The Lady of the Lake
THE LADY OF THE LAKE
Short Story by Bernard Malamud, 1958
Henry Levin, the protagonist of "The Lady of the Lake," from the collection The Magic Barrel (1958), is one of Bernard Malamud's New York Jews who seeks love and adventure by traveling abroad. When he comes into an inheritance, he quits his job and goes to Europe, ending up in Italy in a pensione in Stresa on Lake Maggiore. It is after World War II, and Italy is still a very poor country. Changing his name to Henry R. Freeman, symbolic of his attempt to change his life as well as his identity, Levin wanders around the area. The various islands in the lake fill him with a sense of expectancy, each an undiscovered world worth exploring, and he decides to visit them on a tour.
When his tours of two islands prove unsatisfying, his landlady suggests Isola del Dongo as an exceptionally beautiful place with exquisite gardens. One evening at sunset he rents a rowboat and goes out to the island alone. By this time the reader suspects that Freeman is something of a schlemiel, and his ineptness at rowing emphasizes the point. Nevertheless, he manages to get to the island, which is as lovely as his padrona has said. The island rises in terraces, the gardens filled with statuary, a palazzo at the top. Bathed in evening mists, it fills Freeman with "a sad memory of unlived life, his own, of all that had slipped through his fingers." At that moment he sees the figure of a young woman who is looking out at the water. Though tempted to speak to her, he notices how dark the night is getting. He returns to his rowboat and with difficulty makes it back to shore.
This is the start of Freeman's quest. When he finally meets the woman on the island, she identifies herself as Isabella del Dongo. Curiously, one of the first things Isabella asks him, after discovering that he is an American, is whether he is Jewish. Freeman is Jewish, but thinking that an admission would put off this obviously aristocratic Italian, he denies it.
Isabella is so beautiful that it does not take long for Freeman to fall in love. She allows him to visit, and on one occasion she disrobes and goes for a swim, inviting Freeman to follow. Finally summoning up his courage, he does, but by the time the awkward swimmer gets to the raft where she has lain down, she has returned to the island, and he has to swim back alone, where she awaits him with a towel.
Guiding Freeman on his visits to Isola del Dongo are Ernesto and his son, Giacobbe. The swimming episode occurs when Isabella tells Freeman that her family is away. Although Freeman is disappointed not to meet the del Dongos, he lets her show him through the palazzo, which is famous because Napolean supposedly once slept there. Isabella, however, disabuses Freeman of the myth and admits that the Titians and other paintings are all copies. The incident is important in developing the theme of illusion. Freeman admits that he has a lot to learn since he cannot tell the fakes from the real.
Indeed, Freeman does have a lot to learn, as he later discovers when his passion for Isabella grows and he determines, after overcoming "a swarm of doubts concerning his plans and possibilities," to propose to her. When they finally meet again, this time in Stresa, Freeman learns the truth. Isabella is not a del Dongo after all but rather the daughter of Ernesto, the caretaker of the estate, and Giacobbe is her brother.
Despite Isabella's confession, Freeman does not admit who or what he is. Isabella says that she wanted to get to know him better, and Freeman again asserts that on his part he is not hiding anything. This is precisely what she is afraid of, she says, and she returns with her brother to the island, leaving Freeman in turmoil. Although hurt by her misrepresentations, and not thinking of his own, he still loves her and follows her to the island. When he finds her, Isabella again asks him if he is Jewish, and he again denies it. She uncovers her breast and shows him the tattooed number on it. An inmate at Buchenwald, she had hoped that he was Jewish so that she could marry him.
It is too late now for Freeman to come clean. Isabella disappears among the statues and the mists, and Freeman is left embracing only a moonlit stone. The Holocaust has taken a different toll here—robbed both Freeman and Isabella of a chance for possible happiness together. Her past is meaningful to her in a way that his apparently is meaningless to him. This is why he denies the truth of his origin, and this is why she cannot accept him.
—Jay L. Halio