. Skoglund came to meet them and took them into a parlor where Woody introduced his father and then stepped back, quietly allowing Pop to make his case.

Morris explained that he was a hard-working man who had gotten himself into financial trouble, making the case that he would be able to help children if she would just give him a break.

When Mrs. Skoglund and Hjordis left the room to pray to God about the best course of action, Pop went to a cabinet, pried open its lock with his penknife, and, to Woody's dismay, removed a silver dish. He explained that it was just in case Mrs.

Skoglund did not give him the fifty dollars he needed; he would put it back if the money did appear. Woody tried to take the dish from his father, which resulted in their rolling on the floor, wrestling with each other.

They broke their hold and stood up just before Mrs. Skoglund returned. Having prayed about it, she decided to give Morris a check for the money. Woody accompanied her to her office as she wrote it and gave it to him, asking him to pray with her for his father's soul. Once they left the house, Woody asked Pop if he had returned the silver dish to its proper place, and he said that of course he had.

Skoglund's bank and cashed the check. A few days later, the dish was discovered missing. Woody denied knowing anything about it but was forced to leave the seminary. When he confronted his father about it, Pop gave him the ticket from the pawn shop when he had hocked it and invited him to redeem it.

In his apartment, Woody now remembers his father's final days. In particular, he remembers being in the hospital room when Pop tried to pull the intravenous needles out of his arms. To stop him, Woody had taken off his shoes and climbed into the bed beside him, holding his arms, denying him what he wanted for once.

Prevented from removing the tubes with his hand, Pop had just shut his metabolism down, letting the heat seep out of his body until he was dead.

Halina Bujak is a Catholic woman who has worked in Morris Selbst's dry cleaning shop. When Woody is fourteen, Morris leaves his family to live with Halina, and Morris and Halina live as husband and wife for over forty years, although Halina remains married to someone else.

Of all members of his extended family whom Woody sends to Disney World, Halina enjoys it most, particularly the Hall of Presidents. The son of Halina, Morris Selbst's longtime companion, Mitosh is only mentioned once in the story. He plays the organ at the Stadium for basketball and hockey games.

Helen is the mistress of Woody Selbst, his "wife de facto. Skoglund's housekeeper, Hjordis, is a tough, suspicious old maid, unwilling to accept the good in anyone, reluctant to allow Morris Selbst into the house, even in terrible weather.

When leaving the Skoglund house, Woody requests that Hjordis phone the local YMCA, where her cousin works, to get a room for Morris and himself: she does so, but reluctantly, feeling that she is being taken advantage of by people she does not like. Woody's aunt, Rebecca Kovner, is the sister of his mother.

She is married to the Reverend Doctor Kovner, and together they work to convert people to Christianity, including Woody, his mother, and his sisters. When he is at the seminary, Woody works under Aunt Rebecca at a soup kitchen shelter for the poor, and he pilfers food he does not need, just for spite. The brother-in-law of Woody's mother, Reverend Doctor Kovner is actively involved in converting people to Christianity. He despises Morris Selbst, and the feeling is mutual.

Morris accuses Kovner of converting Jewish women by making them fall in love with him. Woody's mother, who is never mentioned by name, is converted to Christianity by her sister, Aunt Rebecca Kovner, and her sister's husband. She is a self-important woman whose stern piousness drives her husband, Morris, to leave her.

During the next fifty years, up to the time of this story, she lives with her two daughters. Woody accuses his mother of spoiling her daughters, making them fat and crazy, and being out of touch with the real world.

Living on the streets of Liverpool, England, from the age of twelve, Morris Selbst comes to the United States at age sixteen, sneaking into the country by jumping a ship in Brooklyn; he never establishes an official identity in the country. He spends his life pursuing illegal and semi-legal means of support. In his forties, he leaves his wife and three children to live with one of his employees, Halina, with whom he remains for more than forty years until his death.

Morris, or "Pop," as Woody often refers to him, is a gambler, cheat, and thief, who feels entirely justified in being the way he is.

When he comes to Woody and asks for his help on the behalf of his mistress, Halina, Woody suspects that his plea is bogus, as it in fact turns out to be. When Pop takes the silver dish, he promises to put it back if Mrs.

Skoglund gives him the money he asks for; when she gives him the money, he steals the dish anyway and then lectures Woody about how religious people are really taking advantage of him and deserve what they get. This story focuses on the life of Woody Selbst, who is now a sixty-year-old tile contractor in Chicago.

Woody is the center of his extended family and the means of support for many people around him. He lives alone but has a girlfriend, Helen, whom he sees every Friday night. Every Friday he also shops for groceries for his wife, from whom he has been separated for fifteen years.

He goes on Saturdays to visit his mother and his two sisters, who are in their fifties and still live at home with their mother. He has supplemented the income of his father, who has recently died, and his father's mistress, Halina. Woody lives alone in an apartment atop his company's warehouse. He travels internationally by himself once a year. He is generally law-abiding and dependable, but he also has a criminal streak: in the previous year, for instance, he smuggles hashish in from Kampala, just for the excitement of doing so the hashish is used to stuff the Thanksgiving turkey.

He does not like to keep entirely within the limits of the law, considering it a matter of self-respect to do otherwise. When he is in his teens during the Great Depression, Woody, by birth a Jew, converts to Catholicism and attends a seminary, which is paid for by a benefactress, Mrs.


A Masterwork Short Story: Saul Bellow’s “The Silver Dish”

Published by the New Yorker in , it is so worth the read. What do you do about death—in this case, the death of an old father? Take this matter of mourning, and take it against a contemporary background. How, against a contemporary background, do you mourn an octogenarian father, nearly blind, his heart enlarged, his lungs filled with fluid, who creeps, stumbles, gives off odors, the moldiness or gassiness, of old men.


Letter from the Archive: Saul Bellow’s “A Silver Dish”

One of the pleasures of writing these Letters from the Archive is uncovering hidden gems—great stories that, for whatever reason, have drifted out of the spotlight. It starts in the present, when its protagonist, Woody Selbst, is a successful businessman. But then it flashes back to the Great Depression, when Woody was a young seminary student. In the contrast, you see fifty years of implied history. In the present, Morris is dying, and Woody, in mourning, is thinking about how their lives are woven together. Woody, a businessman in South Chicago, was not an ignorant person. Also he had travelled extensively in Japan, Mexico, and Africa, and there was an African experience that was especially relevant to mourning.

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A Silver Dish

The story was first published in The New Yorker for 25 September, This story is essentially one of ethnic and religious allegiance. His father Morris is a non-believing Jew, and his mother is a Christian convert who has brought up her son Woodrow in an environment of evangelical proselytising. Woody appears to be religiously neutral—he respects his mother and is very sceptical about his father, who is a gambler, a womaniser, and a completely improvident parent. His father even cheats Woody out of his hard-earned part time savings in order to desert the family, and believes he is offering Woody a useful lesson in life—to trust nobody.



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