Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 957
When Franz Werfel arrived in the United States as an exile from Nazi Germany, his fame there had been established, based largely on the popularity of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a 1934 Book-of-the-Month Club selection and arguably Werfel’s most powerful prose work. The Hollywood studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer acquired an option on making a film of the novel; the project was eventually abandoned, purportedly because of pressure exerted by the Turkish government.
For the Armenian people, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh became something of a national epic. An Armenian priest in New York is recorded to have preached that the novel invested his people with a soul. The financial assistance of the Armenian community in the United States made possible the transfer of Werfel’s remains from Hollywood to Vienna in 1975, as well as, that same year, the holding of a Werfel symposium and the publication of a volume of his occasional writings.
The Forty Days of Musa Dagh almost single-handedly publicized the genocide of Turkey’s Armenian population during World War I. Werfel had planned to write about the crime when he first learned of it while serving at the military press bureau in Vienna. However, it was not until 1930, when he encountered young Armenian refugees laboring in a carpet factory in Damascus, that the abstract number of more than one million victims became a disturbing reality for the novelist. Werfel immersed himself for two years in research, including a study of firsthand accounts, that resulted in the particular blend of historical re-creation and imaginative invention that marks The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.
The defense of Musa Dagh in 1915 was an actual event, and some of the novel’s peripheral characters, such as the Turkish official Enver Pascha, were historical figures. Werfel’s drawing on reality and the wealth of descriptive details, ranging from architecture to children’s games to farming methods, lend the novel a compelling aura of authenticity.
As a creative writer, Werfel occasionally suited facts to his purposes. Sources differed, for example, on whether the Armenian contingent spent fifty-three or thirty-six days on the mountain. By indicating that the sojourn lasted forty days, Werfel links the incident to biblical events: the forty days of the flood, the forty days that Moses and Jesus fasted, and the forty years the Hebrews wandered in the desert following their liberation from bondage in Egypt. Other biblical associations in the novel include the destiny of Gabriel Bagradian to die, as did Moses, within sight of, though not actually entering, the promised land. Bagradian is a type modeled on Moses: an individual assimilated to a foreign culture and estranged from his own people who, through circumstance, reunites with them to guide them out of captivity. Significantly enough, Musa Dagh translates to “Mount of Moses.” The piety of the Armenians of Musa Dagh is emphasized by their placing an altar at the center of their settlement.
Given the preponderance of biblical allusions in the novel, it is not surprising that the solutions to the political issues it raises are invariably spiritual ones. Werfel suggests that sacrifice—particularly that of father and son—is supremely efficacious. Some have criticized Werfel’s symbolism as heavy-handed, for instance, in invoking the crucifixion in the deaths of Gabriel and Stephan Bagradian.
The fundamental conflict in the novel is evidently between godliness, signified by commitment to a transpersonal and transnational entity, and godlessness, an amoral and reductionistic pragmatism. An apocalyptic note—signifying the Day of Judgment and its separation of the “wheat,” or the godly, and the “chaff,” or the ungodly—is sounded by the titles of the novel’s three parts, which are taken from the book of Revelations. It has been pointed out that Gabriel Bagradian is another example of the prodigal son in Werfel’s writings: From an alienated life of worldly sophistication, he returns to his people and his roots and, in suffering and self-transcendence, ultimately finds fulfillment. Bagradian’s personal drama is, moreover, played out in the context of the persecution of a religious minority by an atheistic political regime in the relentless pursuit of modernity, which, for Werfel, meant nationalism, racism, and progress merely for progress’s sake. The “progress” promoted by the Young Turks, in Werfel’s view, raised expectations among the Turkish people that could not be satisfied without violence.
Much of the attention The Forty Days of Musa Dagh has attracted concerns its foreshadowing of the Holocaust. Parallels between the mass murder of the Jews by the Third Reich and that of the Armenians as presented in the novel are striking: the clinical, bureaucratic nature of the Turkish execution of policy; the reluctance of Armenians to recognize their peril; and the acceptance of the official lie that the government’s plan was one of resettlement. Nevertheless, critics debate the extent to which Werfel intended to be a prophet of the fate of his own people, the Jews.
Those who stress the topicality and prophetic nature of the novel claim that Werfel revealed his premonition when, on a lecture tour in Germany in 1932, pending the book’s publication, he chose to read from it a chapter that included a plea by a German pastor on behalf of the Armenian people. Some have argued that there is no empirical evidence for Werfel’s having gauged early on the extent of danger to European Jewry; they point to the fact that the novelist did not flee Europe until as late as 1940. Many consider the implications of Werfel’s insights all the richer for their not having been calculated. In any case, critical consensus maintains that as an investigation into the historical phenomenon of genocide, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is a novel of fundamental significance.