Jews in Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Jews in Literature


Jews in Literature

Jews have been a presence in continental literature since the Middle Ages and in American literature since the nineteenth century. Christian writers, as scholars point out, have been fairly consistent in representing Jews in terms of the ethnic stereotype, but that trend has been shifting in the second half of the twentieth century toward a more complex and realistic characterization. In literature as well as in western culture, Jews have been traditionally portrayed as foreign, mysterious aliens associated with money (especially money-lending) and power in society. Shylock, one of the central characters of William Shakespeare's drama The Merchant of Venice (1600), perhaps best exemplifies this kind of characterization.

Modern critics have actively investigated the attitude of many major writers toward Jews as evidenced in their personal writings as well as in their works. For example, Maud Ellmann has explored the image of Jews projected in the works of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, finding implied anti-Semitism in the case of Eliot, and very overt anti-Semitism in Pound's poetry and radio speeches delivered during World War II. Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), has been the subject of numerous studies, notably by Harry Girling. Ronald Granofsky has connected elements of anti-Semitism in the writings of D. H. Lawrence with his ideas regarding race and masculinity. Pointing out both conscious and subconscious strains of anti-Semitism in the writings of Virginia Woolf and Stevie Smith, Phyllis Lassner has discussed the two writers' responses to the coming of World War II. In a similar vein, Susan Rubin Suleiman has examined Jean-Paul Sartre's Refléxions sur la question juive (1946), discovering buried anti-Semitic elements in this essay criticizing the treatment of Jews in France.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, the image of Jews in literature has been transformed by the Holocaust, a watershed event for Jews and many gentiles who have struggled to find a way to express their thoughts and feelings about the horrific events of World War II. When critics discuss Jews in literature in this century, they usually refer both to Jewish characters in literature and to Jewish authors. In the case of either group, the Holocaust has proven a defining moment in history. After the events of World War II, gentile writers have written more sympathetically about Jews in European and American society. Some critics have noted that Jews have become a symbol of persecution, endurance, and moral courage in late-twentieth-century literature. Many Jewish writers, on the other hand, have undergone a painful personal journey to re-examine their identity and heritage. They have also written about the paradoxical process of trying to find a language and a literary framework for writing about events that seem to be, by their very nature, unimaginable and unutterable. Scholars have praised such writers as Elie Wiesel, Nelly Sachs, Ernst Weichart, and Hermann Kasack for their courage in articulating the Holocaust experience. Much critical attention has been focused on the portrayal of the Holocaust in literature—whether personal accounts by survivors, in documentary and historical writings, or in prose fiction and poetry. Such scholars as Lawrence L. Langer, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Edward R. Isser, and Michael André Bernstein have explored various aspects of the literature of the Holocaust, from implications for Jewish writers' religious faith to the enacting of Holocaust experiences on stage.

Representative Works

Yehuda Amichai
Lo me-‘akshav, Lo mikan [Not of This Time, Not of This Place] (novel) 1963

Aharon Appelfield
Badenheim (novel) 1939

Saul Bellow
Dangling Man (novel) 1944
Mr. Sammler's Planet (novel) 1969

Wolfgang Borchert
Draussen vorder Tür [The Man Outside] (novel) 1947

Theodore Dreiser
The Titan (novel) 1914
The Hand of the Potter (novel) 1918

T. S. Eliot
The Wasteland (poetry) 1922
After Strange Gods (essays) 1934
Notes toward a Definition of Culture (criticism) 1949

Peter Finkelgruen
Haus Deutschland: oder Die Geschichte eines ungesühnten Mordes (novel) 1992

E. M. Forster
The Longest Journey (novel) 1907

John Galsworthy
Loyalties (novel) 1922

Graham Greene
A Gun for Sale (novel) 1936
Brighton Rock (novel) 1938

Lillian Hellman
Watch on the Rhine (drama) 1941

Ernest Hemingway
The Sun also Rises (novel) 1926

John Hersey
The Wall (novel) 1950

Laura Z. Hobson
Gentleman's Agreement (drama) 1946

William Hoffman
The Trumpet Unblown (novel) 1955

James Joyce
Ulysses (novel) 1922

Hermann Kasack
Die Stadt hinter dem Strom [The City beyond the Ruins] (novel) 1947

