Shmuel Yosef Agnon Essay - Critical Essays

Shmuel Yosef Agnon Short Fiction Analysis

To read Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s stories is to become immersed in the emerging Jewish state, Eastern Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Jews in Germany during the Holocaust and throughout history, and individual people struggling to find their niche in these different places and situations. Agnon’s sentences are often formed around allusions to Jewish texts and traditions, and the reader benefits from exploring the layers of meaning implied by these references. Agnon frames his stories in a way that begs the reader to struggle with the fine line between fact and fiction.

Much of Agnon’s work relies on historical elements for its realism. Its combination of fact and fantasy reveals the breadth of his imagination. His connection to Israel, he said, made him feel as if he had been born in Jerusalem. Agnon, considered the greatest Hebrew writer of the twentieth century, also was inspired by past writers. Although his first book collection was destroyed, before he died he had amassed an even greater collection at his home in Jerusalem. His work, as critic Harold Fisch has said, “reflects the ongoing processes of Jewish life in his time.” As a catalog of modern Jewish history and experience, Agnon’s work is definitive of, as well as being defined by, its context. His influence on the development of modern Hebrew literature is unparalleled.

“Fable of the Goat”

In his earliest stories, Agnon established his genre, the medieval ethical tale, through his titles, his rhetorical devices, his use of anonymous, stereotyped figures, and his narrative stance. In 1925 he published a cycle of fourteen legends, the most frequently anthologized of which is the “Fable of the Goat.” The figures are flat and unindividuated, a nameless father and his son. The mode of narration is traditional. The pose of transmitting, orally, a story that has been handed down from previous tellers is established by the passive voice of the opening sentence: “The tale is told of an old man who groaned from his heart.” The diction is folkloric in its simplicity. Clauses are linked by coordinating rather than subordinating conjunctions; the sentences are compound rather than complex. Events are strung together in a similar fashion, one simply following the other, naïvely oblivious to cause and effect. Magical happenings are taken for granted.

Having set up the folkloric frame through these devices, Agnon persuades his reader to accept the enchantment on the same terms. The old man is cured of his unspecified ailment by the milk of a goat that periodically disappears. When the son offers to follow her by means of a cord tied to her tail, she leads him through a cave to the land of Israel. Desiring his father to follow him there, the son inserts a note in her ear. He assumes that his father will stroke the goat on its return and that, when it flicks its ears, the message will fall out. The father, however, assumes that his son has been killed, and the goat that led him to his death is slaughtered; not until the goat is being flayed does he discover the note. Not only has he deprived himself of joining his son in the Holy Land, because, from that time on, the cave which had afforded his son access has been sealed, but also he has slain the source of the milk “which had the taste of paradise.”

The meaning is conveyed stylistically, and the characters indicate their spiritual states by biblical allusions. The son shows that he has attained salvation through a simple leap of faith, by speaking in the language of the Song of Solomon. He sees “pleasant fruits,” “a well of living waters,” and “a fountain of gardens.” He says that he will sit beneath a tree “until the day break, and the shadows flee.” This love song between God and Israel is traditionally recited just before the Sabbath evening prayers. When he asks the passersby where he is, he says, “I charge you ”; they tell him he is close to Safed, a town which from the sixteenth century has been famous as the center of Jewish mysticism. He sees “men like angels, wrapped in white shawls” going to pray. They are carrying myrtle branches, a Midrashic symbol for a student of the Torah. When he writes his note, it is with ink made from gallnuts, with which the Torah scrolls are inscribed.

The son urges his father to the same simple faith. He writes him not to ask questions but just to hold onto the cord, “then shalt thou walk in thy way safely.” The father cannot read this message, however, because it is concealed from him by his own spiritual condition. His speeches echo the dirges of fathers over sons in the Bible; like David mourning Absalom, he laments, “Would God I had died for thee.” Like Jacob grieving for Joseph, he cries “an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces.” His lack of faith leads him to slay his one hope of redemption. When he finds the note telling him how to attain salvation “with one bound,” it is too late. With the father’s realization that he has condemned himself to live out his life in exile, the tale closes, intensified by the ironic contrast with the believing son from whom the father has by his own actions forever separated himself. The closing words quote the Psalm of the Sabbath, the son “shall bear fruit in his old age; full of sap and richness”; that he will live “tranquil and secure” refers to Jeremiah’s prophecy of the end of exile.

The goat, whose milk is as sweet as honey, personifies the traditional epithet of Israel as “the land of milk and honey.” By drinking the hope of returning to Zion, the old man heals the bitterness of his life. The concealed message sent out from the Holy Land, inscribed like a Torah scroll and promising redemption, reinforces the personification and turns it into a symbol; the words of the Torah are said to be “like milk and honey.” The skeptic who deprives himself of this sustenance kills his only link with salvation. The theme, succinctly rendered in three and a half pages through subtle adjustments of biblical overtones, requires an extended explication of those allusions to readers who no longer study the Bible, and that irony is also part of the point of this brief fable.

“The Kerchief”

“The Kerchief,” which is also included in A Book That Was Lost, and Other Stories (1995), shows the changed narrative stance in Agnon’s next period, when he turned from the impersonal rendering of folkloric material to the lyrical rendition of subjective experience. The story uses the dual perspective of memoir: The child’s initiation is framed by the adult’s remembrance. The narrator...

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