Mrs. Bond, my twelfth-grade English teacher, launched our class discussion of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by asking whether we thought that the play had been misnamed. I’m sure that Mrs. Bond was one of many teachers who have used that same question to get student readers to think about the structure of that play. It’s a question that highlights the difference between a story’s pivotal figure—the one around whom the action revolves—and the protagonist—the whom the story is about.
The Book of Ruth, read in Ashkenazi Jewish synagogues on Shavu’ot morning, is often characterized as a biblical novel. Unlike the more convoluted and ostensibly historical narratives of the books of Joshua through Kings, Ruth is carefully structured and gives the impression of being an integral work written with authorial intent, rather than a patchwork of early sources reworked and reworked again by series of editors, each with his own agenda. But what sort of novel is it, and is it properly named?