(Short Stories for Students)

While Henne is the main character in Singer’s story, the community plays a vital role, at times performing as a single entity with a single voice. The story is set in a very insular village in Poland before World War I, and it is told by one of Henne’s neighbors. Although Singer refers to gentile characters a couple of times, the community in which Henne Fire lived seemed to be primarily Jewish. Everyone knows one another, and Henne is especially well-known throughout the village.

Singer depicts the villagers constantly attempting to mollify Henne’s rage. After her husband left and she was unable to work, many people brought food to her house—‘‘in a small town one is not allowed to starve,’’ notes the narrator. Henne’s actions and behavior deeply concerned the entire village, especially after her house burned to the ground and she had nowhere to live. The rabbi eventually allowed her to live with his family, but the community decided that it was best if she had her own fireproof home, and a group collaborated and contributed their labors to build Henne a new house.

As much as the villagers seemed wary of Henne, there was also a note of guilt in their attitudes toward her. The narrator mentions that Henne ‘‘suffered greatly for her sins,’’ but also notes that the villagers were loathe ‘‘to pay for the sins of another’’ by tolerating Henne’s crazy behavior. In a few instances, the villagers were moments away from forcing Henne from the town, but intervening acts consistently delayed her forced departure.

Images of fire appear throughout Singer’s story and are primarily used to associate Henne with evil. Sometimes these are actual fires, while other times they seem to be figurative or symbolic fires. The fires in the story often seem to have a life of their own, taking on the likeness of an evil spirit or demon.

The neighbor who narrates the story refers to ‘‘a blaze’’ that was always inside Henne, as if fire were consuming her. Her skin was black, her eyes were like ‘‘two coals,’’ and she was always angry. In addition, Henne was emaciated and unable to put on weight, as if something inside her was burning up any food she ate.

When Henne’s house caught on fire, the flames ‘‘danced and turned somersaults.’’ Even after her neighbors put out the fire, another fire the next morning ignited her bed sheets and the garbage and baked a piece of dough. Later that day, Henne accused her neighbors of setting the fire, and pleaded with the rabbi to take her into his home. However, as she spoke to the rabbi, her kerchief burst into flames and her house caught fire once again. The fire took the shape of ‘‘a man with long hair,’’...

(The entire section is 1137 words.)