Critical Evaluation

The image Shmuel Yosef Agnon projected in public as well as in his narrating persona is that of a simple, pious man. Certainly a practicing Jew, immersed from childhood in an Orthodox religious tradition, Agnon was also well read in German, Russian, French, and Scandinavian literature. The writer with whom Agnon is most often compared is Franz Kafka, who also evokes, perhaps more vividly, an unsettling world where ordinary laws of time, space, and logic do not apply. While some critics derive this quality directly from the telescoping of time and place that marks Jewish homiletic literature, others trace it to a resurgence of the Romantic spirit in Europe in the late nineteenth century, which, admittedly, was influenced by folklore and spirituality. In any case, characteristic of Romantic writing is the impression made on the reader of the subjective nature of the narrative.

Nightmare and irony result when a character attempts and, inevitably, fails to internalize and comprehend the outside world. Readers may miss the cosmic and bleak comedy in Agnon and Kafka; catastrophes, especially those of modern history, also are likely to influence readers’ understandings of works written before the Holocaust. The choice of Agnon as recipient of the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature not only recognized his prodigious body of work but also—along with that of cowinner Nelly Sachs, a poet of the Holocaust—acknowledged the shocking fate of European Jewry in the twentieth century. Agnon’s saturation of his fiction with Jewish folklore and religious tradition can be argued to have fulfilled a historical role, as it preserves, in the pages of books and the minds of readers, a world that faced annihilation.

In the Heart of the Seas clearly reflects Agnon’s creative use of folk styles and motifs. A folk device Agnon employs, for example, is that of the story within a story. When a new character is...

(The entire section is 788 words.)