Religion or Transaction? Thematic Analysis

The hollow and fickle nature of transactional relationships is a central theme throughout Will Eisner’s graphic novel, “A Contract with God”. The short stories work consecutively to explore this theme, starting from a relatively simple example and becoming more nuanced and ethically dense.

Hersh believes that he has secured himself a binding contract with God.
Hersh believes that he has secured himself a binding contract with God.

The first short story, “A Contract with God,” introduces the theme with a literal contract between Frimme Hersh, a loyal Jewish American immigrant, and God. Hersh perceives his daughter’s death as a violation of this contract and decides to forgo his faithful life and pursue wealth and power. When he believes himself to have purchased a new contract, he is struck by lightning in what is implied to be an act of God. Eisner’s message is clear: God doesn’t make contracts. He advocates against transactional expectations in situations of faith.

“The Street Singer,” the next of the stories, explores the theme through more secular matters. The beaten-down street singer makes a deal with the desperate ex-diva to pursue a career in opera under her management. He breaks the deal and uses her money to purchase alcohol instead of taking care of his pregnant wife. His relationships with his wife, his child, and his bartender are all similarly tenuous, and his interactions add to the despondent tone of the story.

In “The Super,” the ethical stakes are raised as the transactional relationship occurs as a sexual deal between a disliked German handyman and a ten year old Jewish tenement resident. After this deal is carried out, the young girl betrays the super’s trust in the insubstantial relationship, beginning a chain of events that eventually leads to his suicide. The ethics become cloudy around who or what is to blame for this tragedy, but the overarching theme would suggest that tragedy is the nature of such contractual relationships.

Willie overlooks a sobering and hopeless depiction of the city.
Willie overlooks a sobering and hopeless depiction of the city.

“Cookalein” serves as the most textually nuanced exploration of this theme with a full cast of characters. Many of the characters use others as a means to reach their own goals and desires, such as Benny and Goldie- deceitful, gold-digging, working class New Yorkers- or Mrs. Minks, a manipulative pedophile. What’s interesting about this story is that most of the endings are, at least on a surface level, happy. Benny and Goldie marry wealthy partners. But the final page of the novel completely undercuts this superficial sense of resolution with a haunting image of Willie, the victim of Mrs. Minks’ pedophilic actions, overlooking the city in the rain. This relationship that lacks equal power and consent mirrors the similar ones throughout the text and exemplifies the fruitlessness of such relationships with a sense of finality.

 

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