Agnon wrote from experience of a cultural world that was disappearing. It was the world of the European shtetl. Much of his writing deals with the conflict of one who lives in two worlds, one being the old world, a world of faith and miracles, and the other being the new world, a world of reason but also of alienation. His writings, which in publication dates alone span the first three-fourths of the twentieth century, tell the modern epic story of the Jewish people as they moved from their Eastern European shtetlach to Israel, from the empire of Franz Joseph to the Israel of David Ben-Gurion.
This major theme of Agnon’s work—the ability of the individual rooted in a tradition to maintain that attachment in the modern world—clarified itself in most of his works. It is reflected in his many short stories and in his novels.
His narratives move seamlessly between the fantastic and the realistic. He also adapts images and stories from Jewish folklore and religious literature to serve as modern symbols. Throughout his works, there is a consciousness of the presence of Jewish tradition and teaching, and there is a display of that awareness. He is obviously well versed in the biblical, postbiblical, and medieval texts of Jewish law, lore, and literature, as well as of other Western texts. Agnon chose to write in Hebrew, but not in a purely modern idiom—rather in a more elevated diction, somewhat akin to medieval Jewish texts.
Agnon’s use of allusion, especially allusion to the Old Testament Bible and other works of Judaica, is not straightforward. His allusions are for literary effect and are often playfully comic, ironic, or satiric. His settings are Buczacz, Galicia, Jaffa, Jerusalem, the state of Israel, and pre-World War II Germany. Agnon’s protagonists are often cut off from a sense of community, and the experience of a spiritual void or an existential angst causes them to rely upon religion for substance and direction.
It is difficult to tell exactly what Agnon’s attitude is toward his themes and characters. For example, one’s understanding of A Simple Story depends upon one’s understanding of Agnon’s attitude toward the novel’s protagonist, Hirshel Horovitz. Agnon’s style makes an exact reading impossible. This purposeful ambiguity, however, creates richness and texture, and it allows irony to resonate on several levels.
While a few of Agnon’s short stories can be enjoyed merely as tales, his art demands a more involved reading. For example, “Agunot” (1909; English translation, 1970), may be taken to contain the kernel of Agnon’s metaphysics. Agnon took his surname from the word aguna, a married woman whose husband is not with her for one reason or another. The word’s meaning, in a larger sense, refers to all those who cannot be with the person with whom they belong or in the place where they belong. They are the alienated. “Agunot” concerns a young woman who falls in love with a young man but who has been betrothed to another, who in turn is in love with yet another. These lovers are all alienated from one another by social forces; on one level, they represent the Jewish people, dispersed and alienated. All people, to one degree or another, are agunot.
In Only Yesterday, Agnon displays mastery of the surreal: In a world that has fallen apart, the narrative begins to come out of the mind of a dog. All dreams are not nightmares, however, and some vary from the bizarre event to the understandable working out of a real-life situation.
While Agnon provides a miraculous explanation for the events in his fiction, he at the same time gives a natural explanation. In Hakhnasat kala (1931; The Bridal Canopy, 1937), for example, Reb Yudel’s wife, Frummet, and their daughters discover hidden treasure at the moment when the existence of their family’s world depends upon finding the dowry. On one level, this is a miracle, but on another, explicable, for the treasure had been hidden by noblemen escaping in war.
Agnon’s work, taken at once, is rather like an epic of a civilization about to disappear. He remains reverential toward the values of his ancestors, and it is perhaps this characteristic that separates him from many of his contemporaries. Whereas most of his works either completely satirize or completely romanticize shtetl life and values, and often present a vision of despair, Agnon implies that within alienation is some ultimate vision of hope, a vision usually grounded in traditional belief.
While Agnon takes a variety of stances toward his themes and his characters, ranging from the tender and nostalgic to the ironic and satiric, his oeuvre overall maintains that there is transcendent meaning for which the fragmented twentieth century consciousness searches. This meaning is not necessarily rooted in Eastern and Central Europe. The ideal of Jerusalem is ubiquitous in his work.
Agnon’s use of the first-person narrator allows him to draw the reader into a relationship with his narrators with great immediacy. Characters lead the reader on their epic journey, personally showing the reader the ordered ways of the old country and the way into the twentieth century and modernity.
The Bridal Canopy
First published: Hakhnasat kala, 1931 (English translation, 1937)
Type of work: Novel
Reb Yudel Nathanson has three daughters for whom he must find enough money for dowries. By a miracle, his family finds...
(The entire section is 2276 words.)