What Are the Themes of the Short Story "Zebra" by Chaim Potok?
“Zebra” by Chaim Potok provides a brief glimpse into the life of a young boy, Adam Zebrin, and his unlikely friendship with a Vietnam veteran and artist named John Wilson. Adam, whose nickname is “Zebra,” injures his arm in a car accident, then slowly recovers during a summer art class taught by Wilson. Wilson lost his arm during combat in the Vietnam War, so Zebra feels a strong connection with him. Ultimately, Zebra and John’s relationship is mutually beneficial, allowing both to heal in their own unique way.
Both Zebra and John experienced a great trauma. Zebra was struck by a car while running, and John was severely injured in a helicopter crash during the Vietnam War. While Zebra’s injury prevents him from running -- one of his favorite activities -- one of John’s close combat buddies was killed in the same crash that took John’s arm. Both Zebra and John are deeply wounded by their great traumas, and in their interactions with one another, they provide each other some emotional support that allows each to overcome their internal wounds.
While Zebra’s arm is in a semipermanent sling, John’s arm is missing entirely. Both characters must overcome these disabilities in order to do what it is that each loves. For Zebra, he must slowly train and strengthen his arm so that he might be able to run again. For John, he must learn how to paint and sculpt with just one functioning limb. While we meet John’s character after he has already overcome his disability, Zebra is still in the early recovery stages. It requires the time that elapses during the story, as well as the support and encouragement from John, for Zebra to fully regain enough strength to run again.
Many characters in “Zebra” discover hidden potential in themselves over the course of the story. While he is initially reluctant to join John’s summer art class because of his inexperience and inability, after Zebra does decide to do so, he discovers a wealth of untapped artistic ability. Additionally, both Zebra and one of his classmates, Andrea, learn about their potential capacity for compassion: Zebra for John, and Andrea for Zebra. Even John -- portrayed as a sort of wise man in the story -- discovers his potential to recover from his post-Vietnam emotional scars when he is surprised by Zebra’s final painting, which features a zebra and a helicopter racing each other.
Overall, the story explores the incredibly healing power of simple acts of kindness. It is Zebra’s initial act of kindness toward John that allows John the opportunity to teach a summer art class.Similarly, John’s reciprocal act of kindness in the form of a caricature encourages Zebra to take that class. Mrs. English shows an incredible amount of kindness in allowing John to teach the class in the school, and Andrea learns to be kind and generous to Zebra and John as she comes to understand that their disabilities are not totally disabling.
- Zebra and Other Stories; Chaim Potok; 1998
- Seattle Times: From the Shadows to Light; Kari Wergeland; 1998
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