S. Y. Agnon

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Curt Leviant (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2458

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, or Happenings), one of the heights of Agnon's achievements. In these surreal works action takes place in a world devoid of laws of time and place, cause and effect, and, occasionally, life and death. Here Agnon accents modes of perceptions and experience normally blocked in realistic fiction. And in subverting the rational, normal order, Agnon instills in us a metaphysical fear as we see into the hidden interior of things.

Although some of the stories have no particularly Jewish slant, it should be remembered that Agnon is primarily a Jewish artist, fashioning the raw materials within the framework of the Hebrew word, Jewish imagery and allusions, and a Jewish world view. His method of shaping, converting and balancing the material, however, is Western, inspired by his acknowledged reading of the French, Russian, and Scandinavian writers and the German Neo-Romantic masters. Agnon's esthetics should also be seen in the light of the Central European mode of writing which accents the meditative approach, and in which inner dynamics outweigh dramatic action, as in the Swiss Gottfried Keller, the Austrians Robert Musil and Adalbert Stifter, and the Czech Kafka.

Whereas extensive exegesis is not usually necessary for Agnon's other works, these stories, rich in allusion and Kafkaesque in complexity, nearly always need explication. Like all good fiction, they may be said to have an outer and an inner life; the latter is often evident only to the reader in Hebrew who can react to various motifs and crucial words and terms with multi-meanings, or phrases from the Bible and Talmud woven into the text.

Among the more memorable tales in Twenty-one Stories are the antipodal "Metamorphosis," which begins with divorce and seems to end in love, and "The Doctor's Divorce," where the reverse occurs. In "Metamorphosis" a divorced couple, Hartmann and Toni, achieve new degrees of communication and understanding after the bonds of their marriage are formally severed. Following a long walk in the country, they stop to eat supper at an inn and spend the night in separate rooms. Hartmann thinks of his two daughters and of Toni, whose image he embraces. Although not definite, the lyrical ending seems to indicate that a reconciliation is possible:

Once again she appeared before him. . . . his eyes closed . . . his soul fell asleep, and his spirit began to hover in the world of dreams, where no partition separated them.

"The Doctor's Divorce," on the other hand, deals with the gradual erosion of love. A doctor who marries a nurse, Dinah, cannot rid himself of the suspicion that his wife has had an affair before their marriage. Despite the strong love that the nurse has for her husband, the irrational doubt by a man of science and rational sensibility destroys the marriage, just as monomaniac probing of a supposed flaw ultimately leads to destruction in Hawthorne's "The Birthmark."

The theme of absence from home and estrangement is pursued in "Fernheim," in which a man returns from a prisoner-of-war camp and finds his wife gone, won over by another who he thought had been killed in a landslide. Stories with similar motifs thrust the reader into the world of homelessness from the very first sentence:

The train was lost among the mountains and could not find its way. ("On the Road")

After the enemy destroyed my home I took my little daughter in my arms and fled with her to the city. ("At the Outset of the Day")

Close to the Passover holiday it happened. I was far away from my father's house and my home town. ("To Father's House")

Yet, despite the nightmarish qualities of unresolved and occasionally paralyzed will, some stories end with hope or signs of positive resolution, an indication that even in a shattered world optimism is possible.

These stories contain various gradations of Jewish material. The simplest, and the common denominator, is Agnon's richly nuanced and stylized Hebrew, apparent in stories like "Fernheim" and "Metamorphosis," which contain no Jewish milieu, imagery, or theme. The symbolic tales, though tangentially Jewish in background and general in plot (desire for a whole loaf in a restaurant, attendance at a concert) are weighted with meanings involving crucial Jewish issues such as faith, alienation, and wholeness of spirit. Another category, minimally represented in Twenty-one Stories, is that where the European Jewish milieu is fully recreated and where traditional Jewish referents, characters, plot, and language combine to make a completely Jewish tale.

Such a story is the nostalgic "The Kerchief." The young narrator longs for his father's return from the fair. The central object in the tale is a holiday kerchief which the father brings his wife. The narrator relates the joy of the father's return, and the tranquility and delight of the Sabbath when the family is reunited. The boy had previously dreamt of the Messiah who would lead everyone to the Land of Israel, and recalls the Jewish legend that the Messiah sits among beggars of Rome binding his wounds. The dream becomes vivified later in the story when a poor beggar (aligned with the Messiah) comes to town. The boy binds the beggar's sores with the most precious object he possesses: his mother's kerchief, given him for his Bar Mitzvah. In parting with the beloved possession to do a mitzvah, a good deed, he is accorded both supernatural approval ("the sun came and stroked my neck") and the approval of his mother ("Ere I had ended asking her to forgive me she was gazing at me with love and affection.").

One reason perhaps why so little of Agnon has appeared in English is the difficulty of translation. In translating fiction the problem of culture rather than language is uppermost. With Hebrew, whose literature is rooted in a religio-cultural tradition, this problem is compounded. One can readily translate words, but not cultural intimacy. To truly understand everything in a classically Hebrew work, a reader would have to be familiar with a good deal of the Jewish culture's usable past.

This holds true especially for the writings of Agnon, whose Hebrew is inseparable from the mainstream of the classical Hebrew tradition. Although Agnon is difficult to translate, paradoxically he is not so difficult to read. The average Jew with a traditional Jewish education consisting of Hebrew, Bible, and some Talmud would have no difficulty in reading and understanding Agnon; yet this same person would find himself lost with contemporary Israeli writers who use mid-twentieth-century, post-State of Israel idiom, colloquialisms, and slang.

The vocabulary of S.Y. Agnon is classic and simple. The difficulty in translating him is not in rendering a recondite idiom, but in conveying the essence of his allusions and prismatic meanings. Like Dante, much of Agnon can be read on various levels. Beyond the story—the framework upon which all other levels of meaning depend—there can also be the allegorical, religious and mystical level, corresponding to the four categories of Hebrew Biblical interpretation.

A translator of Agnon must also be aware of the endless array of quotes and phrases from the entirety of Hebrew literature, the past of Jewish existence. At times Agnon warns the reader with the introductory words "As it is written" or "As it is said." The reader and translator are then on guard for the classical phrase that follows. But more often Agnon's allusions and phrases blend smoothly into the fabric of his prose. It is the reader's obligation to be prepared for these verbal enrichments and properly estimate their value, flavor, and tone.

Two examples from Twenty-one Stories should suffice. In the concluding line of a little folk tale, "Fable of the Goat," which reads (in my translation): "May he flourish in old age, sprouting in verdure, in the land of the living, tranquil and secure," Agnon alludes to three different Biblical verses, and at the same time parodies the maqama technique. One phrase is from the Psalm of the Sabbath, Psalm 92; another is from Psalm 116, and the concluding phrase is from Jeremiah 30:10. The entire line is composed of two clauses, and the final word of each clause rhymes. . . .

In "A Whole Loaf " Agnon mentions a man who invented a better mouse-trap. No doubt, says the narrator, this "can greatly correct the evil"—the translator's rendering of the Hebrew "tikkun gadol." Now tikkun in Hebrew can mean a repair or an improvement, but it is also a technical religious term which means correction of worldly imperfections. In other words, there is both a physical and a metaphysical weight to the word, and its glance extends in many directions. The word tikkun can be applied to fixing a chair or to moral reformation. The expression may serve as a paradigm for countless other words and phrases which, through centuries of the Hebrew linguistic and literary tradition, have taken on multiple meanings.

Agnon's many allusions to the mainstream of Hebrew writings, however, do not give a conglomerate effect to his prose. To offer a parallel, his writing does not sound like a hodgepodge of Anglo-Saxon, Chaucerian, Elizabethan, and modern English. Since Hebrew was a written language for the nearly 2,000 years since the destruction of the Temple, and was not spoken continuously in the homeland, it did not undergo the radical changes in grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax that have taken place in English. And, since Jews have made the study of their classical literature a religious duty, familiarity is something to be expected rather than wished for. It is this shared emotional and intellectual experience that Agnon uses and converts into art.

Agnon's style has over the years remained constant, although his forms and storytelling modes have changed. His word choice and prose rhythms are basically those of the Mishna and Midrash, stemming from the second to the fifth centuries of the Common Era. He also makes use of the Hebrew of the Hasidic and pietistic texts of the eighteenth-to-nineteenth centuries and some modern Hebrew. Although his allusions, direct quotations, and vocabulary extend to all layers of Hebrew, the basic style is his own version of rabbinic Hebrew, which Agnon has developed into a virtually inimitable linguistic instrument that is both poetic and precise.

There is a musical quality in Agnon's prose that offers the translator another problem: how to convey the sense of classic prose without sounding archaic (a trap which some of his translators fall into), and how to preserve the rhythm and occasional assonance, alliteration, word-play, and even rhyme. But, despite all this, Agnon has been translated into more than a dozen languages, including the major Indo-European tongues, as well as Hungarian, Arabic, and even Japanese. For it is his narrative mastery, his fully realized characters, and his universal themes of man spiritually lost and wrenched from his environment that have made his writing understandable in various cultures. . . .

Although Agnon's fame is secure abroad, his reputation among the younger writers in Israel is somewhat problematic. When he began to write, Hebrew literature was still relatively young; when he died, many sabras were already so secure in their native roots that they were scorning their own literary tradition and looking for others. This can in part be ascribed to ignorance of traditional Hebrew materials, and also to the more comprehensive rejection of many values and attitudes of the older generation. But Agnon stands at the forefront of Hebrew literature precisely because he made use of the interplay between Western and Jewish themes, modes, and stories. Hence his writings have a polychromatic luster that is lacking in much of the fiction of the younger generation. Some, however, have recognized Agnon's modernity, and in these writers the public pose of rejection has mellowed into private adoration and receptivity of influence.

What is modern, then, about Agnon if he writes a mannered Hebrew that is easy enough to read but has a faint patina of yesteryear to it, and if the tradition he describes is now only a nostalgic memory for some Jews, and foreign or exotic to non-Jews? His modernity lies in his ambiguity and irony: he questions the traditional social, moral, and spiritual conceptions; he dwells on despairing isolation; his protagonists grapple with existential problems. In sum, he probes man's spiritual journey through a problem-laden twentieth century.

Long thought to be a naïve folk artist, Agnon was shown midway in his career to be a complex, sentient artist. For those who have not read most of his works, the best comparison in English might be Nabokov or Faulkner—the former for his complexity, authorial control, linguistic brilliance, and humor, the latter for the entirety of his world. The little jokes, puns, and private myths (such as beginning all the characters names in Edo and Enam with the letter "G," prompting critics to build castles in the sand when all along Agnon is having a joke at their expense) merely show the playful mastery of his authorial world. Like Nabokov, too, he uses various recurring symbols and characters that are mentioned or reappear in several works. (The hero of the Zionist novel In Days Gone By is the great-grandson of Reb Yudel; Rechnitz, hero of Betrothed, is mentioned in Edo and Enam; the narrator of A Guest for the Night mentions several characters from Agnon's fiction.)

When Agnon received word in October 1966 that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize (for which he had been mentioned as early as 1935), he stated: "If God will grant me long life, they [the Nobel Committee] will yet see that they did not err in choosing me." That remark was perhaps the least modest of his public utterances. Despite his fame, he lived unostentatiously; despite his complexity, he had personal contact with people all over the world, from all walks of life. An indication of the character of the man might be the note found in his desk after his death, requesting that he be buried on the Mount of Olives next to a humble schoolteacher. Like Sholom Aleichem, who asked to be buried among the poor, Agnon did not wish to lie in a section reserved for the élite. This attitude is perhaps a fitting fusion of Sholom Aleichem and S. Y. Agnon, both culture heroes in Jewry, the two towering figures in twentieth-century Jewish literature.


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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.

Baruch Hochman (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7183

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 shtetl had defined itself for centuries almost entirely in terms of that tradition. Agnon attempts to render the quality of experience within it.

If one seeks a spiritual center of gravity within the Agnonic shtetl one finds it in the pervasive feeling that, ultimately, mortality holds no terrors for its folk. The denizens of Agnon's traditionalistic tales live in a world where pain and loss are pervasive. There are pogroms and persecutions; there is poverty; there is the final fact of death. But pain and loss can be placed in a larger conception of moral order in the cosmos, of an implicit logic in events. One craves the good things of the life of this world, but one is perpetually aware of their transience. The real life—the true, the intelligible world—is elsewhere. Though one does not negate the immediate conditions of one's existence—the tradition, after all, is essentially not otherworldly—one knows its limits and strives within the established order of faith to transcend it.

The culture of the shtetl had its upheavals. The life of East European Jewry between 1770 and 1880 was stormy, even in relatively peaceful Galicia. But Agnon is not occupied with its upheavals. His tales of the ancestral world are meticulous in historical detail, touching again and again upon the tensions and disruptions of the times. The emphasis, however, is not on the conflict in and for itself, but on its effect on the individual caught up in it. What really interests Agnon is the way individuals accommodate themselves to the stresses of life within village culture.

Those who celebrate Agnon as an epic writer do so because of the lucidity with which he conjures the actualities of the lost village past. And, indeed, his technique is highly objective. He writes folk tales full of people, things, events, evoking a world where the daily round of actions and responses unfolds at a leisurely pace. The emphasis, however, is not on the objective order, but rather on the strain of feeling that informs the lives of its people. The prevailing tone of the tales—even the broadly comic ones—is lyric in the extreme. Agnon tunes in on a delicate, tremulous strain of feeling that, he implies, suffused the culture at large and came to fruition in individuals. And the consciousness of these individuals is ordered by the governing patterns of consciousness in their civilization.

What characterizes the denizens of Agnon's shtetl is a radical limitation of individual consciousness and a peculiar passivity in confronting the conditions of their lives.

There is conflict, but it is always defined in conventional terms. There is struggle, but the struggle is rarely ultimate. Agnon's village folk never strike out boldly against the things that undo them, and they rarely reflect on themselves or the immediate causes of their anguish. When they do reflect on their circumstances, everything is referred back to the governing order of things—to God, to galut (exile, Diaspora), to schemes of sin and punishment that imply divine governance. The world is seen wholly in terms of the system of ideas and images that order their lives. Both nature and history are grasped in such terms.

The effect, aesthetically, is that of certain folk drawings, where stars modulate into Sabbath candles, and the world of nature arranges itself around a sukkah (tabernacle) or the Ark of the Covenant. The inner life is treated in a similar fashion. The life of the feelings is mediated through sets of prototypical patterns and analogues. To long for one's lost love is to be an agunah, that is, a grass widow, who is bereaved in this life; to sit among the ruins of one's shop is to be like the city that sat desolate.

The people of Agnon's tales of shtetl life have little individuality in our sense of the word. They are discrete beings, possessed of particular qualities and sharply distinguished from each other. They lack self-consciousness, however, and rarely turn in upon themselves. They never hurl themselves against the existing order of things, and they therefore have little inwardness in the way people in modern fiction ordinarily do. What they do have is an intensified experience of a clearly delimited range of feeling, which Agnon echoes and amplifies to the fullest. They are given to a deeply felt sense of ineffable longing, ineffable loss, ineffable pleasure in longing and loss—which Agnon devotes his formidable gifts to evoking. The most striking thing about his shorter tales is the lapidary elegance with which they dramatize the experience of relatively passive individuals, reaching beyond the flesh and the world. Even the comic tales, with their emphasis on incongruity and happy endings, are infused with a muted melancholy quaver and a constant sense of the something beyond.

Agnon's early tales are remarkably consistent in their evocation of these qualities. Though they vary in theme, in nuance of background, and—subtly—in technique, they share the peculiar beauty and harmony he casts on shtetl types in describing their response to the pain of existence. The tales this chapter discusses represent, in a way, variations on a unifying theme: the theme of loss, in a field of experience where loss can be undergone in a larger context, where harmonization of discord is possible, as well as an extraordinary aesthetization of pain. Such aesthetization of experience, but also of the spirit of the shtetl as Agnon sees it, is perhaps the most striking quality of these tales. It is also their most drastic limit.

"Agunot" (1908), Agnon's first major tale, sets the tone for the later tales; it is a kind of prelude to his life's work. Attuned to the moods of the shtetl as he apprehended them, though not specifically concerned with its milieu, it established the thematic and sentimental patterns that have dominated his work.

"Agunot" is a tale of thwarted love. Its heroine, Dinah, is a girl of fairy-tale loveliness, reared tenderly by a father who wishes to marry her to a renowned scholar. She falls in love, however, with an artist who has been commissioned to build an ark for the Torah scrolls in the house of study over which her husband is to preside. Ben Uri, the artist, is too deeply absorbed in his task to take notice of her, and she marries Ezekiel, a prodigious scholar her father has imported for her from abroad. Ezekiel in turn loves Freidele, a simple shtetl girl, the daughter of his father's housekeeper, who returns his love. After the marriage, Dinah dreams of Ben Uri, Ezekiel of Freidele.

The marriage does not work. Ahiezer, Dinah's father, who had gone to Jerusalem "to rebuild and refound her, from her ruins," acknowledges that his intentions have not prospered. He takes Dinah to the Rabbi, who had known of Dinah's predilections, and the Rabbi undoes the marriage knot. Ahiezer leaves Jerusalem, and Dinah goes with him. One night, the Rabbi dreams a disquieting dream, and after dreaming it once again, takes up a pilgrim's staff and wallet and goes out into exile with a view to "repairing" the bereaved souls, like Ben Uri's and Dinah's, that wander in droves through limbo.

The tale is suffused with thwarted yearning. Its basic motifs are sounded at the very outset:

It is said: A thread of grace is spun and drawn from the deeds of Israel, and the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, in His glory, sits and weaves a prayer shawl all grace and all mercy for the Congregation of Israel to enfold herself in. Radiant in the light of her beauty she glows, even in these the lands of her exile, as she did in her youth, in her Father's house, in the temple of her Sovereign and the city of sovereignty, Jerusalem. When He, of Ineffable Name, sees her, that she has been neither sullied nor stained even here, in the lands of her oppressors, He—as it were—leans toward her and says, "Behold, thou art fair, my love, behold thou art fair." And this is the secret of the power and the glory and the exaltation and the tenderness in love which fill the heart of every man in Israel.

But there are times—alas!—when some temptation creeps up and snaps a thread in the loom. Then the prayer shawl is damaged. Evil spirits hover about it,. . . and tear it to shreds. At once a sense of shame assails all Israel, and they know they are naked. Their days of rest are wrested from them, their feasts are fasts, and their lot is dust instead of luster. At that hour the Congregation of Israel strays abroad in her anguish, crying, "Strike me, scourge me, strip away my veils from me!" Her beloved has slipped away, and she, seeking Him, cries, "If ye find my beloved, what shall ye say unto Him? That I am afflicted with love." And this affliction leads to direst melancholy which persists—Mercy shield us!—until from the heavens above He breathes down upon us strength of spirit to repent, and to muster deeds that are a pride to their doer, and again to draw forth the thread of grace before the Lord.

By setting the star-crossed lovers in a field of rich traditional associations, Agnon achieves a fine lyric resonance. It is no mere accident that sends bereaved souls into the world seeking their mates, but rather a near-cosmic fatality. Ben Uri and Dinah, Ezekiel and Freidele, and also Ahiezer and Jerusalem itself, figure within a prototypical pattern of loss, associated as they are with both the Shulamite of the Song of Songs and the Congregation of Israel in its distress. The Rabbi who takes up his pilgrim's staff to wander in the world is the prototype of the saint who wanders in the darkness of life, seeking to right its incomprehensible wrongs. Jerusalem is not merely a city, but the city, land of the pious heart's desire, whence men wander in gloom, coerced by the mysterious workings of chance of of fate—of the sin that, in the formulation of the tale's opening, "catches a thread in the loom." The rest of the world is outer darkness, Diaspora, exile—banishment, ultimately, from both terrestrial delight and the joy of existence in the light of the divine presence.

The title of the tale clinches the sense of universal bereavement. The agunah was the grass widow of the Jewish Law, which had no statute of limitations in family matters, so that a woman whose husband had disappeared could not remarry till he had been proved dead—or sent her a divorce. As it happens, every soul in this tale is in a state of aginut—including the mourning figure of the Holy Spirit (shekhinah) who appears to the old Rabbi in his dream, cooing mournfully like a dove. Everyone in the tale is an agunah, fatally bound to an inaccessible love object and unable to break out of the "web." And though there clearly is a cause, no one need struggle to know it. Whether the cause is an accident of human history or of an inevitability of the transcendent Law does not matter. It merely is. And the sadness of it is unspeakably lovely, its loveliness unspeakably sad.

"The Crooked Made Straight" (1912), Agnon's next major tale, is less penumbral than "Agunot." Its action is more directly recounted; its characters are sharper and more vivid. It is a moral tale that projects an analogous mood far more obliquely. Its moral is stated at the outset: "The sage hath said, 'Wealth is less substantial than vanity,' . . . to make it known how frail and insubstantial money is, since it has no intrinsic value. . . . By its very nature . . . [it] evanesces . . . [and] for the least of reasons . . . it is lost." The story itself recounts

a series of events involving a certain man, Menashe Haim by name, . . . who fell from prosperity . . . and was driven . . . into transgression. How he was oppressed . . . but did not oppress others, and [therefore] came into his own in his death and enjoyed a name and a memorial among the living, as is set forth at length . . . within the tale. It is of him and the likes of him that it is written, "And then they shall atone for their sins"; to which our rabbis added . . . , "They shall atone for their sins through suffering."

The tale tells of the progressive impoverishment of a decent but childless shopkeeping couple to the point where the husband must take to the road as a certified beggar. We watch the husband's deterioration from a householder's dignity to rank mendicancy. Menashe Haim sinks so low that, at the very moment he has enough alms in hand to justify his heading homeward, he sells his credentials to a professional beggar and then eats and drinks himself insensate. When he awakes, he finds that all his money has been stolen and takes to the road again, now as a common pariah.

Time passes. Finally, the other beggar drinks himself to death, and Menashe Haim, whose documents he carries, comes to be thought of as dead. By the time Menashe Haim has worked his way home again, Kraindel Charney, his long-suffering wife—who has languished patiently, first as an agunah and then as a widow—has finally remarried and is celebrating the birth of a son. Stunned, Menashe Haim takes to the road again. Finally, after much wandering, he stumbles into the cemetery where his wife has erected a monument to "him"—that is, to the beggar who has been mistaken for him. Menashe Haim, exhausted, dies there, and is buried by a kindly gravedigger alongside the monument that bears his name. In the end, he benefits from the prayers and offerings his still loving wife tenders in his name.

The imaginative emphasis of the tale is on the grotesquerie of Menashe Haim's life and death and the final, graveyard peace he achieves. At the center of the story is the selling of the begging certificate at a nightmarish fair, with its monstrous distractions and its deafening din. A beggar in shrouds sings mournfully of how he returned from the other world to find his door shut against him. A woman sitting on a pile of rags keens her misery as an agunah.

The fair seems to externalize something in Menashe Haim himself. What Menashe Haim sees at the fair anticipates what will happen to him in life. It suggests, moreover, that the "real" world is a nightmare of vanity, mortality, disincarnation. When Menashe Haim gorges and gluttonizes at the inn, we recoil from the sour taste in his mouth and his sodden flesh. The death of Menashe Haim's double is still more revolting.

Altogether, there is a sense of the hideousness of the flesh—and of its deathliness. The flesh is equated with selfhood, with a kind of death of the spirit. At the end, Menashe Haim is in a sense reborn in the spirit, having purged himself through suffering and remorse. Thus, the tale bears out its "argument." We perceive the mutability of a happiness rooted in the world and the flesh. Menashe Haim is happy only when, insensate with suffering, he finds repose among the tombstones and comes to rest underground. Like "Agunot," "The Crooked Made Straight" suggests that the common condition of mankind is indeed a condition of disenfleshment without disenchantment, of pariahdom without final degradation, of aginut without desperation—only of incessant, muted desire.

Nor is the disenfleshment unpleasant. Menashe Haim, all passion spent, seems happier underground than anywhere else. But even underground and passionless, he has not stopped yearning. He still wants the tenderness of Kraindel Charney's love. From our point of view as readers of the tale, he gets them. Kraindel Charney lays offerings on his grave.

"The Legend of the Scribe" (1919), has a more positive emphasis, though it too moves toward dissolution and death. "The Crooked Made Straight" is a moral fable with Gothic touches, "The Legend of the Scribe" an idyl of love within the Law, with a moment of hallucination at the end. It suggests how fantasy and feeling can indeed be embodied in a marriage of tender beauty and essential innocence, even as they can be released in a moment of peculiar delight that neutralizes the horror of death. The opening sets the tone for what follows:

These are the events of Raphael the scribe. Raphael the scribe was a wholly pious man, who used to prepare Torah scrolls and phylacteries and mezuzot in perfect sanctity. It was the way of householders who were afflicted with childlessness, God help us, and whose wives had been taken from them, to come to Raphael and say to him, "You know, good Raphael, what we are and what we will be. I had hoped to see my sons and the sons of my sons come to you and ask you to indite for them their phylacteries in their time. But now, alas, I am desolate and forlorn. My wife, whom I had hoped to await through the days and the years in the heavens above—my wife has suddenly passed on before me, and left me to nothing but tears. Perhaps you could bring yourself, good Raphael, to prepare a Torah scroll for me, in accordance, with my means, such as they are, as the hand of the Lord is kindly upon you. . . ." And Raphael the scribe would sit himself down and prepare him a scroll, that he might leave behind him some memory, some monument in Israel.

The action of the tale is radically simple. We learn how Raphael lived and worked, of the quality of his relationship to his wife, of their childlessness, and of the irony of his preparing Torah scrolls for the childless. And we learn of Miriam's tender yearning, how she prayed that the Lord might bless her womb, even as she tenderly ministered to the children of others. Then we see how their life is disrupted by Miriam's sudden death and learn how Raphael decides to prepare a Torah scroll in her memory. We watch Raphael immerse himself in the ritual of scroll-writing. And we watch him, when he has completed his labor of love, as he dances with the scroll, which he has decked out in a cover made of Miriam's wedding dress, and is carried back to that Simhat Torah (Festival of Rejoicing in the Law) long ago, when he was a boy and first joined the men in the dance. He recalls how Miriam, hardly more than a child, came to kiss his Torah scroll and, having burned his jacket with her candle, was engaged to him. He sings as he dances, signing the song and dancing the dance he had danced then, confounding the now and the then in the song. Though Miriam is dead and her wedding dress adorns the Torah scroll he has written in memory of her, he reaches into the closet to find the dress. Having looked and having found only a bag of earth from the Holy Land—the very earth he had placed in Miriam's grave—he dies, and is found with the wedding dress over his face.

The tale is remarkable in its capturing of the tenderness that informs Raphael and Miriam's life together, and in its modulating into the quiet ecstasy of Raphael's final dance. We have the sense that for Raphael, within the containing forms of the tradition, the life of love and the life of the Law are continuous, not dichotomous; for once, Eros and civilization do not collide. The one feeds the other, and is fed by it. To be a scribe, monastically dedicated to the transcription of the Law, and to be a man and a husband are not disjunctive; the kissing, the touching, the singing, the dancing—and also the fasting, the praying, the self-containment—that signify one aspect of life inform the other as well. Agnon captures the process whereby such congruence is made possible in his account of the Sabbath encounter between man and wife.

While Miriam stands in the ritual bath, Raphael tarries in the house of prayer. When she comes home from the bath, she puts on garments as lovely as those of a bride on the day of her nuptials and stands in front of the mirror. At that moment it seems to her that the days of her girlhood have returned; she sees the inn that had stood at the crossroads, where lords and ladies used to come and cattle merchants used to lodge—where she had lived with her mother and her father and with Raphael, the lord of her youth, and she remembers for a moment the veil her mother had made for her marriage. For a moment, she thinks of adorning herself for her husband. But then she sees, glancing at her out of the mirror, the sampler she had made as a girl, which now hangs on the wall opposite—the pair of lions standing within it, their mouths open [to utter the glories of the Lord]. She recoils from her thought. "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof!"

So that when Raphael returns from his devotions and beholds his wife in her loveliness,. . . he draws near to whisper endearments in her ear. But when he reaches her, he sees the Lord's name reflected in the glass . . . and reads with reverence, "I shall hold Him always before me." Then he shuts his eyes and turns from her, to honor the Lord in his holiness. They part in silence. He sits in one corner of the room, reading the Zohar and its commentaries, and she sits in another, saying her prayers, until sleep comes to dim their eyes. They rise and take the copper bucket with the copper fish engraved on its bottom, and they wash their hands for their evening prayers.

There is nothing puritanical in Miriam's failure to adorn herself as a bride. She is intrinsically a bride. Consciousness of her place in God's world makes her one. Her memory of girlhood becomes part of her consciousness of a larger pattern to which she belongs. To see the sampler on the wall, with its evocation of the greater context of her existence, is to realize her essential form. Raphael and Miriam go to bed, like other couples. But their doing so seems an aspect of a larger reality of which they are a part.

What Agnon suggests is a kind of ladder of love, on which the movement from one plane of love to another is achieved without negation of the "lower" planes. It is this that makes possible the peculiar equanimity with which Raphael experiences the final hallucination, which is potentially so dissonant and yet so filled with a sense of the tenuousness of life.

In fact, the underlying life of the tale seems to stem from a paradox. What Raphael and Miriam are—and love—intimates a pattern of transcendence and is contained in a way of life that is the earthly vehicle for that pattern. But the delicate balance of feeling, its perfect poise, arises within life, and consists of the shifting, time-bound mortal realities: the human feelings which, however they are caught up in the governing pattern of transcendence, are subject to mortality and can themselves be disintegrated, under the pressure of experience, into the time-bound realities which have constituted them.

But even such disintegration need not finally disrupt. At the end of his life, Raphael is still dancing the dance of the Law with which his meaningful life as man and husband began. And, though we may perceive it differently, Raphael's experience remains integral. His dance of death is his dance of life. As he dances, his consciousness, which carries him back to the past, before the beginning of his love, is moving backward and forward at once, to what has become a timeless past and to what will be a timeless future, in death. But in both directions he moves toward the unifying goal of his life. And that goal is both in life and beyond life.

"The Outcast," published in the same year as "The Legend of the Scribe," renders a similar theme more elaborately. It is concerned, not with the quiet felicity of a traditional marriage, but with the torment and upheaval in the life of a boy torn between two traditions. Set at the time of the first appearance of Hasidism in eastern Galicia, it is more concrete in social and historical detail than any of the tales discussed so far. It is also more directly concerned with open conflict. Yet its chief emphasis is on the inner turmoil of the boy in question—and in the resolution of that turmoil in a death of exquisite longing.

"The Outcast" tells how Uriel, a Hasidic rabbi, comes to a village one snowy Friday and is banished from the town by Avigdor, its rigidly sectarian parnas (burgomaster). The rabbi, as he leaves, curses his antagonist, saying that an outcast will arise from his seed. At just that time Reb (Mr.) Avigdor's daughter dies, leaving a brood of children. Gershom, the eldest, is a gifted Talmudic scholar and the apple of his grandfather's eye. And indeed, when Gershom comes home for the first Passover after his mother's death, he is overwhelmed by melancholy and goes by chance into a little Hasidic prayer house, where he finds both pleasure and release in the Hasidic service. He immediately rejects the experience, however, and reverts to his grandfather's Way, splitting hairs in his Talmudic studies, afflicting his body with ascetic exercises, and "encasing himself in sadness like a worm." His soul suffers, however, and craving the union he senses can come only through the medium of Hasidic exaltation, he sets out to find Reb Uriel.

A Hasid finds him fainting in the snow and brings him home. He recovers but languishes, until a mysterious stranger initiates him into the vision of ecstatic union with the deity that informs the Hasidic cult.

And since Gershom's heart was opened and came to glimpse the divine mystery within simple things, the stranger began to lead him from rung to rung on the ladder of wisdom. . . . At that moment the husk of that soul fell away, and all of Szibucz fell away from it. And such longings began to spring up in his heart as had never been known to the people of Szibucz, and they revealed themselves in his eyes, which labored in the Law and then sought to rise higher and higher, beyond. But his fingers were blind, and they groped in the world of truth as a blind man gropes in the darkness.

As a result, "melancholy suffused him, and the anguish of the world veiled his pleasant face." Suffering, he moves further and further from the ordinary plane of rabbinic learning and human contact, "pouring out his soul, as a child into its mother's bosom," climbing and soaring into the "intelligible world" and striving to sit "in the shadow of the Holy One, blessed be He" and to "suckle from holy thought." But when the inspiration leaves him,

Gershom sits on the ground and puts his head between his knees like one who had been forced to alight from the chariot at the moment that the Holy Spirit went forth to greet its Father in Heaven. "My God, my God," Gershom cries, "you created Paradise and placed a sword at its gate. May it be your will that my bones burn in hell, if only a sixtieth part of them reach you in the end.". . . And a voice murmurs like a dove, "Alas, for the sons who were exiled from their Father's table." Exiled from Father's table, and when will they return? Has their time not yet come? The lowly world thou hast created—what remains for us within it?

His final sense of release comes only when his master reveals the mysteries of the Song of Songs.

He had not yet finished when Gershom began to cry with all his might, "I will fly and wander far, and sing the Song of Songs. To the house of the Lord we will go, we will go; we will tell the house of Jacob how my soul has thirsted, has yearned for the Lord." So he cried and cried, like a bird that has scented the fluttering of its wings, and flies, and murmurs as it flies.

The scene then shifts:

The eastern sky reddens, and the dome of the sky nearest the earth grows dark. The daughters of Israel light their candles and stand in the gateway of their houses, murmuring to each other, "A good and a blessed Sabbath." As they wait, their chaste daughters come, with their hair dressed, in their lovely garments, and stand with them, facing the synagogues and the houses of study in order to be able to respond with "Amen, may His hallowed name be blessed." The householders, with their sons, walk to the houses of study and chant the Song of Songs, and the good Lord sinks the wheel of the sun in the west in order to receive his beloved, the Sabbath Queen, in chaste darkness.

At that moment Gershom entered the house of study and leaped onto the altar and lay his head between his hands for a moment. Then he lifted his head and began to read the Song of Songs with terrible ardor and awesome strength until he reached the verse, "Draw me after Thee, and we will run." And when he reached the verse, "Draw me after Thee, and we will run," his soul departed from his body, in its purity. His lips were still murmuring, "The King, he brought me into his chambers," when his soul expired with the words.

Formally, "The Outcast" is concerned with the working out of a curse in the context of a conflict between Hasidim (ecstatic pietists) and Mitnagdim (legalistic literalists) at the time (the 1770's) Hasidism reached Galicia. The issues are crystallized in the representation of Avigdor, the rich, worldly, repressive pillar of the old dispensation with its emphasis on Law, and Uriel, with his melting, ecstatic cult of love.

Gershom's tragedy stems from the conflict in him between the way of the world, which is Avigdor's, and the way of transcendence, which is Uriel's. The story's main emphasis is on Gershom's anguish and the horror—mixed with ecstasy—of his doom. It is terrible that he should have to suffer; it is terrible that he must die, reaching into the world beyond for tenderness and love. It is also marvelous: a total transcendence, in feeling, of the limits of life in the vale of tears. In taking the mystic way, which he does not altogether choose, Gershom reaches out to his dead, beloved mother, as well as to God. The imagery of suckling at the breasts of thought, and of pouring out his soul "like a child into its mother's bosom," straddles the conventional metaphoric language of mystic communion and the concrete psychological realities of the boy's life. The tale evokes essentially the same ambiguity that informs Raphael's relation to the Torah scroll and the same reconcretization of metaphor that is achieved in "Agunot." So integral is Gershom's melting out of life at the end that it induces neither pity nor terror in the ordinary sense. Gershom wants it so badly and needs it so much, that the pity lies only in the fact that it took so long for it to happen, the terror in the fact that it is not really pitiable at all. And yet it is all very sad.

The balance of the feeling evoked in "The Outcast" is characteristic of all the tales I have discussed here—and of many of Agnon's other tales of shtetl life. They exploit the imagery of faith and transcendence, of union and communion as a way of conveying a sense of experience that at once laments mortality and celebrates the pain that it brings. One might say that "The Outcast" renders a characteristic moment and a characteristic mode of experience in the shtetl culture. But the emphasis is not on the substance of that culture or on the ancestral values that inform it. Rather, it is on the emotional values that arise within it, without reference to the validity of the problems or attitudes that give rise to them.

The most striking thing about the stories is the apparent objectivity of their form. One might say that Agnon does a triple take in rendering actions set in the ancestral world. First, he enters, though in a limited way, into the experience of particular characters who act and react within it. Second, he renders their actions and reactions much as they would have rendered them. And third, he casts the tale itself in a literary mode that would be congenial to the participants in its action. Reading such a tale, we apprehend the people, scenes, and events that fill the tale, but also participate in the attitudes and perspectives of those who act in them. Thus it is not only an action that we see imitated, but—implicitly—an entire mode of consciousness and a total vision of experience.

Agnon never attempts a discursive presentation of the grounds for and qualities of this vision. In fact, he never talks about the vision as such. Quite the contrary. The tales—again—are composed in the manner of folk tales. They employ a narrative voice that assumes we are tuned in upon its assumptions and can therefore focus directly on the things that concern it. The vision that animates the entire world of the tales is, in a manner of speaking, completely dissolved in their narrative mode.

Yet the depersonalization that the form of these tales involves should not conceal the extent to which Agnon uses them to project his most personal, his most intimate predilections. And these predilections are both complex and devious. The "modern" tales, written since the early thirties, suggest that Agnon turns to the ancestral world for the "wholeness" of experience it engendered. In tales both traditional and modern, moreover, Agnon suggests that the ancestral world is possessed of a power and a vitality which stun the imagination. One story—"The Fathers and the Sons"—presents us with a series of fathers, each older than the one preceding him, and each more fresh, more vigorous, and more vital. The suggestion is that the narrator of that tale experiences a sense of impotence and insignificance in the face of the patriarchal world and the "fact" that the world is felt to deteriorate in power and glory with the passing of the generations. One presumes that Agnon resurrects the ancestral world to present us with images of that power and that glory.

Yet the power in question is a very peculiar one. It is, to be sure, the power to affirm life, but it is also the power to reconcile oneself utterly to life's negativity. The people and scenes depicted in these tales are always seen as diminutive—quaint, folksy, lovable. His people are, almost uniformly, little people with a quiet dignity. They are pious and prudent, deeply involved with the things that constitute their lives and remarkably gifted at letting go of them without crying havoc. Again and again we see them, in one of two perspectives. We see them experiencing pain and loss, not only stoically, but also with a kind of yearning pleasure. Or we see them comically abstracted from consciousness of the exigencies of ordinary life. In either case, there is beauty or amusement in their lives, but certainly not power or vitality in the ordinary meaning of the terms.

As a result, one has the sense that Agnon is performing a peculiar operation on the past which haunts him so persistently. If its grandeur lives in his imagination, that grandeur is cut down to size in the adulatory diminutives of his stories. It is as though he must shrink it to livable scale, not by directly challenging its existence or values, but by bringing it under aesthetic control. I often wonder whether Agnon's most pious evocations are not in fact voodoo exorcisms of a past that will not die.