D. H. Lawrence
Aaron's Rod (novel) 1922
England, My England (novel) 1922
The Captain's Doll (novella) 1923

Sinclair Lewis
Arrowsmith (novel) 1925

Arthur Miller
Focus (drama) 1945
Incident at Vichy (drama) 1964

Clifford Odets
Till the Day I Die (drama) 1935

Ezra Pound
The Cantos (poetry) 1948
Radio Speeches (speeches) 1978

Nelly Sachs
The Chimneys (poetry) 1967

Jean-Paul Sartre
Refléxions sur la question juive (essay) 1946

Bernard Shaw
Man and Superman (drama) 1905

Robert Sherwood
There Shall Be No Night (novel) 1940

Isaac Bashevis Singer
The Séance and Other Stories (short stories) 1968
Enemies, A Love Story (novel) 1972

Stevie Smith
Novel on Yellow Paper (novel) 1936
Over the Frontier (novel) 1938

C. P. Snow
The Conscience of the Rich (novel) 1958
Corridors of Power (novel) 1964

Ernst Weichert
Der Totenwold [The Forest of the Dead] (novel) 1947

Peter Weiss
Die Ermittlung [The Investigation] (novel) 1965

Patrick White
Riders in the Chariot (novel) 1961

Elie Wiesel
La Nuit [Night] (autobiography) 1958
Les Chants des Morts [Legends of Our Time] (novel) 1964

Virginia Woolf
Three Guineas (novella) 1938
Between the Acts (novel) 1941

Richard Wright
Native Son (novel) 1940

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Esther L. Panitz (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Panitz, Esther. “Alienation and the Cult of the Individual.” In The Alien in Their Midst: Images of Jews in English Literature, pp. 162-70. Rutherford, NJ: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Panitz presents a summary of the changing image of the Jew in English literature from the time of Geoffrey Chaucer to the twentieth century, and concludes that stereotypical thinking about Jews still remains.]

The certitude that had been part of Browning's life reinforced his cheerful eagerness. Yet in the midst of all that pleasant ambience, the earlier frustrations and conflicts of the Victorian Age grew into the nativisms and doubts...

(The entire section is 14411 words.)

Stephen R. Haynes (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Haynes, Stephen R. “Introduction.” In Jews and the Christian Imagination: Reluctant Witnesses, pp. 1-11. Hampshire, England: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Haynes examines the conception of Jews in the imagination of Christian writers, focusing on what he suggests are largely unconscious attitudes toward them.]

[The Jews] are our supporters in their books, our enemies in their hearts, our witnesses in their scrolls.

Augustine, On Faith in Things Unseen

The history of the nation of Israel is indeed unlike...

(The entire section is 4084 words.)

Linda Nochlin (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Nochlin, Linda. “Starting with the Self: Jewish Identity and Its Representation.” In The Jew in the Text: Modernity and the Construction of Identity, edited by Linda Nochlin and Tamar Garb, pp. 7-19. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995.

[In the following essay, Nochlin explores the representation of Jews in the visual arts and the underlying assumptions, cultural and literary, that they reflect. She concludes, however, that there are no sweeping generalizations that can be made about how Jews are depicted in art.]

“Why do they hate us so much?” This is not merely an anguished cry torn from the heart—although, of course, it is that, too—but rather a...

(The entire section is 6111 words.)

Harley Erdman (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Erdman, Harley. “Introduction.” In Staging the Jew: The Performance of an American Ethnicity 1860-1920, pp. 1-13. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Erdman explores the influence of Jewish stage stereotypes on artists and audiences in the period between 1860 and 1920, showing how various artists both fulfilled and reshaped expectations of their performances.]

The actor David Warfield used to tell a story about his professional debut as part of a second-rate West Coast company in the late 1880s. The play was Tom Taylor's Victorian melodrama The Ticket-of-Leave Man, a quarter-of-a-century-old English play that...

(The entire section is 6263 words.)

Robert Schechter (essay date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Schechter, Robert. “Rationalizing the Enlightenment: Postmodernism and Theories of Anti-Semitism.” Historical Reflections 25, no. 2 (summer 1999): 279-306.

[In the following essay, Schechter examines the roots of anti-Semitic thought, beginning with François-Marie Voltaire in the Enlightenment and continuing into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.]

The Jews of France did not wait for postmodernism before criticizing the Enlightenment. In response to an anti-Jewish libelist who in 1786 accused the Jews of being “superstitious,” Isaiah Berr Bing of Metz defended himself and his coreligionists in a published letter:


(The entire section is 10768 words.)