Jews in Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Jews in Literature

Jews have been a presence in continental literature since the Middle Ages and in American literature since the nineteenth century. Christian writers, as scholars point out, have been fairly consistent in representing Jews in terms of the ethnic stereotype, but that trend has been shifting in the second half of the twentieth century toward a more complex and realistic characterization. In literature as well as in western culture, Jews have been traditionally portrayed as foreign, mysterious aliens associated with money (especially money-lending) and power in society. Shylock, one of the central characters of William Shakespeare's drama The Merchant of Venice (1600), perhaps best exemplifies this kind of characterization.

Modern critics have actively investigated the attitude of many major writers toward Jews as evidenced in their personal writings as well as in their works. For example, Maud Ellmann has explored the image of Jews projected in the works of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, finding implied anti-Semitism in the case of Eliot, and very overt anti-Semitism in Pound's poetry and radio speeches delivered during World War II. Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), has been the subject of numerous studies, notably by Harry Girling. Ronald Granofsky has connected elements of anti-Semitism in the writings of D. H. Lawrence with his ideas regarding race and masculinity. Pointing out both conscious and subconscious strains of anti-Semitism in the writings of Virginia Woolf and Stevie Smith, Phyllis Lassner has discussed the two writers' responses to the coming of World War II. In a similar vein, Susan Rubin Suleiman has examined Jean-Paul Sartre's Refléxions sur la question juive (1946), discovering buried anti-Semitic elements in this essay criticizing the treatment of Jews in France.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, the image of Jews in literature has been transformed by the Holocaust, a watershed event for Jews and many gentiles who have struggled to find a way to express their thoughts and feelings about the horrific events of World War II. When critics discuss Jews in literature in this century, they usually refer both to Jewish characters in literature and to Jewish authors. In the case of either group, the Holocaust has proven a defining moment in history. After the events of World War II, gentile writers have written more sympathetically about Jews in European and American society. Some critics have noted that Jews have become a symbol of persecution, endurance, and moral courage in late-twentieth-century literature. Many Jewish writers, on the other hand, have undergone a painful personal journey to re-examine their identity and heritage. They have also written about the paradoxical process of trying to find a language and a literary framework for writing about events that seem to be, by their very nature, unimaginable and unutterable. Scholars have praised such writers as Elie Wiesel, Nelly Sachs, Ernst Weichart, and Hermann Kasack for their courage in articulating the Holocaust experience. Much critical attention has been focused on the portrayal of the Holocaust in literature—whether personal accounts by survivors, in documentary and historical writings, or in prose fiction and poetry. Such scholars as Lawrence L. Langer, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Edward R. Isser, and Michael André Bernstein have explored various aspects of the literature of the Holocaust, from implications for Jewish writers' religious faith to the enacting of Holocaust experiences on stage.