If Agnon is indeed resurrecting the past in order at once to celebrate it and to diminish (if not to denigrate) it, if he is in this way indeed circumventing a very real confrontation with decisive elements in his own experience, then a further quality of the tales takes on a striking significance. The tales of the traditional world rarely involve confrontation of the tensions to which their characters are subject or an exploration of the inner gounds of their conflicts. Just as "The Legend of the Scribe" renders the way fantasy and feeling are integrated within a prescribed pattern of relationships, so it renders the disintegration of that life—and feeling—pattern within rather formalized conventions of feeling and belief. It is surely no accident that Raphael, like Gershom, breathes out his soul in song. In these tales, song is the vehicle for the unquiet, the longing, the fear that the characters experience: it is Ben Uri's song that haunts Dinah, for example. But song is also the medium of reconciliation and a final harmonization of discord, both for the characters in the stories and for their readers. That reconciliation comes in death. To expire is to breathe out the dying breath, and that breath is song, which both expresses the individual's craving for union and carries him toward the union he has craved.

The effect is peculiar. Agnon's finest noncomic work in the traditionalist mode has a kind of luminous loveliness and musicality, reminiscent of the medieval tale at its best. In it there is a fine orchestration of feelings that spring from pain and loss, but never a direct representation of the rawness and anguish they involve. Everything is harmonized within the dominant pattern of submission, and every discord is resolved within that pattern. The songs characters sing are one medium for expressing the feeling that there is a resolution. Another is the elaborate pattern of tropes from the repertory of traditional image and legend. But the final effect is somehow one of evasion. It is as though Agnon turns to the ancestral past partly because he finds within it a set of attitudes that permit a deeply desiderated transcendence of the harshness of inner conflict and a deeply felt need to circumvent the horror of death itself.

And that evasiveness leaves one uneasy. The stories have a quiet beauty. In sheer virtuosity there is little to match them in modern Hebrew letters. And they do, one feels, draw on something that was really present in the shtetl culture. Indeed, they do so with an authority and a compassion (despite the diminutives) that are moving. But the extraordinary aestheticizing of experience is suspect, as is the deep passivity they reflect. They are still more troubling when read in the light of Agnon's later work. There Agnon invokes dissonance. He renders characters who, like those in the earlier tales, yearn "beyond"—often back to the world of the earlier tales, that is, to the ancestral scene. And he projects, sometimes on a grand scale, the horror that informs such yearning in the modern world. Yet in the modern stories as well, however clearly the psychological and historical grounds of the dissonance are projected, one feels he is stepping away from the heart of the darkness—and illuminating it with an inadequate, aestheticizing light.

I am suggesting, in effect, that there is a much stronger affinity between Agnon's early, pathetic tales of shtetl life and his later, "modernist" work than at first meets the eye. There are stylistic affinities, of course, and there is the ever felt hand of the master craftsman at work. And there are the constant echoes of the classic Judaic idiom of faith. But beyond these formal and external elements there are the pervasive passivity, the recurrent "yearning beyond," and the constant craving for a wholeness unattainable in the present life.

One might see these qualities as the expression of a deep theological and existential intuition, of the awareness of man's deeply experienced sense of his vulnerability and violability, and of the only partial existence which is—at best—his in the flesh. One might hold that the melting sweetness and even ecstasy of the tales of the ancestral world evoke the way that the sense world is overcome by a tradition of faith, in which the felt presence of the deity creates the possibility of dealing with it satisfactorily. One might insist that the sense of loss and fragmentation of being that fills the modernist tales is the consequence of the characters' having been cut off both from the ancestral world and the deity who could be reached through the forms of life he prescribed.

But it seems to me that Agnon is writing about (or working with) something else: a deeply felt personal, one might even say infantile, sense of a wholeness that has nothing to do with the deity or his ways (unless one wishes simply to consider the religious feeling a direct projective of infantile needs). There is no question that he projects the sense of completeness with delicacy, mastery, and grace. But the struggle, the horror even, that ordinarily accompanies this craving for wholeness is never really there. There is no subversive resistance within the self to the felicities to which his characters consistently aspire.

Hence one comes away from the tales with a sense that something is lacking. It is impossible not to wonder whether the loveliness and musicality so worshipfully evoked are not, in the end, an evasion and a self-indulgence of Agnon's own wish to transcend the final terrors of mortality itself. Agnon, one notes, depicts pain, but never the pain of wayward inner resistance to striving toward objects of valid desire. And we rarely glimpse the larger, more dangerous impulses, which his people are generally and beneficently spared. When we do perceive them, as in Agnon's lyric evocation of a dreadful necrophiliac love, we perceive them in the glow of an aestheticizing so complete that it robs them of their life. Yet their luminous simplicity continues to beguile us.

Principal Works

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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

Ir Umeloah 1973

A Book That Was Lost, and Other Stories 1995

Other Major Works

Hakhnasath Kallah [The Bridal Canopy] (novel) 1931

Sipur Pashut [A Simple Story] (novel) 1935

Ore'ah Nta Lalun [A Guest for the Night] (novel) 1937

Yamim Nora'im [Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days] (nonfiction) 1938

Tmol Shilshom (novel) 1945

Kol Sipurav Shel Agnon (collected works) 1947; standard edition 1953-62

Shirah [Shira] (novel) 1971

Bahanuto shel Mar Lublin [In Mr. Lublin's Store] (novel) 1974

Shai Agnon—Sh. Z. Schocken: Hilufe Igarot 1916-1959 (letters) 1991

The title is commonly translated as "The Book of Deeds" or "Book of Fables." Expanded editions of this collection appeared in 1939, 1941, and 1951.

**Translated and collected in Two Tales: "Betrothed" and "Edo and Enam," 1966.

Robert Alter (essay date 1972)

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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 community at Jaffa, all its chief characters are Jewish, and the language of narration is of course the richly traditional Hebrew, with predominantly medieval-rabbinic tonalities, that is Agnon's stylistic hallmark. Yet the protagonist, in his student days an impassioned reader of Homer, freely invokes "the good gods" in his speech (though when the whim moves him he also calls on a monotheistic "God"); has Zeus and Esculapius on his lips; tells the local girls in Jaffa stories about Sappho and Medea. He is pledged to a woman whom he remembers rising out of the waters of a pond, half-mermaid, half-Aphrodite; and, finally, in the climax of the story he becomes the prize in a weirdly reversed reenactment of an ancient Greek race for athletic laurels. Beyond this circle of allusions to ancient Greece drawn around the protagonist, we get momentary but significant glimpses of other ancient or exotic cultures. There are weighted references to the Egyptian art of mummification; a symbolically important invocation of Semiramis, mythological queen of Assyria and supposed founder of the garden-city of Babylon; a bizarre tale about a black African queen who rides the back of one of her ministers; and strategic reminders of the presence of Islam in the city of Jaffa.

Betrothed is a muted psychological study of one Jacob Rechnitz, who is the powerless captive of a profound Oedipal impulse, and, simultaneously, it is an "Oedipal" story in a rather different sense, of a geographical and imaginative return to the womb of Western cultures. It is this latter aspect of the story that I shall try to describe, though the symbolic argument is so intricately articulated that I can only sketch the general outline of a development that must be followed through minute attention to a whole series of interlocking passages in the actual experience of reading. The opening lines of the story set it in a broad perspective as a tale of the encounter of cultures: "Jaffa is the darling of the waters: the waves of the Great Sea kiss her shores, a blue sky is her daily cover, she brims with every kind of people, Jews and Ishmaelites and Christians. . . ." The use of the biblical term Great Sea for the Mediterranean in itself has the effect of shifting the viewpoint backward toward the ancient Mediterranean world, where this was the great sea of all the earth (for Odysseus as for Jonah), and of course these three peoples are all groups whose faiths first flourished at the eastern end of the Mediterranean basin. In the Hebrew, the first two words of the story are a pointed pun: Yafo yefat yamim, literally, "Jaffa, beautiful one of the seas," calling our attention to the supposed etymological derivation of Yafo (Jaffa) from yafeh, the word for beautiful, and reminding us that Japheth (Yafet), the biblical progenitor of the Greeks—a people associated with the ideal of beauty—is also according to one tradition the founder of the city of Jaffa. Later in the story, when Rechnitz is taking his fiancée Susan Ehrlich around town, he points out to her "the 'Nine Palm Trees,' planted by Japheth, the son of Noah, when he founded Jaffa: one for himself, one for his wife, and seven for his seven sons." It is clear that one of several central polarities with which the story elusively plays is that of Hebraism and Hellenism, or, to put it in more indigenously Hebrew terms, Shem and Japheth, the two cultural archetypes of Israel and Greece. The "Seven Maidens" who run the race for Jacob stand in strangely suggestive correspondence to the seven sons of Japheth, as do past and present, Hebrew and Greek, to each other in the tale.

Betrothed records the subtle but profound assimilation of the world of Shem by the world of Japheth through the character of Jacob Rechnitz. According to Noah's blessing to his two more fortunate sons in Genesis, "the Lord will deal bountifully with Japheth"—in another traditional interpretation of the enigmatic verb-form yaft, "will grant beauty to Japheth"—"and he will dwell in the tents of Shem." Rabbinic tradition understood the tents of Shem as an epithet for the talmudic academies or study-houses of the Law, and imagined the offspring of Greek aesthetic culture coming to learn the moral law of the Jews, thus realizing a cultural ideal by combining "the loveliness of Japheth" (yefeifiuto shel Yephet) with "the Torah of Shem." Jacob Rechnitz—his first name, of course, is a biblical synonym for Israel—represents a reversal of this ideal: he is a Shem in the tents of Japheth, an amateur of ancient Greek culture, a sedulous student of the natural sciences that derive from Greece, pursuing his own specialty of marine biology in an eerily erotic fashion. "Another young man would ask for no more than such a life [walking by starlight with beautiful girls]; but as for Rechnitz, another world lay in his heart: love of the sea and research into her plants." And as his eyes feast on the magical marine world of colors and shapes and textures, his response is amorous rapture: "'My orchard, my vineyard,' he would say lovingly." It is not surprising that, when he comes to Palestine during the pre-World War I period in which the tale is set, he should settle in Jaffa, the city that has a mythological "Greek" founder. Japheth planted seven palm trees for his seven sons; Rechnitz at the end of the story will be trapped by a shimmering vision of seven girls on that same Jaffa shore. The switch from masculine to feminine is thoroughly appropriate for the passive, woman-ridden Rechnitz (is it any wonder he tells stories about Medea and man-bestriding queens?); and one even suspects that, despite the masculinity of Japheth and his sons, the story ultimately associates the Greek world into which Rechnitz moves with a female principle that stands opposed to the masculine world of the Semites. Jaffa is a city founded after the flood, yet Rechnitz chooses it for his residence not because it is the entrance to the Promised Land but, on the contrary, because it faces out on the verge of the ever-returning, never-receding flood of ancient waters.

The world of Betrothed is a remaking of the old biblical creation according to the ambiguous design of gods other than the Lord of Genesis. One of the two, seemingly disparate, ultimately complementary reasons given in the story for Rechnitz's interest in the sea is a kind of vision he has one night while reading Homer:

He heard a voice like the voice of the waves, though he had never yet set eyes on the sea. He shut his book and raised his ears to listen. And the voice exploded, leaping like the sound of many waters. He stood up and looked outside. The moon hung in the middle air, between the clouds and stars; the earth was still. He went back to his book and read. Again he heard the same voice. He put down the book and lay on his bed. The voices died away, but that sea whose call he had heard spread itself out before him, endlessly, while the moon hovered over the face of the waters, cool and sweet and terrible.

The vision of the sea transmitted to Rechnitz by Homer is of a sphere of tremendous primal power, echoing in the power and vitality of Homer's own poetic creation. Rechnitz thus associates the sea simultaneously with the vital source-culture of early Greece and with the evolutionary source of life itself: "off he would sail to where, as he told himself, the earliest ancestors of man had their dwelling." But, in Rechnitz's Homeric vision, as the pounding of the waves dies down, he becomes aware of the moon (an actual moon outside his window) hovering over the face of the waters (waters conjured up by the lines of poetry before him)—not, as in Genesis, the spirit of the Lord, but the moon, "cool and sweet and terrible," like the call of sirens, like the allure of eros itself to this threatened male. The evocation of Genesis I by way of the Greek Homer becomes a new, stirring but ambiguous creation presided over not by the forthright biblical God but by an erotic lunar demiurge, associated with the female principle, with imagination and beauty, with a world of shadows and wavering reflections. The reverberations of this moment are heard again in an exchange between Rechnitz and the pious Yemenite caretaker of his school which he reports to the Consul:

"Once he asked me, 'Why is it that King David says: Thou hast set a boundary, they shall not cross it, they shall not return to cover the earth; thou hast set a boundary to the waters of the sea, that they shall not go up on the dry land? And yet we see that the waters of the sea do go up on the dry land.'"

"And how did you answer the Yemenite?"

"What could I reply?" said Rechnitz. "I didn't give him any answer, but I sighed deeply, as one does when regretting that things are not as they should be."

The Psalms, here quoted by the Yemenite, are full of allusions to a primordial conquest of the intransigent sea by the Lord of Creation (in its ultimate derivation in Canaanite religion, it is the conquest of the sea god by the land god). The reality, however, inhabited by both the pious caretaker and the freethinking teacher, seems to contradict the authority of the Psalms. For, in the story, it is the sea that repeatedly asserts its dominion over the land, and that whole solid biblical world of divinely-set demarcations and boundaries dissolves into a marine flux where opposites merge. Shem and Japheth are fused—to borrow Joyce's phrase—into Jewgreek and Greekjew, life looks like death, or love becomes death (the climactic race that begins at the Hotel Semiramis ends by the old Muslim cemetery; the solemn pledge of betrothal between Jacob and Susan is itself renewed in the cemetery), and even the dividing line between personalities blurs, with Susan fading into her mother and her mother into Jacob's mother, in the sea-and-moonstruck mind of the protagonist.

For Rechnitz, the confusion of realms and identities is doubly appropriate. Whether life-spawning sea or womb, the primal source to which he is drawn implies a denial of the principle of individuation. And because that to which he would return is an ultimate taboo, it is fitting that he can make the approach only through a series of surrogates. Thus, the narrator suggests early in the story that Susan's mother becomes an uncanny substitute for Rechnitz's in his own mind: "Jacob's mother, too, had loved him as a mother should love her son, and he had returned her love in a son's normal way; but his affection for Frau Ehrlich was something apart. It was a love that could be accounted for by no natural cause, though there was reason for it, no doubt, as there is reason for all things; yet the reason was forgotten, the cause was lost and only the effect remained." Rechnitz, impelled as he is by longings for this mother-figure, is the very type of a man caught in a web of motives that remain obscure to him, but hardly to the narrator and his audience. Agnon's technique for suggesting this condition is to set up a kind of verbal smoke screen, a merely seeming obfuscation, through which, however, the lineaments of Jacob's predicament are visible to the discerning eye. Characteristically, just a moment later in the narrative, Agnon conveys the transference of Jacob's affection from Susan's mother to Susan after the mother's death with a gesture of mystification that only partly hides the explicitness of his statement: "It was rather like a new motion of the soul, when the soul attached itself at once to one who is absent and another who is present, and is taken up into both as one." Years later, in a garden in Jaffa, Jacob will gaze at Susan's lovely hands and think, most unsettlingly, of "her mother's hands when she would place them on the table and his lips would long to touch them."

It is significant that the awareness of this chain of surrogates, always powerfully subliminal in Rechnitz and always ultimately associated with the sea, should reach the verge of consciousness in the penultimate moment of the story, when he closes his eyes to the limitless expanse of sea and listens to the pounding of the waves as the girls run down the beach:

He saw his mother kneeling down before him. He was a small boy; she was threading a new tie round his collar, for it was the day Susan was born and he was invited to the Consul's house. But surely, thought Jacob to himself, she can't be my mother, and it goes without saying that she isn't Susan's mother either, because one is far from here and the other is dead; if I open my eyes I shall see that this is nothing but an optical illusion. The illusion went so far as to present him at once with his own mother and with Susan's; and since one object could not be two, it followed of necessity that here was neither his own mother nor Susan's. But if so, who was she? Susan herself, perhaps?

The threading of the tie around the collar looks forward to the moment when Jacob will crown Susan with a circlet of seaweed at the end, and catches up a series of images of circles and encirclement linked with women and water—the circular pond in the garden, the wreaths of flowers on Frau Ehrlich's bier, the entourage of girls on the beach, the golden ring of Susan's eyelashes that captivates Jacob, from which her voice seems to emanate at the end.

It is no wonder that Rechnitz, for all his love of the sea, is moved to pensive regret by the idea that its waters go up on the dry land. The sea is a never-forgotten presence in the story, effectively dominating all the action and all the personages. In various evocations of Susan Ehrlich, her mother, the moon, and Rechnitz's algae, water is associated with erotic experience, and both water and eros are linked with the imagistic motif of "the blue distances" intimating death. At the beginning of the story, Jacob observes in the Consul's office portraits of mother and daughter, before which is set "a moist rose in a glass of water"—the Hebrew for "Susan" means "rose"—and both female figures in the pictures seem about to disappear into blue mists. Later, when Susan herself identifies the blue distances with a nirvanalike death, she "seemed to hover over those blue distances she had spoken of," and she invites Jacob to kiss her closed, tear-moist eyes, his lips at once touching her flesh and salt water in a dream of love and death.

Elsewhere, less passively, the sea, glimpsed through the hotel windows or heard in the dark of a summer evening, is "like some being that lacked peace in its depths," the sound of its waves "like the distant roaring of beasts of prey," ominous, alien, ready to pounce. These are not the "mighty breakers of the sea" in Psalms whose might is as nothing before "God Who is mighty on high," but rather the savage man-breaking waves of Poseidon, if not the dark waters of still older Greek gods, Chaos and Old Night.

Why should the ancient Greek Mediterranean culture exert the seductive, perhaps fatal attraction that it does within the world of the story? The answer has to be sought, I think, not so much in the intrinsic nature of Greek culture as in the peculiar condition of the twentieth-century world to which Rechnitz, the Consul, Frau Ehrlich, and Susan belong. Perhaps the best way to see that condition is through the strange relationship of the principal characters to both personal and historical time. Though only Susan is afflicted with sleeping sickness, father, daughter, and lover are all weighed down in varying degrees and manners with an enormous sense of weariness and ennui. "There is nothing new," sighs the Consul, echoing Ecclesiastes, "the world goes on as usual," and he is by no means the only character who perceives time in the manner of Ecclesiastes as endless cyclicality with no meaningful progression or innovation.

If experience merely repeats itself endlessly, it is endlessly fatiguing, and so the two lovers of the story, Susan and Jacob, are seen in repeated flight from the time of adult experience into the timelessness of sleep or longed-for death, or into the radiant atemporality of remembered moments from early childhood or the mythic past. It is significant that the narrative is marked by a number of trancelike moments of vision when a fragment of the past seems to erupt into the present as though untouched by the flow of time. On the personal level, this occurs in Rechnitz's visions of the garden of his childhood, fixed forever with its pond, its flowers, its iron gate. On the cultural level, the same pattern is observable, for example, in the still presence of the Nine Palm Trees, which tremble slightly in the brilliant sunlight before Rechnitz's eyes as they must have done at the beginning of history before the eyes of Japheth and his seven sons.

Jacob Rechnitz, the most representative figure of the modern age in the story, is bloodless, will-less, directionless (except for his attraction to the vegetation of the watery depths)—in sum, the very image of an enervated humanity that has lived beyond its historical prime. The Consul's absurdly inappropriate remark to Rechnitz, "You look as fresh and blooming as a young god," accompanied by the old man's own wistful longings for a renewal of youth, point up the essential irony of Jacob's relation to Greek antiquity, for it is precisely his anemic character that explains both why he is drawn to the Homeric sea and why that magnetism is finally so dangerous to him. Like Dr. Ginath, the scientific seeker in Agnon's later story, Edo and Enam, Rechnitz tries to penetrate the mysteries of a primeval realm of vitality as the representative of an age sapped of vitality, an age out of touch with the inherent mystery of man, the gods, and the natural world. But any attempt to seek "renewal" in this way—as, for example, in the notable modern cults of archeology and anthropology, in the various modern spiritual flirtations with the carnal gods of the ancient Near East or of ancient Greece—is futile and may also be fatal, for man is no longer capable of belonging to the archaic world, however powerful his nostalgia for it. Too many centuries of accumulated cultural experience intervene, experience which, for better or for worse, has gradually modified man's nature and estranged him from his own beginnings. The fate of anyone who essays this route of no-return is likely to resemble that of the venerable sage Gevariah in Edo and Enam, who climbs to the top of a mountain to learn from the eagles the secret of the renewal of youth and instead receives from them his mortal wound. Agnon himself makes a point of comparing the magical appearance of the charmed leaves brought down from the mountain in Edo and Enam with the algae Rechnitz hauls up from the depths in Betrothed, and with "the silver strands we observe on the moon," as if to say: what is sought up above in the later tale is sought down below in the earlier one, and the fate of the seekers may be the same.

In Edo and Enam the quest for cultural origins leads clearly to death. In Betrothed, the story ends in poised ambiguity, with death lurking as a teasing spectral possibility—or is it a presence? The lovely lyric spookiness of the closing moments of the tale is a function not only of Agnon's peculiar sensibility but of the perilously seductive meaning that the pagan past and the primal sea must have for Rechnitz:

Sea and sky, heaven and earth, and all the space between were grown into a single living being; a luminous calm enveloped by azure, or an azure transparent as air. Up above, and under the surface of the sea, the moon raced like a frenzied girl. Even the sands were moonstruck and seemed to move perpetually. Like the sands, like all the surrounding air, the girls, and with them Rechnitz, were taken up into the dream. If they looked overhead, there was the moon running her race, and if they looked out to sea, there she was again hovering upon the face of the waters.

This is beautiful, but it is the precarious beauty of a dream that can dissolve momentarily. Precarious, too, is the paradox of delicate balance between luminous calm and frantic, driven motion. The hovering upon the face of the waters from Genesis is once more invoked, for this is a grand final recapitulation of that pagan lunar cosmos where boundaries vanish and opposites fuse—sky and sea, heaven and earth, dry land and water. We can hardly forget that the double moon racing above and below here was first described as cool and sweet and terrible. Rechnitz is ready, then, for the eery race along the seashore in which he will at the end be claimed by a moonstruck girl—the Hebrew for sleepwalker also means moonstruck—who would call him on an impossible road back to another image of watery origins, the pond in the long-locked garden. Are Susan's night clothes her shroud? Has she arisen from a sickbed or the grave to fulfill her pact with Jacob? Agnon is careful to draw a veil of ambiguity over the conclusion by the suggestion of a possible continuation in the studied anticlimax of his final paragraph. Whatever the literal answer to these questions, such life as Susan can offer Jacob must be a kind of death, for what invites him to her is a return to the womb, as what draws him to the sea is a longing for the womb of human culture, and to man born of woman, the return to the womb can only mean in the end a turning to death. One understands, then, why an ambiguous hint of a dybbuk-motif—the spirit of the plighted bride returning to claim her own—is appropriate for the ending, and why the whole tale should be a reversal of the Sleeping Beauty legend, the kiss of the entranced maiden conferring on her redeeming prince a breath of eternal sleep.

The anticlimax of the last paragraph deserves reflection, because it suggests Agnon's conception of the nature of his fiction and perhaps something also of the larger use such fiction might serve:

Here, for the time being, we have brought to an end our account of the affairs of Jacob Rechnitz and Susan Ehrlich. These are the same Susan and Jacob who were betrothed to one another through a solemn vow. Because of it, we have called this whole account "Betrothed," though at first we had thought to call it "The Seven Maidens."

At the very end, the artificer asserts what is in two senses his authority over his artifice, calling it a "composition" (hibur, rendered freely above as "account"), reminding us that the conventional matter of title is entirely the author's decision. The two titles are linked by an etymological pun, SHEV'UAT Emunim (literally, "The Solemn Vow") and SHEV'A HaNe'arot ("The Seven Maidens"), pointing to the connection in Hebrew between the taking of vows and the magical number seven. But this thematically central play on words also makes us aware that the absorbing reality of the tale is itself a construct of words—words, in the shimmering perspectives of Agnon's double vision, being both the stuff of their own reality and the means through which our historical reality is made accessible. It is hard to think of another extended piece of fiction by Agnon where the artistic control is so unflaggingly sure, its exercise so intricately consistent. That quality of control, surfacing in the placid authorial "we" of the final paragraph, constitutes an implicit affirmation of a confident life-making impulse even in a tale that lingers so hauntingly over the watery depths. It is through the controlling intelligence of the writer's imagination that the story makes real for us the ultimate abyss at the brink of which our culture stands, and any truth the tale conveys could hardly be a consoling one. Yet the self-delighting, reader-delighting control of the artist, asserting itself openly at the end, cunningly shaping a narrative structure where no simple conclusion, whether apocalyptic or naively optimistic, can be drawn, is an intimation of possibilities beyond the sea of nothingness that beckons to the protagonist, and is a demonstration of the imagination's ability to cope with the world by being both in it and outside it. The switch in mood at the end to the prosaic reality of the writer's workroom is in its peculiar way tonic as well as anticlimactic. The ontological duality of all imaginative works is felt with especial sharpness here: inventing fictions, we conclude, is an arbitrary act but it may somehow also be, in the quandary of our whole culture, a necessary act as well.

Leon I. Yudkin (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5308

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 technique, used in much of his work. Clearly, a short story is more accessible to this sort of close examination than is a full-length novel. Each stage of the story can be seen in its immediate context, and each ingredient, each image, each event, each piece of dialogue, as well as its part in the total structure of the story may be seen in its relevant setting. The story that I have chosen is 'Metamorphosis' (Hebrew 'Panim aherot'). 'Metamorphosis,' as the name suggests, treats of a relationship that reaches its crisis point at the time that the narrative takes place, and undergoes a vital change. In a very short space, the author has to put over to us the background of the relationship against which this metamorphosis happened. A complicated psychological process has to be realistically drawn within the limited confines imposed by the technique of the short story. As Leah Goldberg says:

The problem is how to convey change within a short story and to throw light on the past of the active participants. . . . Sometimes, we have to feel within the dramatic segment of life presented to us by the author that this grown man about whom the story is told had a childhood, had lived before this point, and has undergone other experiences.

[Omanut ha-sippur, 1963]

Concentration of suggestive narrative technique in a highly sophisticated form is achieved by Agnon, who was already an experienced master of the short story. An analysis of 'Metamorphosis' would not only be helpful in learning how Agnon achieves his effects, but should also cast light on his narrative technique in general, and we may discover, in disguised form, some of the underlying themes in Agnon's work, and the means by which he implements some of his purposes.

In discussing this short piece, it is possible to examine the story stage by stage in the order of its presentation by the author. The situation is established immediately. The setting is outside the courthouse, where the divorce proceedings have taken place. The first to appear on the scene is Toni, the woman who has just been divorced: '. . . she came out of the Rabbi's house with the bill of divorcement in her hand.' The story opens with the words, 'She was wearing a brown dress, and her warm, brown eyes were moist.' Two things are conveyed here: the objective fact of Toni's emergence from the courthouse and her grief. Her moist eyes elicit sympathy from the reader. Agnon's language also establishes the subdued tone of the description. The word for brown (hum) is repeated and paired with the word for warm (ham), the stress being laid on the labials.

As Toni emerges from the courthouse, two other characters appear—Svirsh and Tenzer—'two bachelors who had become friendly with her since the first year of her marriage.' But, again, the description is not neutral—'Through the tears on her lashes she could see how overjoyed they were.' First, we had sympathy established for Toni. Now, this is clearly related from Toni's point of view—'through the tears on her lashes.' Svirsh and Tenzer are established through her eyes as vultures waiting to feed on the prey of an unfortunate victim. Tenzer (the gay dancer) is described as taking her hands 'in his large clammy hands.' Then he 'gazed at her with the cold furtive look of a sensualist who is uncertain of his pleasures.' Though this is apparently retailed by an omniscient narrator, the viewpoint is clearly Toni's and carries with it a bias against the encroaching Tenzer and guarantees the reader's hostility towards him. Toni is hostile to them and retreats from them both. The reader sympathizes with her, and is also made suspicious of the two people who are concerned only to exploit the situation.

But Tenzer and Svirsh remain with her until the emergence of Hartmann, her former husband, from the court. 'His face was lined and his forehead furrowed. For a moment he stood there looking about him like someone who has just come out of the dark and is wondering which way to go.' Thus Hartmann is seen (by Toni?) as a worried and uncertain man. At this critical moment, he approaches his former wife and asks whether she is going with 'them,' Tenzer and Svirsh. Toni replies to this with another question, 'Don't you want me to?' The couple have just gone through the formal legal process of divorce, but we see here that their actual relationship is not determined merely by their formal relationship in law. Toni is apparently conditioned to acceptance of Hartmann's guidance and instruction and instinctively continues to follow his judgment. It is at this point that the narrative could have taken a different turn, with each of them going their separate ways in accordance with the implications of the divorce proceedings. But they stay together, bound by their own history and actual relationship to each other. We continue to see Toni as the helpless victim of circumstances, who instinctively attracts sympathy. Her 'sadness' is stressed: 'Her entire appearance seemed to say, "Do I look as if I could go alone?"'

So Toni is incapable of faring for herself and needs the protection of another. It could have been Tenzer or Svirsh. But they are swept out of the picture as suddenly as they were brought in. Although their names and characters have been established, they are entirely subsidiary. The fact that there are two of them is a guarantee of their insignificance in relation to Toni and Hartmann. And indeed they are concerned only for their own pride, as Tenzer says, after she is taken by Hartmann, 'After all it wasn't from me that he took her,' and then retreats into facetiousness. The presence of Tenzer and Svirsh melts away, angrily and humorously, in the face of a stronger tie.

Now Toni is alone with Hartmann, and we can observe their reactions to each other, and their behaviour towards each other. We are aware of Hartmann's clumsiness—his intention to perform actions that are then checked—'Hartmann made as if to take her arm, but desisted, so that she should not feel his agitation.' At this point the actual divorce ceremony can be recalled, and becomes very vivid in Hartmann's mind. Toni's eyes are still full of tears, evoking pity. And now we are brought into Hartmann's consciousness. 'Why are we standing here? he asked himself.' We begin to see the events from his angle. Reviewing the proceedings, he seems to detect a mistake in the scribe's words: '. . . and he thought there was a mistake in it. Why was the wretched man in such a hurry? Because Toni and I. . . the whole thing was so strange.' Two things occur to Hartmann: first, that there has been a mistake in connection with divorce proceedings, and second, that the whole thing is strange. It should also be noted that he does not articulate the fact of the divorce. Just at the point where it is to be mentioned, three dots intervene. Of course, he has a psychological block against its articulation. The mistake presumably applies to the divorce itself, although he does not say so. And the 'whole thing' that is so strange, no doubt is the divorce. None of this is stated. His regret, indeed his view of the event as unnatural and peculiar, is pushed to the back of his mind. But we clearly observe the workings of his unconscious through the consciously articulated, namely what is stated from his point of view in the Agnon story. Since he has come to an impasse here, because he will not allow himself to take the necessary remedial action, he has to do something else—'He felt he must do something. He crumpled his hat and waved it about.' His action is ineffective and irrelevant. He then notices that he has not shaved, and is annoyed with himself for appearing dishevelled before Toni on such a day—'today of all days.' So, through lack of an effective course of action, he returns to his supposed previous preoccupation with himself, and his own pride. As in others of Agnon's stories, the besetting fault of the central figure is his self-centredness that prepares the way for his eventual tragedy.

Hartmann now feels himself free to express himself through talk. But it goes wrong. We have already noted the psychological block from which he is suffering which prevents him from articulating his genuine concerns. He still cannot say what he wants to say:

Hartmann fixed his gaze on a window being opened across the way, trying to remember what it was he had wanted to say. He saw a woman peeping out. That's not what I meant, he thought, and he began talking not about what he'd been thinking, but about something quite different.

The appearance of the woman at the window causes him to say that his preoccupation had not been erotic—in other words, this must have preoccupied him. And what he says is again irrelevant to his thoughts. Toni notices this, too, and tries to understand him—'if only he would speak coherently and calmly, she would understand everything.' And she comments on his sadness, thus trying to enter his world and extend the necessary sympathy. What Agnon is using here is the technique of substitute action or substitute speech. When something cannot be done or said, something else takes its place and illuminates by its irrelevance. This is the sense of the 'analogue'—the species that is representative of something else, and is a device frequently used by the author when his characters, through intellectual or psychological deficiencies, cannot express their deepest purposes. Thus we have the story proceeding at two levels—the surface level and the deeper level, only hinted at by the events of the surface, by the ripples of the pool.

Toni tries to enter his mind, expressing a sympathy for him while he is preoccupied with himself—'she felt as if she were responsible for all his troubles.' She also begins to talk off the point, but this surface irrelevance may be translated into deeper relevance: 'If she were aware of what she was saying she would have noticed that she, too, was talking to no particular purpose. But Hartmann accepted her replies as if they were to the point.'

Both Hartmann and Toni had thought of their children—innocent witnesses of an adult estrangement. This thought is concretized in the appearance on the scene of a little girl with a bunch of asters. Hartmann gives the girl money and cannot understand why she is not satisfied. But Toni takes the flowers, smells them, and thanks her. This is what the little girl wanted. Hartmann is willing to offer money, but Toni can allow others sympathy. Clearly, Toni is more aware of other people's needs than is her former husband. Hartmann regards things as 'transactions.' Referring to this incident of the little girl with the flowers, he says, 'Well, this is one transaction I've emerged from safely.' Toni takes up the hint. In keeping with the technique established by the author, things said hint at things unsaid. If he says that he has emerged safely from this transaction, it can only mean that there was another transaction in which he was not successful. At this point, Hartmann begins to talk of his business affairs, a thing that he has been unaccustomed to do. Toni does not understand, but now he gives full vent to his selfish preoccupations. Apparently this is the first time that he has been prepared to explain his affairs to Toni; and 'she began to get the drift of his story, and what she did not grasp with her mind her heart understood.' A sympathy is developed between them for the first time. The metamorphosis is beginning to take place—the 'new face' is beginning to emerge. 'Suddenly he realized that he was seeing his affairs in a new light.' It is even said that the problem became after all not so insoluble. Now Toni begins to see that the whole affair of the divorce and his anger is caused by his business frustration. She lends him her full support: 'Michael, I'm sure you'll find a suitable way out of it.' She assumes the role of the stronger partner, and the metamorphosis continues. 'He looked at her as he had not looked at her for a long time past, and he beheld her as he had not beheld her for a long time past.' And he feels genuinely attracted to her: 'with difficulty he kept himself from caressing her.' She has now become an erotic object, and the way is clear for a new relationship to be established.

What had gone wrong between the two? At this point in the story we are given the history of the present situation. As said above, the difficulty to be overcome in the short story is that of presenting a three-dimensional character with a background and history within the confines of a small space. Agnon solves this by his review of the two central characters' relationship as seen by themselves in their present relationship. We are not quite sure who is telling the story at this point. The subject has been mainly Hartmann, and the point of view seems to be midway between Hartmann, Toni and an external observer—the narrator. Haim Hazaz, faced with a similar problem of presenting a genuine confrontation between two rounded characters within the limited confines of a short story, adopts a similar technique. In the story 'Rahamim,' Menashke's potted history is presented in the form of a brief oblique comment on the root of his bitterness and frustration, and his counterpart, the name character of the story—Rahamim—is presented through Menashke's eyes in his idyllic contentment—of course, a theoretical conjecture. Thus we get a picture of a confrontation between two people who have a past as well as a present existence, and a life beyond the immediate circumstances. In 'Metamorphosis' a crisis point has been passed and the two protagonists are beginning to move towards each other. But a fuller understanding is needed of the rift that took place. One cause has already been hinted at—Hartmann's selfishness and egocentricity. We now hear of another—the fact that their life was not being shared. Hartmann would not tell his wife of his business, a large part of his life. 'From the day he had built his house he had tried to keep home and office completely separate.' But he had not succeeded in creating this distinction to perfection because 'a man cannot control his thoughts, and they would come crowding in on him, turning his home into a branch of his shop.' Gradually, business came to assume more importance at the expense of other things, and he became further estranged from his wife. For lack of anything to do at home he took up smoking, which in this story is an image of Hartmann's discontent. He came to take no interest in his wife, and thus became jealous of her and all her activities. But 'eventually he reconciled himself to the situation, not because he condoned her activities but because she had come to assume less importance in his eyes.' Hence the root of the estrangement, the separation, the rift, and the background to this new encounter. Reconciliation can come about only on a basis of reversing the divisive process. In other words, if the rift occurred through one partner's selfishness and refusal to share his concerns, the reconciliation must develop through a willingness to open out his life and concern himself with others.

So Hartmann has to move in another direction towards Toni. This section describes his gropings, physical and mental. They are indeed summed up by the ineffectiveness of his actions, which leaves no doubt of their intention. 'Hartmann stretched his hand into the vacant air and caressed Toni's shadow.' His intention is not in doubt, but the action is pointless. Then he caresses the air. The general scene is described, but only to illuminate the situation of Hartmann and Toni. And then it is said, 'A boy and girl sat with their arms twined about each other, talking; then their voices broke off abruptly, and the scent of hidden desire hung in the air.' Presumably this is a description of an external fact. But if it is so, then it is brought in as a referent to the two central characters. And the statement, 'the scent of hidden desire hung in the air,' is presented neutrally, one degree away from the 'boy and girl.' It does of course apply to Hartmann and Toni; the metamorphosis involves growing erotic awareness. Thus again one thing is said by means of another. [In Pesher Agnon, 1968] M. Tochner calls this the 'technique of the other face,' which he describes as 'this artistic device . . . including the use of semantic, linguistic means or an open chain of associations or transparent, symbolic events, each one of which, or all together, form an aspect additional to the surface—a sort of dimension within the overt.' This story is particularly rich in this device, although it is used by Agnon in others of his stories.

Still in this section, ambiguities, associations and apparently mistaken impressions abound. Also everything said is not important in itself, but for what it indicates. Hartmann begins to denigrate Svirsh and Tenzer with Toni's approval. A distant light is taken by Toni for a firefly that reminds her of a childhood incident, and this reminds her of her child, which in turn brings her back to the present situation. A man with a ladder is seen as a very tall man. There is confusion over whether Toni had intended saying something or not:

Toni blinked her eyes and drew in her breath. 'Was there something you wanted to say?' Michael asked her. She looked down and said: 'I didn't say anything.' Hartmann smiled. 'That's strange, I fancied you wanted to say something.' Toni blushed. 'Did I want to say something?' She looked at her shadow in silence. Hartmann smiled again: 'So you didn't say anything. But I thought you did.'

This comical uncertainty points to the dialogues between themselves within their own divided minds and within their pasts. Toni is looking at her shadow. The shadow is the alter ego, and at the end of the section two shadows appear—'the head of one of them was close to Toni's while the other was close to Hartmann's.' The image of the boy and girl is repeated and the air is charged with 'unfulfilled desires.' Toni looks at her wedding ring. She is still wearing the wedding ring, and she is once again entering the situation of embarking upon marriage. Ironically, after the divorce, her marriage is becoming a reality.

