Book of Daniel

You've probably heard about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in history class: Communist spies who stole classified information on atomic warfare from the United States and gave it to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Convicted largely based on the testimony of another spy, the Rosenbergs were executed for espionage in 1953. While they are often still seen as traitors and villains today, who really were the Rosenbergs? What did their death mean for the politics of the mid-20th century?  And how does their legacy affect America today? E. L. Doctorow (1931-2015) attempts to answer those questions and more in his 1971 novel The Book of Daniel

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Table of contents

    Book of Daniel, Content Warning Banner, StudySmarter

    Book of Daniel Summary

    The Book of Daniel is narrated by Daniel Isaacson, whose parents were executed years earlier for alleged espionage. Paul and Rochelle Isaacson stand in for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, American Communists convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets and sentenced to death via the electric chair in 1953. In present-day 1967, Daniel is a graduate student working on his dissertation at Columbia University. He is married and has a son of his own, but he struggles to cope with his parents' death and their complicated legacy. The novel flashes back and forth between his childhood in the 1950s and present-day 1967 as Daniel attempts to make sense of his family's history while navigating the tumultuous political world he currently inhabits.

    Book of Daniel, The Rosenbergs, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Although the Rosenbergs are never mentioned by name, their trial and execution are the central focus of the novel.

    The novel starts as Daniel, his wife, and their son spend Memorial Day visiting Daniel's sister, Susan, at a mental institution. She has been hospitalized after attempting suicide and is still very ill. Daniel's family is joined by Robert and Lise Lewin. The Lewins adopted Daniel and Susan after Paul and Rochelle were executed.

    In reality, the Rosenbergs had two sons: a six-year-old and a ten-year-old, who were left behind when Julius and Ethel died. Some scholars have suggested Doctorow replaced a son with Susan to situate the story more deeply in the fictional world.

    Robert and Lise raised the young Isaacsons with love and kindness, but Daniel and Susan are still deeply affected by the loss of their parents. Susan fiercely believes in radical politics and uses drugs and sex to help her cope with her tumultuous youth. Daniel suppresses much of his feelings and focuses on his schooling instead of politics. The siblings resent one another for how they handle the family trauma and so grow apart.

    Although he is supposed to be working on his dissertation, Daniel instead writes "The Book of Daniel," in which he compiles evidence and memories of his family. He thinks back to his childhood, their arrests, and the protests he and his sister attended for their parents. In the midst of his research, Daniel visits Susan at the sanatorium, where she lies in bed, dying from her wounds. He compares her to a starfish because she is just barely alive.

    When Susan dies, Daniel conflates her small funeral with his parents' massive one. As Daniel works to make sense of his family's history, he converses with political radicals, takes part in the anti-Vietnam war march on the Pentagon, and tracks down Selig Mindish, his parents' friend, who testified against them and was responsible for their conviction.

    Daniel finds Mindish in Disneyland, where he is senile and mentally incapacitated but allowed to enjoy the rest of his life, unlike the Isaacsons. What might the novel be saying about justice, politics, capitalism, etc.?

    At the end of the novel, the library Daniel is working in closes as the school is shut down by student protests. Daniel decides to submit "The Book of Daniel" for his dissertation and entitle it "A Life Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Doctoral Degree in Social Biology, Gross Entomology, Women's Anatomy, Children's Cacophony, Arch Demonology, Eschatology, and Thermal Pollution."

    Book of Daniel Prophecy

    Daniel Isaacson was named after the Biblical Daniel, a famous prophet whose life is recorded in "The Book of Daniel." When Daniel's people, the Israelites, are conquered by the Babylonian king, Daniel is deported to Babylon. After the king realizes Daniel and three of his companions are blessed by God, Daniel becomes a part of the king's court. He is the only person who can successfully interpret the king's dreams and other signs. A loyal servant of God, Daniel is saved from near-death experiences, such as being thrown into a pit of lions.

    The word "prophet" in the Bible simply means someone who speaks on God's behalf, not necessarily someone who tells the future. Daniel is one of the few prophets to whom the end times are revealed. With this in mind, why might Doctorow have chosen the name Daniel?

    At the end of his life, the Biblical Daniel is unable to interpret his own dreams. Daniel Isaacson reflects on his namesake as he visits his sister in the mental hospital. He recounts Daniel's limitations in not being able to make sense of his dreams and says, "so much for Daniel, Beacon of Faith in a Time of Persecution" (Book One: Memorial Day).

