S. Y. Agnon Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

S. Y. Agnon 1888-1970

(Born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes; also transliterated as Josef; wrote under the pseudonym Shmuel Yosef Agnon) Israeli novelist, short story writer, novella writer, editor, and essayist. See also S. Y. Agnon Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism and S. Y. Agnon Contemporary Literary Criticism.

A major twentieth-century author, Agnon was one of two writers to receive the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966. Nevertheless, his international fame has been limited by the fact that he wrote primarily in Hebrew and devoted most of his fiction to the consideration of Judaic history, culture, and language. Yet Agnon's underlying commentary on the plight of the individual in the modern world has universal application, highlighting the growing disintegration of community and spiritual faith and the accompanying spread of secular and materialistic values and cultural rootlessness. Furthermore, his skill as a writer is unquestioned: Agnon is highly regarded for his adroit use of modernist literary techniques and exceptional control of language.

Biographical Information

Agnon was born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes on July 17, 1888 in the city of Buczacz in Galicia, an historical region of southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. His father, an ordained rabbi and a fur trader by profession, was an Hasidic Jew who exposed his son to rabbinic texts, the Bible, and Talmud and maintained a family library in which his son spent much time. Agnon attended a small local school, studied privately with a teacher, and also received tutelage in German, which enabled him to read European literature in German translation. In 1906 Agnon became an assistant to the publisher of a small Jewish weekly journal; during the next year or so, a number of his poems appeared in that publication. In 1907, at the age of nineteen, he traveled to Palestine, where he stayed for six years, mainly in the city of Jaffa. There he became first secretary of the Jewish court and secretary of the National Jewish Council. Agnon also published several stories in the newspaper Hapo'el Hatzair. The title of one of these, "Agunot" (1908), was adopted—with slight modification—as his pseudonym.

Agnon departed for Berlin in 1913. At this time Germany was a melting pot of sorts. Agnon observed various Jewish groups coming into contact there, and the culture of persecuted Jews who had immigrated from rural villages in eastern Europe stood in stark contrast to that of the comparatively cosmopolitan German Jews and of Zionists (those Jews who called for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine). Agnon was struck by the difference between the Judaism of tradition and that of modern Jews subsumed by secular society. While in Germany, Agnon became friends with the eminent Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem and the businessman Salman Schocken, with whom he shared an interest in old Hebrew books. Schocken served as Agnon's patron, enabling the young author to focus on his writing. Other noted figures with whom Agnon associated while in Germany include the philosopher Martin Buber, the poet Hayyim Bialik, and Ahad Ha'am, a vocal proponent of Zionism. Agnon returned to Palestine in 1924, settling permanently just outside Jerusalem. In 1931 the initial volumes of The Collected Works of S. Y. Agnon were published in Hebrew by Schocken. Agnon continued to live and write in Palestine (officially Israel as of 1948), and eventually became a celebrated figure in his country. In 1966 he received the Nobel Prize along with the German poet and dramatist Nelly Sachs. Agnon died in 1970.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Agnon's stories display striking diversity. His narratives include coming-of-age tales such as "The Kerchief"; magical fables such as "Pisces" and "Buczacz"; unusual love stories such as "Metamorphosis" and "First Kiss"; and accounts of modern alienation such as "A Whole Loaf" and "At the Outset of the Day." Other works, like "The Tale of the Menorah" and "Fernheim," explore the relationship of Judaism to political turmoil and exile. Agnon's stories often have the quality of folk literature and legend but incorporate modern literary techniques and devices such as shifting points of view, wordplay, symbolism, historical allusions, nonlinear narratives, and intermingling of fantasy and reality. Agnon's literary inspiration and allusions are rooted largely in Jewish culture, language, and history. Nitza Ben-Dov has observed that, "Most of Agnon's fictional works are composed of all the many linguistic strata of Hebrew, from the Bible and on through the Mishnah, the Talmud, the midrash, the prayerbook, the medieval Hebrew poets, the rabbinic commentaries, and the Hasidic tales of Eastern Europe." Nonetheless, Agnon was also familiar with the writings of German authors and those of Scandinavian, Russian, and French authors in German translation.

Like Austrian writer Franz Kafka, with whom he is often compared, Agnon occasionally depicted characters rendered ineffectual by vacillation, passivity, or psychological inertia. Employing a version of these themes, "The Face and the Image" tells of a man who is summoned to visit his sick mother but is prevented from doing so by a series of absurd obstacles. Similarly, "To the Doctor" revolves around the device of numerous delays, which in this tale contribute to the death of a sick man. Kafka and Agnon also shared the ability to create surrealistic, dreamlike stories in which the world seems menacing or inhospitable. Agnon's "The Lady and the Pedlar," which contains more atmosphere than plot, is of this mold. As well, many of Agnon's characters, like those of Kafka, suffer from alienation. Nahum N. Glatzer has observed that in Agnon's Kafkaesque stories, "Man is lonely, homeless, in exile; meaning disintegrates, lines of communication break down; there is no exit."

