The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Isaac Bashevis Singer is one of the great storytellers of this century, and he may well rank with the greatest storytellers of all time. His novels, short stories, and books for children have won many awards, culminating in the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.

In spite of the high esteem in which his works are held, Singer has been something of a problem for the world of literary criticism. He developed his art independently, and it does not fit easily into any convenient niche. There are those who consider him a modernist or a realist; others emphasize his preoccupation with the past and his frequent use of supernatural elements. He has been called a pessimist, but a strong religious quality permeates his work. Writers who defy classification and make themselves difficult to place in what is termed “critical perspective” are often ignored, and may constitute an endangered species. Singer’s stature is such that he transcends this danger. An independent spirit, he has little sympathy with those who attempt to categorize writers and their work.

The fact is that, in spite of their seemingly contradictory nature, all the foregoing assessments are accurate. Singer has mastered an art as old as the human race, and he deals with fundamental aspects of the human condition. Thus, his stories are timeless, regardless of their setting. They contain most of the elements of folklore: ordinary people, a strong but not explicit sexual content, the intervention of the inexplicable, and a very deceptive simplicity.

Nearly all of the stories in this collection make use of the supernatural in some way. Upright citizens are led astray by evil spirits or bad angels, or they are possessed by demons; ghosts appear; premonition and telepathic communication occur frequently. Moreover, these events occur so naturally that they never seem out of place: curiously enough, they are somehow a part of the reader’s own heritage, if not of the reader’s experience.

It is reported that Singer, when asked whether he actually believed in his demons, replied that he did: he then referred to the various psychological explanations for such phenomena, adding that perhaps he believes in the demons too. His point will be sufficiently clear to the perceptive reader. Singer is interested in the sudden changes that occur in people, the alterations that result in uncharacteristic behavior. For most of the history of humanity, these vagaries have been attributed to supernatural intervention. In a more rational age, the answers have been sought in scientific contexts. Since the processes involved are still not well understood, there are times when these answers may seem to be mere substitutions in terminology, and not explanations at all. In actuality, everyone believes in demons—whether by that name or by another.

It is also likely that there are very few individuals who have never felt a premonition that proved to be accurate, never followed a hunch to their advantage, never sensed emotional or spiritual contact with another person who was distant in space or time, or who were never impelled into rash and uncharacteristic acts by some inner compulsion they were utterly unable to explain. The things lumped together in popular literature as unexplained phenomena are universally fascinating, still mysterious, and go back to the beginnings of mankind. These things, and their consequences, form the basis for many of Singer’s tales.

Singer was born in Poland and emigrated to the United States in 1935. The stories generally considered his strongest works are those that depict the world of his childhood and youth: Jewish villages of Poland and life in the Warsaw ghetto. It is a world that no longer exists. The villages are gone, and most of their inhabitants perished in the Nazi death camps or vanished during the Stalinist purges. Singer occasionally mentions these horrors, but only in passing when one of his characters refers to them. He does not exploit the Holocaust, but treats it as an accepted fact of life. This attitude on his part has aroused strong criticism in Jewish circles.

One reason his tales are refreshing is that Singer, unlike many of his contemporaries, does not embrace causes in his writing: he does not believe it is the purpose of fiction to make social or political statements. His aversion to propaganda will in...

(The entire section is 1791 words.)