Hartmann and Toni agree to go together to a restaurant. Toni now seems to have the capacity of entering Hartmann's mind and to know his unexpressed thoughts. They order food which has been freshly cooked; there are new dishes on the menu. They also have wine. Again, the external events point to the internal ones. There is fresh food available to replace the old dishes, an aspect of the 'other face,' but it has not yet been entered in the menu, in other words has not been officially recognized. Wine is drunk—wine that is suitable for a wedding celebration rather than for the aftermath of divorce proceedings. Although 'Toni was ashamed to eat too heartily, her bashfulness failed to blunt her appetite.' They seem to be enjoying a coming together, rather than mourning a separation. Toni is happier now, and Hartmann thinks, without the intervention or censorship of the narrator: 'Since the day I married her I never behaved so decently towards her as when I gave her the divorce.' And he proceeds to reflect on marriage, which he believes should only exist with love. Hartmann's growing love for Toni is hinted at in an expression of erotic desire—'Her shoulders seemed to him to be hidden and two white specks peeped at him, through the openings in her dress where her blouse had slipped down, exposing one shoulder. Now, Hartmann thought, we shall see the other one.' Everything seems to be going well. The meal was good. The wine was good, it was less expensive than was to be expected. They both smoke and we read: 'They sat opposite one another, the smoke from the cigar and cigarette mingling.' The mingling of their cigarette smoke is, of course, an analogue for their own drawing together. Then Hartmann tells of a dream that he had about one Suessenstein, a friend of his of whom he normally was fond. But his appearance in the dream was unwelcome. This Suessenstein is apparently tired of living in hotels and wants a flat, like Hartmann's own. They go to see such a flat. The landlady has a blemish, 'one leg shorter than the other, though this did not seem like a blemish in her.' Then Suessenstein begins to talk as though it is Hartmann who is looking for a flat, and he advises him against it. It would be too cold: there is a stove in the bedroom, but the study is all of glass.

Here Agnon is using the dream to comment on waking experience. Living in a hotel is contrasted to living in a permanent flat. The flat is the symbol of permanent stable existence, the home that includes house and family. Suddenly he is told that he himself is the one seeking to change his flat for another—here an unconscious motive for the divorce. There may be warmth in the bedroom, in other words there may be sexual satisfaction to be had, but a large part of life has to be devoted to work in the study, which is freezing. Finally, the comment on the landlady is a comment on the possibility of changing the appearance of something, its 'face,' by viewing it in a different light. Thus although she had a blemish, one leg being shorter than the other, this seemed more of a virtue: On the contrary, she seemed to dance along rather than walk.' Perhaps, now, he can begin to see Toni afresh in the manner of the dream.

Hitherto all has gone well, but when Toni and Hartmann leave the restaurant, it is said: The garden and the surroundings became dark. A frog jumped in the grass. Toni dropped her flowers in alarm,' and then—'something had obviously gone wrong with them,' referring to the electric wires. Again, the scenery is a referent to the psychological narrative, as is the stream lying in its 'bed,' with the clear, clear sexual overtones of the Hebrew in what is translated as 'bed'—bet mirba'at. Now Hartmann is feeling alert, but Toni is tired. Desire is being aroused in him, but for her there is discord: 'She was exhausted, and her legs were incapable of supporting her body.' Hartmann begins to feel sorry for her and wants to help her. He is responding to someone other than himself and thus drawing closer to her. He decides to take her back to the restaurant for the night—to the scene of their first growing reconciliation. Hartmann is appreciative now of Toni: 'It was good, he felt, that Toni existed for him in this world and at that hour.'

In the last stage of the story, Hartmann and Toni return to the restaurant in search of accommodation. The old man looking after the place is disturbed by this intrusion and assumes them to be a pair of lovers. His view of them does confirm this aspect of the couple that has been developing since the divorce. But they are split up. Toni is given a room, where the bed has a 'bridal wreath' hanging above. She is returning to the original condition of her marriage, but without the husband. Hartmann is left alone to sleep on the billiard table, where he notices the cigar that he had put down when he had begun to tell his dream to Toni. That was the last cigar that he had needed. It will be remembered that for Hartmann, smoking was the product of his domestic dissatisfaction, but with the recounting of the dream he has purged himself of this need. Thus the coincidence of the cigar, remaining from that time, is stressed. Then, he thinks again of smoking: "'Now we'll have a smoke", he said. But before he could take out a cigar he had forgotten what it was he had meant to do.' Smoking is no longer a necessary substitute activity.

He does not smoke. But at the point when he is going to smoke he sees a mound in front of him, and feels the need to ascend it—'He had not really intended to do so, but once he had told himself, he went and did it.' The symbolic device of the hill is also interposed by Agnon at the critical moment in the story called 'Gib'ath hahol' ('The Sand Hill'). There, the central figure, Hemdat, finds himself at the moment of decision—a decision that he is unable to take. He wants to decide whether the love between him and Yael is permanent or not, and he seeks a sign to help him decide on his course of action. The sign is negative, an 'evil sign,' for it is Yael herself. But Hemdat does not see it, and he descends from the hill. The hill is a symbol of isolation, and in 'Metamorphosis,' it reminds Hartmann of his youth, when he fell from such a mound. The fear that that incident would repeat itself attacks Hartmann, quite irrationally, for the mound is very small. But now he can come down safely and leave his isolation. He can be joined to others: 'Strange, he thought, all the while I stood on the mound, I was thinking only about myself, as if I were alone in the world, as if I did not have two daughters.' Further—'The incident of the mound had opened his heart.' He can now see the incident of the mound in a different light. What if he had fallen? He would simply have picked himself up and forgotten about it. And now he can reflect on the childhood incident anew as well, and recollect it with pleasure, not terror: 'his limbs felt relaxed, like those of a man who stretches himself after throwing off a heavy burden.' This childhood experience was, in actuality, uniquely pleasurable, and his recollection of it acts as a cathartic agent removing his fear of 'descending the mound,' and opening the way for his entry into life.

After this incident, he retires to sleep and thinks of Toni. He visualizes her body and 'the two white spots where her skin showed through the brown dress. . . . There's no doubt about it, she isn't young.' Then he reflects that perhaps she has a tooth missing. Toni's defects here begin to take on the character of the landlady's defects in Suessenstein's dream. There her defects became virtues. Here, too, now, 'he still thought of Toni critically, as he always had, but now he felt that all those shortcomings in no way detracted from her.' He feels now genuinely united with her, and imagines that she is in trouble, and needs him. Perhaps he could help her (the word Agnon uses is l'hoshia' 'to save', which generally has theological overtones. He wants to extend salvation to her). The effect of his new-felt closeness with her is to obscure the mound—'gradually the parasol vanished, the smoke dispersed. And the asters grew more numerous until they covered the whole mound.' But at this point—'his eyes closed, his head dropped on the pillow, his soul fell asleep and his spirit began to hover in the world of dreams where there was nothing to keep them apart.' This is how the story ends—ambiguously. Not on a point of genuine live contact between the two protagonists, but on a point of theoretical complete union in the only place where that union is possible—in the world of dreams. Hartmann has come a long journey—marrying Toni, becoming estranged from her, divorcing her, and once more, moving back towards her. But perhaps a completely successful return, the aspiration of so many of Agnon's heroes in various situations, is doomed to failure.

In this analysis we can see what means Agnon has employed to create the story. The narrative situation is of two people who had been estranged; who, from the crisis point, begin to move together—paradoxically, at the moment of official separation. In order to do this and to credit the story with significance, Agnon has to invest his characters with a third dimension—with a past and a history that lives in the present. The limitations of the short story do not allow lengthy discussions, so several levels have to be presented within one surface. To this end Tochner's 'technique of the other faces' is used. Symbol, the image standing for more than itself, dream (the surrealistic technique) and cutback (familiar to us throughout fiction and as the flashback in films) cast light on the interdevelopment of the two characters at this crucial moment, the narration of which covers an evening spent between these two people, but also the whole background of their lives together. Their estrangement had a cause and this cause has to be eradicated, the fatal flaw to be removed for the estrangement to be overcome. But whether a complete reversal is possible is doubtful. Perhaps this can take place only in the world of dreams, where there is no divide.

For such a story, as indeed in all fiction, whether values are consciously adopted or not, the point of view from which the story is told is, of course, vital. [In The Rhetoric of Fiction, 1961] W. C. Booth has said, 'though the author can to some extent choose his disguises, he can never choose to disappear.' In this story Agnon has chosen a number of disguises and speaks with a number of voices. We have most of the tale from Hartmann's point of view, even though Hartmann himself is viewed critically. Most of the development takes place within Hartmann. His was the flaw, and he has to make the adjustment. He has to grow, to cease being selfish, to share his life and to consider others. The options open to him and the possibilities within such a pregnant situation are presented forcibly, subtly, and with the great narrative concentration of which Agnon is such a master.

Further Reading

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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 Heritage, and Mosaic.


Band, Arnold J. Nostalgia and Nightmare: A Study in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968, 563 p.

Contains discussions of Agnon's early Hebrew and Yiddish stories, as well as his fantasies, folktales, mythic narratives, and gothic stories.

Coffin, Edna Amir. "The Dream as a Literary Device in Agnon's 'Metamorphosis'." Hebrew Studies XXIII (1982): 187-98.

Examines "the function of the dream sequences in 'Metamorphosis' ['Panim Aherot'], as well as their effect on character development and on reader response."

Cohen, Carolyn. "Worlds Lost and Found." Commonweal 123, No. 7 (April 5, 1996): 36-8.

Reviews A Book That Was Lost, and Other Stories, highlighting the tales "Agunot," "A Book That Was Lost," and 'The Sign." Cohen observes that "the pleasure in reading these stories comes from their humor and irony."

Gross, John. "The Art of Agnon." The New York Review of Books (November 3, 1966): 10-11.

Review of Betrothed and Edo and Enam. Gross comments on the poetic and allusive qualities of Agnon's writing and states that these stories, though ostensibly pessimistic, are ultimately affirmative.

Hochman, Baruch. "'The Whole Loaf': Tales of the Modern World." In The Fiction of S. Y. Agnon, pp. 158-84. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970.

Discusses the short story collection The Book of Deeds and the novellas Thus Far, Betrothed, Edo and Enam, and Forevermore, focusing on Agnon's depiction of solitary individuals suffering "psychic and spiritual isolation" in the modern world.

Hoffman, Anne Golomb. "Inclusion and Exclusion: Three Stories." In Between Exile and Return: S. Y. Agnon and the Drama of Writing, pp. 105-22. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Examines the relationship between traditional Hebrew texts and Agnon's stories "Upon a Stone" ("Al even ahat"), "The Sense of Smell" ("Hush hareah"), and "The Document" ("Hate'udah").

Kaspi, Joseph. A Study in the Evolution of S. Y. Agnon's Style. Chicago: Spertus College of Judaica Press, 1969, 168 p.

Detailed study of Agnon's stylistics, supplemented by tables and statistical findings.

Leiter, Shmuel. "The Face within a Face." Judaism 19, No. 1 (Winter 1970): 59-65.

Attempts to demonstrate that Agnon's use of symbolism in "Panim Aherot" ("Metamorphosis") transforms this story of "two unimaginative people" into art.

Miron, Susan. "Catastrophe Always Looms." The New York Times Book Review 100 (May 21, 1995): 37.

Favorable review of A Book That Was Lost, and Other Stories.

Patterson, David, and Glenda Abramson, eds. Tradition and Trauma: Studies in the Fiction of S. J. Agnon. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994, 226 p.

Includes essays on the stories Forevermore, "The Hill of Sand," "The Doctor's Divorce" ("Ha-rofe u-gerushato"), and "Friendship" ("Yedidut"), and the collection The Book of Deeds. The essay on Forevermore, by Naomi Sokoloff, is reprinted in the preceding pages.

Rosenberg, Israel. Shay Agnon's World of Mystery and Allegory: An Analysis of 'Iddo and Aynam'. Philadelphia: Dorrance & Company, 1978, 143 p.

Attempts a scholastic explanation of the mysterious elements and hidden meanings of Edo and Enam. The preface states that "a substantial knowledge of Agnon's writing is impossible to have without a profound knowledge of the Jewish sources, both in the written Torah and in the oral Torah (the Talmud), in the so-called religious literature and the various Responsa literature."

Roskolenko, Harry. "In These Tales, God Is Everywhere." The New York Times Book Review (May 10, 1970): 10.

Reviews Twenty-One Stories. Roskolenko perceives that "so much of Agnon's words deal with God, praise for God, for one's parents—and the family of Judaism living in pious precincts, good deeds, memories of antique ways."

Shaked, Gershon. "Midrash and Narrative: Agnon's 'Agunot'." In Midrash and Literature, edited by Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick, pp. 285-303. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.

Asserting that Agnon's fiction can be fully understood only in the context of the literary tradition to which the author refers, Shaked uses the story "Agunot" to demonstrate that the "creative power" of Agnon's tales "arises from the constant tension between the text itself and the sanctified or semi-sanctified literary tradition . . . which it invokes."

Sholem, Gershom. "Reflections on S. Y. Agnon." Commentary 44, No. 6 (December 1967): 59-66.

Considers the relationship of Agnon's fiction to Hebrew language and literature and to the modern history of the Jewish people.

Wiesel, Elie. "A Dream of the Past." Book Week 4, No. 3 (September 25, 1966): 8.

Reviews Two Tales: Betrothed & Edo and Enam. Wiesel contends that both stories in this collection "begin as realistic narratives that lead slowly into a dreamlike spell that confounds and dissolves the normal categories of time and space, of reality and fantasy, life and death."

Yudkin, Leon I., ed. Agnon: Texts and Contexts in English Translation: A Multi-Disciplinary Curriculum, Bibliographies, and Selected Syllabi. New York: Markus Wiener Publishing, 1988, 300 p.

Includes essays on the stories Ad Olam (Forevermore), "Yedidut" ("Friendship"), and "Tallit Aheret."

Additional coverage of Agnon's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18, 25-28 (rev. ed.); Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 60; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 4, 8, 14; and Major 20th-century Writers.

Bernard Knieger (essay date 1975)

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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 water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man.'" But what is the relevance of this proverb to the story? Presumably the reference exists to establish an ironic contrast: the proverb asserts than man comforts man, but the narrator of the Agnon story is an isolated individual.

As is characteristic of many titles, the title "Ha-panim la-panim" provides crucial guidance to the central meaning of the story. But we do not realize the full nature of this guidance unless we recognize that this phrase not only appears in Proverbs; more crucially, it appears in a variant form—panim el panim, "face to face"—in Genesis and in Exodus. In Genesis 32:30, after his famous wrestling match where he has been renamed Israel, Jacob says, "I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved." And in Exodus 33:11 it is written, "And Jehovah spoke unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his frięnd." These are well-known passages: panim el panim is as famous a phrase to a Hebrew speaker with a minimum knowledge of Jewish culture as, say, "Home of the Brave" would be to the average American. Therefore, part of the content of the Agnon title is in its echo of panim el-panim: that is, in the contrast between the face confronted by its mirror-image and with "God."

The central plot situation in the story is the narrator's failure to be able to visit his ill—dying or perhaps already dead—mother as a result of a series of awkward mishaps set up by the narrator himself. "The Face and the Image" is from the collection The Book of Deeds, and the characteristic story there is non-realistic, as the English reader can judge for himself, for Glatzer has included nine other stories from this source in the Twenty-one Stories. In any event, the mixture of realism and surrealism in "The Face and the Image" encourages a symbolic interpretation of this story in which the mother emerges as, say, the "old faith," certainly as its representative. As Glatzer writes in a general comment on The Book of Deeds: "Deep faith is a matter of the past. . . ." Thus the narrator at the end of the story is not sitting face to face with his mother, the representative of the old faith, but rather in strange surroundings. He is surprised by a mirror-image of himself "reflecting back every movement of the hand and quiver of the lips, like all polished mirrors, which show you whatever you show them, without partiality or deceit." Significantly, the "image rose" when he is trying to avoid recognizing the consequences of his not being by his mother's side. In the final line of the story, the "I" says that "it, namely, the revelation of the thing, surprised me more than the thing itself, perhaps more than it had surprised me in my childhood, perhaps more than it had ever surprised me before." Presumably what is revealed to him is his isolation, his folly, his impotence.

Instead of wrestling with God or speaking to Him face to face, the narrator at the end is speaking with himself and wrestling with his own self-image: man in his folly, his self-confusion and isolation, in his impotence, and perhaps in his vanity as well, cannot return to the old faith—some such statement emerges as the central theme of this story, a meaning that is anticipated by the title "Hapanim la-panim," and by its echo of the more famous panim el panim.

Harold Fisch (essay date 1975)

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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 understood against the background of Jewish history both ancient and modern. For this is the fundamental context of all Agnon's thinking and experience.

A work which gives us a special insight into the contours of Agnon's dreamworld, and enables us also to judge its relationship with the world of everyday is a collection named simply Sefer HaMa'asim (Book of Fables). This is a group of twenty short stories, or rather antistories, written over a period from 1930 to 1951. Here, in these strange writings, the normal bonds of continuity fall away; effects fail to follow causes; the setting of Jerusalem changes without warning to that of Vienna or Buczacz; generations and periods are telescoped. The narrator, for instance, suddenly finds himself conversing with his dead grandfather. Forced to leave his work for a few hours whilst the painters are whitewashing his room, he lurches into the past, into the home of his childhood. The symbolic and everyday worlds are yoked together by violence in a way only found elsewhere in Kafka, though Agnon differs from Kafka in his greater degree of faithfulness both to the dream and to everyday observation. He also reminds us of Edgar Allan Poe with his strange world of mystery and imagination. But, in general, Agnon is not so romantically abstracted from his environment nor so totally immersed as Poe in his own psychic depths. His Book of Fables are not tales involving radical alienation of that kind.

The last of the Book of Fables in the 1951 edition, "The Letter," may be read as a detailed, almost journalistic account of Jerusalem society in the thirties: there are the mandatory police, the bureaucracy, the German refugees with their unhappy complaints about everything they find in the new country. It is all there, even a brilliantly satirical account of a memorial meeting held in honor of some civic leader who has recently passed on. But there is also the faithfulness to the dream. When the narrator gets back home after the meeting, the dead gentleman himself, Mr. Gedalya Klein, is waiting for him; they talk about this and that. [About the name Gedalya Klein, the critic states in a footnote: "There is satire here on the naming of names. We could render this Mr. Bigger Little."] There is nothing frightening or unexpected about the meeting: it has all the thoroughly predictable and "normal" quality of a dream encounter. Mr. Klein and the narrator try to find their way to a certain prayer-house they once visited together (in an earlier dream). Finally, Mr. Klein makes some marks with his stick, and there is the prayerhouse suddenly in front of them! "The old man picked up his stick, knocked twice on the wall, a door opened, and in I went."

A typical dream situation which recurs throughout the Book of Fables is sudden amnesia. The narrator finds he cannot remember his address, or that he is tongue-struck, or that his feet are dragging and he cannot move, or that he is improperly clad. In the last case, he is in the synagogue without a head-covering or without a prayer shawl. Above all (as in so many dreams of those of us who have to give lectures or attend meetings), there is an obsession with time. The clock is mentioned in practically every fable: one is inevitably late; the post office is closed before he gets there; he misses the last bus; he has to board a ship by a certain time but the children are lost, and he and his wife chase around the town (which town?) to try and find them, but eventually they get back on board at the last moment as the ship casts off, and find the children waiting there for them.

The three fables I shall describe are "The Last Bus," "The House," and "The Whole Loaf." "The Last Bus" begins with the narrator fumbling with a primus stove needed for boiling water to launder a shirt. Finding there is no kerosene in it, he leaves it and goes off to visit a Mr. Sarit who engages him in conversation regarding various people. The house seems to be a kind of furniture store; it is full of cupboards and chairs, and there is a strong smell of turpentine around. We get a fleeting glance of Mr. Sarit's daughter (by his first wife) "whose green eyes and well-developed limbs put [the narrator] in some confusion." Then Mrs. Sarit (the second) provides him with a kind of launderer's ladle to help him in dealing with the primus problem. Place-names and references to his childhood locate this scene in Buczacz in Galicia. Coming out into the street on a narrow black bridge he finds himself in Jerusalem waiting for the last bus home. A few girls who have been to the theater are waiting at the bus stop, but although they know him they ignore him. One of them has long hair and is wearing slacks. He starts talking to his grandfather but doesn't tell him about his visit to Mr. Sarit, because he remembers that his grandfather wasn't too friendly with Sarit. When the bus comes, he misses it, of course. The girls get in first and he drops the ladle that he is carrying. He is especially exasperated at the thought that the girls have left him behind without even bothering to stop the driver and make him wait for him. His grandfather refuses to let him hire a cab, but takes him to the office of the bus company, where they make inquiries about another "carriage."

I was sorry that my grandfather had lowered his dignity to trouble himself to come from the other world, especially as when he left this one they didn't use buses. I was sorry that I had caused him humiliation.

The superintendent says there is another old carriage but he has no idea when it will start out. The narrator knows very well that it is hopeless to wait for this, but his grandfather urges him on, confident that they will soon move off. The narrator finds his tongue has "thickened" and he can say nothing. The official is obviously having a joke at the expense of them both. On the way to the old carriage (it is really not a bus but, judging by the quaint terminology, it is a disused railway coach from the Galician period) the old man slips and falls, but the narrator doesn't worry because "dead people can't hurt themselves." The problem is what to do now—the narrator starts walking home. It is a pleasant mild evening: he runs into five acquaintances, one of whom he knows by name and who has cause to dislike him. Another passerby of dignified appearance who might have befriended him leaves him with a barely muttered greeting and the faintest hint of a smile. He is left feeling lost and troubled, alone at night "walking behind those men of whom one was my enemy and the other four were not my friends."

Part of the vocabulary of this dream is evidently erotic. There is the ladle, the primus, the girls to whom he is attracted but who seem not to respond to his presence. The sense of emptiness and inadequacy (the empty primus) has evident sexual implications. But this is secondary to the main theme of the various episodes: the young girls just coming from the theater are, as we would say, "moving with the times"—they catch the bus; so is the superintendent who has his laugh at the pair of latecomers who cannot get home; so in a way is Mr. Sarit with his two wives, his successful business, and his careful time-keeping (he goes to bed early and has regular habits). The underlying symbolism of the dream enforces the contrast between the onward pressure of time, and the brooding presence of the past—the grandfather who is "behind the times" and to whom the narrator is still spiritually bound, hence his inability to respond as he would like to Sarit's daughter and to a girl wearing slacks. His involvement in the "new" world and the anxieties and discomfitures to which it gives rise are a source of "humiliation" to his grandfather. But on the other hand, his involvement in the old world gives him little comfort; his grandfather's foolish solicitude keeps him from "getting home" to his rest, and the patriarchal gentleman whom he meets at the end passes him by with barely a nod leaving him to the company of the somewhat hostile group of jerusalem residents.

The pervading theme of homelessness is here picked out with clear erotic and historical references. The pressure of onward time, and the remembrance of times past leave the narrator in "great distress." He is an alien in Shebush and an alien in Jerusalem. How will the man carrying the burden of the past and of his own inadequacies and unfulfilled desires finally reach home? The old coach will not enable him to make it, and the new indifferent generation cares little whether he makes it or not.

The historical theme is even more clearly underlined in the symbolism of "The House." We find ourselves in a well-ordered, comfortable and freshly cleaned Jerusalem house on the day before the Passover. Everything radiates a feeling of domestic sanctity and warmth. But there is also a sense of much activity and tension—the tension arising from the many preparations for the festival. They have not slept the whole week, says the narrator; the house has had to be thoroughly cleaned, the pots changed over, and the last traces of leavened bread have had to be scrupulously removed. There has been haircutting, washing, and baking. The following day, i.e., the eve of the festival itself, will also be a day of intense activity and preparation. And so, worn out with his exertions and in expectation of further exertions still to come, the narrator falls asleep almost before he has a chance to eat his evening meal. His sleep is pleasant and refreshing as befits a man whose home is what it should be on the eve of the Passover, but he is aroused at four o'clock (he hears the clock striking) and, going to the door, is annoyed to find that his nocturnal visitor is "a little Arab boy, somewhat ruddy and stout, of a strain bequeathed to the country by the crusaders." He feels a desire "to strike the little bastard on his jaw" for waking him so rudely in the middle of the night. But he overcomes the impulse and after asking what he wants gives him a drink of water. The child seems to be either impudent or incredibly simple, and remains stupidly where he is. Finally the narrator gives him some of the bread that had been left over before the final clearing out prior to the Passover. This is what the child was after, and he runs away with the bread. Going back to bed he finds he can no longer sleep; he now begins to worry about his landlord who has just got back to town and is threatening him with a notice of eviction. He feels he must go and see him, and try and get the matter smoothed over. In passing, the narrator mentions two customary dreams, one of a pleasant and heart-warming house of prayer in the old country, with its white walls, its candles and its fresh Sabbath smell; the other of a big cold house (evidently in central Europe) of forbidding aspect with many windows and a hostile landlady.

This will help you to understand the feelings of a man like myself, and the fear he has of having to wander, especially of having to leave a place in which I felt at home immediately I entered it.

Looking around for his landlord, Mr. So-and-So, he pursues him from his home to the post office, and then to the bank, but time is short for he has left some leavened cakes at home which have to be finished during the forenoon prior to the festival. He finally meets up with Mr. So-and-So meaning to make some pleasant conversation. However, he finds himself unable to speak. After foolishly following him around for a while, he invites him to his house: to this his landlord brusquely replies that he will visit the house whenever he feels so inclined—indicating clearly that he looks upon the house as his own property and sees the narrator as an unwanted tenant. Finding himself now without money, the narrator has to walk home where, of course, he arrives at a late hour after the festival has already begun. To his profound dismay, he finds the leavened bread left from the night before still unburnt. The table is laid for the festive meal, but all is come to naught—the house is ritually disqualified, and they have to leave it. But the ritual disqualification is but the symbol for a deeper cause of homelessness:

A wife understands her husband. Looking at me she realized that all my efforts with the landlord had been in vain. She knew that we were condemned to leave our home. So she wrapped herself round; she took the boy and I took the girl, and we left.

Going down the street they hear from someone's home the sound of the recital of the Passover Story or Haggada, "This day we are here; next year in the Land of Israel. This year we are bondmen; next year we shall be free." Agnon draws the moral:

It is not enough for a man to dwell in the Land of Israel, he must also pray to be free. . . . A home from which you can be ejected at any time is no true home.

This fable cannot be understood without bearing in mind the character of the Passover-archetype, which for the Jew is probably as powerful as any of the Jungian psychic structures. The sense of urgency and haste which the narrator and his family feel is right there in the biblical source:

And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste; for they said, We be all dead men. And the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders.

(Exodus XII, 33-4)

The pressure upon the narrator and his family in the preparations for the Passover is the pressure of the ongoing challenge of Jewish history itself, the Exodus from Egypt being the classical prototype, the concrete symbolization of its terrors and its joys. For the Exodus spells both liberation and exile, and between these two poles Jewish history is lived in all its existential paradox. The narrator has come home: here in Jerusalem was a place where he had felt at home immediately on arrival. At the dream center of the fable it blends with the intimate warmth of the prayerhouse in his father's village in eastern Europe. The first sentences underline the calm and joy which the house radiates from its freshly whitewashed walls, and its sparkling floor. His sleep is the sleep of the man who has come home and presides over the festive board. But it is a troubled sleep. The little Arab boy who disturbs him is descended from some philandering crusader who eight hundred years before had mingled his strain with the local Saracens. He represents that alien series of occupations starting with the Romans—the word "ruddy" (admoni) to describe his color immediately suggesting Edom the traditional, hated name of Rome—and ending with the British, which has made the Jewish Homeland into a problematical home indeed. Romans, Byzantines, Nabateans, Arabs, Turks, and British have at one time or another taken possession of it, so that although he has come home at last, the Jew has not yet lost the sense of homelessness. He must still fight for his right of possession. The narrator's family ejected from their home and walking out into the street are reenacting the archetypal Passover ritual in terms of modern history.

It will be seen that symbol and allegory combine to form a narrative pattern which gains logical coherence only when the underlying mythic structure is understood. This structure might be termed the Jewish theme of linear history, which though seeming to consist of an endless cycle of exiles and returns, redemptions and catastrophes, is felt nevertheless to be moving on to some desired and all-justifying consummation. Hence the forward pressure, the feeling of having to reach a destination.

The clock is no peripheral symbol in Agnon's dream-world. In a large number of these tales (as, for instance, at the beginning of A Guest for the Night) he projects the experience of the Day of Atonement—another fundamental Jewish archetype—and the constant underlying sensation is that the Day is moving on, it is drawing to a close, there is a further duty still to be performed. Will the narrator successfully discharge the burden of prayer and observance "in the time" remaining? And, always, there is the brooding presence of Days of Atonement gone by in eastern Europe, in central Europe; ancestral echoes and urgent present responsibilities, making together a microcosm of Jewish history.

Joyce in his dream novel, Finnegans Wake, celebrates a cyclical theory of history which he had derived from the Italian historiographer, Giambattista Vico. Finnegan blends with Adam, with Tristram, with Sinbad the Sailor and the ancient heroes of Ireland. All the heroes of the past become one hero. There is no change, no progress: it is, in short, an historical pattern which rests upon a nature myth, upon birth, copulation, and death—the pattern of the seasons. Agnon's fiction likewise rests on an underlying concept of history, but instead of the dreamy changelessness of Finnegan with its ever-recurring motifs, we have the onward pressure of things to be done invading the inner province of the psyche. Here is the special existential background of Agnon's fiction. The Arab boy has a definite historical existence: he belongs to the present as well as to the past, to the outer world of consciousness as well as to the inner world of the psyche. And the narrator is challenged to react. He will either strike him on the jaw or give him bread. But act he must; he cannot slip away from him into a dreamy indifference. Even in sleep, history throws out to us its challenges and choose we must.

"A Whole Loaf with the same tendency to the grotesque, and the same obsessive concern with the passage of time as the other two stories just described, is a very much more "contrived" fable. The narrator having been kept indoors during the whole Sabbath day by the intense midsummer heat of Jerusalem, goes out in the evening to look for a restaurant to eat a meal—his first meal of the day. His wife and children are abroad, and he has to manage for himself. Here is a hint of the theme of homelessness . . . encountered in Edo and Enam. An elderly acquaintance, the scholarly Dr. Yekutiel Ne'eman, beckons him in passing and engages him in conversation about his family. They go on to discuss Ne'eman's book, a book about which there is some difference of opinion among scholars. Some say he made it up himself, and some say he drew his opinions from an earlier authority. At all events,

from the day it was published, the world has changed a little for the better, and a number of people have even made a point of living according to what is written in it.

Before they part, Dr. Ne'eman gives him a bundle of letters which have to be sent off by registered mail, and asks him to be kind enough to take them to the post office.

The narrator, instead of going straight to the post office, turns aside to other concerns. First, he spends some time in a synagogue, then he is tempted to satisfy his hunger first instead of worrying too much about the letters. He walks along daydreaming about all sorts of succulent dishes but makes little progress either in the direction of a restaurant or the post office, until finally he runs into Mr. Gressler who diverts him from both objects. Mr. Gressler is a successful and materialistic hail-fellow-well-met individual, a Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, whom, says the narrator, he had known "as long as I can remember." Mr. Gressler's company had often given him great pleasure, and yet it is also owing to Mr. Gressler that the narrator's house had been burnt down, for it was Gressler who had persuaded a neighbor to set fire to his property in order to claim the insurance, and the fire had spread to the narrator's dwelling. To give a touch of fantasy to the incident it is related that the firemen, who had been at a party when called to deal with the blaze, poured brandy on the fire to keep it going instead of putting it out!

After a brief ride in Gressler's carriage, the narrator jerks at the reins in order to avoid meeting an undesired acquaintance—an inventor of mousetraps—and as a consequence both he and Gressler topple in the dirt, the narrator being badly shaken and bruised. Picking himself up out of the dirt he immediately makes his way to the nearest restaurant, a somewhat classy affair, where he places his order for dinner, adding that he wanted a whole or uncut loaf with it. This would make it a rather special kind of meal. Everyone else is served before him: time and time again the waiter comes along, but it turns out that the loaded tray is always intended for another diner. At one moment he spies a little boy munching a roll of bread,

just like that which my mother of blessed memory used to bake us for Purim. I can still taste it in my mouth. There is nothing in the world I would not have given for just a taste of that roll.

Hour after hour passes until he hears the clock striking ten-thirty. At that he jumps up, suddenly remembering that this is the time the post office closes, and he must rush to mail Dr. Ne'eman's registered letters. Naturally, as he jumps up, he knocks over the tray containing his meal which the waiter is at last bringing to him. The proprietor begs him to wait until a fresh meal can be prepared, and so he waits, full of remorse at having failed in his errand, until at last the restaurant is closed and he is locked in without his having eaten anything. Sitting looking at the soiled tablecloth and the remains of all the meals that have been eaten, he observes a cat and a mouse emerge, both intent on gnawing the leavings. Dr. Gressler passes by the window but fails to respond to his call. At last he falls asleep. In the morning when the staff arrives to clean up, he leaves the restaurant, weary, hungry and alone. The letters are preying on his mind, but it is Sunday, and in the Jerusalem of Mandate times the post office is closed on Sunday.

The symbolism is patent. As Israeli critics have pointed out, Dr. Ne'eman (Faithful) is a persona of Moses the Lawgiver, the man who had written a book which some might think his own but which others believe was copied from a greater authority than himself. The world has become a little better since it was written. He lays a charge on the narrator which the narrator must carry out. But the narrator has another friend, the egregious Mr. Gressler. He is the antitype of Ne'eman: coarse, living it up, and caring little who gets hurt in the process. The narrator, though drawn to his company, has in fact little to thank him for. For it is Gressler who, in the past, had brought it about that "his house was burnt down." Here the Jewish historical theme (the burning of the Temple) merges with an event in Agnon's own life, namely, the burning of his home in Germany in 1924, an event to which he often reverts. It is Gressler who diverts him from the task with which Dr. Ne'eman has charged him, and after being diverted, he forgets about the "letters" altogether and concentrates only on satisfying his hunger. This he fails to achieve, partly because in a dream such desires are usually frustrated, and partly because he sets himself a high aim—he wants "a whole loaf," something both satisfying and dignified, something like the Sabbath meal he has missed, a meal which will remind him of the delicious whole rolls which his mother used to bake for the feast of Purim. But he is left both hungry and alone. Gressler takes no notice of him at the end of the tale, and amid the garbage and the vermin of the locked restaurant he reaches his nadir. He has satisfied the demands neither of the "id" nor of the "superego." The charge laid on him by Ne'eman remains unfulfilled. But the letters are still in his pocket . . . and some day, maybe, he will get around to mailing them.

Here again we have the Jewish history-consciousness imposing itself on the pattern of the dream-symbols. The clock is moving on, tasks have to be performed, decisions have to be taken. It is not merely that the narrator makes the wrong decisions, but that at the crisis of the story he is unable to decide at all—should he eat or should he go to the post office? This is a natural enough dream-situation. But what gives it its special covenant dimension is the sense of responsibility (the word for "registered" in Agnon's Hebrew also means "responsibility") symbolized by the letters which, though covered with filth, spilt wine, and gravy by the overturned tray, still have to be delivered, together with the sense of a past world not "wholly" recoverable, symbolized by the special meal with its "whole loaf to adorn and dignify it.

This is clearly an allegorical tale like so many of Kafka's tales, and like Pilgrim's Progress; but its force is not entirely owing to allegorical contrivance. We recognize the main features intuitively. We have known Mr. Gressler from infancy, and as for Ne'eman, he has existed from ancient times and he is still around. He reminds us of ancestral responsibilities still waiting to be discharged. Such a tale is thus an image of contemporary existence in the historical present. And here is where Agnon differs from Kafka. "A Whole Loa f is, among other things, a naturalistic account of a Saturday night in Jerusalem in the twenties. We see the Arabs in their fezzes, the orthodox Jews in their fur hats (streimels); there is traffic, there are cafes and hotels; you see the different types coming out to take the air after a burning day of hot desert wind (hamsin). You meet the scholar at his lighted window, the successful man of property in his coach; you visit a little synagogue with its candles and benches, and a fine restaurant with its magnificent appointments and its babel of tongues.

If Yekutiel Ne'eman is the Moses of the Bible, he is no less the embodiment of that Moses who still exists as an active part of Agnon's religious consciousness and of the community of Jerusalem which he here describes. Just, as the Arab boy who disturbs the narrator's sleep in "The House" is both a symbol of the red-haired Edom-Esau whom Jacob-Israel had alternately fed and fought in the book of Genesis, and a living part of the human landscape of Palestine with which the new Jewish settlers have somehow to reckon. What binds together the world of symbol and the world of everyday is a biblical dimension of ongoing time which communicates with us simultaneously through dream and through our waking consciousness: it is both without and within, both near and far-off, both past and present.

Esther Fuchs (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7294

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 hardly any detail in its originally confusing state. What the momentous critical quest for clarity failed to acknowledge, however, is the literary significance of the presumably meaningless elements in the story. Based on the proposition that in literature meaningless elements are just as significant as meaningful ones, we shall focus precisely on the enigmatic and most disturbing thematic and structural properties of Edo and Enam, unexplaining, wherever possible, the allegorical explanations which layed the potential problems to rest.

The allegorical quest for meaning in Edo and Enam started with Baruch Kurzweil's partially allegorical interpretation of the story [Masot al sipurav shel shai agnon, 1975]. Substituting the Greifenbachs' house for the house of Judaism and their key for the futile attempts of modern Jewry to open it, Kurzweil maintains that Edo and Enam is a parable on the dilemma of Modern Judaism. Kurzweil does not explain his selective focus on the house and the key, to the exclusion of other objects represented in the story. This is the gap which Meshulam Tochner's comprehensive allegorical interpretation [Pesher Agnon, 1968] sought to fill. Carrying on the Judaic orientation of Kurzweil's interpretation, Tochner accords a historical or metaphysical status to almost all the objects, places and characters mentioned in Edo and Enam. Equating Amadia with Mount Sinai, Gamzu's magic leaves with the Torah, Gamzu himself—with the people of Israel; Gevaryahu, his father-in-law, with Rabbi Akiba, and the twenty two exotic dancers with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, Tochner asserts that the "apparent" aspect of the story is secondary, almost peripheral to the "invisible" subtext. The text of the "visible story" is demoted to the status of mere literary "make-up", intended to camouflage the real meaning of the story. Tochner ignores the fact that what he considers to be the "primary text" constitutes his own interpretation of the story, and that by establishing a hierarchy of primary and secondary texts, he gives in fact, priority to his own interpretation over the original text. Most importantly, however, both Kurzweil and Tochner fail to defend their Judaic interpretation of Edo and Enam on the basis of the thematic field of the original text. With the exception of Gamzu's keen interest in ancient Jewish hymns, none of the other characters seems to be particularly concerned about Judaism. Jewish related motifs appear as tangential rather than primary elements in Edo and Enam; consequently, there is no inherent justification for this particular interpretative orientation. But this did not deter other critics from speculating on Agnon's Zionist ideology based on Tochner's moot allegorizations. Edi Zemach, for example, maintains [in an essay in Hebrew in Hasifrut, Summer, 1968] that Edo and Enam reflects Agnon's rejection of secular Zionism. Shlomo Zucker, on the other hand, affirms that Agnon decries the aestheticist and scientific approaches to Jewish traditional sources, rather than secular Judaism as a whole. This debate dramatizes the inherently arbitrary nature of the story's allegorical interpretation. Its substitutive nature paves the way for exegeses, which are mutually exclusive. By its very nature, the allegorical method precludes a multiplicity of approaches to the multifaceted literary work. The categorical nature of the allegorical method eclipses the multidimensionality of Edo and Enam, a drawback which was applauded by Hillel Barzel [in Sipurei 'ahavah shel shai agnon, 1975]. According to Barzel, the "excellent exegetical work" undertaken by Agnon's critics redeems the story from its oppressive "strangeness", and makes it more accessible to the average reader.

