The major, and most of the minor, characters in the novels are Hasidim, pious Jewish men rooted in the rabbinic tradition who spend their days and nights in prayer and study. Their purpose in life is to fulfill the commandments, which involves them in the life of the community but which also often means that they detach themselves from much of secular reality, instead relying completely upon the Divine Presence and accepting whatever occurs.
There is little or no character development. For example, Yudel remains essentially untouched by his experiences. While the many minor characters tend to personify the “types” of traditional shtetl Jews, they also provide much of the rich texture of the first two novels. The presence of the narrator is a constant reminder of the author, the real creator of these fictive worlds, whose pervasive if gentle irony undermines the characters’ certainties. The spare plot line, essentially episodic, is developed by the interaction of the characters. While the narrator remains unseen, in In the Heart of the Seas, one of the nilbavim is clearly Shmuel Yosef Agnon himself, although no more developed or vital to the plot than is any other minor character.
In A Guest for the Night, however, the protagonist is a first-person narrator whose life apparently follows that of Agnon, including his two traumatic losses of house and library, his separation from wife and children, and his location in Buczacz and Jerusalem. Agnon grew up in Buczacz, in what was then known as Austria-Hungary, which appears as itself in the first two novels and is only thinly disguised as Shibush in the third. To leave either Buczacz or Jerusalem produces a sense of betrayal, either of one’s roots or of one’s heritage and destiny. It is clear, however, that the narrator is not even a fictionalized Agnon but Agnon’s literary creation. For the novel, the complex personality of the narrator is crucial. His introspection, his deep feelings of guilt and futility, and his sense of alienation provide both the plot structure and the interaction with the novel’s characters. These characters, essentially sketched through the narrator’s eyes, manifest various aspects of twentieth century humanity. They remain static in their attitudes; the narrator changes, accepting the loss of his nostalgic ideal and the permanence of his future, his home, in Jerusalem.