    Book of Daniel, Open Bible with Woods in the background, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Daniel both rebukes and finds comfort in his connection with the Biblical prophet Daniel.

    The novel ends with Daniel Isaacson returning to the Biblical Daniel once more. The final paragraph quotes Chapter 12 of the Book of Daniel, which prophecies the end times and in which God tells Daniel to shut the book and go his own way. Daniel Isaacson, likewise, closes his dissertation/family biography when the protests shut down the school.

    The Book of Daniel is Isaacson's own prophesy about the changing social and political world of the 1960s. Like his Biblical namesake, Isaacson knows change is coming, but he doesn't know when. He waits in anticipation for a massive event that will trigger long-ranging social change and bring long-overdue justice to his family.

    Book of Daniel Themes

    The main themes in the novel are the deep impact of loss, reality vs. personal perception, and shortcomings of the U.S. government.

    Deep Impact of Loss

    Years after their parents' death, both Daniel and Susan are still reeling from the loss. They cope with the trauma in different ways. Daniel turns away from politics and bottles his anger inside. His marriage to Phyllis is tumultuous and often abusive, as he enjoys overpowering and even degrading his 19-year-old wife. The impact of his loss is also passed along to his young son through generational trauma, as Daniel abuses Paul because Daniel himself hasn't healed. Daniel strives to move forward, carving a name for himself in academia, but all the while he is haunted by his loss.

    Loss follows Susan through her life as well. She turns to self-destructive tendencies like drug abuse and self-harm in order to escape her pain. She throws herself into radical causes and wants to use her trust fund to aid revolutionary groups. Susan's suicide attempt ultimately stems from her trauma and inability to cope.

    Book of Daniel, Close up image of a person crying with a bruised eye, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Issacsons use pain to help them cope.

    Reality vs. Personal Perception

    While writing his dissertation, Daniel struggles to differentiate between reality and his perception of reality. He wants to know the full truth of what happened to his parents, but without them there, he will never know. Often when the novel flashes back to the past, the events Daniel writes about are of his own invention instead of reality. Without being in the Death House as his parents passed notes to one another or being in the room when they were executed, the novel is controlled by his personal perception. What the readers (and Daniel) are asked to accept as fact is nothing more than other people's stories and his own experiences, which shape his perception of reality.

    The Rosenbergs' execution has always been a source of disagreement in the United States. When the Rosenbergs were killed, there was no definitive evidence they were passing along secrets to the Soviets. Their conviction came down to the testimony of David Greenglass, Ethel's brother and a known spy, who later admitted he used his sister as a scapegoat to protect his wife.

    Throughout American history, there have been many cases, like the Rosenbergs, where people are charged with crimes based on witness testimonies (i.e., personal perception) as opposed to hard facts. Evidence that came out in the 1990s revealed Ethel wasn't involved in espionage at all. Rather, she was so loyal to her husband and her cause that she was willing to die.

    Many opponents of the death penalty today argue against it because countless individuals were executed for a crime they didn't commit.

    Shortcomings of the U.S. Government

    Daniel and thousands of Americans question the morality of the Isaacsons' conviction and execution. Daniel and Susan attend various rallies, protesting their parent's innocence, along with thousands of others. Their funeral is well-attended, and their supporters are disgusted their country was so quick to kill them.

    In reality, as in the novel, the Rosenbergs were convicted during McCarthyism. Anyone associated with the Communist Party was seen as a threat by the United States government. Even people who had no affiliation at all would lose their jobs if a powerful person accused them of being communists and supporting the Soviet Union. The way the government gave into hysteria and allowed the second Red Scare to turn into a witch hunt revealed the prejudiced shortcomings of the government. In wanting to expose its supposed enemies (the Soviet Union), the government failed its citizens as many people lost their jobs, houses, and freedom.

    McCarthyism was named after United States Senator Joseph McCarthy. During the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, McCarthy and his supporters claimed Soviet spies and communists and their sympathizers had infiltrated America. With tensions still high after World War II, the fear of communists escalated into a wide-scale national frenzy.

    Though many accusations were unsubstantiated, people accused of being communists or sympathizers were often blacklisted, socially ostracized, and kept out of their jobs. In the film industry alone, more than 300 writers, actors, and directors were blacklisted and kept out of work. Blacklists were common at universities and schools, in the judicial system, and across many other fields and professions.