The underlying premise of the allegorical approach is that a "normal" story ought to be clear and accessible while a "strange" story must be clarified to be fully appreciated. The strangeness of Edo and Enam consists among other things in its digressions, internal contradictions, sudden transitions from realism to phantasy, neologisms and anachronisms. These phenomena would be considered strange by those who seek in literature a representation of empirical reality in congruity with human logic. But for the ironic work, aiming at pointing up the tensions between reality and perception, language and logic, fiction and experience—these strange literary phenomena are essential. As we shall see later, the romantic irony of Edo and Enam transcends the limited ironies of point of view, plot and characterization. The generic incongruities, the narrative digressions and the informational discrepancies in the story serve not only the ironic treatment of the unreliable narrator, the schlemiel protagonist and the arbitrary plot progression, but also the reflexive irony of the story itself. The narrative instabilities contribute to the reader's insecurity, forcing him to re-examine the validity of his intellectual predispositions and preconceived notions about the text. In the following pages we shall examine the limited ironies of Edo and Enam, and the way in which they lead to the story's radical self-irony, or romantic irony.


In order to detect the ironic point of view in Edo and Enam, we must first distinguish between, on the one hand, the narrator and the implied author, and on the other, the protagonist and the narrator. It is important to note that Edo and Enam consists essentially of two stories; that of the nameless narrator and that of Gamzu, his half-blind friend. The construction of a story within a story points up the parallels between the diegetic and meta-diegetic stories, the improbable coincidences informing Gamzu's tale, reflect on the coincidences reported by the narrator, and the synthesis of phantasy and realism in the latter highlights a similar synthesis in the former. The concentric narrative structure intimates that underlying the stories about the hymns of Enam and the enigmatic language of Edo is a story about the act of story-telling and the nature of human language in general. But before we deal with the far reaching implications of the ironic point of view, we must regress to the issue of the limited scope of the unreliable narrator who transmits the story to the reader.

The limited perception of the unnamed narrator is adumbrated in the first chapter, dramatizing the encounter between him and the Greifenbachs. Despite the obvious nervousness of his friends, the egocentric narrator refrains from inquiring about their discomfiture, apparently, because he has trouble formulating the right question. Even after they admit that in view of their incumbent voyage to Europe, they are worried about poachers who may take over their house in their absence, the narrator continues to ignore their problem, concentrating instead on what interests him; his idol, Dr. Ginath who happens to be the Griefenbachs' tenant.

My heart beat fast as I heard this; not because of the Greifenbachs, but because they had spoken of Ginath as a real person. Since the time when the name of Ginath became world-known, I had not come across anyone who could say he actually knew him.

The Greifenbachs' subtle though desperate attempts to call the narrator's attention to their predicament crash against the narrator's obtuseness and egotism. These become all the more preposterous when the text intimates that the narrator admires Dr. Ginath for his fame and for the sheer controversiality of his findings. His unreserved praise for Dr. Ginath betrays his dilettantism and naive credulity, further undermining the validity of his point of view.

Even with his first published article, "Ninety-nine Words of the Edo Language," Ginath had drawn the attention of many philologists; when he followed this up with his "Grammar of Edo," no philologist could afford to ignore him. But what made him truly famous was his discovery of the Enamite Hymns. To discover ninety-nine words of a language whose very name was hitherto unknown is no small achievement, and a greater one still is the compilation of a grammar of this forgotten tongue.

The narrator seems to be more interested in the history of Ginath's academic career, and the growth of his reputation (had drawn the attention of many philologists . . . made him truly famous), than in the genuine value of his findings. His description of Ginath's research is laudatory but too general and glib to win the reader's trust (no small achievement . . . a greater one). The suspicion of the reader, which is aroused by the fictional names of "Edo," the new-found language, and "Enam," the esoteric hymns, is not abated by the narrator's effusions. It is further corroborated by the fact that Gervaryahu and his daughter, Gemulah are said to have invented a private language for their own purposes.

The narrator's reliability is further undermined by his fallacious reasoning. For example, he rejects outright the possibility that "a European person like Ginath" should be able to dress like a traditional "hacham" a possibility, which is later vindicated by the narrative evidence. His gullibility and relentless veneration for Ginath, is contrasted with the critical and somewhat cynical attitude of Greifenbach towards the "science" of history and scholarship in general:

I'm not in the habit of expressing my views about matters on which I'm no expert, but I think I can say this: in every generation, some discovery is made that's regarded as the greatest thing that ever was. Eventually, it's forgotten, for meanwhile some new discovery comes to light. No doubt that goes, too, for the discoveries of Dr. Ginath.

The narrator demonstrates a similar gullibility in his dealings with Gamzu. He praises Gamzu as a "scholar" who "had seen the world, had voyaged to distant lands, and reached places where no traveler had been before", and continues to accept his friend's highly suspect visits to the Greifenbachs' house at face value. Lured by Gamzu's exotic stories, the narrator forgets to pursue the obvious question; what is Gamzu doing in the middle of the night by the Greifenbachs' door? Although he expresses astonishment and even a modicum of suspicion when Gamzu "happens" to come by the Greifenbachs' house on the following night, he fails to press Gamzu for a more reasonable excuse for his repeatedly coincidental nocturnal visits. The narrator fails to challenge Gamzu when the latter explains that he came out to the Greifenbachs' house, having found a full-proof cure for his moonstruck wife. The narrator proceeds to accept Gamzu's far fetched explanation, despite its blatant incongruity with Gamzu's previous account about Gemulah, according to which, Gemulah suffers from an incurable malady and must not be left alone.

The distance between narrator and reader is created mostly by the incongruity between what the first considers important and what the latter wants to know. Towards the climax of the story, the narrator describes his encounter with Ginath and Gemulah in a most confusing way, mixing phantasy and realism and not bothering to clarify or explain the mysterious event:

I looked around me, and saw Gamzu standing behind the door; I wondered what on earth he was doing there. The palm of a hand reached out and touched the door. Before I could decide whether what I saw was really seen or not, the door opened halfway and the light in the room shone out brightly. It drew me and I looked inside.

The narrator does not pursue the questions he raises during this mysterious scene, and the scene that follows in Ginath's room. The narrator does not account for Gamzu's eavesdropping behind Ginath's door or for the half-phantastic half-realistic description he offers to the reader. Not only does he refrain from elucidating ambiguities, he compounds them whenever he can. Mostly, he pursues trivial questions, leaving the most important ones unanswered. Thus, he describes his final encounter with Gamzu after the death of Gamulah and Gamzu, but he does not bother to supply additional details about the circumstances of the couple's tragic death. Instead he offers the reader bits of rumor and gossip, which only muddle the already incoherent picture. The reader is more frustrated than satisfied by this inept narrator.

But the unreliable narrator is only one aspect of the ironic point of view. The implied author who flaunts the narrator's unreliability whenever possible, seems to enjoy the reader's confusion as well. This situation, transcends the limited irony of point of view, in which the author and the reader collude as accomplices behind the narrator's back. The irony generated by the incongruity between the reader's and the author's stances has far-reaching repercussions. Unlike the limited irony of point of view, directed at the unreliable narrator, this irony unleashes questions relating to the nature of human perception, the fickleness of fictional literature and the disturbing similarity between dream and reality. By leaving the identity of Gemulah (moonstruck woman or imaginary character) the nature of the magic leaves (simple tobacco leaves or leaves endowed with mystical powers) and the problem of Ginath and Gemulah's death (accident or suicide) unanswered, the implied author manages to destabilize not only the narrator's but the reader's point of view as well. One implication of these ironic instabilities is that the human perspective is by nature inadequate and insufficient, and that the complexities and absurdities encountered in our daily lives transcend the limits of human comprehension. Thus, the limited irony directed at the unreliable narrator of Edo and Enam grows in ever wider circles to encompass the reader and the implied author himself, who invalidates his own point of view by playing up the unresolvable discrepancies of his own story.

The ambiguities in Edo and Enam do not have to be resolved or elucidated: they form an integral part of the meaning of the story; they function as generators of irony which is directed at the unreliable narrator, the implied author and at the reader at the same time.


As noted above, there are two basic plots in Edo and Enam: the metadiegetic one, unfolds in Gamzu's descriptions of his travels; the other plot revolves around the narrator's experiences at the house of the Greifenbachs.

Despite the considerable differences between the stories they share similar ironic plot-structures, foremost among which are: the irony of coincidence and the irony of events. The irony of coincidence characterizes most of Gamzu's life. For example, an innocent visit at an old bookstore ultimately determines his future career. As a poor yeshivah student, Gamzu is coincidentally introduced to the hymns of Yehudah Halevi, Consequently, he trades all his possessions for the book. Inspired by Halevi's poetry, he seeks out other hymns. His relentless search for ancient hymns transforms him from a yeshivah student into a book-peddlar. His new job becomes a vocation; his search for books and manuscripts brings him to distant lands and turns him into one of the most celebrated bibliophiles in the world. His travels lead him to an exotic town, where he meets his future wife Gemulah, the daughter of a tribe leader. Another coincidence puts him in possession of a most rare manuscript, and by sheer coincidence he loses the magic leaves, which his father-in-law entrusted to him—the only means by which he can control the peregrinations of the moonstruck Gemulah.

The irony of coincidence controls the central plot of the story as well. The narrator arrives at the house of the Greifenbachs, with no previous planning, "following his legs" in his words. Although, he does not intend to spend the night at the Greifenbachs' house, he fulfills thereby his promise to keep an eye on their house during their absence. Gamzu's coincidental arrival at the house, is even more astounding, since he does not know the Greifenbachs, and had no way of knowing that he would meet his friend there. Gamzu describes his visit at the Greifenbachs' as a pure coincidence:

'Forgive me', he said, 'for suddenly bursting in on you. Just imagine, I came home after the evening service at the synagogue to get my wife settled for the night and found the bed empty. I went off in search of her. 'Going to the south, turning to the north, turning turning goes the wind, and again to its circuits the wind returns'. Suddenly I found myself in this valley without knowing how I came to be here. I saw a house; I felt drawn to enter it. I knew there was no point in doing this, but I did so just the same.

If the coincidental nature of Gamzu's visit is suspicious, his second visit, which takes place in the same place, and under similar circumstances is even more so. Although the narrator tells Gamzu that he will spend the following evening at home, he returns to the Greifenbachs' because the water supply in his neighborhood has been cut off. But Gamzu does not even have this alibi. His explanation harps again on the theme of coincidence: "I did not go to your home and I did not think of coming here . . . I came . . . but not intentionally". His second visit is all the more puzzling since, his first one was motivated by his search for his wife, whereas this time, he leaves her alone, at home, on a moonlit night, well aware of her susceptibility to these particular circumstances. Yet, on this night, Gamzu happens to find Gemulah, in Ginath's room, by sheer coincidence! The narrator does not seem disturbed by this set of coincidences. His speculations, however, point up the unlikelihood of the coincidental explanation: "When had he returned, when had he gone to his room? He must have come back while Gamzu and I were sitting in Greifenbach's room, and the woman must have gotten in through the window".

The frequent use of coincidence in a literary plot construction is often ascribed to the artist's laziness, or to poor narrative craftsmanship. But the coincidental plot also creates an ironic effect. It points up the arbitrary nature of daily life. The coincidental linkage of the literary plot dramatizes the absurd nature of life which unfolds by fits and starts, rather than causality and reason. This is the underlying nature of the ironic plot.

The ironic plot also contributes to the distance between the reader and the characters. Although the implied author refrains from giving the reader a fully coherent picture of the represented events, he intimates that the characters' interpretations of the events are aimed at hiding their true nature. The fact that Gamzu ends up finding his wife at the Greifenbachs' house, implies that his repeated visits to the house were not purely coincidental, and that he may have been motivated by a deep-seated suspicion concerning the relation between Gemulah and Ginath, and the place of their secret encounters. Similarly, the text implies that the death of Gemulah and Ginath is occasioned by suicide, rather than coincidence as surmised by unsuspecting onlookers:

. . . eyewitnesses say that last night a gentleman went out of his room and saw a woman climbing up onto the roof. He rushed up to save her from danger, the parapet collapsed, and they both fell to their death.

Having been previously apprised of Gemulah's wish to be buried beside Dr. Ginath, the reader has reason to suspect that Gemulah may have jumped rather than fallen off the roof in a desperate attempt to put an end to her miserable liaison with her oppressive and hateful husband; and that of her lover, Dr. Ginath, joined her, once again, not by coincidence. While the presentation of the plot as a set of arbitrary incidents, linked by sheer coincidence satirizes life as an absurdist play, lacking order or reason, the presentation of the plot as a set of causally linked events, misconstrued by the characters as coincidental, satirizes life as a chain of gruesome comedies staged by a diabolical director.

The second major plot pattern in the story consists of the irony of events. This irony is generated by the incongruity between a character's expectations and the represented events. It appears in both the metadiegetic and the central plot. In the first, Gamzu receives the rare manuscript of the ancient hymns, just when he gives up hope for attaining them. In another instance, just when he loses his hope to ever revisit Gemulah he is employed by two unknown parties, to be sent on a mission which unexpectedly brings him back to Gemulah's village. When he does not expect any affection from Gemulah, she is warm and friendly, after their marriage, she turns cold and bitter. Gevariahu, Gamzu's father-in-law, who "goes up to the mountaintop to learn from the eagles how they renew their youth" is attacked by an eagle and dies of his wounds. His desire to prolong his life hastens his death. The irony of events appears frequently in the central plot as well, underlying trivial, as well as tragic incidents. The narrator who goes to the Greifenbachs' house, in the hope to find peace and tranquility, is awakened in the middle of the night by an unexpected visitor. Thieves break into the narrator's house precisely when he finds himself in charge of Gamzu's savings. The irony of events reaches a climax in the description of the Greifenbachs' return from their trip. The narrator deludes himself believing that: "when the Greifenbachs return to Jerusalem, they will find everything in order". On the night prior to their return, Ginath and Gemulah find their death by falling from the top of the Greifenbachs' roof. The irony is intensified by the narrator's coincidental encounter with the happy couple, on his way back from the funeral of Gemulah and Ginath. The cheerful attitude of the Greifenbachs is contrasted by the narrator's mechanical response:

Greifenbach saw me and called from inside the automobile, 'How nice to see you! How really nice! How is our house getting on? Is it still standing?' Mrs. Greifenbach asked, 'Has nobody broken in?' 'No', I answered, 'no one has broken in'. Again she asked, 'Did you get to know Ginath? 'Yes', I said, 'I got to know Ginath'.

The ironic tension stems from the incongruity between the unsuspecting questions, and the sinister implications of the automatic answers. The house is physically sound, nothing happened to it, but from its roof, two people jumped, and were killed. Strangers did not break into the house, but the narrator's own friend and his wife entered the house, under the most bizarre circumstances. The narrator indeed met Ginath, but neither he nor the Greifenbachs will ever be able to see him again. At this point, the irony of events is sharpened by the dramatic irony which allows the reader an awareness of the incongruity between event and expectation while withholding it from the characters.

The cumulative effect of the irony of coincidence in conjunction with the irony of events transcends the limited scope of the ironic plot. As pointed out above, it delineates not only the laughable and tragic character of the story's specific plotline but the incommensurability of human reason and life's vicissitudes in general. It ridicules the gap between human intention and the machinations of fate. In addition, it underlines the contrived nature of the fictional narrative, which most non-ironic works are careful to hide. The emphasis on coincidence exposes the artificial and artful nature of the fictional plot. It challenges the reader's suspension of disbelief forcing him to become self-conscious. It undermines the narrative's illusion of reality and its superficial claim to authenticity. This is the contribution of the ironic plot to the romantic irony of Edo and Enam.


Gamzu the protagonist, is introduced by the narrator as a dedicated scholar who "had become in his prime the attendant of a sick wife, who it was said, had been bedridden since their wedding night." Although the narrator concedes that this information is largely based on rumor, he affirms that:

. . . it was certainly a fact that he had a sick wife at home, that there was no earthly cure for her, and that her husband had to nurse her, wash her, feed her and attend to her every need. Nor was she grateful for his self sacrifice, but would beat him and bite him and tear his clothes.

As the story progresses, however, this favorable introduction of Gamzu undergoes radical changes. To a large extent, the ironic characterization of the protagonist is based on the discrepancy between the narrator's laudatory introduction and the dramatization of Gamzu's words and actions. Gamzu's stories about his wife expose him as a romantic dreamer, in love with an image of a young girl, "an angel", "a star"—rather than as a responsible husband. His contradictory presentation of Gemulah as a bedridden hysterical woman and as a moonstruck wanderer who cannot be kept at home, reveals his own muddled perception of his wife. The scene which takes place in Ginath's room, reverses the roles of victimizer and victim as first presented; here Gamzu plays the possessive and violent husband, whereas Gemulah emerges as helpless and defenseless wife:

Gamzu suddenly rushed in and clasped the woman's waist with his arms. The woman drew back her head from him and still in his embrace cried out. . . Gamzu put his hand over her mouth and held on with all his might. She struggled to escape from his arms, but he held her tight. . . With that, her strength left her, and were it not that Gamzu still held her she would have fallen. And once Gamzu had grasped her, he did not let go of her until he took her up in his arms and went away, while Ginath and I looken on.

The interchange between Gamzu and Gemulah reveals a troubled relationship between a jealous husband and an alienated wife who is desperately in love with someone else. Gemulah's answer to Gamzu's legal claim on her person implies that their marriage is but a legality; they have not even consummated it sexually: "I am not any man's wife. Ask him, has he ever seen me naked?" This state of affairs throws a different light on Gamzu's presentation as a dedicated and selfless husband. It shows him rather as a tyrannical owner [in a footnote, the critic points out that the Hebrew term "ba'al" means both "owner" and "husband"], forcefully imposing himself on his wife and holding her prisoner. Retroactively, his romantic descriptions of his first encounters with Gemulah become suspect. What first appears as an amusing anecdote, namely, his physical seizure of Gemulah right before their marriage, assumes tragic dimensions; the reconstructed picture, from Gemulah's point of view, indicates that the girl never wished to marry the old invalid in the first place, and that if not for her father's untimely death, she would probably have married her fiance Gedi ben Ge'im.

But there are ironic indicators in the story, which subtly invalidate Gamzu's point of view, even prior to the dramatic scene which exposes him unequivocally. These indicators are planted in Gamzu's narrated monologue, undermining the message of his words by deforming the style of his speech. The most obtrusive ironic device in the following example is the cumbersome sentence structure:

There sat Gamzu and rolled himself a cigarette and talked about the magic properties of charms, whose virtue is superior to that of drugs; for the drugs we find mentioned in ancient books cannot for the most part be relied on, since the ways both of nature and of man have changed and with these changes the effect of the drugs too has altered. But the charms have undergone no change and still retain their first nature and condition, because they are yoked together with the stars, and the stars remain just as they were on the day when they were first hung in the firmament.

The cumbersome syntax of the narrated monologue reflects the questionable logic of Gamzu's abstruse ideas about the superiority of charms to drugs. The excessively complex syntactic unit is a common device in parody.

Gamzu's speech is heavily studded with biblical and talmudic references which are more often than not inappropriate or extraneous. Describing his peregrinations in Jerusalem, in search for his missing wife, Gamzu uses Ecclesiastes 1:6 in order to describe the futility and aimlessness of his effort: "Going to the south turning to the north, turning turning goes the wind and again to its circuits the wind returns." The original meaning of the verse involves the unchanging regularity of cycles, the rational aspect of existence. Gamzu, however, uses this verse in order to illustrate the opposite: the fact that his life is ruled by sheer coincidence. Gamzu never misses a chance to indulge in casuistic interpretations of scriptures. His exegesis, however, complicates and confuses the original text. For example, Gamzu interprets the personal pronoun, "for his sake" (lema'anehu) in reference to music and song, in order to use the biblical verse containing this word as proof for his astrological theology concerning the relationship of God to the planets. Inspired by his own sophism, Gamzu fails to realize that his far-fetched interpretation is contradictory; on the one hand, he states that God creates everything for His sake, and on the other, that He does it for His chosen people, Israel. Gamzu's undiscriminating use of grammatical, pseudo-scientific and anagogical approaches to the classical Jewish texts, may well illustrate the untenability of the traditional exegetic method (pilpul) which was ridiculed by Y. L. Gordon, Mendele Mocher Sforim and other maskilim. Furthermore, by parodying Gamzu's complex exegesis, the text alludes to exegesis in general, including that of the present story. Gamzu's heavy-handed interpretations, demonstrate that the more one tries to explain, the more one risks imposing his own preconceived notions on a given text.

The internal contradiction is one of the most effective ironic weapons because, as David Worcester puts it: "Irony is never so sweet as when a character seems to defend his cause with consistency, but in reality gives it completely away" [The Art of Satire, 1940]. The internal contradiction undermines the validity of Gamzu's ideological standpoint on several occasions. On the first evening in the Greifenbachs' house, Gamzu defends religiously all the Jewish biblical scholars; "You know my opinion, that no Jew is capable of saying anything for which the bible gives no support, and especially that which is contrary to the plain meaning of the text." On the following evening, however, Gamzu lashes out at the Jewish scholars who "Have they not made our holy Torah into either one or the other (folklore or subject matter for scientific research . . . E.F.)?" At this point, Gamzu seems to forget that were it not for the folklorists he criticises so virulently, he would lose his main source of income. Another ideological contradiction refers to his opinion of modern medicine. During his first encounter with the narrator, Gamzu states that the healing power of charms surpasses that of drugs. On the following evening, however, he affirms the opposite, that charms are nothing but outdated drugs. Despite his declared distrust of modern physicians, he checks into a modern hospital in Vienna. He insists that for medical purposes he trusts only those who "purified their body in the Torah", yet, he is prepared to send his wife to a modern asylum. As an inveterate bibliophile, Gamzu presents himself as strictly interested in ancient books. "I do not look at books which are less than four hundred years old". But he betrays himself unwittingly when soliciting eagerly the narrator's opinion on Dr. Ginath's books, thus implying that he does indeed read modern secular books.

All these internal contradictions indicate that Gamzu pretends to be what he is not. He strives to present himself as a traditional Jew, fully committed to his religious heritage, its sources, laws and spirit. He pretends that modernity is a meaningless ephemeral phase which has hardly affected his life. But the truth peers through his numerous self-contradictions. Despite his lengthy excursus on the planets' ability to control human fate, he presents his own life as a series of coincidences, rather than predetermined events. He rejects modern medicine, but is forced to use it; he attacks secular Judaica scholars, yet uses their academic pursuit as a major source of income.

The discrepancy between his pietistic outlook and his actual life is especially poignant regarding his relationship with his wife, Gemulah. Gamzu presents it as a romantic fairy-tale with biblical trappings. But the factual contradictions in his story expose it as a wishful dream. Thus, he tells the narrator that Gemulah was given to him in matrimony, by her father, Gevariahu a whole year before the actual marriage. (Heb. 370) On the other hand, he confesses that he had to steal or abduct Gemulah, a few days prior to their marriage, because he knew that she was promised to Gedi ben Ge'im (Heb. 378). If Gemulah was Gamzu's lawful fiancée for a whole year, why did he have to abduct her before their marriage? Gamzu tells the narrator that on the night before his marriage Gevariahu gave him magic leaves with which to control Gemulah's moonstruck wanderings. Forgetting this detail, he recounts on the following evening, that Gevariah was mortally wounded prior to the marriage ceremony and completely incapacitated throughout the festivities. These inconsistencies indicate that Gamzu either deludes himself or deceives the narrator.

Gamzu romanticizes his first encounter with Gemulah using hyperbole and conceit.

Gemulah was then about twelve years old, and her graciousness and her voice were more beautiful than any beauty in the world . . . When she burst out singing, her voice would blossom like the voice of Grofith, the bird, whose voice is sweeter than that of any creature in the world.

The fictional name of "Grofith", reinforces the effect created by the fairy-tale formulas employed by Gamzu. Gemulah is "perfect as the moon", her eyes are "sparks of light", and her face "like the morning star". The parallelistic style of description used by Gamzu is strongly evocative of the Song of Songs, which reinforces the literary impact at the expense of realistic authenticity. Gamzu's descriptions suggest that he does not really know his wife, and that he was more enamored of his own projections than with the woman herself.

Gamzu's descriptions of Gemulah's father as an invincible and majestic tribal hero are also anachronistic. His references to Gemulah's village invoke an ancient and primitive civilization, without giving any specific information which may identify the place:

My wife is from another region, from the mountains. At first, her ancestors were settled beside the good springs, where the pasture was also good. But their neighbors made war on them, and they retaliated and drove them back.

When he tells of his journey from Gemulah's village back to Jerusalem, Gamzu uses, instead of dates or numbers, biblical numerical formulas. His hyperbolic style is reflected in his name whose root in Hebrew (g z m) means "to exaggerate". Gamzu's exaggerated descriptions, his glib generalizations and numerous inconsistencies expose the untenability of his story, especially where it pertains to Gemulah. The fairy-tale formulas Gamzu employs arouse the suspicion that his story about Gemulah's exotic tribe, its outlandish customs, her heroic father, the fiance who intended to capture her—are fabrications rather than facts.

Gamzu's most obtrusive self-betrayal pertains to his contradictory account of Gemulah's sickness. On the first evening he confirms that his wife is bed-ridden. His explanation for her sudden disappearance from home is that she is moonstruck:

Every night on which the moon shines brightly, my wife gets up and goes wherever the moon leads her.

In his archaic, and formulaic style, Gamzu insists that there is no power in the world which can prevent Gemulah from leaving the house:

Even if I hung on the door seven locks and locked every lock with seven keys and threw every key into everyone of the seven seas of Palestine, my wife would find all of them, open and go.

On the following evening, however, Gamzu announces that despite the bright shining moon, he left his wife at home, safely tucked in bed. To the astonished narrator he explains that he found "a medicine" capable of controlling his wife's movements. The wondrous medicine consists of a wet cloth placed under the bed. Gamzu explains that he has not used this device all this time, because "heaven made him forget it" as punishment for neglecting the yeshivah, in which he learnt of this "medicine". The effectiveness of Gamzu's new found "medicine" is demonstrated shortly afterwards, by Gemulah's appearance at the Greifenbachs' house . . .

Despite the narrator's sporadic misgivings and doubts, he seems to trust his interlocutor. Not once in the course of the narrative, does he suggest that Gamzu must be prevaricating the truth, to conceal the shameful fact that his wife carries on an affair with Ginath. This, however, does not prevent the reader from suspecting that the protagonist weaves a long yarn in order to hide the fact that he reached the Greifenbachs' house while searching for his wife, rather than by sheer coincidence. When the narrator hears footsteps in the adjacent room, Gamzu reassures him that "there has not been a sound or the slightest suspicion of one." When it becomes clear to the narrator, from his interlocutor's strange posture ("his head bent to one side and an ear turned towards the wall") that the latter is intently listening to sounds coming from the other room, Gamzu again denies it ("I can hear nothing nothing at all"). When Gamzu clearly hears his wife's voice from Ginath's room, his face changes "until at last all color left it, and there remained only a pale cast that gradually darkened, leaving his features like formless clay." Yet, when asked by the narrator about the cause of his sudden unease, Gamzu reassures the narrator that he had merely been fooled by his senses. Finally, when Gamzu's diversive strategies succeed, and the narrator dozes off, he sneaks imperceptibly towards Ginath's room. Having woken up, the narrator searches for his friend, and when he is about to give up hope he sees Gamzu standing behind Ginath's door. When Gamzu jumps into the room and seizes Gemulah by force, it becomes clear that his self-righteousness has been nothing but a sham strategy. But the text refrains from direct judgment. Gamzu's ironic characterization is consistently mediated by his own self-betrayal.


The ironic characterization of Gamzu accounts for many enigmas in Edo and Enam, but not for all of them. The question concerning the true nature of the language of Edo, and the hymns of Enam remains unanswered. Is the language that the narrator overhears an authentic one, or is it fabricated? What is the meaning of Gemulah's song, "yiddal, yiddal, yiddal, va pah, mah"? What is the source of the neologism "Grofith"? What is the function of the repeated letters gimel (g) and ayin (a) which appear in the beginning of the characters' names?

Most critics tend to explain each of the jarring elements separately. But despite the ingenious explanations, it seems that the effectiveness of these linguistic oddities depends on their inexplicability and that their clarification destroys the impact they create. The cumulative effect of the neologisms and the alliterated names create a sense of strangeness within a familiar context. The strange words disrupt the automatic flow of language and force the reader to switch his attention from meaning to sound. The nonsensical words stress the arbitrary nature of language, which consists of signifiers whose relationship to their signified correlatives is determined by convention rather than logic. The problematization of language is crucial in the context of Edo and Enam, which deals with a mysterious language, both authentic and jocular, factual and fantastic. The authenticity of the language of Edo should remain questionable because the story as a whole pertains not only to this particular language, but to the inherently ambivalent nature of language in general.

Similarly, the names Gerhard, Greda, Greifenbach, Gavriel, Gamzu, Ginath, Gideon, Gemulah, Gedi-ben-Geim and Gevariahu are intended to break the narrative flow and point up their own arbitrary and artificial nature. The emphasis on the phonetic element of the character's name highlights their fictionality, the fact that they are linguistic products, word constructions. This effect functions as a sudden smear of silver on a window; the spectator can no longer see through it, he is forced to contemplate his own reflection, in what has become a mirror.

This effect dramatizes one of the central themes of the story, embedded in the very structure of the work which is based on a story within a story. For beyond the validity of Gamzu's story lies the larger theme of the artistic illusion of reality. The gullible narrator of Edo and Enam resembles to a large extent, the unselfconscious reader, who considers the story as a reflection of reality, and who fails to notice its reflexive irony. Gamzu, the imaginative fabulator, who mixes at will, legends and facts, resembles the author himself, who deliberately combines realism and phantasy, confusing the reader and laughing heartily at his own mischievousness.

The theme of fiction as a composite of realism and phantasy appears in the conversation of the narrator with the Greifenbachs in chapter I, which constitutes the prelude to the story. When Gerda jokingly refers to Ginath as having created a girl for himself, Gerhard explains that "She's thinking of the legend about the lonely poet". The narrator reminds his friends that the legend pertains to Rabbi Solomon Ibn Gabriol who was said to have created a woman out of wood. The king, believing the woman to be real, falls in love with her, but when he finds himself rejected by her, the artist reveals to him her inanimate nature. This Jewish version of the Pygmalion story may be construed as a quintessential version of our self-reflexive story, because it includes the major ambiguities characteristic of Edo and Enam. Like the woman in the legend, Gemulah is presented as realistic and imaginary at the same time. The Greifenbachs, who do not suspect her real presence in Ginath's room, assume her to be his own creation. Gamzu presents her as an angel, and a moonstruck woman, who is also physically sick. The narrator himself, does not clarify much by describing her as wrapped in white in a moonlit room, and emitting sounds in a strange language. The author implies that all three points of view are defective but avoids further clarifications and the reader is left with his own conjectures. Yet, the ambiguous identity of Gemulah as part real part fictional dramatizes the essence of the literary work of art.

Like the poet in the legend who exposes the real nature of his creation for the sake of the enamored king, our author exposes his work's artificiality to the involved reader. Both artists dispel the illusion they create. The creation of Solomon Ibn Gabriol is made of wood; that of our author—of words.

Beyond the poems of Enam, this story deals with the problem of fictional art in general. To ascertain the historical authenticity of the Enamite hymns is tantamount to establishing the genealogy of the wooden woman. The radical irony of the story's point of view, plot and characterization dramatizes the predominant theme of Edo and Enam. The structural and linguistic oddities in the story require contemplation not explanation. They are not flaws to be corrected by scholars, but effective devices serving the story's romantic irony. Their effectiveness depends on their ability to resist the critical attempt to domesticate them. In the case of Edo and Enam, the reader's ability to absorb the impact of the mystifying text rather than clarify it will allow him to gain a better understanding of the story.

David Aberbach (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7154

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 authority of all kinds, and in his tendency to believe in predestination. In its extreme forms the passivity of the Agnon hero manifests itself in physical paralysis, and in his difficulties in taking a woman sexually.

The problem of passivity is one of the acute critical problems in Agnon. It no doubt helps to explain why Agnon is so often disliked by young Israelis: they have little patience for him. The nature of the problem can be appreciated even by those who are otherwise fascinated by Agnon's genius. Of Agnon heroes, Baruch Hochman writes [in The Fiction of S. Y. Agnon], "Their inherent passivity—their incapacity to engage in passionate struggle—oppresses the reader and, in the end, makes for a lack of conviction as to the integrity of the total vision." Perhaps it is unfair to suggest an overall "lack of conviction", but few critics would deny that Agnon heroes are inherently passive, and, at times, oppressively so.

Agnon's very style is peculiarly passive. [In Massot al Sippure S. Y. Agnon] Baruch Kurzweil has written of its "quiet genius", contrasting it with the tension in the action. It has none of the blood and thunder of Biblical Hebrew. Agnon's Hebrew has affinities with Yiddish, the language of the Diaspora, inturned, often oblique, and seemingly unaggressive. In a manner hitherto unrealized in Hebrew, it is subtle, sharpwitted, ironical, and psychologically complex. It expresses an intense Yiddish sensibility, a product of the east European village, or shtetl. Eighteenth-century shtetl culture, "when Torah ruled Israel" [Agnon], was apparently the world into which Agnon would have been born had he been given the choice.

To a limited extent, the passivity of the Agnon hero is typical of the Jewish Diaspora. This quality is found also in the poetry of Chaim Nachman Bialik, like Agnon an artist of the Diaspora, and is attributed by Mary Catherine Bateson [in Mosaic, Spring, 1962] to historical circumstances which "had cut the Jews off from any possibility of cultural and individual assertion vis-à-vis the Gentile world in which they lived. They had reacted to this by shaping their personal and community behaviour in terms of a feminine idea, symbolized by the Shekhinah; they dwelt in the passive world of memory and tradition." Critics sometimes explain the passive yearning of the Agnon hero for a hopelessly distant beloved as an allegory of the yearning of Israel for the Shekhinah. [In S. Y. Agnon] Harold Fisch writes of A Simple Tale, "Hirshl's love for Blumah is clearly the age-old, sad and hopeless love of Israel for that divine presence which once dwelt in the Temple whose destruction is mourned on the Ninth of Av." Rechnitz's idealization of Shoshana in Betrothed and Gamzu's longing for Gemulah in Iddo and Enam have been explained in the same way.

Agnonesque passivity is also a sign of the individual's helplessness in an alienating society. As in Kafka's works, this helplessness shows itself in universal situations involving contact with bureaucracies. In some of Agnon's stories, as in The Trial and The Castle, "The chains of tormented mankind are made out of red tape" [Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka]. In "HaTe'udah" ["The Certifícate"], the narrator finds himself in a crowded office trying to get a form: "I too was pushed, first to one official, then to another. I bowed my head in submission hoping that they would turn to me and ask what I wanted. They paid me no attention, and needless to say they asked me nothing." Submissiveness to impervious authorities is found also in the story "HaBayit" ["The House"], "I am a quiet man and have nothing to do with law courts. Even things for which others raise a hue and cry for in court I yield. Experience has taught me that things are stronger than I." Perhaps the most Kafkaesque of all Agnon's works is "Hefker": the narrator is arrested for no reason and detained overnight. Curiously, he feels an almost childish pleasure at being controlled in this way, "And so I stood and I did not move. This status was good, like every status which excuses us from deeds."

The sheer persistence of the hero's passivity suggests, however, that deeper causes are also involved. From Hemdat in "The Well of Miriam" (1909) to Herbst in the posthumously published Shirah—both of whom resemble Agnon himself—the hero is invariably a passive type. Hemdat's decision to go to Palestine, for instance, is not his own "Hemdat did not decide his actions. He was blown by every passing gust of wind . . . He said to himself, you'll have grass growing on your chin before you go to Zion." Only under the threat of his being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army, his family, not he, decides that he must leave the country. Agnon, too, left Galicia to go to Palestine in 1907 in order to avoid the draft, not primarily out of Zionist idealism (although this played an important role—he could have gone to America). Hemdat's character is a younger version of Herbst's. [In "Motif HaTzara'at be-Shira ve'Ad Olam'," in S. Y. Agnon: Mehkarim uTe'udot, edited by Gershon Shaked and Raphael Weiser] Gershon Schocken writes, "By nature Herbst is a passive man, with no small measure of infantilism."

Kurzweil was the first to note that Agnonesque passivity is often a form of regression to childhood:

Ya'akov Rechnitz in Betrothed, Hirshl Horowitz in A Simple Tale, Yitzhak Kummer in Yesteryear, are all passive types who evade reality, and are enveloped within themselves. In all that they do the same fixed pattern is manifest—to renew the constellation of their early childhood, to alter reality, as it were, in the direction of the world of their childhood.

Kurzweil's claim that this immaturity is evident in "all that they do" may be exaggerated, but he is right to suggest that these characters have not grown up. However, he does not try to explain why, neither does he emphasize that this immaturity in various guises and degrees is found throughout Agnon's works.

Kafka's writings furnish a clue to this failure to achieve maturity. In his "Letter to his Father", Kafka states time and again that his father's overbearing nature has stifled his self-assertiveness. In consequence, he is frozen in the filial state, unable to launch out into life, remaining dependent upon his family. The nightmarish quandaries of Kafka's creations, such as Joseph K., when attempting to deal with authority, reflect the problem with the father. Kafka goes so far as to say: "My writing was all about you." Parental control which is inconsistent, unpredictable, always in the superior position, occasionally terrifying in its harshness, has this result in later life, Kafka writes in Resolutions:

. . . perhaps the best resource is to meet everything passively, to make yourself an inert mass, and, if you feel that you are being carried away, not to let yourself be lured into taking a single unnecessary step, to stare at others with the eyes of an animal, to feel no compunction, in short, with your own hand to throttle down whatever ghostly life remains in you, that is, to enlarge the final peace of the graveyard and let nothing survive save that.

Kafka's analysis of his condition is borne out and elaborated by Charles Rycroft, the British psychiatrist, who writes of passivity, as Kafka does, as a form of defence and adaptive behaviour in response to overbearing parental control. This state of affairs was particularly common in the Victorian society into which both Agnon and Kafka were born:

. . . the long biological childhood of human beings which is still further prolonged by the social conventions which allow parents to retain a measure of financial and legal control over their children for some years after they are physically mature, creates a situation in which conflicts of will inside the family—including the Oedipal rivalry between father and son and mother and daughter—may be resolved by the child habitually adopting a submissive attitude which persists into adult life, and which forms the basis of the hysterical defence. The tendency of children to adopt the submissive role must have been enhanced in the Victorian era, when many parents invoked God as the source of their authority and considered it their religious duty to break their children's will.

