Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

11 Feb 2011

(Short Story) For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by: Nathan Englander

(Reaction) Tempting Faith by: Antonio Conejos

Devotion to a cause or a person usually means faithfulness to that ideal or individual. Englander's For the Relief of Unbearable Urges though explores how devotion can paradoxically be expressed through moments of betrayal. The story teases the reader with the prospect of fidelity through infidelity, of a faith which requires one to break the covenants of faith.

The initial problem is starkly clear for Dov Binyamin, his wife will have nothing to do with him sexually. She insists that she is, impure. Yet, suffering though he may be at her hands, Dov Binyamin still greatly loves her; so much so that he sleeps uncomfortably on the floor, without mattress or pillow, beside her bed. All this discomfort for the chance to be the closest he possibly can to her, He shut off the light, untied his shoes - but did not remove them - and went to sleep on the tile floor beside his wife's bed. Using his arm for a pillow....

This situation is, to put it mildly, upsetting, even to such a devout man as Dov Binyamin. In his despair, his mind turns to his faith and Lately he felt closer to his biblical heroes that to the people with whom he spent his days. King David's desires were far more alive to Dov than the empty problems of Shai and the other men at the furniture store.

That his thoughts turn to King David is significant as David too was a man who struggled with keeping his libido in check. Just as David is able to consummate his desires, so too will Dov Binyamin be able to sate his unbearable urges. But God punishes David, as Dov Binyamin will also suffer for his sexual acts.

(David in the Old Testament famously falls in love with Bathsheba, who is already married to one of his generals. The King takes Bathsheba and then orders her husband be sent to the frontlines and then abandoned there, to be killed by the enemy. Lust leads David to abuse his authority, betray his loyal general and violate the laws of God. While David's sins are great, God's punishment is equally harsh - he kills the child of David and Bathsheba.)

As Dov Binyamin is a man of faith, he turns to a teacher of faith he, rushed to his rebbe's house for some advice. He wails plaintively to the Rebbe that ...God created the world with a certain order to it. I suffer greatly under the urges with which I have been blessed. It is his rabbi who arms Dov Binyamin with his dispensation to fornicate.

The Rebbe is clear that such desperate action is needed considering that, Your [Dov Binyamin's] marriage is at stake, is it not? Thus the Rebbe, a teacher of faith, approves of the breaking of the strictures of faith (the marriage bond of being faithful to your spouse) to ultimately preserve that which we believe in (in Dov Binyamin's case, his marriage).

In a very real sense, Dov Binyamin's devotion - to his faith and to his wife - is what ironically leads him to perdition. He sleeps with the prostitute on the orders of his rabbi. At first it would seem that his faith has blessed him, the rabbi's dispensation works, From that night of indulgence he found the strength to wait a lifetime for Chava's attentions - if that need be. The urges which have he has been blessed with are remedied by a man of faith and Dov Binyamin's marriage is saved, truly another blessing.

Yet it directly because of his faith that Dov Binyamin contracts the STD, the concentrated smoldering which flushed the whole of his body from the prostitute. It is Dov Binyamin who insisted on not using protection that night for 'It is a sin to spill seed in vain'. And it is this STD which keeps him from being with his wife, Dov was supposed to be in his wife's embrace, enjoying her caresss, and instead he would get an examination table and a doctor's probing hands.

While Dov Binyamin receives blessing after blessing (his urges, which he himself describes as a blessing, the success of the rabbi's advise, the return of his wife's desire for him) these blessings only lead to further tests, further unbearable burdens. Dov Binyamin does everything his faith has asked of him but there is no end to the tests, Whatever the trial, he couldn't bear it much longer.

The escalation of the tests Dov Binyamin endures, whether from his wife or ultimately from God, is reflected in how heat is described in the story. Initially, the setting is consistently described as as intolerably hot. The morning he visits the rabbi is oppressively hot. This oppressive heat around him serves to highlight the internal state of a character who is in increasingly desperate need for sexual release.

As he progresses to fulfill the dispensation of the rabbi, the heat gradually moves from the surroundings to inside Dov Binyamin. On asking a cab driver where he might find what he is looking for, the heat of his feet inside his shoes becoming more oppressive with every step. Finally, days after his encounter with the prostitute, When he began to urinate, the burning worsened... For Dov Binyamin was on fire inside.

This gradual progression of heat neatly describes the physical pain of the STD that Dov Binyamin contracts as well as serves as a subtle indicator that the oppression of his urges has infected him. This infection is no longer kept at bay on the outside but its flame is now within him. Dov's guilt took on a physical form... What else but guilt would strike a man so obviously?

Ultimately the weight of his blessings, which are the fruits of his devotion, crush Dov Binyamin under their unbearable weight. Devotion and are faith are rewarded by more burdens, even more unbearable than that which came before.


The themes of this short story are skillfully handled and the reader does feel a certain empathy for Dov Binyamin - hemmed in as he is by the wishes of his wife on one hand and the commands of his faith (as expressed through the rabbi) on the other. He attempts to fulfill both, a truly devoted character; yet all he gets is more pain.

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