My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok was one of my favorite books of 2022 and I suspect it will be one of those books that I cherish and re-read many times in the future, the sort of book that speaks to the heart, that changes you. It’s the story of a gifted Hassidic boy in New York who becomes a painter, despite the almost complete lack of understanding of his artistic gift by his orthodox parents and the greater Hassidic community. Only the Rebbe, the mystical religious leader of their community, seems to have a glimmer of understanding of what art is to Asher and believes that it comes from God. Only the Rebbe — and also his uncle– seems to value his art and want to nurture and cultivate his gift.
When a book haunts me as this one has, I want to dive deep, do a close reading, probe into the secret depths of its heart. But sometimes life wants to drift on and I get distracted and move on. So it was with gratitude that I found myself drawn back by a late question from a member of the book club who was catching up on reading the book long after I’d finished it.
They Have to Mean Something!
This reader, struck by how often characters in My Name Is Asher Lev are depicted near or looking out of windows, asks: “What do windows traditionally represent? This has to mean something.”
One essay I found online suggested the straightforward reading that windows in art act as architectural elements as background or compositional elements. A window may be an accent, may serve to frame a scene and to provide illumination. The essay also suggested that windows also are often a metaphor for hope, change, and step into the unknown.
Does identifying the traditional meaning of windows as one of “hope and change and stepping into the unknown” help understand the windows in Asher Lev? Are there other possibilities? Another reader suggested they represented confinement, which is kind of the opposite of hope and change and of stepping into the unknown.
Off the top of my head, not looking back at the text, but just going with my impressions from having read the novel recently, I supposed that the windows could indicate confinement– that other reader suggested– and I think maybe in Asher’s crucifixion paintings that have his mother in the window, there might be some of that imagery. But that doesn’t seem satisfactory to explain all the appearances of windows. Windows also let in light and for the artist– and in this novel we are always looking through the artist’s eye– that is going to be a major way that windows are working: they let in the light, they allow for the illumination of the scene, they frame the world and give Asher, the developing artist, a way to look out into the world to find subjects for his art.
Also, it occurs to me that windows are liminal spaces, a place where two or more worlds meet, which is I suppose partly suggested by the idea of “stepping into the unknown”. Where worlds meet we can experience both separation and connection, loss and sadness, familiarity and joy.
But given the sheer number of appearances, I think the novel uses windows often enough that maybe they’re doing a lot of different things at different times?
Symbols in Tradition, Images in Context
Often there is a sense in which you can say x symbol “traditionally” has this meaning, especially within a particular artistic or religious tradtion. In Christian iconography lilies mean purity, roses mean love, keys indicate Saint Peter. But at the same time, even those most straightforward symbols are sometimes used in a more complicated way than the way a lot of us were taught to think about them by high school or college literature classes. Images in literature are often much richer and denser and with more layers of possible meanings than merely an insertion of a “symbol” with a single fixed meaning. So I find myself hesitant to stick with an answer about what windows “traditionally represent.” I want to look more closely at how windows appear within the text before I draw conclusions about what the author might doing with a recurring image that might be a straightforward symbol but might be something more, something more like a recurring motif.
So this isn’t an easy question to answer without that close reading. It’s time to go back and look for the instances of that object within the text and see how they are being presented in the story itself. A window in one painting might be fairly straightfoward, though it might not be, but if you look at many different paintings you might come up with many different meanings for windows. Within the context of one artist’s lifetime body of work we might find the meaning changing and developing over time. Within the context of a novel where where windows reappear many times I’d expect the meaning to develop and grow as well.
And I think the specific context of how a given symbol is used in a work of art will often be as important as –and sometimes more important than– the context of how other writers and artists have used that symbol in other works– unless your text is deliberately making allusions to specific works.
So in general as a critic I find myself wanting to push back against the question “what does X traditionally represent?” Answering that might shed some light on the topic; but, since symbols are, as the poet Coleridge says, inexhaustible wells of meaning, it is seems more fruitful to pay close attention to the book at hand, looking for patterns within the book. An examination of those patterns within a work can often be more illuminating than an examination of the hisorical artistic tradition’s use of a particular symbol or image, though both are good questions.
