Kristopher Bokvist

Dr. Dee Horne

English 485

27 February 2017

Framing Freedom in the Landscapes of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

 

Thesis:

In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon uses geographical and cultural landscapes to frame and delineate the theme of escape that lies central to the novel and to Josef Kavalier’s life.

 

Topics:

A) The geographical landscape of Prague

B) The geographical landscape of New York City

C) The cultural landscape of the war

D) The cultural landscape of the comic-book golden age

E) Conclusion

F) Discussion Question

 

A) The geographical landscape of Prague

In 1939 Prague was under the control of Adolf Hitler and it is in this setting that Michael Chabon introduces a young Josef Kavalier and his family desperately trying to get Josef out of the city. Unfortunately Prague’s landscape is at this time extremely similar to that of a prison, with everything from armed guards and strict rules, to corrupt officials and the threat of death around every corner. When Josef’s legal escape stumbles and fails he is forced to turn to other means in order to gain his freedom, setting into motion the main theme of the novel, escape;

The novel’s opening words introduce the theme of “escapism” that permeates the story from beginning to end … Josef Kavalier is obsessed with escapism as a boy in Prague, having learned many of its secrets from his mentor Kornblum, and putting it into practice in his most successful (real-life) escape act: smuggling himself out of Nazi-occupied Prague in the false bottom of a coffin containing the Golem of Prague. (Levine 529)

Chabon frames the escape of Joseph Kavalier around the geographic landscape of Prague and does so in a way that Josef is not escaping from the larger scale issue of the Nazis and the war; instead Josef is escaping from the landscape of Prague, a relatively smaller issue, just getting out of the city instead of the war. Despite Josef managing to escape from Prague, he never manages to fully escape the war and it will ride with him throughout the rest of his life, and so Josef finds himself nestled in beside the enormous clay body of the golem, flying free from Prague to a new life and his waiting cousin in New York City.

 

B) The geographical landscape of New York City

New York’s geographical landscape is the polar opposite of Prague’s for Josef Kavalier. It quite literally represents freedom to him, freedom from the building dangers from the Nazi army and freedom from the vice-like hold that Prague had on him. The comparison between the two cities’ landscapes is stark, with Prague being shown as a cold, dark city under attack by a hostile force with torture, pain and death around every corner. New York however is a city of skylines, where Josef quite literally has a chance to touch the sky and raise his lot in life. New York is seen as a bright city of opportunities and a new home for Josef to continue his own personal fight against the war and his parents continued imprisonment.

Josef’s feelings about New York in comparison to Prague are seen in the character that Josef and Sam invent;

Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay … is about escape; the central comic-book character that Josef Kavalier and Sam Clay invent is “the Escapist,” a superhero who possesses Houdini-like powers to pick locks and free himself from traps. The character is inspired by Kavalier’s escape from Nazi-occupied Prague, and the money that he earns is intended to help his family emigrate from that country. (Punday 298)

The Escapist is representative of both Josef’s hatred for the German army and his love of New York. He literally fights against Nazis in the comics and defends the weak. The Escapist is a humanized representation of what New York is to Josef, bringing escape and freedom to others by defeating the Nazis and other enemies. Without New York as a framing point for Josef and for The Escapist, Chabon’s story would have been less impactful and powerful.

 

C) The cultural landscape of the war

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay begins in the era of the Second World War with Josef Kavalier escaping from Prague to New York City. With this action the war has changed Josef’s life completely, removing him from everything he has ever known. The Second World War affected the entire world and still has consequences to this day; it created a cultural landscape on a scale that hasn’t been seen since. The landscape of the war would affect the entirety of Josef’s life, from his co-creation of The Escapist, to his continued efforts to free his family, to his eventual enlistment in the army.

Chabon does an excellent job of showcasing the wars effect on both Europe and the United States. He shows the in your face physical effects that occur in Prague with the strong-armed control of the Nazi army and the brutal treatment of the Jewish people. His showcase of the effects on the United States is seen in how it affects the everyday life and cultural phenomena that appear during this time, such as comic-books depicting great American heroes battling and defeating the wicked Nazi enemies. This comic-book era makes up the second major cultural landscape of the novel.

 

D) The cultural landscape of the comic-book golden age

Comic-books are usually seen as a form of meaningless enjoyment and not as serious literature; however, Alan Berger describes how The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay portrays a different outlook;

Kavalier & Clay can be read on many levels: it is a kunstlerroman and a Jewish-American immigrant novel that contrasts the naïveté and optimism of America with the ominous events in Europe. Furthermore, Chabon’s novel explores the role of comics as a serious contribution to American culture and as a means of escaping the grim reality of the Holocaust. (Berger 82)

Josef Kavalier’s contribution to American culture is of course The Escapist and its role in the dawning of the comic-book golden era along with such notables as Superman and Captain America. The comic-book landscape of the novel is central to its story, with Josef’s life revolving around it as much as it does around the war. Through this landscape Josef gains his wealth and notoriety in the world and through the wealth he attempts to help the victims that he left back home in Prague by donating large sums of money. The comic-book golden era is symbolic in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is symbolic of a transformation of mind, both in Josef and in the world around him. The dawning of a new type of enjoyment and literature relates to the dawning of new hope following the Second World War and for Josef the new hope that he finds in New York City.

 

E) Conclusion

The geographical and cultural landscapes that exist in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay are used by Chabon to frame his story. They tell the two different geographical stories of Prague and New York City, with Josef’s escape from one to the other being a life-changing experience. The cultural landscapes of the war and the comic-book golden era are used to show the state of the world during that time period and the affect that they had on culture as a whole. All of these together are used by Chabon to showcase his central theme of escape and the resulting events in Josef Kavalier’s life.

 

F) Discussion Question

Which cultural landscape has the greatest effect on Josef Kavalier’s life and why, the landscape of the war or the landscape of the comic-book golden age?

 

Works Cited

Berger, Alan L. “Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: the return of the golem.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 29 (2010): 80-89.

Levine, Daniel B. “Josef Kavalier’s Odyssey: Homeric Echoes in Michael Chabon’s the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” International Journal of the Classical Tradition, vol. 17, no. 4, Dec. 2010, pp. 526-555.

Punday, Daniel. “Kavalier & Clay, the Comic-Book Novel, and Authorship in a Corporate World.” Critique, vol. 49, no. 3, Spring2008, pp. 291-302.

 

The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay Presentation