The submissive response to situations of rivalry and competition is responsible for neurotic passivity in men. In situations in which it would be appropriate to be assertive and forceful, neurotically passive men habitually present themselves as feeble, ingratiating, and ineffective. In such men the anxiety induced by competitive situations and by taking responsibility arises not only from the present trial of strength but also from two other sources; the struggle for power with whichever parent dominated them, and fear lest the aggression, which was repressed when they adopted the submissive attitude, should return from repression. In the last resort such men are more frightened of their own aggression than they are of that of others.

[Anxiety and Neurosis]

As Agnon himself, on the testimony of those who knew him, was a somewhat withdrawn and passive man (though outwardly he could give the impression of being extremely gregarious), observation and analysis of the theme of passivity in his works are relevant to understanding the man, though this is not our primary aim. Like the narrator of BeHanuto shel Mar Lublin [In Mr. Lublin's Shop] who says, "I am not a man of deeds, and if I don't do anything I don't say I have done," Agnon said of himself, "I am not a man of deeds, and if I were given the opportunity by Heaven, almost certainly I would choose the spirit, not the deed." Many of Agnon's stories are first person narratives, and there is much clearly autobiographical material. A great deal is disguisedly so. Agnon's parents and grandfather, he admitted, are depicted frequently. The theme of submission to authority, whether exercised by men or women, counterbalanced, however, by the subtle denigration of authority, might stem, as it certainly does in Kafka's case, from harmful and overbearing family influences.

The structure of Agnon's early family is, therefore, a possible key to understanding the passivity motif, and the pattern of relationships which he depicts between men and women. Professor Dov Sadan, of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, has said [in a personal communication to the critic, Aberbach] that Agnon's passivity helps to explain why men in his works play a passive role. Agnon apparently inherited this trait from his father, Shalom Mordekhai Czaczkes, who was, likewise, a passive man, and before his marriage, an impoverished scholar and poet. Esther, Agnon's mother, was the daughter of Yehudah Farb, a tough and wealthy fur merchant who wanted her to marry a scholar. Shalom Mordekhai had a reputation as an expert on Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher. Although he was poor, his scholarship made him eligible for the hand of Esther Farb. (The account of the marriage of the passive, impecunious Barukh Meir to Tzirel Klinger, the daughter of a wealthy merchant in A Simple Tale, has some parallels to this marriage). Esther had inherited her father's strength of personality. From her children's viewpoint—Agnon was the eldest of five—she must at times have seemed the dominant figure in this marriage. The money all came from her side of the family, and the entire family lived for several years in the house of Yehudah Farb. The father was often away on business (he had entered the fur trade of his father-in-law). For these reasons among others, the mother had a disproportionate influence over her son.

The earliest poems which Agnon could recall writing expressed longing for an absent father, and a feeling of being 'carried away' by an assertive female:

When I was a child of six or seven, my father, of blessed memory, went to the fair in Lashkowitz. My longing for him made me despondent all the time. One evening I came home from heder [school for religious education of Jewish children] and my longing overwhelmed me. I leaned my head against the wall and wept. A cry tore from my heart, "Father, father, where are you?" Instantly a second cry joined it, "I have loved you deeply" [in the Hebrew these lines rhyme]. I was astonished at the poem which had come from me by accident. This was my first poem in Hebrew. After a while I began to write many poems and stories. To me they seemed lightweight in comparison with those two lines which I had rhymed out of longing for my father.

[From Myself to Myself]

In this account of the birth of his creative gift, Agnon may hint at a wish not only for his father to come home, but also to be a real and strong father, not a passive, ineffectual one.

The absence of the father may have heightened the bond between the mother and her firstborn and favourite son. Also, from her early adult life the mother apparently had a heart ailment of some sort, and Agnon had a special responsibility for taking care of her. Particularly in view of her illness and the fact that there were four children after Samuel, he may have suffered certain privations or distortions in his affectional bond with her. Yet, despite her illness—and perhaps partly because of it—the mother, by virtue of her strong personality and her love for her son, seems to have been a dominating influence in Agnon's childhood. Another early work of his foreshadows the many stories in which a woman takes the initiative with a submissive man:

When I was about nine, I wrote a ballad about a boy who went to light candles on the eve of selihot [prayers said by orthodox Jews before and during the High Holy Days] as was the custom among boys in my youth. A mermaid carried him off. This was the second poem I wrote, after the poem of longing when father was away.

[From Myself to Myself]

Agnon's idealized portraits of his father in stories such as "HaMitpahat" ["The Kerchief] are misleading, according to Professor Sadan. The mocking ambivalence towards his heroes more accurately conveys Agnon's feelings both for his father and for himself. Pious Luftmenschen such as Manasseh Haim may be dearly loved by the storyteller, but they are targets of his satire. It may be significant that 1858, the year when Manasseh Haim, the hapless schlemiel in And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight, sets out on his travels, is approximately the year in which Agnon's father was born. A certain disillusionment with the father can be detected in curious details such as that in "The Kerchief when the father comes home from his travels, the big, strong-seeming man, with gifts for his family. These gifts are worthy of praise, but the narrator adds a note of qualification, "Who praises things which get broken or lost?" An equally tiny detail which might indicate resentment towards the father—for his character, perhaps, or for being away too frequently—appears in A Guest for the Night. The narrator visits the house in which he lived as a child, "According to my reckoning, I am the same age as my father, of blessed memory, when he lived here with us." Recognizing Agnon's preference for subtle hints in describing situations of conflict, the phrase "when he lived here with us" rather than "when we lived here" seems extremely suggestive. Agnon's use of the seemingly innocuous phrase might betray his criticism of and condescension towards his father. The house was not his, and he had been chosen as a husband not by his wife, who might have preferred to marry for love, but by her father, in whose employment he was often away from home. At any rate, Professor Sadan has said, Agnon "hated passivity" and wanted badly to create strong and active characters. He failed to do so. His work was too strongly anchored to his behavioural pattern (this, too, could be an aspect of the name "Agnon"). As he could not help but give expression to his passivity in his fiction, all his major characters are, to some extent, projections of Agnon himself.

Agnon's marriage followed a pattern similar to his parents' marriage. His wife, like his mother (both were named Esther), was a strong-willed woman from a wealthy and scholarly home. She carried the brunt of responsibility for raising the children and taking care of the home. Professor Sadan has confirmed that the portrait of Henrietta in Shirah is based upon Esther Agnon, and that Agnon, like Herbst, tended to neglect his family in favour of his work. Agnon seems not to have been a good father to his son Hemdat (perhaps in the same way as his father did not provide him with a model of strength and masculinity), and after much friction between son and father, Hemdat left home.

Agnon shared with Kafka not only the trait of passivity, but also a failure, in certain respects, to grow up, perhaps partly for the reasons given by Charles Rycroft above. His own immaturity . . . is reflected in that of his characters. Agnon's wife, according to Dr. A. Y. Brawer, treated him like a child. She once told him, "Agnon is a child, stubborn like a child." Many of Agnon's acquaintances have expressed a similar view. There is room for conjecture, therefore, that when Kurzweil, who knew Agnon intimately, writes of the childishness of the Agnon hero, he also has Agnon in mind.

An anecdote about Agnon—possibly apocryphal—illustrates the autobiographical basis of the passivity motif. Standing in the editorial office of the Israeli newspaper Ha'Aretz, Agnon held an envelope in one hand and a stamp in the other. In complete helplessness he waited. Finally, someone came over, took the stamp, licked it, and stuck it to the envelope. Out of absurd scenes such as these The Book of Deeds is made. Kafka, who had similar experiences, tells a self-mocking story of his passivity. He was in his thirties with a doctorate in law. Sitting by the river in Prague, he was asked, as if he were a small boy, to take a man in a rowboat. He did so, filled with pride and a sense of worthiness at being of service, and was thoroughly disappointed at not receiving a tip.

Family causes of Agnonesque passivity such as those described in Kafka's "Letter to His Father" are clear in A Simple Tale. This is Agnon's only novel telling of a youth growing up at home. The influence of his parents, especially his mother, ensures his clinging dependence upon them, and cripples his ability to act for himself. Hirshl is "not kneaded from the dough of men of action". Otherwise, he would marry Blumah in defiance of his mother's will. Instead, he is like putty in her hands. Just at the moment when he begins to think, "is it not possible to change anything?", his mother catches him. In a tone of false commiseration she insists that "a man's world is not given into his hands". Starkly the narrator tells us, "now that she was treating him lovingly, his heart became soft as wax which can be moulded into any shape one wants".

This malleability leads to disaster after he marries Mina. He is driven to the brink of madness. In synagogue, he takes wax from a candle and kneads it in his hand:

He hid his hand in his pocket so that no one would see him kneading. The wax fell from his hand and he kneaded himself. He was frightened. He had kneaded himself without feeling it. Perhaps his fingers had lost the sense of touch. Perhaps he had died.

By moulding him and depriving him of life, Hirshl's mother has caused him inturned, masochistic rage—the kneading of the self, the numbing of the senses, the signs of incipient madness. In view of Hirshl's low self-regard and his failure to assert himself as the man of the house, it is little wonder that his marriage collapses. In the throes of madness, he has nightmares of slaughtered cocks. These are a symbolic expression of his sexual inferiority. The cock represents masculinity and sexual assertion. Its slaughter suggests the reverse—passivity, inferiority, and sexual impotence.

In common with Kafka's characters and with Kafka himself, Hirshl's difficulty is that he cannot break away from the inferior position of being a son and achieve independence and manhood. His dependence upon his parents stems from their manipulation of him, and from their own immaturity. They did not marry for love, and the atmosphere at home is not loving, but depressive. Hirshl breaks down under the strain of acting against his impulses in order to satisfy his parents. His position is all the more frustrating as he cannot openly go against or criticize them precisely because of his dependence upon them. He is tragically aware of his dilemma: ". . . as long as I am dependent on father and mother there is no hope that I can correct anything". As a victim of learned helplessness, he knows that "as long as father and mother have authority over me I cannot change my ways". Hirshl despairs of changing his life for the better:

The truth is this: a man is not judged by his deeds. Others have power over us. Yesterday they wanted this, today they want that. This or that way, the truth seems to lie with others. You shrink in your own eyes as you shrank in theirs.

Hirshl illustrates his sense of filial inferiority during his recovery in Dr. Langsam's asylum. He draws pictures of himself and his father rather than of his wife and child, "Hirshl should have drawn a picture of his wife and son, but as he was small in his eyes, he drew a picture of his father to show himself how big father was and how small he was".

A sense of smallness, of not being "a man of deeds", and even the welcoming of situations that "excuse us from deeds," are common in Agnon's works. . . . [The] egocentricity of the Agnon hero is probably rooted in his feelings of inferiority. The final story in The Book of Deeds, "HaMikhtav" ["The Letter"] closes with a Kafkaesque scene dramatizing the narrator's smallness. The narrator, a writer living in Jerusalem, stands alongside of Mr. Klein, a parent-figure and a "man of deeds" who has returned from the grave: "It was hard to stand before a man who once was kind to me but now ignored me. I turned my face away from him. He stood up over me with his cane. I was afraid and made myself very small." Like Hirshl in his drawing, the writer diminishes himself beside the authority figure. Kafka's The Trial has a scene in which the manufacturer and the deputy manager discuss a transaction in front of K.'s desk: ". . . as the two of them leaned against his desk, and the manufacturer set himself to win the newcomer's approval, it seemed to K. as if two giants of enormous size were bargaining over his head for himself." Again, Kafka's "Letter to His Father" comes to mind "You were so huge, a giant in every respect."

Filial smallness in Agnon's case was probably felt more in relation to his grandfather and mother than to his father. In his writings, women as well as men tower over the protagonists. In Betrothed, for instance, Rechnitz's difficulty with Shoshana lies partly in his inability to overcome a sense of inferiority towards her:

There are some people whose silences are awesome; we imagine their minds to be full of great thoughts which keep them from communicating, and this makes us shrink in their presence, believing that they hold in their hands the keys of all wisdom. Yet if we consider the matter well, we shall find that their silence grows out of overweening pride and that they don't surpass us by so much as the breadth of a parrot's claw. It is only because we shrink that they tower above us. And why do we thus belittle ourselves before them? This calls for investigation but I have no time for it.

Agnon, however, had little time for anything else. He spent his life exploring this question and interconnected ones, though not with the desperation of Kafka.

The main signs of passivity, such as not doing what is planned or what ought to be done, the anguished hesitation, the confusion and indecisiveness, and the excruciating guilt that accompanies the failure to act, are found most emphatically in the twenty stories grouped under the somewhat ironic heading The Book of Deeds. The "deeds" at times appear scarcely worth the telling. In themselves they are unheroic and mundane, and they usually remain unfinished. Yet, they mean a great deal to the narrator who tells of them with quiet, extraordinary care. They stir up in him almost invisible upheaval. At times they bring to mind the conflicts of J. Alfred Prufrock ("Shall I part my hair behind?/Do I dare to eat a peach?") and the tramps in Waiting For Godot. The guilt and indecision in these stories often seem absurd. Most people perform such deeds without mishap. Questions such as whether to eat or to post letters, found in "Pat Shlema" ["A Whole Loaf] are ludicrous to those who attach no symbolic significance to them (the self-mockery in The Book of Deeds suggests that the narrator is well aware of this).

The world of The Book of Deeds is exceedingly lonely. The stories are full of encounters with people, but without warmth. Often they give rise to guilt. The narrator is almost always in an inferior position, psychologically, to those whom he meets. As in Hirshl's case, family troubles appear to be at the root of his discomfiture (most of the stories date from the 1930's, when A Simple Tale was written). The narrator's parents figure in two of the stories ("El haRofe" ["To the Doctor"], "HaPanim laPanim" ["The Face and the Image"]). His grandfather plays an important role in "HaNerot" ["The Candles"], "Ha' Autobus ha' Aharon" ["The Last Bus"], and "HaMikhtav" ["The Letter"]. All of these stories are about guilt. The extremity of guilt aroused by trivial encounters, such as that between the narrator of "A Whole Loaf and Yekutiel Ne'eman can be best explained in terms of "internalization"—the figures encountered, on one level represent the parents or grandfather of the narrator. Further observations of Charles Rycroft cast light on this side of Agnon's work:

The emotion of guilt is evoked by actions—and in some people even by thoughts—which offend against whatever authority or authorities the individual identifies himself with—or has internalized. Internalization is the technical term for the process by which the individual constructs a mental representation of the outside world and of the people in it and thereafter reacts to these mental representations as though they had some of the force and reality of the external figures themselves. . . .

[The sense of guilt] indicates the existence of a conflict between two parts of the self, one of which, the egotistic part, says "I want to" while the other, the internalized authority, says "I ought not to"; or, alternatively, "I did" and "I ought not to have". This conflict is not necessarily neurotic. . . .

However, as the sense of guilt is only evoked in situations of conflict, it tends to be evoked more frequently and intensely in persons who have internalized their authorities out of fear than in those who have internalized them out of love. The person who has been brought up by parents who have enforced their will and instilled their values by fear is more likely to be plagued by a sense of guilt than those who have been brought up kindly and have incorporated the values of authority figures whom they have loved and admired. The former bears a grudge against authority and wishes unconsciously to defy it, however much he may consciously subscribe to its values. His whole attitude toward values is, indeed, corrupted by a conflict between a wish to defy authority as such and a fear-inspired need to submit to it, which stands in the way of his ever making a genuine moral judgment or stand. This conflict tends to produce a vicious circle, since his defiance will make him frightened and increase his need to submit and his submission will increase his hostility and make him defiant. In severe cases this conflict leads to the condition known to psychiatry as obsessional neurosis, in which the patient feels compelled to think or to do things which are totally foreign to his conscious conforming personality; every thought and action becomes an agony of ambivalence and indecision and every relationship a battleground between defiance and submission. Poised on a caricature of moral conflict, he may lose all capacity for action.

[Anxiety and Neurosis]

Genuine moral conflict—indeed, any passionate struggle—is singularly lacking in Agnon's writings. Instead, one finds this "caricature of moral conflict" between two parts of the self, the true self, and the internalized authority, the false self. This conflict lies at the heart of The Book of Deeds. In these stories, most of the narrator's plans and intentions lose the name of action, ending in irresolution, or in paradoxical solutions: at the end of "The Certifícate", the narrator has still not obtained a form for his relative; after his ordeal in "A Whole Loaf", he has still neither eaten nor delivered the letters; he has not called a doctor for his father in "To the Doctor"; and in "The Face and the Image", he has not visited his ailing mother. "HaTizmoret" ["The Orchestra"] contains a cluster of deeds not done: writing letters, having a bath, giving a relative a concert ticket, going to the barber in preparation for the New Year, asking the Dayan, the religious judge, a question. The one thing "accomplished" by the narrator—going to a concert—was not intended. In this story, typically, the narrator is constantly in a state of transition towards a goal which he never reaches. . . . [The] difficulties of the hero are characteristic of the schizoid personality, who, faced with the caricature of conflict, loses his capacity for action.

In other stories, similarly, it is inaction which prevails. At the end of "Laila min haLelot" ["The Night"], the narrator has not gone to the concert as he has planned, or helped his relative; the tailor in "The Garment" has not finished the garment; Adiel Amzeh in Forevermore, like Herbst in Shirah, has not completed his scholarly work; the narrator of In Mr. Lublin's Shop has still not brought provisions or bathed before the Sabbath. In many of Agnon's stories the projected deeds are not what the narrator wants to do—in this sense they are foreign to him—but rather they are what others want him to do, or what he thinks they think is right. He moves like an anxious puppet across the cluttered stage of his conscience. His need to act involves an "agony of ambivalence and indecision". That his deeds remain undone suggests that in some cases he does not want to do them. His failure to act can, paradoxically, be an act of defiance against internalized authorities. This exacerbates his guilt. His passivity is not only a wound, but also a weapon.

In the stories "To the Doctor" and "The Face and the Image", the parents themselves are the victims of the narrator's difficulty in taking positive action. As he does not succeed in calling a doctor for his father and in going to see his ailing mother, it is possible that he does this "accidentally on purpose". Unconsciously, he may not wish to help them or see them as he resents being fixed in the inferior, filial state, and he blames them for his psychological troubles. It may be that he uses his impotence to achieve an omnipotence of sorts, expressed through his defiance of authority. The narrator's failure to deliver the letters of Yekutiel Ne'eman in "A Whole Loaf might also reflect an undercurrent of subversiveness in his character. The extremity of guilt could indicate a conscious or unconscious awareness that his failure is a defiant act. The same unwillingness to send letters is found in "Knots Upon Knots". The narrator, on meeting Samuel Emden, feels guilty at not having replied to a letter of his. (The authority figure Emden is clearly an inner object as the historical character, a famous rabbi, was named Jacob Israel Emden, not Samuel, which is Agnon's own name.) Similarly, in "The Orchestra", the doorman, whose letters the narrator has not answered, has the same features as the Dayan. He, too, can be seen as an internalized authority. Again, the narrator subtly defies authority—a defiance implicit in the fact that he goes to the concert on the night of Rosh Hashana—and again he suffers agonies of guilt.

As Agnon in early manhood reacted against traditional Judaism, it is understandable that many of his works should be so preoccupied with the non-observance of the traditions. His hero is a modern Tantalus, reaching for the fruit of religion, but never clutching it. A dream of Agnon's, which might have formed the basis for a story in The Book of Deeds, illumines the religious indecisiveness in his works:

Last night I dreamed that I was in a strange place among unknown people. I am hungry. They prepare a sumptuous meal for me. I'm eager to eat. Then I remember that it is the night of Tisha B'Av. But everyone is eating, so perhaps it is only the seventh of Av. I decide to eat. At the last moment I hold back. Maybe it is the Ninth of Av.

[David Canaani, S.Y.Agnon Be'al Peh (Agnon in Conversation), 1971]

Most of the stories in The Book of Deeds take place on an important day in the Jewish calendar. Almost invariably, the narrator is remiss in fulfilling his religious duties. "A Whole Loaf is set at the close of a Sabbath, but as the narrator has not eaten all day (and it is infernally hot), it has the force of Yom Kippur, without real atonement or forgiveness. The sending of the letters could, on one level, represent what his family, the "internalized authorities", expect of him—the preservation of the tradition of Moses (Yekutiel and Ne'eman are both names given to Moses.) He is, in a sense, their messenger, but he accepts his duty not out of love, but out of guilt and fear.

The Book of Deeds has been singled out by Professor Dov Sadan as "the most important biographical document" of Agnon's, and, indeed, Professor Gershom Scholem has said [in a personal communication with the critic, Aberbach] that the manuscript of these stories indicates beyond a doubt that they were based upon Agnon's own dreams. One of the clearly biographical motifs is the letter which does not reach its destination. Agnon told of a letter which he had written to his father in 1912. This letter never arrived. The incident later gave rise to the guilty feeling that he had not carried out the obligation to honour his father. "Ma'ase ha'Ez" ["The Fable of the Goat"], which can be read as an innocent children's tale, also reflects breakdown of communication between son and father. It anticipates stories in The Book of Deeds, especially "A Whole Loaf. The defiance of authority in Agnon's case manifests itself in a reaction against orthodox Judaism and in a crisis of faith. Agnon apparently felt strongly that he did not "deliver the letters" entrusted to him by his family. Mrs. Emuna Yaron, his daughter, has said that Agnon as a young man was regarded as an iluy, a prodigy. His father and grandfather wanted him to become a rabbi. They were disappointed by his literary ambitions.

Another dream of Agnon's, which might also have inspired a tragicomic story in The Book of Deeds, illustrates his feeling of unworthiness and passivity. In the dream he went back to Buczacz and was asked by the elders of the community to take the job of rabbi and deliver a sermon:

When the time came to go to the synagogue and speak, all my bones were shaking for fear of the congregation. What in the name of God was I going to talk about? For I hadn't a thing to say; but since I had promised I couldn't go back on my word. I went to my grandfather's house and took a volume of the Talmud from the bookcase—it was tractate Megillah—and I began to study, looking for something new to say in public. Not only didn't I find anything new, but I didn't even understand what I was studying. Just as 1 was struggling with the Talmud, some of the town leaders came by to bring me to the Great Synagogue. I was dragged after them until we arrived. I wrapped myself in a prayer shawl and turned to the holy ark. I asked for a passage from the Bible or a saying of the rabbis to begin my sermon. In the meanwhile, I forgot why I was standing there and 1 forgot that the whole town was waiting expectantly to hear my sermon. I stood like this for a year, or two, or three, and not a passage from the Bible fell to my lips and no saying of the rabbis. I began to cry. I woke up because of my crying. When I found myself lying in bed, I knew that it was a dream.

[S. J. Agnon, From Myself to Myself]

Despite the semi-farcical side of this dream, Agnon's paralysis in trying to fulfill a rabbinical role could reflect the unrealized hopes of his family and the community in which he grew up—as well as his own hopes—that he would be a rabbi. His family's expectations were all the greater as Agnon had distinguished rabbinical ancestors. This was a source of hardship as well as pride:

When I was a child of six, a relative visited our house for a family wedding. He enumerated to me all my ancestors going back to Rabbi Samuel Edels. Why did he do this? After all, I was only a little boy and I didn't understand what he was saying. It was so that he could add, "And you play wildly with children in the street".


When Samuel returns to the house where he grew up, in A Guest For the Night, he remembers childhood inhibitions of a similar order:

When did I stop playing ball with the girls? Once I was running after the ball, a little girl behind me. I touched her hand and blushed, I knew there was something sinful in it. I went away and played by myself. One day my teacher saw me and said, "What's the sense of a boy playing ball? If you want the ball, why do you throw it away? If you throw it away, why do you run after it? Because your evil impulse incites you—and if that's the case, don't listen to it'.

Inhibition in play might foreshadow sexual inhibition in later life. Sexual difficulties figure throughout Agnon's major fiction. With Jewish girls the hero tends to be passive. Gentile girls arouse religious compunctions. The narrator of Thus Far has an affair with a Gentile girl. One evening, after taking her home, he meets an acquaintance who, in response to his greeting, replies cryptically, "When Balaam tried to destroy Israel he stirred up the Moabite women among them". The narrator confesses: "Imagine to yourselves a man taking leave of a Gentile woman and meeting someone . . . who mentions the story of Balak and the daughters of Moab—how frightened he was". Agnon told of his involvement with a Gentile actress in Berlin during World War One (Thus Far is set at the same time and place). She was to come to his room one night, and his conscience assailed him, "'You, of holy stock, of the grandchildren of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are about to become impure'. I was gripped by fear and strong emotion". He gave instructions that the woman was not to be admitted, and bolted his door.

As we have seen in the previous chapter, virtually none of Agnon's love stories tell of deeds leading to a satisfactory ending. Rather, they are unresolved at the end. Problems such as those in The Book of Deeds often seem to be invested with the emotional significance of major problematic relationships between men and women. In some cases, they are displaced effects of these difficulties, defending the narrator like the tempest in King Lear which does not allow the king "to ponder / On things would hurt me more" (1. iv. 24-25). In sexual affairs, Agnonesque passivity shows itself most startlingly. "The Lady and the Pedlar", which, significantly, is placed immediately before The Book of Deeds in Agnon's Collected Works, is the height of passivity. A Jewish pedlar named Joseph is given shelter in winter by a mysterious lady, Helena. He does not know that she intends to fatten him up, slaughter him, and eat his flesh. After months together, the craving comes upon her. She steals into his room with a knife. But he has gone to the woods to pray. In a frenzy, she turns the knife on herself. When Joseph returns, she is half dead from knife wounds:

He bent down to her. She stuck her teeth into his throat and cried, "Pui, how cold you are, your blood is not blood but ice water." The pedlar took care of the lady for a day and two days and another day. . . . On the fifth day she gave up the ghost and died.

One of the extraordinary things in this scene, apart from the woman being a vampire (this is a frequent hazard in gothic horror stories), is that Joseph puts up no resistance and seems masochistically to welcome her blood sucking. The denouement is a condensation of the dynamics of relations between men and women throughout Agnon's works. Even if they are hurt by women—perhaps especially if they are hurt—they remain passively dependent upon them.

Esther Fuchs (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7241

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 criticism and modern Hebrew literature. [In Hasifrut, Vol. 1, No. 2 (April-May 1968)] Eddy Zemach claims that the story argues against secular Judaism. [In Sipurei ahavah shel shai agnon, 1975] Hillel Barzel maintains that the story demonstrates the transience of secular political statehood by displaying the way in which "one secular civilization is destroyed by another." Despite the considerable differences between these interpretations they all agree that the story is a vehicle for an ideological message, and that the "overt text" is of secondary importance. The allegorical method of interpretation underlying these analyses focuses on the intention of the author and the meaning of the story but ignores the form of the story, e.g., the way in which the hero is characterized and the structure of the plot.

Since in narrative fiction, or for that matter, in any work of art form and content are inseparable, the ideological-allegorical approach misses not only the aesthetic impact of the form, but the meaning generated by it. The critic who concentrates on the ideological implications of the story to the exclusion of its other elements runs the risk of imposing his own preconceived ideas on the work. Criticizing Tochner's approach to Agnon, Dan Miron gives expression to this problem by asking, "Did the research precede the conclusion, or was it the conclusion which determined the research?" [Moznayim, Vol. 27, Nos. 5-6 (April-May 1968)]. In the case of ironic works, such as Ad Olam, neglect of the formal aspect incurs far-reaching repercussions because it prevents the critic from noticing the incongruity between, for example, the point of view of the protagonist and that of the implied author. Most of the interpretations mentioned above indeed identify these distinct points of view; hence the interpretations ascribing to Agnon anti-Zionist or anti-secular conceptions. Furthermore, because of the obsessive concern with ideology, the ironic treatment of the protagonist and his field of research—the central metonymy of the story—was all but missed. It is ironic indeed that a story dedicated to questioning meaning and undermining the validity of academic research and logic in general should be presented as a rational-ideological allegory. By focusing on the two largely neglected aspects of characterization and the structure of the central metonymy, the present analysis will demonstrate the underlying irony of the story, which is its most salient feature.


Adiel Amzeh, the protagonist of the story, enjoys a considerable popularity among critics. He is presented as a tragic hero who reaches the highest human destination: liberation from material constraints and a true dedication to the spiritual and moral goals of life. The mythical stature of the hero endows the story with high points not found in Agnon's other stories, which fail to offer an equal "epic, mythic and archaic development" of their heroes. Adiel Amzeh is praised not only for his moral stature but for his scholarly achievements as well, in stark contrast to Agnon's other scholars and scientists. Furthermore, Amzeh is presented both as the author's alter ego—his direct mouthpiece—and as the symbolic embodiment of the Jewish people.

The enthusiastic reception of Adiel Amzeh considers his actions in vacuo. It disregards the context and motivations of his praiseworthy behavior. A man who joins a leprosarium elicits immediate admiration because one supposes that only a humane motivation can inspire him to do so. But this is not Amzeh's reason for joining the suffering lepers. The unanimous critical applause also ignores the manner in which Amzeh performs his supposedly humane actions, as well as the way in which the author characterizes him.

Despite his central role in the story, Amzeh is characterized as a type rather than a full-fledged character. The expositional material gives little information about his past or about any activities that are not directly related to his research. Amzeh exemplifies the type of the monomaniac, obsessed by his work and completely controlled by it:

The years during which he worked on his research made him a slave to his work, controlling him from the early hours of the day till bedtime. Everyday, immediately on waking up, his legs dragged him to his desk, and pen and papers, and his eyes, if not absorbed in mental pictures and visions would fix themselves in the books or photographs or maps of Gumlidata or in the maps of the battles which destroyed Gumlidata.

The syntactic structure of this excerpt emphasizes the idea that Amzeh is a slave to his work by presenting him as a direct object in both complex sentences (made him, controlled him, dragged him). His actions are described synecdochically: his legs, his eyes act for him. The synecdochic description emphasizes the physical, rather than volitional aspect of his actions, so much so that the protagonist seems more like a mechanical automaton than a human being. The mechanization of the human produces a comic effect, as explained by Bergson [in "Le Rire," Oeuvres, 1959]:

The attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are risible to the extent that this body makes us think of a simple mechanism . . . We laugh whenever a person gives us the impression that he is a thing . . . we laugh at any arrangement of acts and events which gives us . . . the illusion of life and the clear sensation of a mechanical agency.

Although Amzeh deals with an activity that requires intellectual concentration and emotional involvement he is presented as a mechanical object activated by the very thing he is expected to control—his work. The author could have created empathy for the protagonist had he explained Amzeh's attachment to the history of Gumlidata, psychologically and/or intellectually. But he does not do so. Amzeh's obsession with Gumlidata continues to be just that: an arbitrary involvement with an outlandish topic. The description of Amzeh's writing and erasing, adding and subtracting adds to this impression of arbitrariness:

At times he would add to what he wrote on the previous day, and at times he erased in one day what he wrote in many days. Similarly at night, often after going to bed, he would get up and return to the desk and check what he wrote, sometimes with a nod and sometimes with satisfaction and sometimes laughing at himself and his mistakes which caused him to investigate further and re-examine and correct.

The repetitions in this excerpt reinforce the repetitive actions of writing and erasing, rewriting and rechecking. This presents Amzeh's actions as circular and reversible, just like his going to bed and getting up. By omitting specific references to what is written and erased the author succeeds in presenting Amzeh's actions as vacuous motions, nothing more than insipid and mechanical gestures. Repetitiveness, reversibility, and circularity are rudimentary ingredients in all comic actions.

The compulsive behavior of the protagonist could have turned him into a tragic hero had he been aware of his absurd situation. Amzeh is capable of laughing at his silly mistakes, but he is incapable of perceiving the overall inanity of his life. The causal link between action and consciousness can turn a clown into a victim, as Unamuno says [in The Tragic Sense of Life, translated by J. F. Crawford, 1954]. Amzeh remains a clown because he is unconscious of his ridiculous conduct. In one of the climactic points of the plot, when Amzeh finds out that the wealthy Gerhard Goldenthal is interested in publishing his book on Gumlidata, the protagonist's conduct changes abruptly: "Suddenly he changed entirely and became like those famous scholars, who neglect their research work for the sake of the honor that people who do not deal with research give them." The radical change in Amzeh's attitude is comic because it is abrupt and arbitrary; it signifies the opposite of all the values associated with him previously. The sudden reversal contributes to the characterization of Amzeh as an automaton. The mechanical and obsessive manner in which he previously worked now typifies his anxious anticipation of his visit with Mr. Goldenthal: "And so he sat and glanced at his book and looked at the mirror, and glanced at the watch and checked his clothes and examined his movements, for he who seeks the presence of a rich man must take pains to look graceful in his clothes, and graceful in his face and graceful with his movements." Amzeh's new obsession with his appearance highlights the arbitrary quality of his previous obsession with his work. The series of synonymous verbs—look, glance, check, examine—intimates that Amzeh's activities are inherently static and bring about little progress. Despite the new direction of his obsession, the manner in which he acts does not change. It remains compulsive, mechanical, unconscious. This reversal foreshadows the arrival of Ada Eden, the old nurse from the leprosarium. When the nurse first appears, inconveniently right before the scheduled appointment with Mr. Goldenthal, Amzeh apologizes for not being able to pay attention to her. But when he hears of the book "which has become rotten with age and tears" he changes his mind. He offers her a seat and implores her to continue talking about the extraordinary book at the leprosarium, and when it finally becomes clear that the ancient book is indeed related to Gumlidata, he decides to join the nurse on her way back to the leprosarium. It is clear that Amzeh acts out of academic curiosity, not out of altruistic compassion for the poor, segregated, and ailing people. We are confronted with an insatiable desire to accumulate information, which is vastly different from a Kierkegaardian leap into transcendence, as some critics believe it to be. Amzeh's questions revolve around the book, not the lepers: "What did you hear of that manuscript? How did it end up with you? You made me curious, madame, curious hungry for knowledge, practically like a psychoanalyst."

Amzeh's attitude does not change even after his arrival at the leprosarium. His interaction with the lepers is not motivated by his will to alleviate their suffering but by his excitement over the things he finds in the book. The book is the aim, the lepers function at best as an audience with whom to share his discoveries: "And when he discovered something appropriate for everybody he entered the hall and gathered its residents and said to them brothers and friends sit down and I shall read for you."

The only time Amzeh cries is not at all related to the anguish of the lepers, but to the heroic act of the city scribe who, despite the danger to his life, continued to write the history of Gumlidata even during the final attack on the city. The protagonist joins the leprosarium for purely egotistical reasons; he does it in order to find out more information about Gumlidata, the ancient city he has been investigating for twenty years.

Still, the author could have diminished the ironic distance between Amzeh and the reader by describing the subjective perspective of the protagonist. Even the most irrational actions can be justified if their cause is understandable. It is evident, however, that the author does not wish to justify his monomaniac protagonist. The descriptions of Amzeh's excitement over the ancient manuscript focus on his facial features, not on his feelings. This is his reaction to Ada Eden's news: "Suddenly his face changed and his voice changed and his mouth became distorted and he burst into a stuttering laughter." When he sees the ancient book in the leprosarium: "He stared at it till his eyes grew as big as half of his face and he did not stop staring at it till he jumped to open it." When the lepers warn him not to touch the book with his bare hands and tell him about the dangers of contagion, the author adds sardonically; "I do not know whether he heard or did not hear. I know this: that his eyes grew till they stretched over his face and a part around his face." The description of Amzeh's physiognomical expressions deploys the technique of caricature which exaggerates a certain facial feature beyond recognition and distorts normal proportion. Amzeh's exaggerated response to the book contrasts with his indifference to the lepers, whose sufferings ought to have elicited at least some reaction in the visitor. The caricatural description reflects the preposterous incongruity between reality and Amzeh's reaction.

The parody of Amzeh's speech increases further the ironic distance between him and the reader. Through repetition, digression, and cumbersome syntax the author manages to undercut Amzeh's run-on speech:

I will tell you approximately about the matter; for twenty years I have dealt with the research of the history of that city; there is no piece of paper which mentions the city's name which I have not read, if I were a king I could reconstruct the city and rebuild it just as it was before its destruction, and if you want I will tell you about all the trips I take through it—I walk in its markets and its busy alleys, and its streets and its roads and its palaces and its temples. Oh, my good nurse the headache—from the trips I take there, and I also know the order of its destruction, and I know how they destroyed it, and also the name of every troop which worked on its destruction, and how many were killed by sword and how many died of hunger and thirst, and how many perished in the plague which followed the war, except for one thing that 1 do not know, from which side entered the troops of Gediton the hero, whether from the side of the great bridge which used to be called the Bridge of Courage or whether they came indirectly from the side of the valley of Aphardat, the Valley of the Cranes—the plural of crane is Aphardat in the language of Gumlidata, and not ravens or chestnuts or galoshes as linguists, such as Mr. X and Mr. True Advisor, Professor Y and all the other professors, whose pictures you saw in the illustrated newspapers when they received medals and honorable titles from the royal court.

This enormous period, which includes numerous inadequately punctuated complex and combined sentences, reflects the confused and desultory thought processes of the scholar. From the topic of his research, he goes on to describe the thoroughness of his research, mentions in passing the headaches caused by his imaginary trips in Gumlidata, elaborates on the trips he takes, returns to the things he knows concerning the controversial grammatical form of a certain word in the language of Gumlidata, while throwing in a disparaging comment about his colleagues. The incompatibility of these issues emphasizes the absurdity of lumping all of them into one prolonged period. The incongruity between the tragic destruction of the city, which seems to be the most troublesome issue in the period, and the academic problem that haunts the scholar (from which side did the enemy enter) reflects the skewed academic perspective that gives priority to knowledge over human suffering. Gumlidata's destruction is one of the many things Amzeh knows about the city and so it becomes preipheral, conceding the central place to Amzeh's eruditions ("there is not a piece of paper . . . I have not read . . . if I were a king I could reconstruct the city . . . and I know the order . . . and also the name . . . and how many were killed . . ."). For the running theme in this run-on period is what Amzeh knows and does not know about the city of Gumlidata. The subject is Amzeh, not Gumlidata. But the scholar's attempt to prove his superior knowledge by tediously enumerating the city's sites ("its markets, its busy alleys, and its streets and its roads . . .") and the macabre listing of the forms of destruction and death ("and I know how they destroyed it . . . and how many were killed . . . and how many died . . . and how many perished") undercuts the thrust of his speech because it reduces Amzeh's erudition to an insipid series of petty details. The reduction reaches the point of absurdity when it lists the plural forms of the word "crane," which Amzeh affirms to be "Aphardat," not "ravens," "chestnuts," or "galoshes." Not only is this linguistic discussion completely irrelevant to the main subject, but the incongruity among the terms as well as the phonetic incompatibility of the singular and plural formations overreaches all the other inanities in the speech. The repetition of conjunctions (if, and, whether, or), nouns (trip, side, destruction), and pleonastic constructions ("I also know the order of its destruction, and I know how they destroyed it") underlines the extraneous and trivial quality of Amzeh's knowledge. Above all, the numerous digressions in the jumbled speech point up the illogical nature of the professor's thought processes, presenting him as a buffoon rather than a serious scholar.

