Three Wives

by , 2005

Herman Broder, the protagonist of Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies, A Love Story, becomes married to three different women at the same time while living in Coney Island after the Holocaust. Herman remains involved with all three women because each of them provides a different attraction to him. Although all three wives are described as physically attractive, Herman is not drawn to them only because of their appearances. In fact, Herman is only sexually attracted to one of the three, Masha. She serves as a wild sexual adventure and remains interesting to Herman because of the stories she tells about her horrific past. Yadwiga, Herman's Polish Christian wife, is desperately loyal to Herman and spends all of her energy trying to please him. He feels obligated to her for all the aid she has given him and remains married to her even though he is not sexually drawn to her. Finally, Herman's wife from before the War, Tamara, is comfortable to Herman because she of their shared history and children. But, Herman remains indifferent to the caring motherliness that Tamara shows him, and cannot become close to her again.

Because she is introduced first in the novel, and because Herman's primary residence is her apartment, Yadwiga seems like the most legitimate of Herman's wives. Herman is attracted to her simple-mindedness, loyalty, and outsider status. When Herman tells Tamara that he married Yadwiga after the war, Tamara responds by asking, "You married her?" and by looking "as if she were about to laugh" (74). She goes on to say, "Forgive me, but wasn't she simple-minded? Your mother used to make fun of her. She didn't even know how to put on a pair of shoes" (74). To this, Herman responds with only one statement: "She saved my life" (74). To Tamara, Herman makes it appear as though he married Yadwiga in spite of her peasant simplicity to repay her for saving his life by hiding and caring for him in a hayloft during the war. But, throughout the novel Herman displays that he actually enjoys Yadwiga's simplicity. He enjoys having the complete dominance in their relationship that is a result of Yadwiga's simple-mindedness, illiteracy, and alien status. As a result of these disadvantages Yadwiga possesses, along with the enormous spatial separation from her family, "in this distant country Herman was Yadwiga's husband, brother, father, God" (8). Because Herman is all these things to Yadwiga, she is completely dependent on him. And because Herman enjoys Yadwiga's dependence, he refuses to help her integrate into American or Jewish society. Instead of overtly telling Yadwiga that he wants her to remain an alien to Jewish society, he justifies not bringing Yadwiga into the Jewish faith by claiming that he did not think it was beneficial: "Yadwiga had been ready to adopt the Jewish faith, but it seemed senseless to burden her with a religion that he himself no longer observed" (5). And instead of teaching her English, how to navigate the city, and how to read and write, Herman simply does all these for her so that she remains totally dependent on him. He writes letters to her family, always accompanies her on the subway, and often talks to her in languages she does not understand without making any effort to help her learn them. In response to a question Yadwiga asks about his trip to Philadelphia, he responds to her in Yiddish, "Alone. That's what you think! I'll be eating with the Queen of Sheba. I'm as much a book salesman as your the Pope's wife!" (13). Here, Herman toys with Yadwiga's lack of knowledge and enjoys the dominance that he has over her because she remains the outsider.

Herman does not only dominate Yadwiga because of her lack of linguistic abilities; Yadwiga continues to play the role of the servant she was before the war. "From sunup to until she went to sleep, Yadwiga never rested for a moment... all day Yadwiga washed, scoured, polished, and scraped" (11). Through this cleaning, along with cooking for and bathing Herman, Yadwiga retains the role of servant in America. Their relationship is not that much different in Coney Island than it was before the war--Herman still gives Yadwiga money and she still works for him in his home. This servitude is appealing to Herman in two ways: it reasserts his dominance and he is able to enjoy the material benefits of Yadwiga's hard work around the home. All together, these aspects of the relationship cause Herman to appreciate Yadwiga and to enjoy their marriage as more than simple repayment for saving his life, even though he is not sexually attracted to her.

Sexual attraction, the absent piece of Herman and Yadwiga's relationship, is the main reason that Herman is drawn to Masha. "She aroused in him desires and powers he didn't know he had" (47). Those desires, and the fulfillment of them, lead Herman to understand why sex was so important in the Jewish religion: "It was only since his affair with Masha that Herman had begun to understand why union, the joining of male and female, was so important in the Cabala" (47). Herman identifies with his Judaism through Masha. The horrors that she suffered through the Holocaust act as a turn on for him; he becomes intimate with the horrors of the Nazi camps by being intimate with Masha, a survivor of them: "She would use a flashlight and show Herman the scars the dead had left on her arms, her breasts, her thighs" (46). These scars are a reminder to Herman of the torture that his people faced and that he avoided while hiding in the hayloft. By sleeping with Masha, he feels as though he is taking on those scars and become more closely connected to the Jews who were in the camps. In the beginning of the novel, while Masha is Herman's mistress, their lovemaking often keeps them from sleeping because it is so passionate. Herman lies to Yadwiga and threatens their marriage because he is so sexually drawn to Masha. This strong sexual attraction, combined with Herman's interest in Masha's Holocaust experience, is the main drive of Herman and Masha's relationship.