    In some cases, such as the Rosenbergs, U.S. citizens were arrested for allegedly working with the Soviets.

    Book of Daniel Quotes

    Daniel reflects on his relationship with his family and the political climate of America in The Book of Daniel.

    And all my life I have been trying to escape from my relatives and I have been intricate in my run, but one way or another they are what you come upon around the corner, and the Lord God who is so frantic for recognition says you have to ask how they are and would they like something cool to drink, and what is it you can do for them this time." (Book One: Memorial Day)

    While Susan embraces her family name and communist legacy, Daniel runs from it. At times he even uses his adopted parents' last name so his connection to the Isaacsons remains a secret. While he is protesting the Vietnam War, however, he goes by Daniel Isaacson in a symbolic reclamation of his identity and family history. The novel also serves as recognition of his true identity as he writes about his legacy.

    Many historians have noted an interesting phenomenon in American life in the years immediately after a war. In the councils of government fierce partisanship replaces the necessary political coalitions of wartime. In the great arena of social relations -- business, labour, the community -- violence rises, fear and recrimination dominate public discussion, passion prevails over reason. Many historians have noted this phenomenon. It is attributed to the continuance beyond the end of the war of the war hysteria. Unfortunately, the necessary emotional fever for fighting a war cannot be turned off like a water tap. Enemies must continue to be found." (Book One: Memorial Day)

    This quote speaks to the political tension and hysteria that permeates the country even during times of peace. Americans need to have some sort of enemy to direct their attention towards. If the government is not focused on a foreign country, then it turns its attention to its people. Political divisions between the Left and Right are constantly high because the emotional and passionate response to war and the enemy cannot be turned off.

    The American Left is in this great moment artfully reduced to the shabby conspiracies of a couple named Paul and Rochelle Isaacson." (Book Two: Halloween)

    In this quote, Daniel snidely considers how individuals can become so much more than themselves. Although his parents were poor and lived a simple life, the Isaacsons became a symbol for the entire Leftist political party. To their supporters, they became larger than life. To their opposers, they themselves were the source of evil. Daniel struggles to connect the image of the passionate, good-natured Paul and Rochelle from his childhood to the icon of resistance, Leftism, and treason they have become.

    Book of Daniel Analysis

    The Book of Daniel is about a man coming to terms with his family's complicated history, but it's also about a man redefining his own identity amidst political tension, emotional chaos, and social revolution. "The Book of Daniel" reveals Isaacson's relationship with the world now, in the past, and in the future to come.

    Sylvia Plath's 1963 novel The Bell Jar also responds to the Rosenbergs' deaths. The opening line reads, "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs."

    Daniel functions as a social prophet, speaking to the changes America will see in the future. Both he and his namesake are outsiders in their society but know the world is changing. When Biblical Daniel goes against the status quo, he is thrown into a pit of lions. Isaacson's own pit is the anti-war march, where he is badly beaten by the authorities and left for dead. But that doesn't deter him from his cause, and Daniel is one of the few people to recognize the world is evolving. To him, it is time for massive social change and an end to the old world.

    Book of Daniel - Key takeaways

    • The Book of Daniel was written by E.L. Doctorow.
    • It was published in 1971.
    • Although the Rosenbergs are never mentioned by their real names, the story centers around their personal lives, trial, and execution.
    • The Book of Daniel is told from the perspective of the Isaacsons' son, who is now in graduate school years after their deaths.
    • The key themes are the deep impact of loss, reality vs. personal perception, and shortcomings of the U.S. government.
    Book of Daniel, Crisis banner, StudySmarter
    Frequently Asked Questions about Book of Daniel

    When was The Book of Daniel written?

    The Book of Daniel was published in 1971. 

    Who wrote The Book of Daniel?

    EL Doctorow wrote The Book of Daniel.

    What is The Book of Daniel about?

    The Book of Daniel is about the son of executed Soviet spies (Ethel and Julius Rosenberg), who tries to make sense of his parent's legacy in the political climate of the 1960s.  

    What is the main message of The Book of Daniel?

    The main message is the government and legal system failed the Rosenbergs by deciding their fate off of someone else's accusations instead of hard facts. But the world is changing for their son Daniel, and now is the time for social change and justice. 

    What is the main theme of The Book of Daniel?

    The main themes are the impact of loss, reality vs. personal perception, and the shortcomings of the U.S. government. 

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