Amzeh's monologue alludes to the only causal link between the character and his academic curiosity. This curiosity remains an enigma because the emotional or psychological motives for it are still unclear. Amzeh's insatiable thirst for additional information on Gumlidata is his exclusive motivation throughout the story. As a monomaniac, Amzeh exemplifies what is, according to Auden, the quintessential comic character: "The comic butt of satire is a person who, though in possession of moral faculties, transgresses the moral law beyond the moral call of temptation, . . . The commonest object of satire is a monomaniac" [W. H. Auden, "Notes on the Comic," The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays, 1962]. The author satirizes Amzeh by creating a grotesque incongruity between the context of his life and his perception; there is no correlation between the suffering of the lepers and Amzeh's unabated passion for Gumlidata. He further distorts the relationship between reality and the hero's perception by exaggerating Amzeh's interest in Gumlidata while trivializing his objects of interest. When Amzeh takes his imaginary trips in the city he "talks with the dogs of its temples about their prices." Had Amzeh held his imaginary discussions with Gumlidata's ministers about the city's political predicament, had he argued with its philosophers about Gumlidata's religion, the reader might have forgiven and perhaps even admired the scholar's exclusive obsession with his city. The ironic effect is produced by the incongruity between Amzeh's seriousness and the identity of his imaginary interlocutors—dogs.

Amzeh does not change in the course of the story. His obsession with Gumlidata continues unabated after his arrival at the leprosarium. Not even the sight of the most wretched of human sufferers brings about a change in his limited perception of the world. Amzeh remains a monomaniac throughout the story, a flat and static type. His inability to change turns him into the stock character of comedy. Amzeh's rigidity illustrates Bergson's theory of the mechanical man as the typical comic butt. The capacity to change, develop and adapt to new circumstances is quintessentially human. The mechanical object must be moved by external forces in order to change and, even then, the change is not substantial. Despite the traumatic experience Amzeh undergoes he remains the robot described at the beginning of the story. The ironic emphasis on the mechanical activity of Amzeh is echoed in the ending, which defines the learning as "wisdom." "He would sit and discover secrets which were unknown to all the learned men of all generations, till he came and discovered them. And since these things are numerous and wisdom wide and there is much in it to investigate and examine and understand, he did not leave his work and did not budge from his place and sat there forevermore." Amzeh, who was on the verge of launching a brilliant academic career with the publication of a book he had been working on for twenty years, finds himself in a leprosarium by sheer coincidence and continues to live there "forevermore." "Wisdom" is said to have taken hold of him, compelling him to isolate himself from humanity and discover secrets that were unknown and will remain unknown "forevermore." What is the "wisdom" which overpowers the protagonist? What are the "secrets" he keeps? Does this "wisdom" justify Amzeh's sacrifice? The answer is alluded to in the nature of the central metonymy.


The city of Gumlidata is perceived by most critics to be a metaphor. Tochner maintains that the city of Gumlidata represents the Jewish tradition, the idolatrous city of Samaria, and modern secular Judaism. Amzeh's book on Gumlidata symbolizes for Tochner the secular research on the history of Judaism as well as modern Hebrew literature. The internal contradiction included in this interpretation does not prevent Tochner from concluding that Agnon "does not hesitate to hint" that the creations of the modern secular scholars are a product of "the destruction of tradition, the loss of the authority of the Torah and the pursuit of foreign values." This perception turns the story into a moralistictheological parable in which the author expresses "his rebellion against and revulsion from what is accepted and rooted in the taste and thought of the secular generation.

This interpretation is arbitrary, not only because Gumlidata is made to represent opposite things (traditional Judaism and secular modern culture), but also because there is nothing in the story of Gumlidata to suggest that it deals with Judaism at all, either as history or as philosophy. What in Ad Olam alludes to the Jewish identity of Gumlidata? Furthermore, if Amzeh is to represent Agnon, why is he shown to disregard the lepers' community (traditional Jewry)? Even if we accept the arbitrary logic of this allegorical interpretation we are confronted with an illogical conclusion, namely, that Agnon both supports and rejects modern secular culture. And if this is so, why does Tochner insist that Agnon "does not hesitate" to reject it?

A similar allegorical orientation brought other critics to the conclusion that the putrid, puss-covered ancient book of Gumlidata, to which Amzeh dedicates the rest of his life symbolizes the holy Torah. In addition to the problems already pointed out, it is unlikely that Agnon who according to this interpretation decries modern secular culture in favor of the Jewish tradition would use a repulsive object to symbolize the holy Torah. By perceiving Gumlidata as metaphor, the allegorists lose sight of its metonymic function: to serve as an indirect means of characterization. The allegorical orientation of the critics also ignores the satirical contours of the metonymy, an oversight that results in exalting what is in fact tacitly deprecated in the story. Thematically, the author satirizes Gumlidata by emphasizing the themes of sex and bestiality in Gumlidata's culture. These ingredients are familiar themes in satire because they highlight the mundane and physical aspects of human existence. The description of Gumlidata's social and cultural life manipulates both themes interchangeably:

For it was customary in Gumlidata and its suburbs that when a woman became pregnant and it was not known by whom, her relatives would wait for her to give birth to the baby and then come and take the baby and bring it to the beasts, and they would look for a beast which gave birth at the same time and throw the baby to the beast, and take the beast's baby and bring it to the mother to be nursed with the milk of her breasts. If they do not find a beast's baby, they bring her the young of a tame animal. They took special care with the great ladies, "Gevtaniyot" in their language, for if she [the lady] gave birth, and no one knows [to whom] they would kill the baby and bring her a beasts's baby, because it is not dignified for the daughters of the great to nurse a simple woman's baby, and to have their good blood mixed with the blood of common people.

The outlandish custom of Gumlidata whereby human babies are exchanged for the young of animals implies that this culture is unable to differentiate between human life and animal life, deeming the two of equal importance. Furthermore, the custom that sanctions the murder of a child born of a lady and a common man reveals that human life is inferior to animal life, and that no means are spared to perpetuate social inequality by preventing the fusion of "the good blood" with the "blood of the common people," This description demonstrates that Gumlidata was not less barbaric than the Goths who destroyed her, and her destruction was no great loss to civilization.

Sex and animals appear as the major features that bring about the final destruction of the city. Both are embodied in the character of Eldag, the little Hun girl, captured by the soldiers of Gumlidata and forced to serve as the old king's concubine. After several failed escapes, Eldag determines to undermine her enemies by ruse. She changes her conduct, showing the king "secrets of love and feats of love which he did not know with any boy or girl." Free to roam through the city, the captive finds out that the city's wall by the Valley of the Cranes is shaky. Receiving for a gift a priestly garment with the shape of the Valley of the Cranes, she hangs it on the neck of her playmate a young wild ass and leads the ass toward the opening in the wall. When the wild ass arrives at the camp of the besiegers, Eldag's father deciphers the hint and the enemy storms the city through the Valley of the Cranes. Gumlidata's animal cult and sexual mores, as well as the king's self-indulgence, are operative in the city's final destruction by its enemies. The cumulative evidence culled from the different stories about Gumlidata undermines the initial description of the city as "a great city, the pride of mighty nations." This laudatory evaluation of Gumlidata reflects Adiel Amzeh's bias, not reality. But can we refer to Gumlidata as reality at all?

Amzeh's persistent search for Gumlidata is undercut by a pervasive use of verbal grotesque in reference to Gumlidata. The verbal grotesque is created by the alliteration of 'a (ayin) and g (gimal); "'Esrim shana 'asak 'Adiel 'Amzeh beheqer ta'alumot Gumlidata shehaita'ir gedolah ga'avat goyim 'a sumin, 'ad she 'alu gedudei hagotim va 'asauha 'aremot 'afar ve'et 'amameha 'avdei 'olam." (For twenty years Adiel Amzeh worked on the research of the mysteries of Gumlidata, which was a great city, the pride of mighty nations, till the troops of the Goths attacked it and turned it into heaps of ashes and her people into slaves.)

The pervasive alliteration of 'a and g was perceived by most critics analyzing the story. Some suggested that this extraordinary phenomenon is not significant while others see it as a primary allusion to the covert meaning of the story. Gavriel Moked, for example, suggests that the letter 'a signifies spiritual characters, such as 'Adiel, 'Amzeh, and 'Ada 'Eden, whereas the letter g stands for the concrete and materialistic entities, for instance the city of Gumlidata.

But this explanation pertains only to part of the phenomenon, to the alliteration of the different proper names appearing in the story. It does not deal with the alliteration of the series of nouns, verbs, and abjectives recurring throughout entire passages.

The alliteration, like the assonance and consonance and the rhyme, is a phonetic means that serves to intensify meaning through sound. These devices are most frequent in poetry, where language serves not only as a window through which to observe reality, but as a mirror in which language itself is reflected. In prose narrative the phonetic aspect normally fulfills a peripheral function. This is especially true in the realistic story that pretends to "imitate" reality and present it just as it is. Focusing on the phonetic aspect of words in the realistic narrative increases the reader's awareness of the fact that a story is essentially made up of words that call attention to the fictive nature of the work.

The employment of phonetic devices in a realistic story creates a paradox involving the basic principles of the narrative work of art as well as the process of reading, because the author presents the reader with a narrative sign that is supposed to be realistic and yet appears to be fictional. The alliterated words function both as carriers of meaning and as phonetic constructions. In this manner the automatic association between signifier and signified is undermined: the relationship between word and meaning, language and reality, the narrated story and the narrating process becomes highly problematical.

The verbal grotesque functions as an effective satirical weapon. By giving precedence to sound over meaning, the satirist ridicules the meaning of the things he conveys through words. The pervasive alliteration of 'a and g, especially in the passages relating to Gumlidata satirizes Gumlidata's history and culture. The fictive names of Gumlidata's numerous gods, most of which start with a g (Gomesh, Gosh, Gotz, Goah, Goz, Gomed, Gihor, and 'Amol), ridicule the city's outlandish cult. The elaborate name of the city's ruler, Graf ("count") Gifyon Glaskinon Gatra'al ("poison cistern") of the house of Gayra'al ("poison valley"), alludes sarcastically to the rigid caste system of Gumlidata. The alliterated neologisms (gaza'im, gavtan, gandarfus, eygal, geyhaim, gorgeranim, gnognanim, golshaniyot) parody the language of Gumlidata. I do not believe that these neologisms create an authentic "atmosphere of archaic sources" [Tochner, Pesher agnon]. It seems to me that they produce the opposite effect: the absence of signified referrents and the repetitive letters constitute common devices of the verbal grotesque. A similar effect is created by the references to the grammar of the language of Gumlidata:

The plural of crane is Aphardat in the language of Gumlidata, and not ravens or chestnuts or galoshes . . . for really a raven in their language is Eldag and in plural Elgadata, for d and g when they appear together in the plural change reverse their order, and what are chestnuts and galoshes in Gumlidatic language, I do not know.

The verbal grotesque is created by the arbitrary rules of Gumlidatic grammar. There is no phonetic or typographical correlation between "agur" (crane) in the singular and "Aphardat" (cranes) in the plural. This plural formation bears no similarity to the formation of "Algadata" from "Eldag." No consistent rules can be discerned. There is no semantic correlation between "orev" (raven), "armonim" (chestnuts), and "ardalayim" (galoshes). Their mutual relationship and their relevance to the context is arbitrary. The alliteration of the letter 'a (ayin) highlights a phonetic similarity between them, but this only reinforces the semantic gratuity of the collocation and creates a comic effect. The constant repetition of the letters 'a and g at the beginning of names and words relating to Gumlidata implies that the entire vocabularly of the Gumlidatic language consists of words starting with either 'a or g, thereby emphasizing its limited scope, arbitrary nature, and strange sound.

But the verbal grotesque does not only function as a satirical weapon against Gumlidata's culture, history and language. It points out not only its outlandishness but also its fictitiousness. The critical attempt to explain the fictive neologisms counteracts the effect and function of the verbal grotesque. By searching for specific meanings for the specific neologisms the critics "dissolve the forest into trees," as Leo Spitzer puts it [in Linguistics and Literary HistoryEssays in Stylistics, 1962]; they normalize and neutralize a literary phenomenon whose primary purpose is to unsettle the reader by alluding to the possible unreality of the world it evokes.

The ancient book of Gumlidata is also presented as ridiculous and fictive. This book, for which Adiel Amzeh sacrifices his life, is "soiled with old puss, and even the contaminated abhorred it . . . and it seemed that it was not written on parchment but on the skin of a leper, and not with ink but with puss." In addition to its repulsive appearance, the book contains questionable data. It is described by Ada Eden as "the chronicles of Gumlidata, and its tyrants to be read by king Alarich so that he hears of its exploits and the courage of its great men." The book of Gumlidata then, was written by the leaders of the city, not by an objective historian, and for political purposes, not in order to leave behind a factual account of its history. The "tyrants of Gumlidata" deployed this book as propaganda material against their main enemy, Alarich, the king of the Goths. The polemical purposes of the book invalidate its reliability as an authentic historical source. Furthermore, the story of the city's destruction "was written on the last page of the book that the city's scribe attached to the end of the book." Since this story describes the activities in the camp of the Huns and the Goths, situated outside the walls of the city, the obvious question is how could the city scribe report the events that took place in the enemy's camp? It will be remembered that the description contains a verbatim report of the dialague between Gediton the hero and Gihol the prankster. How did the city scribe find out the information he offers at the end of the book? The description of the city's final demolition compounds the problem. If there is truth in the scribe's testimony according to which the Goths "set fire to the city, and cut down in their anger infants and babies, boys and old men and women, . . . no living being remained," how could he report these bleak events unless he was spared himself? If the scribe survived the destruction, like Eldag and the king's grandson, he ought to have mentioned it; if not, somebody else must have added the description of the city's final destruction without actually witnessing it. It is possible that one of the lepers added an imaginary ending, exonerating Gumlidata of its failure to resist the Goths by fabricating the story of Eldag's betrayal and exaggerating the Goths' insidiousness and ruthlessness. Either way, the factual validity of the ancient book, particularly the story of its final destruction is highly questionable. Our protagonist, however, fails to show the slightest sign of caution. On the contrary, he considers the book to be the ultimate authoritative source on Gumlidata.

Amzeh's gullibility indicates that his twenty-year-old research on Gumlidata also consists largely of questionable historical reconstructions. If the supposedly original book of Gumlidata contains undocumented, if not fabricated data, it stands to reason that the reconstruction of the city's history prior to its destruction must be based on mere speculation. This does not prevent our scholar from dedicating twenty years of his life to reconstituting the long-destroyed city with great precision. The author ridicules Amzeh's scholarly work by enumerating the endless details that went into the reconstructive effort:

Gebhard Goldenthal was prepared to publish the book, Adiel Amzeh's book, although the publication of such a book is very expensive, because of its numerous maps and because of its numerous colors; for the writer colored them with different colors, one color for the city's general view, and one color for its temples, and one color for its altars, and one color for Gomesh and Gosh and Goah and Goz its gods, and one color for its mothers, and one color for its infants and fetuses, their bellies' loads, and one color for Gomed the great, and for Gihor and Amol the pillars of the cult, and one color for the rest of their workers, the priests and priestesses, not to mention the prostitutes born to the ladies and the prostitutes whose fathers are slaves and their mothers are ladies, and the female and male cult prostitutes and the dogs—for everyone has a separate color according to his skin according to his garment, and according to the pay and the price and the work of his labor.

This massive period, consisting of a single main clause, and seven subordinate clauses (one concessive, two causal, and four relative) baffles the reader and complicates the issues involved in Amzeh's work rather than clarifying them. The major parodic device consists of lumping together incongruous subjects: inanimate objects, human beings, animals, and gods. Temples, altars, and gods appear alongside slaves, fetuses, and prostitutes. The fusion of the spiritual and the bestial, the elevated and the degraded, pretends that there is no real distinction between these incongruous elements. By combining all these elements in one enormous period, the author parodies Amzeh's book, which lists things without offering the necessary differentiation or evaluation. The tedious repetition of the word "color" dramatizes the insipid monotony of what appears to be a colorful book. What is the point in coloring both people and sites in separate colors without attempting to draw more substantial distinctions between them? The scholar fastidiously distinguishes between prostitutes born to ladies and those whose mothers are ladies and fathers are slaves, but he fails to differentiate between dogs and gods, or altars and human beings. Everything is subjected to the systematic examination of objective scholarship via color differentiation. The parodic treatment of Amzeh's work satirizes indirectly the academic approach to history (even the humanities in general), which sacrifices common sense for objectivity and avoids value judgments in order to uphold a scientific posture.

Amzeh's fastidious attempt to find out from which side the troops of Gediton entered Gumlidata illustrates the obsession of certain historians with details at the expense of principles. Amzeh sacrifices the rest of his life in order to ascertain a strategic detail. The incongruity between the trivial detail and Amzeh's serious approach becomes preposterous when we keep in mind that this strategic detail is ascertained on the basis of the last page in the book of Gumlidata, whose dubiousness has already been established. The ironic distance between author and protagonist becomes all the more obtrusive in light of the author's patent affirmation that trivial details, such as the direction of his protagonist's entrance, do not concern him:

I do not know through which gate he entered and how long it took him to gain an entrance permit . . . And since I am not well versed in details and I do not like speculations, 1 am abandoning the conjectures and returning to the facts.

Adiel Amzeh sacrifices his life in order to verify from which direction the hero, Gediton, entered Gumlidata. Our author ignores wherefrom his own hero entered the leprosarium. This contrastive analogy reflects the ironic distance between author and protagonist. But the irony works not only vis a vis Amzeh; its effect is much more radical. The author's abrupt reference to himself discloses the fact that although he knows much about his protagonist, there are many details he does not know. The author's unexpected intrusion makes the reader aware not only of the information the author lacks, but that which he supposedly has. The authorial reference to "speculations" versus "facts" appears to reassure the reader of the validity of the narrative material, but this reassurance is ironic because the very act of enunciating the assurance undermines its effectiveness. The reader realizes that the "facts" the author is invoking are fictional ingredients of a fictional tale. These facts are no more reliable than Amzeh's findings on Gumlidata. Thus the ironic Odyssey of our author comes full circle—the reader who has been gloating over Amzeh's misconceptions is stung by the recognition that he is a victim of irony.


Our protagonist, Adiel Amzeh, does not wonder about the identity, purpose, and authority of Gumlidata's city scribe. His response to the story of Gumlidata is one of empathy and identification; when he reads the story of the city's final destruction, he begins to cry. The scribe himself also identifies with the material he describes. He never admits that his story is not all fact. Not so the author of Ad Olam: several times in the course of what appears to be a realistic story, he intrudes with irrelevant or digressive remarks, calling attention to his subjective point of view. Anticipating the fact that Amzeh's patron, Gebhard Goldenthal, will neither meet Amzeh nor publish his book, the author intrudes abruptly with the following remark to the reader:

A pity this rich man did not see him Amzeh for if he did he would have seen that there is even a lovelier appearance than silver and gold. You see my friend for the sake of a moralistic lesson 1 present in advance the point of the ending.

The abrupt transition from an objective and omniscient to a subjective and personal authorial point of view jolts readers out of their complacency. They now become privy to the way in which the author manipulates the narrative material (anticipation) as well as the readers' own attitudes (by teaching them a moralistic lesson). By pointing up his authorial disadvantages ("I do not know through which gate he entered . . . I do not know whether he did or did not hear . . .") the author is undermining his reliability. By inserting technical comments regarding the narrative process of creation (". . . I will tell what the dead letters told, and I will tell briefly what is told there at length . . .") the author implies that the reality confronted by the reader is fictional and artificial, that it is made of words and literary constructions. The artist seems to be poking fun at himself as well as at the reader.

Seen from this perspective, the verbal grotesque parodies not only the metadiegetic story of Gumlidata but the entire story of Ad Olam. Because the verbal grotesque distorts the link between signifier and signified it also parodies the means by which the author communicates with his reader. The neologisms that are inserted into conventional linguistic contexts and the alliterations of conventional words sever the automatic link between a word and its assigned meaning, thereby highlighting the essentially arbitrary link between sound and sense, which constitutes the rudimentary foundation of all language. The frightening-comic effect of the verbal grotesque in Ad Olam dramatizes for readers the precariousness of their own position as readers of a fictional tale, mediated by an arbitrary language. Readers soon realize that the troublesome 'a and g recur not only in the names of Gumlidata's heroes but also in the names of "their" story. In essence, 'Adiel 'Amzeh, 'Ada 'Eden, and Gebhard Goldenthal are not different from 'Eldag, the hero Gediton, and the king Gifyon Golaskinon.

The limited irony directed at scholarly pretentiousness, the "science" of history, and the monomaniac obsession with one's work expands in Ad Olam to encompass the precariousness of fictional writing, of art, and of language. If we construe Ad Olam as an ideological "historiosophical" allegory about Judaism and Zionism, then most of the disquieting elements in the story will naturally be considered as superfluous and oppressive "riddles serving a private myth" [Baruch Kurzweil, Masot al sipurei shay agnon, 1975]. If, on the other hand, we approach Ad Olam as a work of art, these riddles become essential, for they make the reader aware of the tensions between fiction and fact, word and meaning, perception and reality. The riddles of Ad Olam may be frustrating to those who search for ideological reassurances; they are indispensable to readers who prefer far-reaching questions to restrictive answers.

Lev Hakak (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5431

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


Sexual Symbols play an important role in S. Y. Agnon's short story "Another Face" (1976, 3, pp. 449-68). These symbols accompany the progress in communication between Toni and Michael and thereby enrich the reader's aesthetic experience of the short story. The author dramatizes the couple's emotional world by projecting it upon concrete objects which function equally as symbols and as objects.

Sigmund Freud views many parts of the physical world as symbols of sexual activity or desire. A brief glance at the things and settings emphasized in "Another Face" reveal many objects to which Freud has assigned sexual significance: a parasol, hat, flowers, a garden, to name some of the more prominent. It may be argued that different readers may relate in different ways to Freudian symbology in the story. The reader may interpret the attitude of the narrator to these symbols as complex and ambivalent and as one which goes beyond the Freudian symbology; the reader may even argue that the narrator employs these symbols as virtual parody; or he may argue that the narrator employs Freudian symbols as defined by Freud. While the effect of these symbols may be viewed in different ways by different readers, ignoring the existence of these symbols may lead to erroneous interpretation because it is one of the means of characterization in the story. The existence of the phenomena is objective, the effect is subjective. Pointing to Freudian symbology will lay the foundations for various approaches as to the effects of these symbols. I agree with Barzel (1975, p. 61) who thinks that "undoubtedly, Agnon was well-versed in Freudian symbology and knew how key symbols of his story would be interpreted."

The presence of many of the sexually charged objects in "Another Face" indicates the presence of symbols. According to the Freudian approach, objects belong to one of two groups, the masculine and the feminine. This strict duality seems to some to be imposed by a mind psychologically predisposed to find and to unveil universal sexuality. Symbolic interpretation confined to sexuality may, in fact, be a degenerate form of symbolism. Nevertheless, "Another Face" demands that the reader take these symbols into account in interpreting the story and its central relationship. Various elements make it necessary to understand the sexual symbols in the story: the context of marital tension and sexual attraction; the frequent usage of explicitly Freudian objects; the encouragement of the reader in the story to see these objects as being more than simple objects; and the fact that some ideas in the story which seem flat or difficult become emotionally loaded and intelligible only when these objects are read as sexual symbols. These elements and others—such as the associative power and the centrality of these objects in the story and the sexual tension evoked by the interrelations of these symbolic objects—all support my contention as to the necessity of understanding the sexual symbols in this story. Other symbolic meanings for these objects are possible. My focus, however, is to read the text in the heretofore ignored light of Freudian sexual symbolism.

The first edition of "Another Face" was published on Dec. 12, 1932, in Dabar, by which time Freud's ideas were already well known in intellectual circles. Between 1913 and 1924 Agnon lived in Germany. Several of his short stories ("The Doctor's Divorce" and "Fernheim," as well as "Another Face") are set in German-speaking countries and concern themselves with crises within marriage. During his time in Germany, Agnon had close access to the ideas of Freud while he was writing the story. Indeed, as Barzel (1975, p. 64) points out,

Certainly one should not relate to Agnon the exclusive following of one psychological approach or another, out of an attempt to imitated it. On the other hand Agnon knew well the spirit of Vienna and was influenced by the modes of thinking, and also by the ways of symbology of Freud and his followers.

Freudian interpretation has been successfully applied to Agnon's work by scholars such as Aberbach (1984) and Shryboim (1977). Agnon originally dedicated the story of "Another Tallit" to Max Eitington, who was a loyal disciple of Freud, and who organized in 1933 a Palestinian Psychoanalytic Society.

It is noteworthy that when "Another Face" first appeared in Dabar in 1932, it included the following passage which Agnon later omitted: "after (Michael) finished telling her his dream . . . (Toni's) . . . eyes became somewhat wet. Michael was grateful to her for her not interpreting his dream according to Freud and his School." By telling us why Michael was grateful, the narrator simultaneously reminds us of Freudian symbolism, with which he is obviously acquainted. Toni's eyes becoming wet is a statement to which Freud (1953, 5, pp. 358, 359) would give a Freudian significance, Feldman refers to the "sexual" connotations of the key-motif in Agnon's "A Quest for the Night," and she thinks that Agnon is quite explicit in his use of dream symbolism, to the point that "he almost challenges the reader to go beyond the obvious in his search for an integrating reading" (1985, pp. 266, 267).

This paper does not intend to be conclusive regarding all the objects and situations that may be interpreted sexually in "Another Face." My intent is to point out a possible interpretation of Agnon which may enrich the reader's experience of Agnon's short stories and novels. Some critics hinted in passing at the possibility of giving a sexual interpretation to some objects in Agnon's "Another Face." I intend to demonstrate that this possibility is much more substantial than Agnon criticism has so far considered it to be. Freudian symbols become a device to portray characters and their inner life and relations through an interplay between the conscious reader and the narrator on the one hand and, on the other, the characters who are (in the final version of the story) unconscious of the implications of some of their actions and objects.


Agnon emphasizes various personal effects that Toni and Hartmann carry with them. Toni's dress, parasol, handbag, and bottle of scent, and Michael's hat, cigarettes, cigars, and cigar-knife, for example, become prominent in the short story. Freud deals in his work with some of these objects. It is noteworthy that, according to Freud himself (1953, 5, p. 685), these symbols are not confined to dreams; objects such as umbrellas ("the opening of this last being comparable to an erection" [5, p. 354]) and knives may stand for the male organ. (5, pp. 358-59; also p. 380 and pp. 683-84).

One of the objects that is mentioned in Agnon's "Another Face" is the parasol. The reader first notices the parasol when Dr. Tanzer and Svirsh, the two single bachelors who lust for Toni, welcome her as she leaves the judge's house:

Svirsh took the parasol, hung it from her belt and, taking both her hands in his, swung them affectionately back and forth (1967, p. 4).

Svirsh's swinging back and forth of Toni's hands and his hanging her parasol from her belt denote sexual feelings. In this context it is noteworthy that the narrator makes frequent reference to parts of the body such as hands, thumbs, arms, mouths, lips and tongues (1953, 5, p. 359). Freud contends that the male's organ may be represented by his hand or foot, the female's by mouth, ear or even an eye. Undoubtedly, hands and arms are sexually significant in the short story. Indeed, Svirsh's and Tanzer's confident gestures (1967, pp. 4, 6) indicate merely selfish lust; for Toni is to them an object of sexual fantasies; Michael's graceless and uncertain gestures (pp. 4, 16, 17, 19), though, combine sexual desire and love. In portraying Toni as a good listener, the narrator describes her active silence: she listens, she looks, she thinks (p. 8). But her hand and arm motions are activated by men; she is passive. In other of Agnon's love stories, there are substantial obstacles to fulfilling love; but Tanzer and Svirsh do not constitute such an obstacle at all. Svirsh's lust is explicitly depicted by the narrator through the use of Free Indirect Speech and the symbolic use of Toni's parasol. Later (p. 11), in a moment of mutual attraction between Toni and Michael, Michael was busy dealing with his hat while Toni was busy fussing with the parasol. And Michael, desiring his ex-wife, makes gestures in the air as Toni, desiring her ex-husband, pokes the ground with her parasol (p. 17). Barzel (1975, pp. 63-64) correctly finds the parasol to be a male object while the ground is a female one. Toni's act with the parasol moves Hartmann because it reflects his own erotic excitement. Toni and Michael then arrive at an inn where they decide to dine. Michael is worried that his wife is aware of his sexual thoughts. He "took her parasol, laid it on a chair, placed his hat on top of it . . ." (p. 23). Hartmann's unconscious wish is that he will be able to accomplish his desires as simply as he was able to put his hat on Toni's parasol. At dinner, Toni's appetite (p. 24) represents her love for Michael and her frustrated desire for him. But Hartmann rejects her again: he "got up, took his hat and said: "Let's go" (p. 32). This time Hartmann does not deal with the parasol himself: "The waiter came up and handed Toni her parasol . . ." (p. 32). One concludes that Tanzer, Svirsh, Hartmann and Toni express hidden desire as they handle the parasol, and it indeed plays the same role as Freud's umbrella.

The appearance of a parasol in the story is often coupled with the appearance of the hat. Freud states that "a woman's hat can very often be interpreted with certainty as a genital organ, and moreover, as a man's" (1953, 5, pp. 355-56; see also pp. ). The reader first notices the hat in "Another Face" when Svirsh and Tanzer are defeated by Michael. "Waving his hat, [Tanzer] walked off . . ." The word in Hebrew is henip, which can be translated as "waving" or "lifting" the hat. Tanzer doffs his hat and admits the loss of the sexual object. Now Toni and Michael are left alone. Michael is attracted to his ex-wife, and he is embarrassed: "He crumpled his hat and waved it about, smoothed its creases, crumpled it again, put it back on his head, and passed his hands over his temples down to his chin" (Agnon, 1967, p. 6). These helpless gestures with the hat, coupled with Michael's self-conscious avoidance of her eyes, indicate Michael's strong longing and sexual desire for his ex-wife. In another moment of confusion, when Hartmann is thinking about his separation and divorce, the narrator describes his feelings and his gestures: ". . . he removed his hat, mopped his brow, wiped the leather band inside his hat and put it back on his head" (p. 10). The hat serves as a refuge for Michael, who has a hard time facing his new status as a divorced man, and represents his desire for his ex-wife. Michael now learns that he cannot accomplish this desire as simply as he was able to put his hat on Toni's parasol (p. 23).

Critics have noticed the parasol and the hat; however, they have ignored their sexual implications. Goldberg (1963, pp. 213, 217, 218), Tochner (1965, p. 32; 1968, p. 99), and Kenani (1977, p. 491) emphasized the awkward, hopeless, repetitive and confused nature of Hartmann's unconscious gestures with his hat. Rivlin (1969, pp. 120-21) thinks that the parasol is Toni's support and protection. Tochner is aware of the longing and sexual desires between Toni and Hartmann (1968, p. 98), but does not substantiate his claim. Barzel (1982, p. 59) thinks that the parasol is "a combined expression of canopy, defense and erotic symbol." While I am not in disagreement with these statements, it seems to me that the sexual roles of the hat and the parasol are important to the interpretation and the enjoyment of the text. The characters do not act out of conscious sexual urges; they do not ask themselves why they do what they do with the hat or the parasol. However, the narrator and the reader "must" be aware of those urges.

Additional phallic symbols in the story are cigars, cigarettes, a pipe and a cigar-knife. The story describes Michael's efforts during a frustrating marriage to find a satisfactory substitute for love. Michael tries friendship, reading books, and smoking "cigarettes first, then cigars" (Agnon, 1967, p. 14) as a means of fulfilling his unsatisfactory life. On the day of the divorce, Toni and Michael go the fields from the town to an inn. In a moment of attraction to Toni, Michael thinks about smoking (p. 18), but now he is self-conscious and the cigarette cannot satisfy his desires. After dinner Michael "took out a cigar and trimmed it with his knife then took out a pack of cigarettes and offered one to Toni. They sat opposite one another, the smoke they made rising and mingling . . . Toni parted the smoke with her fingers and went on smoking contentedly" (p. 28). Unlike the lonely, isolated smoking at home during their marriage, now Hartmann and Toni in a moment of good feeling and positive communication, smoke in a way which is satisfying for them both, and their smoke mingles. Michael's knife should not be disregarded (Freud, 1953, 5, pp. 358-60; also pp. 380, 683-84); nor should we ignore the fire of the phallic symbols of the cigar and the cigarettes (5, pp. 384, 395).

It is heavily symbolic and rather humorous that Michael, who was so desirous of his ex-wife, had to leave her room in the inn, in which there was "a broken horn with a bridal wreath on it" (Agnon, 1967, p. 36). Michael's desires for a renewed marriage end at this stage with a "broken horn." When the old man stated that there was only one room free, "Toni blushed. Michael crumpled his hat and said nothing" (p. 36). We have a detailed description of the way the innkeeper deals with his pipe prior to suggesting that Toni will sleep in the only available room and Michael on the billiard table.

Toni's blushing, Michael's crumpling of his hat, the innkeeper's knocking the pipe against the table (which "represents the approximate shape of the male organ" [Freud, 1953, 4, p. 86]), the innkeeper's putting his thumb into the pipe's bowl—all of these are sexually significant acts. There is one attractive woman and two lonely men. I disagree with Barzel (1975, p. 58), who claims that Toni's blushing is due here to her bashfulness and not to her erotic attraction to her husband. Simirman (1962, p. 18, 21-22) recognizes Michael's desire for his ex-wife, arguing, though, that the closer Michael gets to his ex-wife the more distant she becomes. I disagree with Simirman's analysis of Toni's feelings, in that it ignores the mutual attraction indicated by Toni's blushing and Michael's playing with his hat. Michael starts his life as a divorced man by sleeping on a public gaming table (billiard table), made for a game composed of balls, holes, and sticks rather than in the bed, once consecrated to him and his wife by marriage. His grotesque position is indicative of the fact that his sexual desires cannot be resolved without resolution of his relationship. There is another table in the story: When over dinner Michael started telling Toni his dream, sharing his intimate thoughts with his ex-wife, he put the cigar down (Agnon, 1967, p. 38) while communicating with his wife. Now that his wife is asleep and he is alone again, he thinks again about smoking, a thought that is encouraged by the thick cigar under the table, which itself is a symbol of a woman (Freud, 1953, pp. 355, 374, 376, 381).

In a moment of mutual attraction and self-awareness between Toni and Michael, Toni wets her hands, which is another act with a Freudian (1953, 5, p. 403) meaning: "Toni opened her handbag, took out a bottle of scent, and sprinkled her hands with it" (Agnon, 1967, p. 18). Freud calls attention to hollow objects such as handbags. According to Freud, "Boxes, cases, chest, cupboards and ovens represent the uterus . . ." (1953, 5, 354; also p. 373, regarding "purse").

When Toni and Michael returned to the garden of the inn, their attraction is mutual as Kenani pointed out (1977, p. 492), and it is reflected by the landscape described as they walk in the field after dinner.

Several times in the story Michael "wanted to take off his jacket and wrap it around Toni" (Agnon, 1967, p. 34). The original Hebrew text speaks of me il, which is a "coat" or "overcoat." Michael's awareness of Toni's being cold is coupled with his erotic attraction to her, and the overcoat becomes a male symbol here (Freud, 1953, 4, pp. 186, 204; 5, p. 365).

In the opening sentence of the story, the narrator mentions Toni's brown dress (Agnon, 1967, p. 4). He later draws attention to it in erotic contexts (pp. 12, 14, 22, 26, 34). Her dress stimulates Michael's thought about her nakedness.


After their divorce Toni and Michael walk in the fields from their town to a garden of an inn. The setting is rich with Freudian meaning: they are sitting at a table in a garden near a gate; the garden is full of birds and fruit trees; they discuss rooms, dancing and an oven. On their way to the inn, Toni thought (p. 20) that the light of the inn was a firefly. The lights of the firefly are the courting strategies of the female and male fireflies. On their way to the inn, Toni is chilled by the wind:

'Are you cold?' Hartmann asked anxiously.

'I think I see people coming.'

'There is no one here,' said Hartmann, 'but perhaps'

They should not be touching each other after their divorce, a transgression against Jewish law (see , and also ). Toni evades Michael's inquiry about her being cold, then she points out a tall person: "A man with a ladder came towards them." Toni blushes now not because Tanzer is taller than Hartmann, as Kenani contends (1977, p. 492), but because of the erotic atmosphere, strengthened by the ladder as a Freudian element (1953, 5, p. 355). At this time, Toni and Hartmann do not communicate verbally. However, this interchange does not seem to be a failure in communication, but rather a display of timidity about their sexual attraction.

Ewen (1971, pp. 292-93) thinks that here Toni and Michael become distanced. Toni's lowering her eyes and blushing and the abortive conversation are taken by Ewen as an example of a "dialogue" without any real communication. This opinion seems to stem from ignoring the intense attraction and sexuality between Hartmann and Toni. Indeed the sexual excitement that marks this part of the story (Agnon, 1967, pp. 20-22) is unmistakable, when one pays attention to the sexual symbols and situations: Hartmann's anxiety regarding Toni being chilled by the wind, her indirect answer, his incomplete sentence, the tall man with the ladder who lit the lamp, Toni's blushing and lowering her eyes, Hartmann's smiles, the boy and the girl, and Toni looking at her ring and remembering that she is no longer married to Hartmann and that physical contact is now forbidden between them. The narrator here draws our attention to the progress in understanding the attraction between Michael and Toni, not to the alleged regression in their newly developed communication. Because of such moments, the reader understands that Toni and Michael have discovered another face in themselves, in their relations, and in each other as man-husband and woman-wife. After walking in the field, Toni and Michael see a restaurant (p. 22):

A little later they came to a garden which was fenced on three sides. The gate was opened and to the right of it shone a lamp. Some smaller lanterns in the shape of pears and some apples hang from the trees in the garden.

We are then introduced to a girl who pulls at her skirt when they enter the garden of the inn, and Hartmann thinks that the girl is red-haired and freckled. Talking about the girl (pp. 22, 24) as red-headed with freckles is a way to evade his sexual thoughts about the girl and his wife. The girl appears again when she passes by "carrying a basket of plums with both hands. The juice of the overripe plums exuded an odor of cloying sweetness" (p. 26). Unlike Simirman, (1962, pp. 17, 19), it is my opinion that Hartmann's desire is for his wife, and not just any woman.

Freud discusses gardens (1953, 5, p. 346), fruits (1953, 4, p. 287; 5, pp. 372-73), gates (5, p. 346), trees, wood, etc., as well as keys and locks (5, p. 354) as sexual symbols. When Toni and Michael first enter the garden, "which was fenced on three sides," its "gate was open" (Agnon, 1967, p. 22). After they leave the inn, they come back to it and "Hartmann pushed the gate open and they went up the stone steps" (p. 34). He is full of erotic desires for his wife and her garden, hoping to consummate their renewed relations by sleeping with her. In this context the stone steps and the act of ascending them also have Freudian significance; the shape of apples (1953, 4, p. 287) or of pears (4, p. 372). As Hartmann anticipates his meal in the inn's garden, it is clear that he is feeling the demands of his sexual appetites as well, he expects "fresh dishes" (Agnon, 1967, p. 24). The sexual connotation is that Toni has now become "fresh" in his eyes.

Leiter (1970, pp. 63-64) refers to various paragraphs in the story, such as the boy running with a lighted stick, the gesture of Hartmann with his thumbs, the flowers, the falling from the mount, and the wire, and he traces them to the Talmud (Berakot 51-53, 53a, 55b; Gittin 66a, 81, 90b). This seems to me a significant contribution to understanding the story without lessening the weight of the sexual symbology.