Masha is not the perfect woman for Herman, however, because she does not offer the loyalty and servitude that Yadwiga does. Her home in the Bronx is on a street that is so dilapidated that it seems to Herman that it "couldn't make up its mind whether to remain part of the neighborhood or to give up and disappear" (32). This tired, rundown feel of the neighborhood extends into Masha's home, making it less comfortable than Yadwiga's meticulously cleaned apartment. Herman's room in Masha's house is described as "a tiny room with a single window... The bed was rumpled. Books, manuscripts, and scraps of paper covered with Herman's doodles lay scattered about" (40). The messy nature of the apartment makes it unappealing to Herman. In addition to the clutter, there is "heavy soot sift[ing] in through the open window" (41). As a result, "the bedding always looked grimy" (41). Again, this dirt makes Masha's apartment less appealing than Yadwiga's. It is not only the actual dirt that bothers Herman, but the lack of Masha's motherliness that the dirt represents. Both of Herman's other wives are caring and motherly to him, but Masha is not. Their relationship is incomplete to Herman, even though it contains a strong sexual attraction, because there is a lack of domestic caring.

Herman's attraction to Tamara is more complicated than his relationship to the other two women. For a brief while, Herman is sexually drawn to her, but the main attraction is also what repulses him: their shared history. Tamara is Herman's wife from before the war and is the mother of his two murdered children. Before the war, their relationship was far from perfect. "Even the years wasted in the hayloft in Lipsk had sometimes seemed a respite when set against the trouble Tamara had caused him during their years together" (63). For an experience as horrible as hiding in the hayloft to seem like a respite, their marriage must have been very difficult. Herman was forced to marry Tamara because she became pregnant. Because he did not want a wife and family, he was not very loyal to them. He had mistresses and was not very affectionate towards his children. This lack of closeness led to their separation during the war. Herman was visiting his family, alone, when the Germans invaded and was able to hide in a hayloft while Tamara and the children were sent to concentration camps. He learns after the war that Tamara had been killed and, therefore, married Yadwiga. When Herman learns that Tamara in fact survived, he feels as though she has been resurrected. Herman's first reaction is to try to remember her good qualities: "She had loved him. She was essentially a spiritual person" (63). He is only able to come up with these two positive aspects and then quickly forms a lengthy list of negative qualities, displaying that their prewar marriage was more a source of animosity than of love. Still, there is a comfortableness that exists between Herman and Tamara that makes Herman reluctant to get a divorce from her, even though she offers it. Everything that they experienced together before the war, even if it was not perfect, was a source of familiarity and comfort for Herman.

The caring that Tamara provides Herman both before the war and after it in New York is not a source of attraction for him. Instead, he seems indifferent to it: "In his irritation he had overlooked her devotion to him and the children, the fact that she was always there to help him and others" (64). Even though she had been so caring towards him, Herman only remembers the disagreements that he had with her. He remembers how she "nursed him when he was sick, mended his clothes, and washed his linen" and how she "even typed his dissertation, although in her opinion it was anti-humanistic" (64), but does not feel grateful for those acts. Instead he simply wonders if she has calmed down. After the war, Tamara becomes even more motherly and caring to both Herman and now to Yadwiga as well. Tamara gets Herman a job so that he will not have to work for the rabbi anymore. She also helps to take care of Yadwiga when she becomes pregnant. In a dramatic role reversal, Tamara becomes servant-like and aids Yadwiga, the soon to be mother of Herman's children. None of this kindness, however, seems to attract Herman to her. Although he does not want a divorce, he does not want to return to their old married life either. He remains indifferent and eventually abandons her and the job that she obtained for him.

In the end, the attraction towards all three woman combined is not enough to keep Herman's attention. He tells Masha, "I will leave everybody" (275) and does. Tamara runs ads for him in the missing person section of the newspapers, but he never responds. Perhaps Herman originally thought that he could combine the positive attributes of all three of his wives into a happy existence. But what he finds is that, in addition to enjoying all the positive aspects of the women, he also suffers from all the negative ones. Herman's experiment in polygamy fails and he decides to move on and try to salvage the next step of his broken life.