Study Guide

Henne Fire

by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Henne Fire Summary

Introduction

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story ‘‘Henne Fire’’ first appeared in the magazine Playboy and then in his 1968 collection entitled The Séance. Singer wrote this story, as he did his other works, in Yiddish, despite being fluent in English; the author and Dorothea Straus translated the story into English. Many critics and readers considered Singer a master of the short story form; among his numerous awards, he received the 1978 Nobel Prize in literature.

‘‘Henne Fire’’ takes place in a small Polish village sometime before World War I but after the middle of the nineteenth century. The story is filled with supernatural and magical elements, and is told by one of Henne’s neighbors in a familiar and intimate style. Henne Fire is a woman whose erratic and frightening behavior prompts the tale’s narrator to refer to her as ‘‘not a human being but a fire from Gehenna,’’ an ancient word for hell. In the story, Henne’s family flees her home, unable to tolerate the sting of her venomous words and physical abuse. Many of Henne’s neighbors are afraid of her, as well, having witnessed her violence and paranoia, and simply want her to move to another town. Other villagers, including the local rabbi, try to make Henne’s life bearable while striving to protect the townspeople from her wrath and her strange propensity to ignite nearly everything around her.

Henne Fire Summary

Part 1 Summary

Singer’s short story is told in the past tense by one of her neighbors as a collection of memories about Henne Fire, and what eventually became of her.

Part One
The neighbor narrator begins by introducing Henne Fire as a demon or evil spirit and not a human female. Henne was an emaciated creature, all skin and bones, who screamed and behaved in crazy ways when she was angered. The neighbor considers Henne’s husband, Berl Chazkeles, a saint; Henne threw dishes at him so often that he had to buy a new set nearly every week, and when he left for work as a sieve-maker each morning, Henne yelled insults at him.

Henne has four daughters, and the neighbor remembers that each one devised a way to escape Henne as soon as possible. One was a servant in Lublin, one moved to America, one married an old man, and another died of scarlet fever. ‘‘Anything was better than living with Henne,’’ notes the neighbor.

Berl finally ran away from Henne, provoking her to become even more out of control. ‘‘She knocked her head on the stones, hissed like a snake, and foamed at the mouth,’’ according to the narrator. Traditionally, the narrator explains, when a woman’s husband abandoned her, she would work in someone’s home to make a living. Henne, though, frightened everyone in the village so much with her curses and violence that no one would let her in their home. Henne tried to earn money by selling fish, but this did not work out well because Henne insulted anyone who tried to buy her fish. Henne became even more paranoid, accusing her neighbors of various slights.

When Henne’s daughters came home to...

(The entire section is 680 words.)

Part 2 Summary

Part Two
Henne tried to live at the poorhouse, but the poor were frightened and turned her away. A gentile woodchopper took in Henne but had to throw her out after the handle on his ax caught fire. Finally, the rabbi allowed her to live in the booth behind his home set up for the Succoth holidays (a Jewish harvest festival, usually celebrated in September, that commemorates the forty years the Jewish people spent in the wilderness). The rabbi’s family all worked to make the booth warm and comfortable for the winter; the son installed a stove and his wife arranged a bed and provided Henne with food. Everyone hoped that ‘‘the demons would respect a Succoth booth and that it would not catch fire.’’

The narrator recalls that Henne became a docile person and stayed inside the Succoth booth all day during the winter. ‘‘Yet evil looked out of her eyes,’’ the narrator adds. The rabbi’s wife suggested to Henne that she come inside the house and help out in the kitchen, but Henne declined and expressed concern that she might cause the rabbi’s books to light on fire.

The deep snows of winter gave way to surprising warmth in the early spring, and the town flooded. Even so, one day, the Succoth booth burst into flames ‘‘like a paper lantern.’’ The narrator recalls how Henne later told of a ‘‘fiery hand’’ that reached down and ignited the booth. At this point, the rabbi felt he had no choice but to bring...

(The entire section is 592 words.)