The Chosen – Plot Overview

The Chosen traces
a friendship between two Jewish boys growing up in Brooklyn at the
end of World War II. Reuven Malter, the narrator and one of the
novel’s two protagonists, is a traditional Orthodox Jew. He
is the son of David Malter, a dedicated scholar and humanitarian.
Danny Saunders, the other protagonist, is a brilliant Hasid with
a photographic memory and a passion for psychoanalysis. Danny is
the son of Reb Saunders, the pious and revered head of a great Hasidic
dynasty. Over the course of eighteen chapters (divided into three
books), the novel tells the story of the friendship that develops
between the two boys, and it examines the tensions that arise as
their cultures collide with each other and with modern American
society.
In Book One, Reuven’s high school softball team plays
against Danny’s yeshiva team in a Sunday game. Tension quickly develops as
the Hasidic team insults the faith of Reuven and his teammates. The
game becomes a kind of holy war for both teams, and the resulting
competition is fierce. In the final inning, Reuven is pitching. Danny
smacks a line drive at Reuven that hits him in the eye, shattering
his glasses and nearly blinding him. Reuven is rushed to the hospital,
where he spends a week recuperating. While in the hospital, he becomes
friendly with two fellow patients: Tony Savo, an ex-boxer, and Billy
Merrit, a young blind boy.
Danny visits Reuven in the hospital to ask his forgiveness,
and a tenuous friendship begins. Tentatively, the two boys begin
talking about their intellectual interests and their hopes for the
future. Danny reveals that he has an astounding intellect, including
a photographic memory, and he displays a prodigious knowledge of
the Talmud. Danny also confides that he secretly reads every day
in the public library, studying books of which his father would
disapprove. He also says that a nice older man often recommends
books to him. Both boys are surprised to discover that David Malter—Reuven’s
father—is this man.
Book Two focuses on the rest of Reuven and Danny’s time
in high school. Reuven begins spending Shabbat afternoons at Danny’s house.
On their first Sabbath together, Danny introduces Reuven to his
father, Rabbi Isaac Saunders. Reuven witnesses a strange ritual: Reb
Saunders quizzes Danny in public during their congregation’s Sabbath
meal. Reb Saunders also surprises Reuven, asking him a question
about the speech Reb Saunders gave. Reuven answers correctly, impressing
Reb Saunders.
Danny and Reuven begin spending most afternoons
together in the library and Saturdays studying Talmud with Reb Saunders.
Reuven learns that Reb Saunders believes in raising his son in silence.
Except for discussions of Talmud, Danny’s father never speaks to
him directly, though he begins to use Reuven as an indirect means
of talking to his son. Outside of the shul, Danny and Reuven spend
almost all their free time together and have many conversations.
Meanwhile, almost everyone is obsessed with news about
World War II. President Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 saddens
the entire country. In May, Reuven and his father celebrate the
end of the war in Europe, but are shocked by the discovery of concentration
camps behind enemy lines. Everyone, even Reb Saunders, is disturbed
by the reports of Jewish suffering and death at the hands of the
Nazis.
After Reuven’s finals that spring, his father suffers
a heart attack, and Reuven goes to live with the Saunders family
for the summer. While there, Danny and Reuven talk a great deal,
and Reuven learns that Danny plans to study Freudian psychoanalysis
instead of inheriting his father’s position in the Hasidic community.
Danny hopes that his younger brother Levi can succeed his father
in his place. In the fall, both boys begin studying at Hirsch College
in Brooklyn.
Book Three chronicles the experiences of Reuven
and Danny at Samson Raphael Hirsch Seminary and College. Danny immediately
becomes a leader of the Hasidic student body, but he is disappointed
by the college’s emphasis on experimental, rather than Freudian,
psychology. Meanwhile, Reuven decides that he is firmly committed
to becoming a rabbi. Reuven is also worried about his father, whose
health is rapidly deteriorating in part due to his frenetic Zionist
activity. In school, Danny continues to be frustrated by the psychology
curriculum, but Reuven convinces Danny to discuss his differences
with his psychology professor, and the resulting conversation is
very productive for Danny. With the help of Reuven’s tutelage in
mathematics, Danny comes to appreciate the value of the experimental
method.
As the conflicts over a Jewish state become more intense,
tensions swell among the various student factions at the college.
After David Malter gives a highly publicized pro-Zionist speech
at Madison Square Garden, Reb Saunders, who is staunchly anti-Zionist,
forbids Danny from speaking to Reuven. The silence between the two boys
continues into their second year at college. They both take Rav Gershenson’s
Talmud class, which allows them to interact indirectly. Yet Reuven
misses Danny’s friendship terribly, especially after Reuven’s father
suffers a second heart attack. As David Malter recovers, Reuven
rigorously studies the Talmud and dazzles the entire class—including
Danny—with one particularly brilliant classroom display of knowledge.
After Reuven’s father returns from the hospital, the college is
staggered by the news that an alumnus of Hirsch died in the fighting
in Israel. Finally, during Reuven and Danny’s third year of college,
after the United Nations officially declares the creation of the
State of Israel and after it becomes clear that Israel will triumph
in its battles against the Arabs, Reb Saunders relents and allows
the two boys to speak to each other again.
Danny and Reuven quickly resume their intense
friendship. Over the summer, Reuven returns to Danny’s shul, goes
to Danny’s sister’s wedding, and sees Reb Saunders again. Reuven
still harbors anger toward Danny’s father, and ignores the older
man’s invitation to a Sabbath Talmud discussion. During the boys’
final year at college, Reuven sees Reb Saunders while attending
Danny’s brother’s Bar Mitzvah, and again the rabbi invites Reuven
over. Reuven ignores the request.
Meanwhile, Danny secretly applies to graduate programs
in psychology, but soon realizes that his father will inevitably
see letters from the schools in the family’s mailbox. One night,
after a discussion with his father, Reuven realizes that Reb Saunders
is asking him to come over so he can indirectly talk to Danny. Reuven
goes to their house, and Reb Saunders, using Reuven as a buffer
to speak to Danny, finally explains why he raised Danny in silence.
He says he always knew his son had a great mind, but was worried
that his soul was empty, unable to empathize with the suffering
of others. Silence was a way to make Danny explore his own soul
and feel the suffering of the world. Reb Saunders further reveals
that he is aware of Danny’s plan to become a psychologist instead
of a rabbi. He apologizes to Reuven for separating the two boys,
and he apologizes to Danny for raising him in silence. At the same
time, he says he saw no other way to raise Danny to become a true
tzaddik—a tzaddik for the world, not only a tzaddik for his congregation.
Later, in front of his congregation, he gives his blessing to Danny
and the life he has chosen for himself. Danny shaves his beard and
earlocks, and enrolls in a graduate program at Columbia University.