“A Silver Dish” is a 1978 short story by the American Nobel-laureate Saul Bellow, first published in The New Yorker
. The story observes sixty-year-old Chicago businessman Woody Selbst as he comes to terms with the death of his father, a con-man and petty thief. “A Silver Dish” was collected in a volume of Bellow’s stories entitled Him with His Foot in His Mouth
, published in 1984.
The story opens as Woody reflects on his father’s death: “How,” he asks, “against a contemporary background, do you mourn an octogenarian father?” Woody remembers his last Thanksgiving with his Pop when Woody served a turkey stuffed with hashish brought back from a trip to Africa. Woody remembers seeing a buffalo calf killed by a crocodile in the Nile.
Woody thinks of his mother, a Jewish convert to Christianity; his sisters, both Christian spinsters and neither “playing with a full deck,” his Pop, an atheist, and his Pop’s partner Halina, a “good Catholic.” Woody’s routine has been to spend Saturdays at his mother’s house and Sundays at his father’s. This is his first Sunday at home in a long time, and he is startled by the church bells.
Moved by the bells, he remembers his time in seminary. He was part of a Christian mission headed by his uncle, the Reverend Dr. Kovner, a Jewish convert who was married to Woody’s Aunt Rebecca. The mission was funded by the wealthy widow Mrs. Skoglund. Taking a special interest in Woody, Mrs. Skoglund paid for him to attend the seminary.
Woody slips even further back in time, remembering the day his father left his mother, taking with him the money fourteen-year-old Woody had earned as a caddie. He remembers that even though he recognized that Dr. Kovner was a virtuous man and his father a fraudster, he always had more sympathy for Pop. Pop, he remembers, was abandoned by his family in Liverpool, England, and came to America as a stowaway.
Aunt Rebecca used to pay Woody, as a boy, to preach in church about his conversion from Judaism. Woody recalls that he often felt like a hypocrite and that Aunt Rebecca, too, called him a “crook, just like your father.” Woody remembers his only genuine religious experience, which he had while earning money by pulling rickshaws at fairgrounds: a strong feeling that “God’s idea was that this world should be a love-world, that it should eventually recover and be entirely a world of love.”
Snapping back to the present, Woody feels tempted to “run off the grief” by going for a jog. Instead, he is distracted by the memory of his father’s final moments, in which he tried to pull out his intravenous drip.
The bells stop. Woody begins to remember in detail the time his Pop came to him and told him, “I’m in trouble. It’s bad.” The setting is a snooker club, where Pop has asked Woody to meet him.
Pop explains that Halina has taken some money from her husband Bujak to pay off a gambling debt of Pop’s. Pop insists that Bujak will kill Halina if he finds out. He asks Woody to take him to Mrs. Skoglund, where he will ask the widow for a loan.
Woody agrees, and he and Pop travel through a blizzard to Mrs. Skoglund’s house, where they are greeted with suspicion by the maid, Hjordis. They are shown into the front room, where Woody says what his father has asked him to say on his behalf. Pop adds his own plea.
Mrs. Skoglund says that she needs to pray for guidance before she decides whether to loan Pop any money; she and Hjordis withdraw.
While they are gone, Pop picks the lock on a cabinet and steals a silver dish, which he hides in his pants. Woody begs him to return it, and when he refuses, he wrestles his father to the ground. However, he feels unable to reach into his father’s pants, and he lets Pop up. Pop promises to return the dish if Mrs. Skoglund agrees to the loan.
Mrs. Skoglund returns. She offers to write Pop a check. Woody diverts Mrs. Skoglund and Hjordis to give Pop time to return the dish. When they leave, Woody asks Pop if he returned the dish, and Pop says that he did. The next day they cash the check.
A week later, the theft is discovered—Pop did not return the dish—and Woody is expelled from seminary. Woody confronts Pop, who claims that he acted for Woody’s own good, to get him away from “all those hypocrites.” Back in the present, Woody reflects that the theft was also part of Pop’s “war” against Woody’s mother.
Woody remembers his adventures in Africa in more detail, again reflecting on the sight of the buffalo calf meeting its death. He thinks again that unless his grief ends soon, he will have to go for a jog, and once again this prompts him to remember his revelation as a rickshaw-driver: “the goal set for this earth was that it should be filled with good, saturated with it.”
Finally, Woody remembers in detail his father’s efforts to remove his IV on his deathbed. Woody recalls how he climbed into Pop’s bed and held him to stop him from hastening his death and how, when his father died, it felt like the old man was once again giving him the slip: “That was how he was.”
Exploring themes of familial love, religious belief, and American identity, “A Silver Dish” is generally regarded as one of the major short stories written by Saul Bellow, whose novels, including Herzog
and Henderson the Rain King
, are universally considered major achievements of American fiction.