A bird plays an interesting role in this story. While Toni and Michael were eating, they listened to a song of a bird. Toni's face grew prettier, and Hartmann covered his knees with his napkin (Agnon, 1967, p. 24). Now they are content and attracted to each other. The bird's song is indicative of Michael's sexual excitement (Freud, 1953, 5, pp. 583-84). However, when Hartmann later thinks that divorcing his wife was a clever act, he listens neither to his wife's question about the bird nor to the "bird"; nor does he need to cover his knees any more. In Hartmann's dream the "frozen birds" (Agnon, 1967, p. 30) represent a breakdown in warmth and communication in the family.

Toni and Hartmann walk back toward the city. They come close to a river (p. 32), and the river now plays a role in the story: the stream lulling in its bed, the cry of the bird of prey, the echo reverberating through the ear, the waves raising themselves up and falling back exhausted, the stream rocking itself wearily—all this rhythmic motion happens in a moment of mutual desire between Toni and Hartmann. In general, nature in the story is described in a way which reflects the moods and relations of the characters.

We also meet the girl who sold Michael a bunch of asters (p. 10). The reader is told that Toni had always been fond of asters (pp. 24, 26). The flowers are cared for when Toni and Hartmann communicate and are attracted to each other, and they are thrown into the grass (p. 32) when Hartmann starts having negative thoughts about his wife and decides to leave the garden. Freud mentions flowers in various places and points out "that sexual flower symbolism . . . symbolizes the human organs of sex by blossoms . . . It may perhaps be true in general that gifts of flowers between lovers have this unconscious meaning" (1953, 5, p. 376).


After dinner in the garden of the inn, Hartmann tells Toni about his dream. Various objects play an interesting role in the dream: the apartment, the dance-like walk of the landlady, the oven, the bedrooms, the study, the birds, the windows, and the walls. Coffin (1982, pp. 187-98) took into account Freudian notions in her important analysis of the dream. She pointed out the erotic aspects of the dream, including objects which are associated with sexual feminine attributes and are identified as such by Freud. Band has already explained this dream, as well as other central aspects of the story (1968, pp. 251-60).

Freud refers to rooms, apartments and houses in many places. "Rooms in dreams are usually women" (1953, 5, p. 354). Freud writes that an oven is representative of the uterus (5, pp. 354, 634), "the 'smooth' walls are men . . ." (5, p. 355).

It seems reasonable then to interpret the landlady in the dream as representative of Toni. In the bedroom, Hartmann had an oven (Toni). Only by completely sharing his life, including his work, with his wife could Hartmann feel the warmth of the "oven" outside the bedroom. His ambivalent attitude toward Toni finds an expression. Toni's defects may simply be in Hartmann's mind. In his dream, he understands that he has a nice apartment (wife, woman, Toni—"'Ištô zô bêtô. Mah dîrā? 'Iš v ištô.") ("his wife is his home", and "what is home?" "It is a man and his wife") and he does not need to "change it for another" (Agnon, 1967, p. 30), i.e.—for divorce and another marriage. Hartmann's desire to climb the mound may be interpreted by Freud (1953, 5, pp. 406-7, 410) as a sexual desire. Now Hartmann remembers an event from his childhood: he once climbed a mound, then slipped and rolled down to the bottom; "his limbs had felt relaxed" (Agnon, 1967, p. 42). Kenani (1977, p. 499) claims that this depicts Hartmann's longing for death. It seems to me that Hartmann simply longed for the womb (see ). Now that he remembers his childhood, Hartmann is seized by a fear of falling. His panic is portrayed by content, by repetition of words, and by syntax which affects the fast rhythm (Agnon, 1967, p. 40). But he quickly understands that the fear of falling has had a stronger impact on his life than the actual falling would have had, and he now sees dangers and risk in proportion; he does not have to live as egocentrically as before, and he will no longer be paralyzed by fear.

Freud (1953, 5, p. 356) discusses wooded hills and the symbolic landscape which includes a path into a thick wood leading up to a hill of grass and brashwood (5, p. 366). In discussing dreams of falling, Freud finds connection to anxiety and to erotic desires (5, pp. 394-95).

Now that Hartmann can relate to his fears in a rational manner, there is a chance for him to communicate better; and, indeed, after understanding his dream of the mound, he starts seeing Toni in his imagination (Agnon, 1967, pp. 42-44). The arm, the red face, the asters, the parasol, the fingers, and the cigarette smoke are all united in a romantic way. The story ends with good memories, compassion, and attraction between them with the optimistic indication that Toni and Hartmann may again be husband and wife. Perry and Sternberg (1968, pp. 286-387) think that only someone who is "thirsty for sensation" can be interested in the question of what happened to this marriage. Many sensitive readers, however, concern themselves with this question. The ending is undoubtedly a renewal of the family. In Agnon's A Guest for the Night (1967, pp. 391-92; 1968, p. 418), the narrator says: ". . . one day (Hartmann) gave his wife a divorce, but as they left the rabbi's house he fell in love with her again and took her back." Fictional characters are talked about by the characters in other works of fiction as if they are part of reality, and the author presumes that he is addressing a reader who is intimately familiar with the author's entire work. Hartmann was not a Cohen. I am not in agreement with Leiter, who thinks that "Hartmann's dream of reconciliation is foredoomed" (1970, p. 61) and that "symbolic night" settles over the relations of Toni and Michael (pp. 61, 64). The crisis forced Hartmann to re-evaluate his relations. In the closing paragraph, Hartmann's face gets red merely thinking about his pretty wife. All her "shortcomings in no way detracted from her" (Agnon, 1967, p. 42). Several actions and objects (asters, parasol, fingers, cigarette smoke) which we perceived as erotic are now combined in Hartmann's mind as sources for his attraction and his compassion to Toni.


By paying attention to sexual symbols in "Another Face," we gain a better capacity to enrich ourselves. We, of course, presume that the characters in the last version of the story are unconscious of the symbolism of their actions and their surroundings; however, their repressed wishes achieve a certain satisfaction through these symbolic patterns. Symbols help the reader to understand the characters' unconscious motivations, enrich the reader's aesthetic experience of the work and fulfill the demands of the text. Some of Agnon's other works will similarly yield rich layers of meaning to the reader who considers their clear sexual symbolism. It is my contention that while Agnon's works are not rich with explicit sexual scenes, they are loaded with sexuality and sensuality which are alluded to in various powerful ways. Sexuality can be understood in Agnon's works only by looking closely at actions, motions, objects, and settings. If this symbolic interpretation is done, the reader will find Agnon a sensuous author, expressing human sexual urge and giving it an expression which requires the imagination and the understanding of the reader.

Works Cited

Aberbach, David. 1984. At the Handles of the Lock. Oxford.

Agnon, S. Y. 1932. "Panîm 'aherôt." In Dabar Dec. 12, 1932.

——. 1957. "Metamorphosis." Translated by I. Schen in "A Whole Loaf," pp. 139-62. Ed. S. J. Kahn. New York.

——. 1966. "Metamorphosis." In 'Ôrôt: Journal of Hebrew Literature, 1:11-41.

——. 1967. "Another Face." In Modern Hebrew Stories. pp. 2-45. Ed. Ezra Spicehandler. Bantam.

——. 1968. A Guest for the Night. New York.

——. 1970. "Metamorphosis." In Twenty One Stories, pp. 111-34. Ed. Nahum N. Glatzer. New York.

——. 1976. "Panim 'aherôt" in Kol kitbê Š emûel Yôsep 'Agnôn vol. 3, pp. 449-68. Tel Aviv.

——. 1976. Ô reah nata lalûn in Kol kitbê Š emûel Yôsep'Agnôn. 4 Vol. Tel Aviv.

Amir-Coffin, Edna. 1982. "A Dream as a Literary Device in Agnon's Metamorphosis." Hebrew Studies. 23: 187-98.

Band, Arnold. 1968. Nostalgia and Nightmare. University of California.

Barzel, Hillel. 1975. Sippûrê 'ahaba šel S. Y. 'Agnôn. Tel Aviv.

——, ed. 1982. Š emûel Yôsep 'Agnôn: mibhar Ma'amarîm 'al yesîratô. 'Am Obed. Tel Aviv.

Cirlot, J. E. 1962. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York.

Eben-Zohar, Itamar. 1965. 'Iyyûnîm besiprût. Jerusalem.

Ewen, Joseph. 1971. Haddaialôg besippûre S. Y. 'Agnon vedarkê issûbô. Hassiprût 3:281-94.

Feldman, Yael S. 1985. "How does a Convention Mean? A Semiotic Reading of Agnon's Bilingual Key-Irony in 'A Guest for the Night'." Hebrew Union College Annual 56: 251-69.

Freud, Sigmund. 1953. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vols. 4 and 5. London.

Goldberg, Leah. 1963. Panîm 'aherôt lešay 'Agnôn, 'omanût hassippûr, pp. 204-22. Tel Aviv.

Golomb, Harai. 1968. "Haddibbûr hammešullab—teknîka merkhazît Bapprôza 'el 'Agnôn: lefî hassippûr panîm 'aherôt." Hassiprût, 1/2: 251-62.

——. 1968-69. "Panîm merubbôt: 'al yahase haggômlîn ben hassippûr panîm 'aherôt le-'Agnôn Ubên kotartô." Hassiprût pp. 717-18.

Hakak, Lev. 1973. "Motîb hattarnegôl besippûr pašût le-'agnôn." Hassiprût. vol. 4: 713-18.

——. 1976. 'Al haddibbûr hassamûy bemika'el šellî le'amôs ôz. Bissarôn 324: 249-52, 263.

Harael-Fish, A. 1971. Hammesapper kehôlem bekitbe 'Agnôn, 'iyyûn hašva'atî. Bikkoret Uparšanût 4-5: 5-10.

Kenani, David. 1977. "Hartmann 'ô haharada," Mibbayît, pp. 69-95. Reprinted in: Š emûel Yôsep 'Agnôn—Mibhar ma ma'amarîm 'al yesîratô, pp. 481-500. ed. Hillel Barzel, 1982. Tel Aviv.

Leiter, Samuel. 1970. "The Face Within the Face—A Reading of S. Y. Agnon Panim Aherot" in Judaism, 19: 59-65. Reprinted in: Selected Stories of S. Y. Agnon, pp. 183-91. ed. by Leiter, Samuel. New York.

Perry, Menahem and Meir, Sternberg. 1968. "Hammelek bemabbat 'irônî: 'al tahbûlôtav šel hammesapper besippûr davîd ubatšeba' ubište haplagôt latte' aoria šel happrôza." Hassiprût, 1/2: 286-87.

Preminger, Alex, ed. 1965. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, pp. 833-36. Princeton.

Rivlin, A. 1969. Mapteah dîdaqtî lehôra'at Hassippûr Haqqasar. Tel Aviv.

Š ofman, Geršon. 1968. Kol kitbe G. Š ofman, Tel Aviv.

Shryboim, Debora. 1977. Halômôt umabba'aîm demûye halômôt bayyesîrôt hassiprûtiyyôt šel 'Agnôn. Dissertation, Tel Aviv University.

Simirman, David. 1962. 'Al šeloša missippûre 'Agnôn. 'Iyyûnîm. Jerusalem.

Tochner, Mešullam. 1965. Sûrôt ve'emsa'îm 'aestetiyyîm besippûre 'Agnôn. Jerusalem.

——. 1968. Pešer 'Agnôn. Ramat-Gan.

Yair Mazor (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4461

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 to reach its climax and move toward its denouement, and all the conflicts of the fictional world face resolution, an unexpected, intrusive plot development is presented, which disrupts the natural concluding momentum of the piece and forces seemingly arbitrary continuation. The confused reader is forced to surmise that the writer (or implied author, following W. C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction 1961) has clumsily violated his own aesthetics by inserting unrelated material into his story and consequently upset the story's composition, undermined its integrity, and subverted its coherence. Furthermore, the flimsy nature of the casual sequence is not exposed in the overture of the piece itself. Many of Agnon's stories deliberately lead the reader astray. Significant portions of the piece's expositional sequence goad the reader to assume a traditional plot causality. Only in a relatively late stage of the text continuum does the reader realize that he has been mislead; the commencing causal order is found to be only a thin veneer that conceals a "deep structure" which deviates from the surface causality, forming a disengaged sequence. But once the reader becomes thoroughly familiar with the nature of Agnon's structure, ideology and aesthetic rationale, however, he realizes that his prima vista was, in fact, erroneous; it was just a conscious authorial ploy perpetrated by Agnon. An examination of the composition in the piece and its literary motivation sheds new light upon the alleged compositional fallacy, which is an adroitly performed device that generates sophistication for the piece.

It is the aim of this paper to examine this attractive aspect of Agnon's compositional ars poetica through a close reading of two of his stories, "Bên šetê 'arîm" ("Between Two Cities") and "Š nê talmîdê hakamîm šehayû be 'îrênû" ("Two Scholars Who Lived in Our Town").

2. "Between Two Cities"—A Tale of Two Compositional Systems

In examining this story's composition, the apparent looseness of which is caused by the disruptive intrusion of an unexpected turn of plot, it is essential to summarize the fictional features of the two allegedly conflicting parts of the story. The story opens with a tale of two small towns located in a region in Bavaria. Both of the towns have the same name, Katsenau. One of them is rather grey and oppressed, a working-class town of little splendor. Among its population is a small Jewish congregation, consisting of shopkeepers. The other town is much more appealing, being a resort town famous for medical baths and springs that attract many people, especially in the summer. The distance between the two towns is not great, and many Jewish people from the less-attractive Katsenau indulge themselves on Sabbath by walking to the more attractive twin town. Here they escape their labors for a short while and enjoy the refreshing air and the animated beauty of the woods.

One day, during World War I, Isidor Shaltheiz, a Jewish teacher from Frankfurt, arrives in the resort of Katsenau for a vacation. He soon becomes idle and restless. He begins spending his hours walking, and one day he arrives at the neighboring, poorer Katsenau. This Katsenau is not as alluring as the resort-Katsenau, but its faded features are compensated for by the kindness of its Jewish congregation. When these generous people find out that the recuperating teacher has a family in the big city that is deprived of the good food they can easily provide, they give him parcels stuffed with delicious food to send to his family. (The fact that the recuperating teacher is pampering himself with dainties and idleness while his family lives in destitution is later poignantly juxtaposed.) One day, during his journeying between the two cities, the bored teacher begins to count his footsteps, trying to pass the time between meals. While counting his footsteps, the teacher realizes that the distance between the two cities exceeds the bounds of the Sabbath limit (in Hebrew: Tehûm Š abbat)—the prescribed distance Jewish people may not exceed on the Sabbath without violating the sacred laws of the Sabbath. The teacher feels that it is his duty to notify the Jewish congregation in Katsenau that their refreshing weekly walks to the baths of Katsenau should be strictly prohibited since they constitute a severe religious transgression. Subsequently, the Sabbath walks cease and the few enjoyable hours the hardworking Jewish people have are taken away. The teacher continues to relish the luxury of his daily walks and to accept food from the Jewish people, while they have lost their one pleasure in life. At this point, the story's woeful conclusion seems to be reached. The plot's climax, which is a typical anti-climax of the teacher's recompensive discovery, passes; the peripety has been committed and the plot moves toward its turning point. Still, an unexpected surprise awaits the reader.

The story does not end. Instead, it develops a continuation with a new channel. This unanticipated development becomes even more surprising as the reader learns that the new episode does not proceed from the previous events. On the contrary, its content seems to have no connection to the story's previous fictional trends. Thus, the impression of a loose composition seems a judicious criticism.

The unexpected addition deviates from the story's plot by concentrating on the grief-filled misfortunes that the war caused the people of the two cities. The vicissitudes of war, mentioned only obliquely in the story's first part, become prominent in the second. Thus, the excessive addition is, in fact, a major thematic element of the story's second part which has been anticipated in the first portion of the story. Hence, it may be considered a foreshadowing integrative element which knots the two detached story parts.

In the second part of the story, the reader becomes acquainted with the aggravating distress of the baker's family. The family's only son has volunteered for the war, despite his physical limitations; he was severely injured and lost both legs. From this point in the story, the blemished leg, or the Oedi-pus (in Greek, swell-foot), acts as a leading element in the story. The sister of the baker's wife lived in resort-Katsenau, but because of the amassed daily troubles, the two sisters are deprived of getting together. Here one encounters another integrative element that glues the story's parts together. In both the story parts, the short distance between the two cities is important and seems longer, because of the disturbing occurrences associated with the distance. Thus, the short distance between the two cities is extended far beyond its geographical measure. The two sisters decide to meet in the forest midway between the two cities. Once the reader is acquainted with the symbolic meaning of the forest in Agnon's works (for instance, Hershel, the chastised lover in Simple Story [Sippûr pašût in Hebrew] goes insane in the forest), he is aware that the forest usually symbolizes a place of impending danger or a pessimistic outcome. The fact that a dog's bark is echoing in the entangled thicket as the meeting is about to take place reinforces the premonition of doom; in Agnon's writings, evil is associated with the figure of the dog (note, for instance, the prominent role of the mad dog in Temôl šilšôm [Yesterday Heretofore]). When the baker's wife reaches the meeting place in the forest, she is disappointed because her sister has not yet appeared. Although her sister does arrive at the end, her anxiety is indeed well-founded.

Suspense in Agnon's ars poetica is manifested by the flood of late buses, postponed trains and tardy streetcars demonstrated in "The Doctor and His Divorced Wife," Š îrah, "The Last Bus" and many other works. These suspenseful incidents are always associated with neglected opportunities, agonizing misadventures, crumbling relationships or other misfortunes.

It has been noted that references to the deficient leg are central to the story's second part. The leg motif extends to the sisters as well. The sister who is waiting in the forest runs impatiently to and fro or stands as if her legs are chained to the ground. It appears that almost all the legs' potential functions are enumerated in Agnon's description of her: "She was stepping to and fro, returning and standing, as if her legs were bound to the ground, and she didn't know why she was standing there and not running toward her sister as her heart was running and pining toward her."

Similar descriptions, saturated with references to legs, are repeated as the two sisters meet: "Were those her legs that were running? It was her heart that was running and her legs followed it." There are even more references to legs in the short, added chapter, but the most significant is the one that closes the story: "The day was fading . . . the two sisters were standing in mute silence. At last one turned in her place and the other turned in her place and between them the forest's trees blackened until the stars came out and lit the way for the two sisters . . . who just parted from each other for many days . . . as one walks to one side and the other walks to the other side."

The gloomy atmosphere that permeates the scene is excessively oppressive and not likely to be overlooked by the reader. Consequently, the leg references mentioned in this closing paragraph of the story are evidently "oedipal". Once the reader couples the leg references portraying the sisters' grim fortune with the opening reference to the soldier's felled legs, he is in a better position to diagnose the meaning of the disfigured leg metonym in the story's addition; it is a symbol of the character's woeful distress.

In contrast with many of Agnon's other stories in which the leg metonym functions as a symbol of an erotic deterioration (see Yael's limping leg in "The Hill of Sand" ["Gib'at hahôl"]; the lame woman in Hartman's dream in "Different Faces" ["Panîm aherôt"] Manfred's torn and ripped shoes in Š îrah; the wooden leg of Mintshey, the rejected lover in Simple Story [Sippûr pašût] and more), Agnon deletes the sexual connotations of the legs metonym in "Between Two Cities" limiting its reference to human misfortune. Thus, Agnon's literary fabric is not arbitrary. He attentively selects and, in this case, remolds his symbols to adjust to the alternating literary needs.

However, the metonym of the leg, inserted in a context of distress, acts as a benchmark of the story's seemingly clumsy addition. Yet, Agnon's capacity to remold a common symbol with a new meaning in order to harmonize with new subject matter does not initially seem to account for the disrupted composition of the story or the disturbing gulf between its parts. But the fact is that it does, indeed.

The leg metonym has already been alluded to as the integrative element which binds the two story parts. The major source of the Jewish congregation's distress is caused by the sudden divulgence that the resort-Katsenau is beyond the Sabbath limit, and consequently the enjoyable walks to it on the Sabbath are forbidden. The unexpected prohibition of these walks means the town's people are deprived of even the humblest chance for pleasure in their hard lives. The act of walking is an obvious reference—though indirect—to the leg metonym. Thus, the misfortune of the Jewish community in the story's first part is conspicuously attached to the metonym of the marred leg. Furthermore, the story's second part is sprinkled with references to the marred-leg metonym (the amputated legs of the soldier, the two sisters' restlessly running legs, their feeling that their legs are confined to the ground, their sombre walking in two different directions) and the major thematic trends also relate the the marred-leg metonym (the agony of the baker's wife because of her only son's felled legs, and the deficiency of the two sisters' capacity to meet with each other despite the short distance between their two cities). All these factors make the analogous strands between the two parts of the story very tight.

In both parts of the story, the metonym of the marred leg permeates the heart of the characters' agony. The characters are deprived of their only feeble chance to gain life's joy: the prohibited Sabbath walking between the two cities conspicuously foreshadows the sisters' inability to walk between the two cities. Hence, the absence of a causal connection between the two parts of the story is fully compensated for by a cogent, analogous connection: the dominant thematic trend of each part is metaphorically reflected by that of the other. The integrity of the complete story is deftly maintained. Beyond the seemingly clumsy surface of loose organization, a sound inner unity is very much in esse.

The analogous metaphorical relationship between the two parts of the story is not limited to its composition; it is also harnessed to the major ideological goal of the story, which is the perpetual anguish that clings to human disunion. The two components of the analogous equation, the Jews' prohibited walk between the two cities in the first part and the sisters' avoided walk between the cities in the second, are both reflections of anguish caused by human disharmony.

The second part of the story, then, does not deviate from the trend of the first. On the contrary, it acts as a mirror that radiates and enriches the first part with another angle of presentation. The two parts of the story are actually identical sides of the same thematic coin, two literary standpoints for the same idea. The authorial ploy has been pulled off; the first impression of a disrupted composition is replaced with a dexterously spun organization. Thus, the tale of the two cities is a tale of two systems—one is anchored in the story's compositional structure and evokes a delusional impression of loose organization, while the other system is concealed in the story's foundation and solidifies both parts through a well-intertwined analogy. The story benefits from a sense of controlled harmony which helps its artistic integrity.

The conflicting trends of the two compositional systems prevent an undesirably rigid and mechanical relationship between the story's two parts. The deviation from a strict analogy, on the other hand, made possible by the seemingly loose compositional system, supplies the story with a rhetorical flexibility by bridling its tightness and inhibiting artificial impact. Consequently, a well-measured authenticity prevails in the story.

3. "Two Scholars Who Have Lived in Our Town": One Plus One Make One

Like "Between Two Cities," "Two Scholars Who Have Lived in Our Town" is founded upon two parts which seem at odds with each other—the second part deviating from the first in terms of plot and focus. As in the previous case, the writer adds a second part which seems to display poor craftsmanship. This second part seems to disrupt the first part and, consequently, violate its coherence and subvert its integrity. But a close reading of the thematic trends within the story's two parts shows that the first impression of an unorganized piece is incorrect. The initial perception of a redundant and shaky composition, caused by a superfluous patch, gives way to a well-constructed composition.

The first part of the story is devoted to the tense conflict between two celebrated scholars. Rabbi Moshe-Pinchas and Rabbi Shlomo, in a small Jewish congregation. The differences between these two scholars is apparent in every facet of their beings. Rabbi Moshe-Pinchas is unattractive and has a coarse physique; he is moreover exceedingly meticulous, sullen, irascible and demonstrably unsocial. Rabbi Shlomo appears as the alter ego of Rabbi Moshe-Pinchas. Rabbi Shlomo is attractive, tolerant, highly social, tender and affable, and he possesses amicable manners. The unbridgeable gulf between them is reminiscent of the differences between Shammai and Hillel. [Shammai and Hillel were two leading scholars who conducted the Sanhedrin, an assembly of 71 ordained scholars, which was the supreme court and legislature during the Roman regime period in Israel during the last years of King Herod's reign and after his death (4 B.C.). Shammai gained his fame for being extremely severe in judgment, while Hillel gained his fame for his tolerant consideration.] Yet, despite their differences, a solid friendship thrives between them. Moshe-Pinchas' personal barrier prohibits others from getting close to him, but it seems to fade around Shlomo. Perhaps their differences yield attraction; perhaps their reciprocal scholarly excellence is the basis of their friendship. For whatever reason, the friendship between Moshe-Pinchas and Shlomo is evident.

However, friendship requires a delicate balance, and the relationship between Moshe-Pinchas and Shlomo deteriorates drastically. The cause of this decline seems fairly trivial, but it is sufficient to destroy their friendship forever. Oddly enough, the amicable Rabbi Shlomo seems to cause the clash. At the peak of a Talmudic debate, Moshe-Pinchas intones his arguments in a tempestuous manner, raising his voice and waving his arms furiously; this casts him in a rather ridiculous light. Attempting to pacify and calm down the agitated Moshe-Pinchas, Shlomo used an idiomatic expression which might be considered teasing. It is obvious that Shlomo has not intended to insult Moshe-Pinchas. On the contrary, he probably thought that a touch of humor would be a delicate way of sparing Moshe-Pinchas any embarrassment. But Moshe-Pinchas is profoundly hurt and perplexed; he blushes, holds his words, and returns dejectedly to his seat. After that moment, he refuses to speak to Shlomo. Despite the divine commandment, Moshe-Pinchas bears a grudge and seeks to take vengeance.

Countless attempts by Shlomo to gain Moshe-Pinchas' forgiveness are rejected; his constant appeal fails on deaf ears. The rift between the two prominent scholars, which occurs early in the plot, casts a shadow upon the subsequent events of the story's first part. Moreover, the unresolved split not only leaves its grim mark on the rest of the occurrences in the story's first part, it seems to mold the characters in this grief-ridden state. For instance, when Shlomo is elected to serve as the chief rabbi of a neighboring Jewish congregation, Moshe-Pinchas disrupts Shlomo's scholarly acceptance speech with insults, attempting to contradict Shlomo's arguments and to shame him. But Shlomo does not take vengeance. On the contrary, he continues to laud Moshe-Pinchas' scholarly virtues in an effort to win his forgiveness. Still, his mulish adversary denies and rejects him.

The feud between the town's two venerable spiritual leaders inspires all the events in the plot of the story's first part. Thus, Moshe-Pinchas turns down an appealing offer to serve as a chief rabbi in a neighboring Jewish congregation when he learns that Shlomo has recommended him. Also, Shlomo is invited to serve as a chief rabbi in his hometown, but he turns down the tempting offer since Moshe-Pinchas' signature can't be obtained for the commission.

Moshe-Pinchas' animosity toward Shlomo also produces a well-designed thematic composition. Occurrences involving Moshe-Pinchas and Shlomo are intermittently mentioned, always calling attention to their unmended quarrel. For each event that happens to Shlomo which is caused by his bitter antagonist, there is a counter-occurrence that happens to Moshe-Pinchas which is effected by his grudge against Schiomo.

This well-coordinated equation of theme and composition is underscored by another equation in the story's first part, the inverted character pattern—a pattern founded upon a chiasmic motion. Shlomo's success is balanced inversely by Moshe-Pinchas' deterioration. As Shlomo ascends, becomes more esteemed, respected and famous, Moshe-Pinchas descends, declines and ultimately is excommunicated. The conflict between the two equations of the story's first part—a well-coordinated balance versus a chiasmic-reverse balance—defines an important thematic-ideological function as it evokes a sense of a split that reflects the split between the distinguished scholars, a split which injects a biting gloom in both their lives, drains their spiritual potency, and consequently deprives their congregations of full inspiration. Thus, the split between the two equations radiates the essence of the story's prevailing idea—the devastating power of a senseless feud and the powerful role of irrationality in human life.

The conflicting nature of the two equations is of rhetorical merit also, as it evokes a sense of authentic flexibility and prevents an undesirably rigid and mechanical effect. Thus, an effective dialectical pattern is obtained. On one hand, the two equations reinforce the composition of the story's first part as they yield compositional firmness. On the other hand, the conflicting trends of these two equations block a rigid stiffness by deviating from the tight compositional firmness.

The withdrawal of Moshe-Pinchas from the story's arena seems to violate the composition of the story and dismiss the story's major conflict—its dramatic essence. Moshe-Pinchas' death should move the story toward its conclusion. The nature of the split between the two scholars produces a paratactic sequence. From a theoretical standpoint, Moshe-Pinchas' enduring hostility toward Shlomo could produce an endless, horizontal sequence that lacks an ascending principle capable of extricating the plot from the sequential momentum and channelling it toward a climax. Theoretically, more and more fictional components (occurrences between Moshe-Pinchas and Shlomo) could join this horizontal continuum without drawing it closer to a climactic resolution. In this vein, Moshe-Pinchas' death plays the role of deus ex machina, or redeeming element which relieves the plot of its enduring momentum, disrupts the paratactical continuum and propels the plot toward its conclusion. The lack of a natural, inner extricating mechanism to deliver the culminating point of the fictional sequence is fully compensated for by the invasion of this external component, forcing a finale upon the plot by disregarding its most fundamental trend.

In spite of this, the story does not climax with Moshe-Pinchas' death, but evolves into an extended continuation. Furthermore, this unexpected continuation seems to abuse a leading thematic track in the story's first part. Shlomo's undeniably firm authority in the story's first part is severely shaken in the second. Though he is far from being completely powerless, he is certainly enfeebled. Thus, continuing the story after it seemed to reach its ultimate conclusion, and by patching a second part which violates a major thematic trend in the first part, appears questionable and upsetting. However, as with the story previously discussed, this impression of a poor composition is unjust: the seemingly botched composition is prudently motivated by sense, idea and well-wrought aesthetics.

The demise of Shlomo's authority seems to be an outgrowth of his reluctance to abandon justice for the sake of the brazen demands of the congregational members who wish to dominate and exploit weaker members. More than once, Shlomo is exposed to the impudence of the sanctimonious disputants, who openly display their disfavor and seek to subvert his position by insolent brawls. Yet Shlomo refuses to compromise his moral values.

Oddly enough, this grave situation comes into existence after Shlomo's arch rival, Moshe-Pinchas, has passed away. One would expect that Shlomo's foes would fade since his mighty adversary is no longer there to support their impertinence. Still, they are most insolent. Their denigration is no more than a delusion which will be fully deciphered in light of the comprehensive interpretation of the story, as the underlying knot between its two conflicting parts is united.

The relative demise of Shlomo's authority seems to be translated into compositional concepts. As already mentioned, the story's first part exhibits a compact, solid composition.

In the second part of the story, the undermining of Shlomo's authority is expressed by the crumbling of the composition. Attempts by the powerful, dissatisfied rivals to demolish Shlomo's authority, moving demonstrations of Shlomo's gracious attitude toward the late Moshe-Pinchas' family, the decline of Shlomo's health and his refusal to act as a chief rabbi in his old hometown are all plot fragments that bespeak a shattered, fragmentary composition.

Thus, the deterioration of Shlomo's authority is piously mirrored in the compositional layer, which widens the seemingly unbridged gulf between the story's two halves. Another difficulty is that as long as Moshe-Pinchas lived, Shlomo's other adversaries didn't dare threaten him. A strong support for Shlomo could easily have been raised. But once this support, Moshe-Pinchas, was no longer available, the opponents of Shlomo mysteriously began to offend and insult him.

The nature of this engimatic paradox challenges the reader to decode its concealed rationale. Accordingly, this paradox is the clue to solving the riddle of the perplexing relationships between the story's parts. The reciprocity evoked by two adversary forces engaged in a perpetual conflict produces a balanced parallelogram of forces, which is related in both thematic and compositional strategies of the story's first part. But when Moshe-Pinchas passed away, the tightly balanced parallelogram of forces is nullified. This parallelogram's nullification earns a literary reflection in the story's second part: the well-coordinated theme and composition that characterize the story's first part are countered by a fragmentary theme and composition in the story's second part. The splintered theme and composition of the story's second part flows from the ending of the story's first part—Moshe-Pinchas' death, which upsets the parallelogram of forces. Hence, the story's unity is dexterously maintained by a causal mending of its two parts. The story's seemingly disparate parts generate a solid integrity: one plus one makes one. The aesthetic features of a literary work of art may inform its ideological message. The bisected portrait of the story presents two polar positions in an ageless conflict that everlastingly haunts human life. The conflict may manifest itself as embittered, mordant, caustic, and yet somehow impressively august, like the conflict between Shlomo and Moshe-Pinchas in the story's first part. On the other hand, the conflict may manifest itself as mean-spirited, loathsome and ignominious, like the conflict inflamed by Shlomo's impertinent rivals in the story's second part. The pattern of everlasting human conflict is the constant; the variable is the specific human expression of those engaged in the conflict.

In this vein, the halved portrait of the story aims to portray the essence of la condition humaine; it draws together the potential, different poles of the eternal human conflict—the lofty and the base. As in the previously examined story, the first impression of a remissly patched composition does not lead one astray in vain: it draws the reader's attention to the aesthetic and ideological undercurrents of the piece. Agnon's befuddling turn of the compositional screw is highly shrewd indeed.

Naomi Sokoloff (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5744

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 years to researching the history of an ancient city, Gumlidata. Having completed his work and finally found a publisher for his study, Adiel Amzeh suddenly discovers the existence of a previously unknown manuscript on his topic. Held in the possession of a nearby leper colony, this document beckons Amzeh, who yearns to clarify a puzzling detail about the final siege of the city. Renouncing his long-awaited opportunity for public recognition, the scholar repairs to the leper house and examines the manuscript. Reading and rereading with rapt fascination, Amzeh remains among the lepers forevermore.

A noble quest for knowledge despite adverse circumstances, or a foolhardy loss of perspective? Both interpretations have been offered to account for Adiel Amzeh's actions. The claim for purity of vision, which draws its inspiration from a traditional midrashic image, relies in part on a perception of the Jews in their devotion to Torah as an isolated people, degraded in exile, and spurned among the nations. Many critics, indeed, have seen in this story an allegory built around the protagonist's name, which means "this people, an adornment to God." The letters 'ayin and gimmel, which appear recurrently as initial letters of names, have been seen as dividing the characters into groups of good and evil figures. Also working for the positive interpretation of Amzeh's predicament, a number of explicit comments made by the narrator and the secondary characters lend credence to the idea of noble sacrifice. Wisdom herself, personified, whispers in Amzeh's ear, "Sit my love, sit and do not leave me." But then again, is this a figure of purity or an emblem of seduction luring the scholar to false values?

A number of compelling factors counteract the pro-Amzeh arguments. First, the book that Amzeh pursues is not holy scripture, but rather description of a highly repugnant, idolatrous society devoid of redeeming spiritual values or law. Further deflecting power away from the sympathetic reading is Amzeh's characterization, which more closely resembles caricature than hagiography and which shows him to be ludicrously obsessed by an idée fixe. Moreover, those letters so crucial to distinguishing good from bad are sometimes scrambled, like the virtuous and wicked qualities of the characters themselves. Finally there is no pat distinction and no simple allegory so much as there is a nagging sense of undecidability. Every noble sentiment thus is in some way eventually undercut. My discussion . . . will focus on one aspect of the text, elements of plot, to support an ironic assessment of Adiel Amzeh. This approach to the protagonist lost in endless reading ultimately fosters a metanarrative reading that emphasizes the nature of texts, narrative impulses, and reading itself.

As Peter Brooks has pointed out in Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, plot is the principle of interconnectedness that, by linking discrete incidents, episodes, and actions, helps confer coherence onto those narrative components of a text. Plot is often conceived of as the outline, or armature, of a story; it is not, however, a static organization but a structuring operation actuated by reading and elicited by meanings that develop temporally through sequence and succession. Brooks observes that the term "plot" in English enjoys a semantic range that can include the idea of order and also indicate the concept of shaping or formulating as a dynamic activity. Plot may mean:

  1. a small piece of ground, a measured area of land
  2. a ground plan, as for a building; a chart or diagram (hence also the verb "to plot"—for example, to plot a graph)
  3. a secret plan to accomplish a hostile or illegal purpose
  4. a series of events, the action in a narrative drama.

The first two definitions are based on an idea of boundedness, demarcation, of marking off and ordering. The third suggests plot as scheme or machination, and it may have something in common with the first two categories insofar as to adopt a stratagem is to set out or delineate a particular course of action. In any event the last kind of plot, the literary term, combines the possibilities implied here of design as both pattern and intention. Plotting as Brooks is concerned with it is what "makes a plot 'move forward,' and makes us read forward, seeking in the unfolding of the narrative . . . the promise of progress toward meaning."

An overriding feature of the primary plot in Forevermore is digression, that is, the series of interruptions that prevent the central character from achieving his stated goal of publishing his research. Amzeh is waylaid first by Adah Eden, a nurse who collects magazines for the lepers. A visit from her delays his attending a decisive meeting with his financial benefactor, Gebhard Guldenthal. Then he dallies to hear a story she recounts about how the Gumlidata manuscript arrived in the hands of the lepers. From there he goes to the leprosarium and, as he reads, his publishing hopes indefinitely deferred, the contents of the manuscript are recounted at length and thus deflect the reader's attention, along with Amzeh's, away from the entire story line about the protagonist's life. A large number of Agnon narratives feature comparable antiprogressive patterns. Repetition, circularity, episodic fragmentation of narrative line, and disconnected events prevail in texts as diverse as The Bridal Canopy and The Book of Deeds, and the thematic implications that accompany this formal feature vary in various texts. In Forevermore, this kind of narrative design provides ironic plot. The main character perceives the events of his life as a kind of progress, but the reader, by contrast, does not. The fiction therefore offers a regressive plot masquerading as progressive because the protagonist views it as such. In the poem "Modern Love," to which my title alludes, George Meredith wrote, "Passions spin the plot." Amzeh's passion for futile and directionless study here spins his plot into an antiplot, inverting the very concept of plot from the normal sense of forward-moving action to one of disruption and deflection. Early on in the story Agnon succinctly sums up the oddity of Amzeh's life in a sentence that anticipates the deviation of narrative line to come and calls attention to matters of plotting. Articulating the assumption that time progresses in linear fashion and that progress of events is expected to accompany this advancing motion, the text notes that such is not the case with Adiel Amzeh. "Yatsu shanim ve-sifro lo yatsa," it remarks—that is, years went by and his book didn't appear, but literally, years went out and his book didn't come out. The same verb, y-ts-a, to leave or go out, is used twice to emphasize the scholar's anomalous lack of progress.

In short, this plot structure creates a pattern of distractions and interruptions that lead finally to a misguided subordination of social ties to an abstract ideal. The central constellation of tensions set up in this way—between action and inaction, text and the context of its transmission—is brought out and adumbrated by other aspects of the plot. The stories within the story, which constitute two of the major distractions in the primary plot, raise questions related to those addressed by that same overarching plot and the narrative as a whole.