As already suggested, Agnon often focuses on the difficulty of establishing and sustaining relationships. The protagonist of "The Doctor's Divorce" is a doctor (and therefore a man of science trained to rely on reason and objectivity) who cannot dispel the unsubstantiated suspicion that his wife had an affair prior to their marriage. Eventually his inner turmoil brings the marriage to an end, in spite of the doctor's unabating love for his wife. In "The Tale of the Scribe" the main character's holy calling as a scribe of religious texts proves to be incompatible with normal human relationships, or with earthly existence for that matter. The novella Betrothed, which treats the subject of unfulfilled love, tells of a scientist lured away from his betrothed and from Judaism by the temptations of worldliness and modern life.

Critical Reception

Agnon is the most accomplished author of fiction to have written in Hebrew. Commentators have attributed part of the subtlety and complexity of his writing to the capacity of that language. According to David Patterson, "The ancient vocabulary of Hebrew is pregnant with associations of all kinds, and the skillful juxtaposition of words and phrases can be made to yield a variety of nuances. Linguistically, as well as thematically, Agnon's writings can be read at different levels." With regard to many foreign-language authors, scholars have debated whether the art of their writing can be sufficiently conveyed in translation. In the case of Agnon, that question has often taken center stage. Noted author Cynthia Ozick observed that, "For decades, Agnon scholars (and Agnon is a literary industry) have insisted that it is no use trying to get at Agnon in any language other than the original. The idea of Agnon in translation has been repeatedly disparaged; he has been declared inaccessible to the uninitiated even beyond the usual truisms concerning the practical difficulties of translation. His scriptural and talmudic resonances and nuances, his historical and textual layerings, his allusive and elusive echoings and patternings, are so marvelously multiform, dense, and imbricated that he is daunting even to the most sophisticated Hebrew readers." Setting aside issues of translation, critics generally agree that Agnon was concerned foremost with the enduring relevance and meaning of Judaism through history. According to Lippman Bodoff, "The struggle to provide and maintain a Jewish identity as the core of Israeli culture, in the face of the chasm in Jewish life opened up by modernity between the self and reason at war with community and faith, is an underlying theme in much of Agnon's work." Agnon saw growing secularity and loss of tradition as threats to Judaism, community, and spiritual piety that would eventually lead to isolation and alienation. Conflicts and oppositions similar to these run throughout the author's works. Bodoff, though speaking specifically about Betrothed, identified a pervading theme in Agnon's fiction, "a battle between Past and Future, Religion and Nature, Spirituality and Science, Hebraism and Paganism, Jewish tradition and Greek and Roman culture, God and Nature . . . ." Agnon's subtlety as an artist is evidenced by the fact that the victor in those battles is not always apparent.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

VU Kapot ha-Man'ul 1922

Bidmi yameha (novella) 1923

*Sefer Hama'asim 1932

Bi-levav Yamim [In the Heart of the Seas: A Story of a Journey to the Land of Israel] (novella) 1935

Elu va-Elu [A Dwelling Place of My People: Sixteen Stories of the Chassidim] 1941

**Shevu'ath Emunim (novella) 1943

**Edo ve-Enam (novella) 1950

Ad 'olam [Forevermore] (novella) 1954

Selected Stories of S. Y. Agnon 1970

Twenty-One Stories 1970


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Curt Leviant (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Seeing into the Hidden Interior of Things," in Saturday Review, May 16, 1970, pp. 27-30, 46-8.

[In the following excerpt, Leviant observes that Agnon incorporated some of his favorite themes into the narratives of Twenty-One Stories, a collection that the critic perceives as steeped in Hebrew history, culture, and language.]

In Twenty-one Stories we see the themes that had become almost obsessive with Agnon throughout his long career: loss of home, exile from family, Diaspora, alienation, despair, loss of faith. Half of the stories come from Agnon's Sefer ha-Maasim (variously translated as Book of Tales, Deeds,...

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Baruch Hochman (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Whole Loaf: Agnon's Tales of the Ancestral World," in The Fiction of S. Y. Agnon, Cornell University Press, 1970, pp. 29-52.

[In the following excerpt, Hochman surveys Agnon's short fiction treating the culture of the shtetl, the Hebrew village prior to the nineteenth century.]

About a third of Agnon's work directly reflects the culture of the shtetl before its final decline. Entirely devoted to a limited range of experience in the century preceding Agnon's birth, such work takes the form of folk tales in the idiom of the faithful who enjoyed the "whole loaf" of experience within the ancestral tradition. The civilization of the...

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Robert Alter (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Agnon's Mediterranean Fable," in Defenses of the Imagination: Jewish Writers and Modern Historical Crisis, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1977, pp. 187-98.