Just a Few of the 245 Windows
Anyway, when I turned to my handy electronic text, I realized there are A LOT of windows in the book. When I did a search on my Kindle the word “window” appears 245 times. i’m not going to try to consider them all, or even most of them. But here’s what I noticed as I flipped through the first few instances and thought about windows in the context of the scene they appears in and in context of the work as a whole as well:
–The first time “window” appears the windows are the subject of young Asher’s art, part of the rooms he’s drawing, the contour whose shape he is trying to capture. Nor does the window jump out from the list of object’s he’s portraying. So this seems to be just “window” as shape, form, and it appears to demonstrate that at an early age Asher sees the world as an artist does: looking contour and shape. Window as artistic subject, as lesson in contour and shape feels more important here than window as symbolic object.
–Next, the window frames his father as he leaves the apartment. The window both connects Asher to the outside world, but also shows him that he is separated from his father, who is going out into the broader world to work. So maybe the window is connected to his sense of separation from his father? To his separation from his father’s world?
–The window is where his father stands to pray when he cannot go to the synagogue, so maybe it even represents a connection to God, to heaven the divine?
–Asher draws his memory of his father lighting the Hanukkah candles on the windowsill. Another instance where the window is connected with faith, with God, with prayer.
–We see him noticing the blinds and the way they hang while his father stands in front of the window: they’re making a strong perpendicular shape. So here we can see Asher’s artistic eye developing, the window acting as a frame and a compositional element.
–He sees his father standing at the window at night– he notices effects of lighting, reflection. But also he sees his father “seem to spread himself slowly across the wide night, to embrace and cover the darkness with his blanket of melody and soft light.” Here I see the artist’s eye taking in the visual elements of a composition, but this is also connected with prayer, with a feeling perhaps of safety, his father’s presence extends through the window to embrace the darkness. There’s also that element of song, which seems connected to faith and tradition.
–His mother standing at the window looking out as she tells Asher to draw pretty things and then seeming to give up: “Never mind, she said sharply. She looked out the window, “It’s not complete. Can it make a difference? Tell me how?” The dead look returned to her eyes. The next time we see his mother again she’s in this dissociated state staring out the window, not interacting. So the window seems connected with his mother’s grief and breakdown after her brother’s death, her attempt to make Asher’s art into something cheerful rather than depicting the brokenness and darker emotions that are already making their way into his art.
–Asher’s mother stands at the window as she talks to her dead brother and questions him about how she is to go on. Here the window might represent connection between the world of the living and the world of the dead?
–Then we see the gothic windows when Asher goes to the Ladover headquarters with his father. These seem to be mentioned just as an architectural feature to set the scene. I note that when Asher goes to a new place like his father’s office we get a pretty detailed account of the physical layout, including the windows. Again, we are seeing the world through Asher’s eyes and he sees things as an artist, noting details, relationships, proportions. It’s very visual.
–Again we see his father praying at the window.
–Then we see his father making urgent phone calls, pacing, looking out the window along with the descriptive phrase: “He seemed caged.” This is his father doing his job rescuing Russian Jews, concerned about a crisis. Is the window connecting his father imaginatively to the greater world, the emergencies that take him away from Asher and his mother?
–We see darkness through the window when Asher is alone at night and feeling like no one understands him.
–We see sunlight coming through the windows in bringing warmth, spring, relief.
–We see the Venetian blinds jammed when Asher tries to lift them making a diagonal across the windows. We later see that diagonal in his crucifixion paintings. So it is a visual element, but maybe also connected to frustration, being stuck, being unable to fix things? He asks his father: why is God doing this to my mother? His father has no answer, but pulls the cord and the blinds drop and clatter and his father turns the slats to close out the street. His father’s non-answer feels connected to God’s non answer and to closing out the world. Maybe even closing out God? Do the closed blinds represent God’s feeling distant and shut out from their problems?
I Could Do This All Day
This is just the first few chapters. And I could go on and on, because this is actually fun and fascinating to do, but what I’m seeing from looking at the patterns just from the beginning of the novel is that the windows aren’t representing one thing only, but do seem to be connected to Asher’s current mood, to his artistic pursuits, to his parents, to God, to the world. There’s a lot going on, which is why it’s hard to pin down. I come back to my idea about windows as a liminal space, a threshold. And I think that noticing the patterns helps me to see that there’s not so much a single symbolic meaning for windows so much as the fact that windows provide an opportunity to frame a scene, to reflect what is going on in Asher’s life. In the novel windows are an everyday object which the artist’s story infuses with a meaning that is appropriate to what is happening in each different scene.