Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Poland in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries
The combination of a series of wars in the seventeenth century and corrupt Polish rulers in the eighteenth century left Poland in a shattered state. At the end of the eighteenth century, the Polish king’s close alliance with Russia left Poland virtually ruled by the Russians. In 1772, the Polish government was so weak that Prussia, Russia, and Austria agreed to annex portions of Poland, launching a series of partitions of the country that continued through the early nineteenth century and essentially wiped the nation off the map until just after World War I.

During the 1790s, Napoleon Bonaparte of France recruited thousands of Poles for his effort to capture land belonging to Austria, Russia, and Prussia, assuring them that he would restore their nation in exchange for their services. This never came about, and in 1815 the country was partitioned once again. A large part of what was once Poland went to the Russians, and it is in a small village in this region that Henne and her neighbors lived.

From 1815 until 1917, various Russian kings, or tsars, ruled Poland. This period was marked by a succession of revolutions and uprisings within Poland against the tsar. Typically, tsarist rule in Poland was harsh and repressive; for example, after the unsuccessful January Uprising of 1863, the Russians responded by shutting down the universities and schools and outlawing the speaking of Polish in public places. While serfdom was abolished in Russia by 1861, this abolition did not extend to her Polish territories.


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Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

The image of fire is used throughout the story: Henne’s last name was Fire; fire seemed to follow her wherever she went; and finally, fire was responsible for her death. Fire is so prevalent and so closely linked to Henne that it can be interpreted as a symbol of her life.

Fire has two primary features: it both destroys and purifies whatever it touches. The fires surrounding Henne can be seen as a representation of evil, something that destroys people and societies. As well, it can be seen as a purifying force; Henne may be a scapegoat, carrying the sins of the villagers within her. Her destruction at the end of the story may be a representation of the town attempting to rid itself of sins or evil.

Singer wrote ‘‘Henne Fire’’ in a very familiar and casual tone. Beginning with the story’s opening lines, there is a strong sense that the narrator is relating the tale in an intimate setting. The narrator’s use of phrases such as ‘‘Now listen to what happened’’ and ‘‘My dear people’’ interspersed throughout the story indicate the narrator’s intention to make a direct connection with his readers.

The narrator is revealed early in the story to be one of Henne’s neighbors, someone who might well know the details of her life. Furthermore, the neighbor places himself or herself in the middle of a number of scenes, as if to add authority to the telling.


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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Bezanker, Abraham, ‘‘I. B. Singer’s Crisis of Identity,’’ in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 1972, pp. 70–88.

Cohen, Sarah Blacher, ‘‘Hens to Roosters: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Female Species,’’ in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 10, No. 2, Autumn 1982, pp. 173–84.

Gitenstein, R. Barbara, ‘‘Singer, Isaac Bashevis,’’ in Reference Guide to American Literature, 3d ed., edited by Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 1994.

Gottlieb, Elaine, Review, in Southern Review, Vol. VII, No. 2, Spring 1972.

Green, Norman, ‘‘The Salon Interview: Isaac Bashevis Singer,’’ in Salon.com, April 28,...

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Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1800s: Poland does not exist as a separate, sovereign nation but as a territory of Russia. Efforts to suppress any glimmer of Polish nationality include closing all of the universities.

1960s: Poland is a nominally independent country economically and militarily controlled by the Soviet Union, although with more autonomy than many other Soviet client states. It is referred to as the Polish People’s Republic.

Today: Poland is a constitutional republic with no political ties to Russia.

1800s: The vast majority of Poles work in rural areas or on small family farms. 1960s: The Polish economy is experiencing near total collapse, and the price of food and other goods begins to skyrocket.

Today: About 19 percent of the Polish workforce is involved in agriculture, but Poland still experiences difficulty meeting its requirements for food and feed grains. Other economic sectors include fertilizers, electronics, ship building, and petrochemicals.

1800s: Poland is home to one of the largest contingents of Jews in Europe, including the Ashkenazi (from other parts of Central and Eastern Europe) and Sephardi (refugees from the Spanish Inquisition and Portugal). However, under the rule of the Russian tsars, Jews are not granted the same rights as Christians until the 1860s. By the close of the century, many Jews are leaving Poland for Western Europe, prompted by a surge in...

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Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

In the story, the narrator indicates that a demon possessed Henne. What do you think caused Henne to behave as she did? Write a short essay explaining Henne’s behavior and include evidence from the story and other sources (such as medical, scientific, or psychology texts) to support your argument.

Research the origins, history, and current status of the Yiddish language. Create a map to show how it has been transported from Central Europe to various parts of the world. Yiddish has incorporated words from many other languages, such as German, English, and Russian; and English has also adopted some Yiddish words. To go with your map, create a chart showing some of these borrowings.

Investigate the history of the Jews in Poland from the 1800s through today. Create a time line showing critical dates and brief explanations of the events.

‘‘Henne Fire’’ is packed with strong visual images. Create storyboards for a movie version of the story. Decide which scenes and images you would include and how you would bring them to life.

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What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories (1996), translated by Hillel Halkin, is a collection of Sholem Aleichem’s Yiddish stories from the early 1900s. Aleichem’s tales about Tevye, considered some of the finest examples of storytelling in all of literature, formed the basis for the popular musical Fiddler on the Roof.

Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers (1994) presents an anthology of tales about life in Eastern European shtetls (Yiddish neighborhoods or villages), the Holocaust, and Jewish immigration to the United States and Israel. This collection includes stories previously available only in Yiddish and was edited by Frieda Forman, Ethel Raicus, Sarah Swartz, and Margie Wolfe.

The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (1983) includes forty-seven of Singer’s short stories selected by the author. The collection features some of Singer’s lesser-known works as well as such classics as ‘‘Gimpel the Fool,’’ ‘‘The Dead Fiddler,’’ and ‘‘A Friend of Kafka.’’

Singer’s first major work, Satan in Goray (1996), originally published in Yiddish in 1935 as Shoten an Goray, takes place in seventeenth-century Eastern Europe during a period that featured anti-Semitic pogroms—official efforts to persecute or eradicate the Jews—and a false messiah called Shabbatai Zevi.

Singer originally wrote Shadows on the Hudson as a...

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