[In the following excerpt, Alter calls attention to Agnon's intermingling of ancient Hebrew and Greek worlds in Betrothed, a strategy that enhances the story's fabulous quality, according to the critic]

S. Y. Agnon was a writer often fascinated with fabulous antiquity, but what is peculiar about Betrothed, one of his most intricately devised and original tales, is its seemingly promiscuous intermingling of different ancient worlds. The story is set in the early Zionist...

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Leon I. Yudkin (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Symbolic Analogue in Agnon's 'Metamorphosis'," in Escape into Siege: A Survey of Israeli Literature Today, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974, pp. 57-70.

[In the following excerpt, Yudkin examines Agnon's narrative technique as it is demonstrated in "Metamorphosis" ("Panim aherot"), focusing on the author's ability to suggest character histories extending beyond the events explicitly described in the story. Note: The title of the story, here translated as "Metamorphosis," is also known as "Another Face" (see Lev Hakak, 1986).]

The purpose of this [essay] is to examine a single story by S. Y. Agnon and thus investigate certain aspects of his narrative...

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Bernard Knieger (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Shmuel Yosef Agnon's The Face and the Image'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 12, Spring, 1975, pp. 184-85.

[In the following essay, Knieger attempts to define the central theme of the story "The Face and the Image" ("Ha-panim la-panim").]

One of the Agnon stones in Twenty-One Stories is "The Face and the Image." But this title is a metaphorical translation of the Hebrew "Ha-panim la-panim," which literally translates into "The Face to the Face." The editor Nahum N. Glatzer in his "Editorial Postscript" writes (on page 283) that the "Hebrew title of the story is taken from Proverbs 27:19, which the standard translations render as, 'As in the...

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Harold Fisch (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Book of Fables," in S. Y. Agnon, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York, 1975, pp. 68-83.

[In the following excerpt, Fisch examines dreamlike aspects of the stories in Book of Fables, which is also known as Books of Deeds.]

[There is a] combination in Agnon's fiction of the dreaming and waking consciousness, but [it remains to be] determined what kind of dreams these are. They are surely not typically Freudian or Jungian dreams, though it would be easy to find features to support a Freudian or Jungian analysis. What we seem to have is a specific Agnonian type of dream with a syntax all its own; with anxieties, hopes and terrors which can best be...

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Esther Fuchs (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Edo and Enam'—The Ironic Perspective," in Modern Language Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 85-100.

[In the following essay, Fuchs maintains that an understanding of Edo and Enam as an ironic story enables the reader to make sense of the story's "strangeness," namely its "digressions, internal contradictions, sudden transitions from realism to phantasy [sic], neologisms and anachronisms."]


It would seem that a story as widely explained and thoroughly interpreted as Edo and Enam requires no further explanations. The numerous allegorical interpretations of this enigmatic story left...

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David Aberbach (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Passivity in Agnon," in At the Handles of the Lock: Themes in the Fiction of S. J. Agnon, The Littman Library, 1984, pp. 31-59.

[In the following excerpt, Aberbach studies the meaning underlying the passivity of characters in Agnon's short fiction.]

No characteristic of the Agnon hero is more pervasive, more problematical and deeply rooted than his passivity. In his contact with women and men, whether they are relatives, friends, acquaintances, or officials, his passivity shows itself in his indecisiveness, his failure to act or to complete his actions, his willingness to wait aimlessly, his malleability, "femininity", and masochism, his blind submission to...

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Esther Fuchs (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wherefrom Did Gediton Enter Gumlidata?—Realism and Comic Subversiveness in 'Forevermore'," in Modern Language Studies, Vol. 15, No. 4, Fall, 1985, pp. 64-79.

[In the following essay, Fuchs focuses on the protagonistboth his characterization and behaviorin Forevermore (Ad Olam) in order to reveal "the underlying irony of the story, which is its most salient feature."]


S. Y. Agnon's story Ad Olam (Forevermore) has stirred much critical controversy over its ideological meaning. [In Pesher agnon, 1968] Meshulam Tochner sees the story as a polemic against modern Biblical...

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Lev Hakak (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sexual Symbols in 'Another Face' by S. Y. Agnon," in Hebrew Annual Review, Vol. 10, 1986, pp. 95-108.

[In the following essay, Hakak offers a Freudian interpretation of "Another Face" ("Panini aherot"), claiming that sexual symbols pervade the story. Note: The title of the story, here translated as "Another Face," is also known as "Metamorphosis" (see Leon I. Yudkin, 1974).]

Michael was grateful to her for her not interpreting his dream according to Freud and his School.

S. Y. Agnon, "Another Face," Dec. 12, 1932, edition, Dabar



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Yair Mazor (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "S. Y. Agnon's Art of Composition: The Befuddling Turn of the Compositional Screw," in Hebrew Annual Review, Vol. 10, 1986, pp. 197-208.

