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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450

“A Crown of Feathers” is the title story of a collection which won the National Book Award for 1973. Like many of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories, it depicts an individual pulled between belief and disbelief, between the religious and the secular, and between self and others. The story concerns an...

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“A Crown of Feathers” is the title story of a collection which won the National Book Award for 1973. Like many of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories, it depicts an individual pulled between belief and disbelief, between the religious and the secular, and between self and others. The story concerns an orphan, Akhsa, whose own emerging identity becomes entangled with the conflicting values of her wealthy grandparents.

Her grandfather is a traditionally religious man, a community leader in the Polish village of Krasnobród, while her grandmother, from the sophisticated city of Prague, is more worldly and possibly, it is learned after her death, a follower of false messiahs. These differences, presented very subtly at first, become more pronounced when, after her grandparents’ deaths, Akhsa internalizes their warring voices.

Each voice accuses the other of being a demon, while both battle over Akhsa’s soul. Her grandmother assures her that Jesus is the Messiah and encourages Akhsa to convert. As a sign, she has Akhsa rip open her pillowcase, where she finds an intricate crown of feathers topped by a tiny cross. Akhsa converts, makes an unhappy marriage with an alcoholic Polish squire, and sinks into melancholy. Her despair is not mere unhappiness, but a continuing crisis of faith. A demon tells her, “The truth is there is no truth,” but her saintly grandfather appears and tells her to repent.

Her grandfather’s advice leads Akhsa to return to Judaism and to seek out and marry the man her grandfather had chosen for her years before. This embittered man, however, humiliates her mercilessly. On her deathbed, Akhsa tears open her pillowcase and finds another crown of feathers, this one with the Hebrew letters for God in place of the cross. “But, she wondered, in what way was this crown more a revelation of truth than the other?”

Akhsa never grasps with certainty the truth she has sought, nor is she ever able, like Singer’s Gimpel the Fool, to accept the ambiguity of uncertainty. Akhsa’s conversion and subsequent exile, her repentance and journey back to her grandfather’s faith—her entire life—have constituted an agonized quest for truth. Torn between two voices of authority, Akhsa has never been certain of her own voice, has never understood her own wants, needs, or beliefs. While Gimpel, when finding his vocation as wandering storyteller, ultimately finds a faith to which he can firmly adhere, Akhsa finds neither self nor truth. Moving from one pole of certain faith to its opposite, and back again, Akhsa never accepts Singer’s own truth, which is that “if there is such a thing as truth it is as intricate and hidden as a crown of feathers.”

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