Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 788

The image Shmuel Yosef Agnon projected in public as well as in his narrating persona is that of a simple, pious man. Certainly a practicing Jew, immersed from childhood in an Orthodox religious tradition, Agnon was also well read in German, Russian, French, and Scandinavian literature. The writer with whom Agnon is most often compared is Franz Kafka, who also evokes, perhaps more vividly, an unsettling world where ordinary laws of time, space, and logic do not apply. While some critics derive this quality directly from the telescoping of time and place that marks Jewish homiletic literature, others trace it to a resurgence of the Romantic spirit in Europe in the late nineteenth century, which, admittedly, was influenced by folklore and spirituality. In any case, characteristic of Romantic writing is the impression made on the reader of the subjective nature of the narrative.

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Nightmare and irony result when a character attempts and, inevitably, fails to internalize and comprehend the outside world. Readers may miss the cosmic and bleak comedy in Agnon and Kafka; catastrophes, especially those of modern history, also are likely to influence readers’ understandings of works written before the Holocaust. The choice of Agnon as recipient of the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature not only recognized his prodigious body of work but also—along with that of cowinner Nelly Sachs, a poet of the Holocaust—acknowledged the shocking fate of European Jewry in the twentieth century. Agnon’s saturation of his fiction with Jewish folklore and religious tradition can be argued to have fulfilled a historical role, as it preserves, in the pages of books and the minds of readers, a world that faced annihilation.

In the Heart of the Seas clearly reflects Agnon’s creative use of folk styles and motifs. A folk device Agnon employs, for example, is that of the story within a story. When a new character is introduced, the main plot line is abandoned while the character’s history is related, so that the new character’s story is interwoven with the frame story. An often playful narrative personality presides. Agnon slyly projects himself into the novel in the character of Rabbi Shmuel Yosef the storyteller, whose tales of Zion inspire the pilgrims. The style of the novel is that of a pious folktale, its ostensible purpose articulated in a colophon reminiscent of those found in medieval manuscripts: “There are those who shall read my book like a man reading books of legends, and there are those who shall read and derive some benefit for themselves.”

In a period marked by the rise of fascism and mass emigration to Palestine, in which secular Zionism dominated Hebrew writing, Agnon revived a romantic, deeply spiritual yearning for Zion. As is demonstrated by In the Heart of the Seas, the typical subject of Agnon’s fiction is the dispossessed. While this choice of subject is far from unique, Agnon’s treatment is distinguished by how he connects dispossession and homelessness to the complex of symbols expressing the concept of exile in Jewish tradition. Agnon is able to draw upon a storehouse of language and imagery to represent the state of rootlessness. Folklore is also a way to interpret the phenomena, endowing his fiction with a remarkable coherence.

In the Heart of the Seas throws the traditional antithesis of exile and Israel into relief. The movement from Buczacz to Jerusalem forms the plot of the novel. The renewal for which one hopes upon entering the Holy Land is exemplified by Hananiah, who appears to grow younger and stronger with each year spent there. Hananiah is an agent of tikun, or reparation of the broken and alienated things of the world in exile. He fixes and restores holy objects and also helps to solve the problem of Zusha’s widow. The reuniting of Rabbi Yosef Meir and his wife in Israel signifies this power of tikun.

Characteristic of the ambivalence that pervades Agnon’s writing, however, violence and poverty prey on the pilgrims in Israel, as violence and poverty preyed on them in exile. Another area of ambivalence is toward the miraculous and pietistic. The reader does not always know if miracles are intended to be accepted at face value or not.

Agnon’s conscious incorporation of Jewish folklore in his novels and stories follows a major trend in Hebrew and Yiddish literature since the 1870’s. In this tradition, a playful, ironic tone and structural elements betray works of fiction as something other than the naïve work of simple piety. Instead of answers to how one can resolve contradictions between past and present, between practical nation building and spiritual yearning, between vision and reality, Agnon, imaginative writer that he is, gives only wondrous and perplexing stories.

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