[In the following essay, Mazor uses the stories "Between Two Cities" ("Ben sete 'arim") and "Two Scholars Who Lived in Our Town" ("Sne talmide hakamim sehayu be 'irenu") to demonstrate that Agnon sometimes employs puzzling narrative structure and plot development as conscious strategies.]

1. Preamble

A remarkably intriguing aspect in S. Y. Agnon's art of composition is that in a considerable number of his works, the reader is confronted by a strikingly confusing organization. As the story's plot seems...

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Naomi Sokoloff (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Passion Spins the Plot: Agnon's 'Forevermore'," in Tradition and Trauma: Studies in the Fiction of S. J. Agnon, edited by David Patterson and Glenda Abramson, Westview Press, 1994, pp. 9-26.

[In the following essay, Sokoloff asserts that the plot of Forevermore (Ad Olam), which features "repetition, circularity, episodic fragmentation of narrative line, and disconnected events," is intended by Agnon to lend irony to the ostensible progress made by the protagonist.]

Agnon's Forevermore (Ad 'olam), a short story riddled with ironies and contradictions, features as its protagonist a scholar who has single-mindedly devoted twenty...

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Miri Kubovy (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Doctor's Dilemma: The Nature of Jealousy in Agnon's 'The Doctor and His Divorcée'," in Hebrew Studies, Vol. 30, 1989, pp. 41-7.

[In the following essay, Kubovy provides a psychological analysis of the protagonist's jealousy in "The Doctor and His Divorcée."]

There are many different interpretations of the story "The Doctor and His Divorcée." The story has been analyzed for spiritual, religious, social, and psychological meanings. I will concentrate on the psychological aspects of the story, focusing especially on the nature of jealousy and the interplay among its various components.

In this story a doctor meets a nurse named Dinah and...

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Gershon Shaked (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Genres and Forms, the Novella, and the Short Stories," in Shmuel Yosef Agnon: A Revolutionary Traditionalist, translated by Jeffrey M. Green, New York University Press, New York, 1989, pp. 167-241.

[In the following excerpt, Shaked identifies five primary types of short stories written by Agnon.]

The Fantastic Folk Tale

A thorough study of even one story belonging to each of Agnon's genres is beyond the scope of this study; thus, I have chosen to analyze five so-called poles from the entire work, beginning with the short folk story "Three Sisters."

"Three Sisters" was first published in 1937 and is typical of...

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Lippman Bodoff (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kabbalistic Feminism in Agnon's 'Betrothed'," in Judaism, Vol. 42, Fall, 1993, pp. 423-34.

[In the following essay, Bodoff interprets Betrothed as a symbolic tale in which the modern Jew (represented by the protagonist Jacob) is torn between Hebraism (in the figure of Shoshanah) and the appeal of the secular worldliness (as symbolized by Jacob's travels, career, and involvement with gentile women).]


The struggle to provide and maintain a Jewish identity as the core of Israeli culture, in the face of the chasm in Jewish life opened up by modernity between the self and reason at war with community and...

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Nitza Ben-Dov (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Web of Biblical Allusion," in Agnon's Art of Indirection: Uncovering Latent Content in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon, E. J. Brill, Leiden, Netherlands, 1993, pp. 135-52.

[In the following excerpt, Ben-Dov contends that a buried layer of biblical allusion in "The Dance of Death, or the Lovely and Pleasant" belies the overt meaning of the story.)

Agnon's scriptural and talmudic resonances and nuances, his historical and textual layers, his allusive and elusive echoings and patternings, are so marvelously multiform, dense, and imbricated that he is daunting even to the most sophisticated Hebrew readers.


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Naomi B. Sokoloff (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Expressing and Repressing the Female Voice in S. Y. Agnon's In the Prime of Her Life" in Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing, edited by Judith R. Baskin, Wayne State University Press, 1994, pp. 216-33.

[In the following essay, Sokoloff offers a feminist reading of the novella In the Prime of Her Life.]

While the last fifteen years have witnessed an upsurge of interest in feminist critical thought and literary interpretation, few attempts have been made to explore the implications of gender as a thematic concern in modern Hebrew texts. Yet Hebrew warrants special feminist examination because of its exceptional history as a holy tongue that...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Band, Arnold J. Bibliography and Appendixes. In Nostalgia and Nightmare: A Study in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon, pp. 453-524; pp. 525-56. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968, 563 p.

Extensive bibliography of works by and about Agnon. The secondary bibliography consists entirely of works published in Hebrew.

Kabakoff, Jacob. "S. Y. Agnon's Works in English Translation" Jewish Book Annual 25 (1967): 39-41.

Identifies English-language translations of more than 30 stories by Agnon in anthologies and such journals as Ariel, Commentary, Jewish...

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