The first embedded narrative, concerning how the book on Gumlidata arrived in the lepers' hands, is presented as part of Adah Eden's conversation with Amzeh. In brief it goes like this: When the Goths destroyed Gumlidata, they captured a nobleman who possessed a copy of the city chronicles. Shortly thereafter the captive contracted cholera and his captors abandoned him to die. Taken in by some itinerant lepers, the man was at first dismayed to find himself in their company. Later, however, he came to be grateful for the refuge they provided him. Joining their community, he recounted to them the glories of Gumlidata. After their deaths his book was acquired by succeeding generations of lepers, who passed it down through the ages. The function of this inserted narrative is clearly to provide a parallel to Amzeh's own experience. In a sense the events narrated anticipate his end: In each case a story survives, a book continues to exist—but at the cost of an individual's life, which is repressed and buried in the isolation of the leper colony. The immediate narrator, the nurse, attributes a positive value to her tale. "Men live and die," she concludes, "but their instruments remain and live on." In this fashion she sets up an interpretation that might be applied also to Amzeh. In effect, however, her evaluation helps build toward the concluding irony of the story. Any comparison of her tale with the experience of the protagonist produces a false analogy: The count's life depended on the lepers, but Amzeh does not go to the leprosarium to save himself. Even had the detail he sought out been a crucial one with which to validate his entire research, it would not have demanded urgent attention and might have waited till the following day. The reader, then, must judge Amzeh by weighing his loss more than his gain.

The second frame story, the account of Gumlidata's siege, provides another parallel to the main plot, but this is even more pointedly an alternative to, than an echo of, Amzeh's fate. Here the Hun girl Eldag has been captured and held in Gumlidata, forced to serve as a concubine to the aging, repulsive Count Gifayon, Glaskinon Gitra'al of the house of Giara'al. She cannot abide the old man's "groaning and drooling" or "the nauseating smell of the city and its sacrificial altars." Consequently she tries repeatedly to escape but fails. Eventually, though, when she relinquishes her attempts to flee and grants the count exceptional sexual favors, she gains the trust of her captors. Due to their relaxed watchfulness, she even finds opportunity to roam about the city alone. One day she takes a wild donkey to a particular place where a small breach has opened in the city wall. She has clothed the animal with a bizarre garment made of calves' eyes, called an Izla, which happens in its shape to resemble the Valley of Cranes—the very place where the walls' foundations are weak. Sending the beast through the opening, Eldag surmises that her father will associate the animal with her. Originally she was lost when riding on a donkey, and he should realize, therefore, that this is a signal for him and his allies, the Goths, to commence their attack. Subsequently this does indeed happen; the invaders enter Gumlidata through the shaky fortifications, destroy the city, and save the girl.

Most significant about this account is that it is a story of captivity and an attempt to break out of enslavement. Unlike Adiel Amzeh, Eldag comes up with a workable plot, a scheme to save herself from slavery. As an instance of action and attainment, it stands in stark contrast to the distractions and digressions that cripple the scholar—a figure who is described as a "slave" to his work. This is also a segment of text that recovers various senses of plot mentioned earlier. The girl schemes as she takes the initiative to bring about a turn of events; her plot, moreover, is enacted at a particular portion of ground that is plotted out, as it were, on the Izla—the garment that functions as a kind of map for the Goths because it is shaped like the Valley of Cranes. These varied definitions of plot converge here to provide a counterpoint to Amzeh, who is not capable of carrying out a plan or breaking out of the narrow strictures of his life. He welcomes enclosed space; his universe is his house, and within that house, the book he has been writing constitutes his entire reality. At the end he trades this limited existence for the even narrower confines of the leper house, and he fails to reach out to a wider sphere of living by publishing his findings. (It should be noted that le-hotsi la-or—to publish—in the Hebrew means literally to bring out to light, so this phrase contributes to the opposition between enclosure and openness that functions throughout the story as a central thematic element.)

The Eldag episode then serves fundamentally as an example of a well-conceived, forward-moving plot and as a stimulus for speculation on how Amzeh might better have lived his life. In the classical novel, the subplot often suggests a different solution to the problems worked through by the main plot; it may serve as a way of illustrating and warding off the danger of short circuit, of too easy a solution, and in this way assure that the main plot will continue through to the end. Here, by contrast, in a profoundly ironic text, this secondary, subordinate plot shows what the character might have done right. It presents the short circuit of decisive action that would ward off disabling distractions.

As this episode helps put into relief tensions between digression and linear plot, distraction and decisive action, it also emphasizes the central issue, discussed previously, of communicative circuit. The Eldag tale concentrates on communication. The Hun girl escapes enslavement, not through action alone, but by getting a message to her people, and so breaking out of her isolation. Her ingenuity at creating signs capable of conveying an urgent missive (the iconic reproduction of the valley in the form of the Izla/map, the transformation of the donkey into a visual message), undermines the conclusion Adah Eden reaches that story takes primacy over the teller. On the contrary, the act of transmitting and reaching an audience proves to be indispensable. The very fact that the story within a story functions as a principal organizing structure of the overall plot is significant in its own right. The nature of a frame story is to provide a context that subsumes another and serves as a referential framework for it. Any move from inner to outer tales suggests a movement of reference from fiction to reality, or from the remote to the immediate, and it also puts into relief the act of storytelling as a contractual relationship between narrator and narratee.

In Forevermore, concern with the process of transmitting narrative takes on overt prominence because of the central thematic opposition set up from the start: public recognition versus the worth of scholarship, the text itself and its audience. Here, by telling a story within a story, Agnon calls attention to the notion that narration is a preeminently social act that confers currency on stories society accepts as negotiable instruments. In other words, people listen to narrative, fictional or factual, which they perceive as meaningful and worthy of recognition. To survive, a story must have a listener. The manuscript about Gumlidata was making no impact on the world except in a severely circumscribed milieu. When Adiel Amzeh comes along, he functions dramatically as the one who, by reading, makes this story come to the attention of the current reader. By the same token, Adah Eden's anecdote about the count reminds the reader of much the same thing—it brings knowledge of the manuscript out into circulation, wider by one, than it had before. Her frame story, moreover, does not lead so much to information about the siege as to another narrative frame: how the count told his tales to others and under what circumstances. He had trouble preserving the story and succeeded only at the cost of limiting his audience to the lepers.

The doubling of frame story within frame story can easily bring the reader not to Adah's conclusions—that the teller is less significant than the tale—but to a sense of regress. What remains invariable is the telling and the dependence of the tale on the teller.

Amzeh's essential problem is precisely that he fails at communication. This doesn't bother him, because he thinks he is engaged in something more worthwhile: the attainment of verifiable historical truth. He believes that the web of words in which he is tangled will lead him to fact and to decisive answers. However, his unquestioning faith in referentiality is misplaced. Ultimately the story about Gumlidata is of doubtful factuality. It is based on a book of chronicles, written to perpetuate a glorious, heroic version of events from the Gumlidatan point of view. Furthermore, both the narrator and Adah Eden say that everyone in the city died during the conquest, and this information puts into question the authority of the scribe or storyteller transmitting any account of those events.

The obtrusive use of 'ayin and gimmel in the text as initial letters of multiple words complements this understanding of Amzeh's convictions as poor judgment and misguided faith in referentiality. The bizarre repetition of the letters has the pronounced effect of highlighting and reinforcing the artifice of the work as a whole. Heightening an emphasis on sound, the author calls attention to the words themselves that make up the text and disallows any perception of language as simply a medium to convey an extratextual reality. In this way Agnon deliberately imposes fictionality on all levels of the narrative and, significantly, on the chronicles of Gumlidata. Therefore, whereas Amzeh believes that his sources and research represent historical, empirical inquiry into facts about the phenomenal world, the reader realizes the all-encompassing textuality and antimimetic nature of his endeavor.

These issues come into play pointedly at a moment of crisis. When Adah Eden disrupts Amzeh's plans to meet with his patron, the scholar begins to stutter. That is, his words are broken off in the middle. Consequently her interpretation is met with yet another kind of breakdown that recapitulates in miniature the overall pattern of the plot: Once more, interruption is accompanied by emphasis on communicative failure. The stammering suggests Amzeh's surprise, of course, but it also suggests more. The new information introduced by the nurse, the revelation of new evidence about Gumlidata, serves as an indication that the scholar's work so far has not been firmly based in social fact or even well informed of all the pertinent existing evidence. Indeed, it is hinted, his book is itself a kind of empty language or stammering. Highlighting this impression Agnon plays on the root g-m-g-m (to stutter) as Amzeh's stutter draws attention to the same letters in Gumlidata. Similarly the narrative calls attention to the interplay of 'ayin and gimmel at a moment when the root '-l-g (to stammer) appears repeatedly. This portion of the story also deals with translation and in so doing contributes to much the same conclusion. Based on conjecture and rearrangements of letters, not grounded in empirical proof, the scholar's theories prove to be largely a play of sounds, signifiers without established connection to signifieds. In short, his research has been exposed as an edifice of words, a verbal construct or fiction. However, instead of recognizing it as such—thanks to Nurse Eden's intervention—and reevaluating his entire enterprise, the protagonist dashes off to the leprosarium to acquire yet more information of dubious factuality. Lost in a world of endless learning, generating more and more readings and interpretations, Amzeh never escapes the circle of signs into historical fact. Intellectually he remains trapped in the prison house of language.

Making his predicament even worse, the communicative circuit he has neglected for the sake of this questionable pursuit of truth does not simply dissipate and disappear. The entire issue of communication reinscribes itself in the story at this point because the protagonist cannot operate in a social vacuum. Rather, he trades a healthy context for a more restrictive and devastating one. Amzeh, who fails to finish composing his version of Gumlidata's history because of constant revising, rereading, and reconsidering, at the end is faced literally with decomposition; he is threatened with contamination by that manuscript, which has been handled by generations of lepers. Disintegrating, falling apart from handling by generations of lepers, this writing more closely resembles pus on skin than ink on paper. In a grotesquely graphic conception of the transmissibility of narrative, Agnon here presents text as contagion.

The ending to Forevermore must be understood then to deviate from expectations of narrative conclusion as outcome and closure. The outcome of events, of course, yields a failure to come out, and the result is also to undermine any sense of resolution. On the one hand, the character's fate seems like an emblem of closure par excellence. Enclosed in the leper house, Adiel Amzeh stays there forevermore, temporally and spatially sealed off from the demands of society that he shunned. The "ever after" of fairy tale and folklore, the convention of the perfect happy ending, remains the last word here. (The final sentence reads: ". . . he did not put his work aside and did not leave his place and remained there forevermore.") And yet this denouement does not represent a state of renewed equilibrium, a restoration of an original positive circumstance enriched by interim adventures, events, and obstacles overcome. Instead Agnon presents a built-in contradiction: a character who, in search of ennobling wisdom, lives a degraded existence, and who, finding an answer he sought with difficulty, has nonetheless missed out on essentials and been seduced by trivialities. In short the result here is an ongoing state of irresolution and finality without termination, a state that suggests an abdication of closure.

This conclusion is directed toward misreading by the narrator, who sees Adiel Amzeh's end as fortuitous. Learning, the narrator claims, "bestows a special blessing on those who are not put off easily." This evaluation should not be taken at face value, though, not only because of Amzeh's straitened circumstances, but also because the narrative as a whole puts into relief the limitations of this narrator's vision and the artifice with which he imposes meaning onto events. His comments here, for example, draw attention to the fact that he has set up a particular design for the story from the start. As a result the text heightens attention once again to narrators, in conversation with an audience, as ones who design plot. Forevermore thereby detracts from the vision of story as something independent from the context of its own formulation. For example, this dynamic is evidenced most clearly by an aside the narrator makes, to the effect that had Gebhard Guldenthal seen Adiel Amzeh at work, he might have observed the radiance of a man truly devoted to wisdom. These parenthetical remarks end as the narratorial voice says, "But you see my friend, for the sake of a little moralizing, I have gone and given away the ending at the very beginning of my story." Only ostensibly has he given away the denouement—that is, that Amzeh will choose pursuit of knowledge over public recognition. In actuality, as has already been said, the ending turns out to be considerably more complex. The effect of the narrator's comment, then, is simply to point out that this figure has a particular meaning or moral in mind for his story (to wit: Wisdom is more precious than worldly success). The narrator makes evident his role as someone who shapes a text, who tries to tell a tale in order to convey a particular message and design.

The treatment of the ending is especially important because the moment of closure is a highly sensitive one in the structure of narrative. If plot grants meaning over time, endings enjoy special status as the legitimizing authority on which beginnings and middles depend for their retrospective meaning. Readers assume that the end of a story will confer understanding on what has come before, and they read in confidence that what remains to be read will restructure the provisional meanings of what has already been read. For this reason it is possible to speak of the "anticipation of retrospection" [Brooks, Reading for the Plot] as a chief tool in making sense of narrative. In his consciously anticipatory comment, Agnon's narrator makes this dynamic explicit and lays bare the armature of his narrative. The author, Agnon, thereby also puts into relief the artifice of his own construction of narrative, while calling attention to the very issue of narration as a dominant concern in the text as a whole.

These remarks have taken us, then, from reading along with Adiel Amzeh in order to discover the "whodunit" of Gumlidata's last days (that is, who laid the siege and where) to a metanarrative reading that focuses on the nature of texts and narration. The first kind of reading—reading for the plot in a simplistic sense—is often assumed to be primary in fiction. To be sure, readers of fiction always read at least in part to do detective work, to construct a hypothetical histoire (that is, the narrated events) out of the available discours (the narration of events). This is the reason [literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov] assigns privileged status to the detective story as a genre.

In that genre the work of detection is overtly present for the reader, and it serves to reveal the as-yet-unrevealed story of a crime. The two orders of the text, inquest and crime, clearly illustrate the distinction between discours and histoire, and this kind of fictional pattern therefore lays bare the nature of all narrative. Agnon's Forevermore, though, suggests that reading as detective work is not enough; it is necessary but not sufficient. As the story clearly delineates Amzeh's limitations in his strategies for finding knowledge (that is, in his own detective work), Forevermore as a whole provides an alternative model of texts and reading as a path to gaining wisdom. The reader is challenged to ask why the fiction is built the way it is and what it conveys thereby, rather than to give weight first and foremost to narrated events. If we read for the plot, that is, to find out what happened to Adiel Amzeh, we miss out on the strategies of deferring and digressing, the crucial structures that put into relief important facets of characterization here and that in themselves contribute fundamentally to a thematic focus on textuality.

The story in effect offers an allegory of reading. In a sense all fictional texts are about reading at some level, and many guide us toward the conditions of their own interpretation. This work by Agnon more directly than many other texts raises these questions, because it explicitly concerns a search for meaning, authority, closure, narratability, referentiality, and audience. As such it invites the reader to be aware that one should not take narrators naively at their word, that it is important to be aware of the fact of narration, of who tells what to whom and why.

These ideas move us beyond the formalism of describing narrative organization to the issue of narrative desire: desire as a central thematic focus and desire as impetus for narrating. The two phenomena converge in Forevermore, for this is a narrative replete with multiple narrators, circumstances of narration, and motivations to narrate: there is the count who told his story of the siege to express his gratitude to the lepers, and the nurse who, though a comically bumbling, rambling narrator and a dilatory agent of digressive plot, tells her tales to highly effective, pragmatic ends (by distracting Adiel Amzeh she succeeds in getting him to turn aside from his appointment with Guldenthal and donate magazines, books, almost his entire library to the leprosarium); there is Amzeh who suffers a pathological inability to get his story out; finally there is the author, who tells his own tale via digressions, distractions, and multiple narrators, at once dramatizing Amzeh's distractability, identifying with his protagonist's vagaries, and warning against them. The essential question then arises: why this complexity, why the indirection, the subtleties, the obfuscation? Agnon's text turns on the fundamental irony that an author who creates a caveat against the unreliability of narrators and their hidden motives should create such a slippery narrative, deliberately teasing his readers into oversimple and mistaken interpretations.

Partly this art must be seen as the expression of a personality that needs distance from people, that seeks always to be sly, elusive. Deceits and ironies, hallmarks of Agnon's fiction, in Forevermore dramatize and stylistically recreate the thematic emphasis on unreliable narration. In part, also, we should note that the undecidabilities of the text force the reader, like all narrators, to write a story, making sense out of the available evidence. Leaving the reader with the burden of decoding baffling events, reconstituting them in an interpretation, the text in this way generates a reenactment of tensions that are its own essential concern. The resulting story, the reader's story, must always be formulated with some uneasiness.

Lest my own reading of this text seem too pat or pretend to account for all the puzzling elements of Forevermore, let me take note of yet another odd, disquieting irony. Perhaps the greatest undecidability of all, a condensation of previous tensions between in and out, text and world, occurs at the end of the text at the important moment of possible closure. Amzeh, locked away in the leprosarium, finds that other scholars have begun to publish his ideas and hypotheses. Though his book never reached the hands of the living, since no material objects are allowed to leave the leper house, somehow the information has leaked out. The narrator explains the phenomenon this way: "When a true scholar discovers a thing that is right, even if he himself is isolated and hidden away in the innermost chambers of his house, something of what he had found reaches the world." This explanation again insists that transcendent truth is a supreme value that works its way out to society. Another reading is also possible. It could be that the ideas that occurred to Amzeh were not so special and occurred to others as well. In that case his life has been a waste, his sacrifice unnecessary. It may be, too, that the manuscript he pursued was not truly indispensable for his work. Given all the evidence up to this point, I am inclined toward the ironic reading of Adiel Amzeh, but I do not discount the possibility that at this point the text may begin to deconstruct itself. The impasses of meaning here threaten to dismantle the binary oppositions of transcendent truth/contextualized discourse that have guided my discussion till now. Perhaps the final details of the fiction collapse the categories of understanding fundamental to an ironic reading of the scholar's sacrifice.

By way of conclusion I would like to suggest as well that this text, in its production of complex and intricate plot, which to a large extent concerns plotting, is revelatory of Agnon, the author himself, as a shaper of narratives. Agnon is a writer known for his many tales—some personal and some collective or religious—that attempt to recover a lost world. Many exhibit nostalgia for a more traditional time or for childhood and a religious milieu that have disappeared. In this regard, to some degree, the author resembles his protagonist. By no means a ridiculously simplistic, laughably monomaniac Amzeh, Agnon is nonetheless a writer whose work throughout is marked by its preoccupation and fascination with the past. In Forevermore that whole kind of enterprise is reconsidered. Self-conscious about the issues at stake—the pitfalls attendant on a passion to recuperate the past in writing—the author both reveals and conceals himself at once, simultaneously exposing a dream and protecting it, announcing his cynicism and masking it with pieties.

Presenting the ludicrous scholar to provide comment on the function and possibilities of writing as a means to restore lost worlds, Forevermore therefore also offers a perspective on Agnon's brand of artistry, whose point of departure is the lack of sacred texts in modern life. This is an art that Agnon saw as an outgrowth of, but an inadequate substitution for, religion. Imaginative tales cannot pretend to replace sacred writing, but the telling of them becomes significant in an effort to maintain textual tradition, to draw on the sources, and to keep a genuinely Jewish Hebraic influence alive. Not a return to the past, such writing does justify the artist as a shaper of community. So, although the allusive reference to Ecclesiastes, "for whom do I work?", echoes with futility for Adiel Amzeh at the end of his story, for Agnon himself the question can be answered somewhat more positively, perhaps with doubt but without the same profound sense of grief. The author's complex relationship to his narration and plot construction in Forevermore clues the reader in to these issues, and this consideration of plot may serve as a point of departure to recuperate and reintegrate some of those major aspects of the text mentioned at the outset of this chapter but not specifically dealt with here: the uses of allusion, the confusion of sacred and profane in the imagery of the story, the deliberate but inconsistent invitation to allegorical reading, which fosters puzzlement about what kind of hermeneutics to pursue in explicating the text. The metanarrative reading is not incompatible, for instance, with an understanding of Forevermore as a satiric look at modern scholarship or secular fiction. Agnon may be expressing his reservations about both those endeavors as they grasp at excavatory knowledge—archaeological or historical—rather than seeking out the sanctity and spirituality imbued in tradition. Viewing this story from the angle of plot is also not incompatible with an understanding that the text expresses a frustrated search for meaning. While Amzeh ascertains trivial answers to ease trivial dilemmas, his bigger problems go unsolved, and the perplexing uncertainties of the text as a whole defy easy answers. Because of the disallowing of simple allegory the narrative functions here—much in the mode of many Kafka narratives—as aggada without halakha, lore in search of law. All of these considerations, as they emerge out of careful examination of plot in Forevermore, may help illuminate Agnon's contradictory relation, as a modern writer, to tradition.

Miri Kubovy (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2588

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 is attracted to her particularly because of "that blue-black in her eyes," "and that smile which drove me wild with its sweetness and its sorrow." Eventually they marry. But the source of Dinah's sorrow remains hidden from him until, after long and persistent questioning, she reveals to him that she has had relations with another man in the past. After this revelation the image of the wife's former lover never leaves the doctor; indeed, he becomes increasingly obsessed with it. This obsession ultimately leads Dinah to conclude that a divorce is inevitable. The bulk of the story is the doctor's confession in which he contemplates his relationship with Dinah and the jealousy that finally leads to the divorce. Ya'akov Bahat and Hillel Barzel [Al Hamishmar, August 1, 1958, and The Love Stories of Agnon, 1975, respectively] believe that the doctor's excessive jealousy is the motivation for the divorce. But, as I shall seek to demonstrate, the text contains strong indications that jealousy is only the surface motivation for his behavior. I hope to point out structures of emotion and human behavior that offer a more complete explanation for the doctor's conduct in the story.

From the very beginning the doctor is attracted to the hidden source of Dinah's sorrow. He is obsessed with having it revealed, and he beleaguers Dinah with questions trying to understand this mysterious presence. After the secret of Dinah's affair is revealed, the story is largely motivated by the doctor's irrational preoccupation with the figure of her former lover. The figure of the lover becomes a destabilizing element in a triangular relationship in which the principal couple shifts and reverses. At the outset, the doctor and Dinah are the principal couple. However, as the story progresses we witness a reversal. The doctor and the lover become the principal couple, and Dinah becomes a subordinate figure who connects the two men. The doctor is ambivalent both towards Dinah and the lover, and it becomes increasingly difficult to determine the dominant relationship within the triangle. "I watch him and study him," says the doctor, "as though I could learn what rubbed off on him from Dinah and what rubbed off on her from him—and from devoting so much attention to him I was acquiring some of his gestures." And further on: "I returned her embrace and we stood clinging together in love and affection and pity, while all that time, this fellow never left my sight. . . ."

From their wedding night on, every time the doctor is in an intimate situation with Dinah, he is compelled to think or talk about the former lover and to include him in the moment. At the beginning of the story the lover is a completely abstract figure who does not belong to the realistic world of the doctor and Dinah. By the end of the story, the lover is transformed from an intangible presence to a concrete figure. The significant interaction takes place between the two men, and the figure of Dinah is relegated to the background. The image of the lover haunts the doctor incessantly: "From then on that man was never out of my sight, whether my wife was present or not. If I sat by myself, I thought about him, and if I talked with my wife I mentioned him. . . . But in the kiss of reconciliation I heard the echo of another kiss which someone else had given her. . . . When I wanted to be happy with my wife, I would remember the one who had spoiled my happiness, and I would sink into gloom."

Every contact with Dinah brings about the appearance of another man. Consequently, the doctor holds Dinah responsible for his obsession and the suffering caused by his attacks of jealousy. Yet, in reality, the doctor's jealousy of Dinah is also a disguise for his passionate preoccupation with the lover. The doctor cannot acknowledge this attraction, and he denies it by attributing it to his wife, who at this point is completely indifferent to the lover. The doctor is attracted to the lover, but he also hates him because he "doesn't leave him alone." Since he cannot reconcile this ambivalent relationship, the doctor can survive his inner turmoil only by denying his impulses and projecting his fantasies onto Dinah and the lover.

Both the lover and Dinah are passive characters. Most of the thoughts, feelings, and actions the doctor attributes to them are projections of his own emotions and creations of his own imagination. In some cases they serve as a defense against his own feelings towards the lover, protecting him from his own lust by attributing it to Dinah and the lover. The same pattern of inversion and projection occurs in a dream that the doctor has about the lover:

"One night this fellow came to me in a dream: his face was sickly and yet just a little—just a little—likeable. I was ashamed of myself of thinking evil of him, and I resolved to put an end to my anger against him. He bent down and said, 'What do you want from me? Is the fact that she [sic] raped me any reason for you to have it in for me?'."

Unfortunately, the translation in the edition cited is marred by a mistake in a crucial pronoun: in this context the Hebrew [phrase in the final quoted sentence] means "you raped me." The translation, "she raped me," distorts the original meaning.

The essence of this story, as of many of Agnon's other stories, is distilled in a dream. This dream epitomizes the ambivalent structure of the doctor's jealousy by reflecting the violent force of his homosexual attraction and his equally forceful denial. He finds the patient's face both attractive and repulsive, "sickly" and "likeable." He masks his attraction with aggravated jealousy and, at the same time, is ashamed of his ill will towards the man. Ultimately, repression, guilt, and shame are transformed into the aggression and paranoia that are projected through the dream images of rape and accusation.

When the relationship between the doctor and the lover becomes concrete and the doctor has a chance to express his attraction, he keeps the lover unnecessarily in the hospital and seduces him with alcohol and "all sorts of luxuries." He allows the lover to smoke, in violation of hospital rules, and gives him extra food. In this, as in many of Agnon's stories, food has sexual significance, specifically in the scenes between the doctor and the lover. Other scholars have observed Agnon's use of food as a sexual symbol. Gershon Shaked, for example, claims [in Omanut haSippur shel S. Y. Agnon, 1973] that throughout Agnon's work food and eating habits are a displacement of erotic or sexual relationships. [In The Dynamics of Motifs in S. Y. Agnon's Works, 1979] Yair Mazor identifies seventeen instances in which food is used in the "The Doctor and His Divorcée" and considers this frequency as grounds for constructing a textual structure of meaning around food. He argues that food is the central principle of the story, and he divides Agnon's references to food into "positive eating" and "negative eating." According to Mazor, the fact that Dinah and the doctor are related only to the "negative scenes" foreshadows the failure of their marriage. Although Mazor observes similarities between the doctor's attitude toward Dinah and his attitude toward the lover, he does not discuss the doctor's ambivalence—his repulsion and attraction—towards them, nor does he analyze the doctor's general patterns of behavior in relation to the eating scenes.

The doctor feeds the lover his own food and works systematically on stuffing and fattening him. He virtually force-feeds him. Yet this excessive feeding is accompanied by a strong feeling of revulsion: "I looked at the double chin he had developed. His eyes were embedded in fat, like those of a woman who has given up everything for the sake of eating and drinking." Through the act of excessive feeding the doctor seeks both to express and resolve his conflict. Force-feeding is a way to penetrate and control the lover's body. But it also transforms the desired object into something shapeless, repulsive and less threatening because it looks feminine. A mixture of attraction and repulsion also accompanies the "extraordinary amount of care" that the doctor lavishes on the lover. He treats him frequently, "whether he needed it or not," and praises his body. Under the disguise of these treatments the doctor is able to touch the lover's body, but he denies his evident attraction through disproportionate protestations of revulsion: "I offered him my fingertips to shake . . . and immediately I wiped them on my white coat, as though I had touched a dead reptile. Then I turned my face away from him as from some disgusting thing, and I walked away."

Suspicion is another side of the jealousy the doctor feels. He accuses the lover of being the man "who brought ruin down" on him and of wrecking his wife's life. His anger surges within him and he becomes furious. In moments of lucidity the doctor knows that his suspicion is unfounded and that the lover is innocent; yet he cannot overcome his anger. This realization and his inability to change his behavior make him even angrier. When he cannot arrest his hatred and anger he invents far-fetched reasons to justify them. The greater the jealousy, the greater the anger; the greater the anger, the greater the guilt and the greater the need to rationalize it. This vicious circle of jealousy and anger hastens his self-destruction: "I have already searched all her books and found nothing . . . and that made me still angrier, for I was pretending to be decent while my thoughts were contemptible."

In Freud's "Some Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia, and Homosexuality" [in Sexuality and the Psychology of Love], we find a theory of jealousy and its characteristics that is particularly relevant to "The Doctor and His Divorcée." Freud states that there is an element of identification with the rival in every case of jealousy. There is a sense in which a person would like to be in the place of his rival, or in some way to be his rival. People "project outwards on to others what they do not wish to recognize in themselves." At the beginning of the story, the doctor doesn't even know the lover, yet he wants to believe that the lover is a special person. "To delude myself I imagined that he was a great man, superior to all his fellows." It seems to him that there is a connection between them, and that the lover reflects his own image. The doctor sees himself as if it were he who was in the body and in the gestures of the lover; he cannot separate the two: "from devoting so much attention to him, I was acquiring some of his gestures." This identification, according to Freud, could have erotic implications—homosexual when the rival is of the same sex. Like the doctor in our story a man might be excessively sensitive to the possibility of unfaithfulness in his wife, blowing out of all proportion all sorts of details (like Dinah's relationship prior to her acquaintance with the doctor) in order to deny his own homosexual tendencies. "As an attempt at defence against an unduly strong homosexual impulse, it may in a man be described by the formula: I do not love him, she loves him" [Freud].

This reading of the doctor's character coincides with David Aberbach's observation that:

Many interrelated aspects of the Agnon character suggest a predisposition to homosexuality: . . . fear of and difficulty with women, his feeling of sexual inferiority, confusion about sexual roles and identities, and his apparent susceptibility to sexual inadequacy. Partly because Agnon was an orthodox Jew . . . he could not deal straightforwardly with this theme. When hints of homosexual impulses or behavior emerge, the reaction is usually abhorrence and flight. Nevertheless, certain peculiarities of Agnon's work—obscure dreams and fantasies, for example of sex changes or of men on top of one another, and mysterious patterns of relationships with men and women—are more explicable if considered with the possibility of latent homosexuality in mind.

. . . the Agnon hero is in constant search, not of peers but of a strong man as a model for emulation. [One type of this man] is the lover, or the former lover of the hero's beloved, whom he apparently adulates as a success in sexual relationships, where he usually fails dismally.

[At the Handles of the Lock, 1984]

In "The Doctor and His Divorcée," the process described by Aberbach gains a dimension of jealousy and works in two directions. The rival is the object of desire with whom the doctor identifies, and at the same time the rival is the hated enemy who robs the doctor of his happiness and brings about his loss and destruction.

The changes from hate to love and back are based on the doctor's inherent ambivalence towards the lover. Freud claims that ambivalence, like paranoia, serves the purpose of a "defense against homosexuality." Freud argues that "Since we know that with the paranoiac it is precisely the most loved person of his own sex that becomes his persecutor, the question arises where this reversal of affect takes its origin; the answer is not far to seek—the ever-present ambivalence of the feeling provides its source and the unfulfillment of his claim for love strengthens it. This ambivalence thus serves the same purpose for the persecuted paranoiac as jealousy serves for our patient—that of defense against homosexuality."

At the end of the story both Dinah and the doctor reach the conclusion that divorce is their only way out of the dilemma. The doctor is incapable of resolving his conflict: he cannot live with his ambivalence towards the attractive-repulsive man through his beloved-hated wife. After the doctor tells his wife of the dream in which the lover accuses him of having raped him, it is clear to Dinah that her relationship with her husband is hopeless. She says: "Whether I want it or not, I am prepared to do whatever you ask, if only it will relieve your suffering—even a divorce." The doctor eventually agrees: "Now I thought, however you look at it, there is no way out for us, except a divorce." But the conclusion offers no resolution. There is a penultimate moment in which true awareness seems to hover on the brink of the doctor's consciousness. But it is immediately suppressed through the familiar mechanisms of jealousy and suspicion: "Before long I saw with my own eyes and I grasped with my own understanding what at first I had not seen and I had not grasped. At once I decided that I would grant Dinah the divorce. We had no children, for I had been apprehensive about begetting children for fear they would look like him."

Gershon Shaked (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9597

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 Agnon's fantastic tales. It is outstanding in its brevity and tight structure. Its source is a ballad of social commentary ["The Song of the Shirt" by Thomas Hood (1799-1845)] that reached Agnon from English literature through Isaac Leib Peretz's Yiddish translation. What characterizes "Three Sisters" is the extreme modification of the motif, the social message of which has been raised to balladic-mythical significance.

"Three Sisters"

Three sisters lived in a gloomy house, sewing linens for others from morning light to midnight, from the end of Sabbath to Sabbath eve never moved from their fingers either scissors or needle, and the sigh never ceased from their heart, not on hot days nor rainy ones. But blessing came none from their work. And what dry bread they found was never enough to sate their hunger.

Once they were occupied making a fine dress for a rich bride. When they finished their labor, they remembered their sorrow, that they had nothing but the skin on their flesh, and that too was growing old and weak.

Their hearts filled with sorrow.

One sighed and said, "All our days we sit wearying ourselves for others, nor have we even a scrap of cloth to make ourselves shrouds."

The second one said, "Sister, don't invite misfortune."

She too sighed till she shed a tear.

The third wanted to say something too. As she started to talk, a blood vessel burst in her mouth and splattered, soiling the dress.

When she brought the dress to the bride, the rich man came out of his salon. He saw the stain. He scolded the seamstress and dispatched her with obloquy. And needless to say, he did not pay her.

Alas, if the second had spit blood, and the third had wept, we could have washed the dress with her tears, and the rich man would not have become angry. But not everything is done in timely fashion. Even if everything were done in timely fashion, that is, if the third one had wept after the second spat blood, there would still be no true consolation here.

The stylistic fabric of this story in Hebrew is quite rhythmical, bringing out the balance both within and between the sentences. The author heightened the emotional effect by sonorous means and through the use of rhetorical strategies, such as the anaphora ("from . . . from") and antitheses in the sentence structure ("morning . . . midnight"; "hot . . . rainy"), and also in the strategy of gradual intensification (skin "growing old and weak"). The story would merely be pathetic if its content were not based on a series of ironic antitheses.

The legendary elements of the story are conspicuous, for none of the figures is characterized. They are formulaic characters—as the number three is itself formulaic—acting in an eternal time (for example, dawn to midnight; from the end of the sabbath to the eve of the following sabbath; and rain and shine). The eternal act of sewing connects these sisters to the three sisters of Greek mythology who knit the threads of destiny.

The story is based on a tale of social protest about three sisters in their poverty, a rich bride, and a cruel rich man who does not pay the sisters' wages. However, Agnon broadened the scope of the tale. In the dialogue, which pierces through the eternal time frame, each of the sisters laments her bitter fate—one in words, one in tears, and one in blood. Yet sighs do not change fate; indeed, they make it worse. The order of the world does not depend on the social situation but on chance or on a blind force, which also brings suffering to humanity. The decree does not strike only the poor and destitute but penetrates the depths of the human situation. At the end, in ironic fashion the narrator responds to his "story" with aphorisms taken from Ecclesiastes 3:11—the sense of which are reversed. A change in the events would not change the situation, which is fundamentally bad. The ballad—the high point of which is the burst blood vessel and the culmination of which is the meeting with the rich man—is thoroughly and ironically epitomized in the remarks of the narrator. Thus, here is a structure based on folkloric components—contrasts between light and dark, the dialogue, the depiction of time, and the characters who are emblematic of the fates. Yet the content is modern, describing the human condition.

This particular story is not exceptional. When compared to other folk tales, both long and short, told by Agnon (for example, "Agunot: A Tale," "The Tale of the Scribe," "The Dance of Death," "The Dead Girl," and "The Tale of Rabbi Gadiel, the Infant"), it shows the author's tendency toward formulaic characterization and tight, dramatic plots advancing toward a climax that is a crisis—or a decree of fate—that is close to the world of imagination, myth, and universal significance. What is lacking in detailed visual description is made up by rhythms, intertextual mythical references from various cultures, and rhetorical intensification. Most of these texts are intense and tightly wrought. Their components do not simply interrupt the act of reading or break the linear continuity; rather, they deepen them.

The story is based on the parodic deautomatization of the folk tale. Peretz's version of this story is already an ironic retelling of the story about the three sisters waiting for a groom. Agnon made use of this motif and gave it a positive folk conclusion with "the rooster—ex machina" in The Bridal Canopy but not in "Three Sisters," in which he placed greater emphasis on the ironic aspect of the situation, denying any chance for the fortunate conclusion commonly found in folk tales about poor young girls. The source of evil is not the social struggle but rather the human condition. Man is thrown into a world where arbitrary powers rule without mercy. In this story, through the use of a traditional literary device—that is, the standard structure of a folk legend—Agnon described an absurd existential situation. Parody is one of the typical devices used by the revolutionary in his war against the tradition or in his attempt to reveal its vacuousness.

The Realistic Story

One would expect Agnon's realistic stories to be the opposite of his folk tales. In contrast to a plot and characters that lack specificity—the purpose of which is to make an emotional and ideological point—here is a plot derived from reality and peopled with well-depicted characters, all of which represent a full realization of literary structures. Agnon's first stories in the Land of Israel, such as "The Hill of Sand," were written in this fashion, as were later ones, such as "Metamorphosis," "The Doctor's Divorce," "Fernheim," and "Between Two Cities."

"Ovadia the Cripple" (1921), which tells the story of an errant maidservant betrothed to a miserable cripple, borders on naturalism. After a flirtation with the son of her employers, the maidservant sleeps with another servant and becomes pregnant. When her crippled fiancé returns from the hospital, he finds her with a bastard in her arms.

The crippled fiancé is a pathetic figure taken from melodramas and is reminiscent of Victor Hugo's Quasimodo or Mendele Mokher Seforim's Fishke the Lame. Knut Hamsun also wrote a story about an innocent cripple, Minutte, in Mysteries. The mistreatment of Minutte recalls the sadistic tormenting of Agnon's Ovadia in the dance hall. The wayward servant girl is also a rather familiar melodramatic figure (see and ). The relationships among the oppressed and miserable were a favorite topic in naturalistic literature. By exploiting this topic, naturalistic literature appealed to the basic instincts of its readership. The danger in depicting such characters is excessive sentimentality; and, in fact, the richness of the material can be its own undoing.

The problem confronted by authors who use such material, which can border on cliché, is how to give the details new meaning, how to motivate the plot, and how to specify its message. Agnon solved these problems through structure. The story takes place first in the consciousness of the hero, Ovadia the Cripple, and then in the dance hall, where Ovadia finds Shayne-Seril dancing and where he is tormented by the young men. Afterward, the paths of the two characters diverge. Ovadia goes to the hospital, and Shayne-Seril returns to her master's home. In the end, the author brings them back together. The hero leaves the hospital and finds that his betrothed has taken another lover.

A conspicuous line in the plot is the effort to forge a hidden link of cause and effect between Ovadia's deeds in the hospital and those of Shayne-Seril in her master's house. The fact that Ovadia does not leave the hospital somewhat determines the girl's fate, just as Shayne-Seril directly causes Ovadia's two failures. Thus, the relationship between the cripple and the sensual girl is based on mutual culpability; social circumstances and the characters' personalities are the root of the evil. The sages said, "Everything is predictable, and the choice is in our hands." But here everything is predictable, and people have very little freedom of choice. The fateful bond between the pair is presented ironically, both in the protagonists' thoughts and in the connections among the chapters. The hidden text, which expands the significance of the story, is revealed mainly in structural ways, such as links and gaps among the components of the story and the explanation of the heroes' fate.

One does not customarily look for a hidden text with multiple meanings in a naturalistic story. However, it is not Agnon's wont to go completely without hidden meanings. The story also implies intertextual connections that expand its significance; however, this expansion is not allegorical. The male protagonists, Ovadia and Reuven, allude only indirectly to biblical figures, although the story has affinities with the portion of the Bible beginning with "Vayishlah" [Genesis 32:4]. The Book of Ovadia, for whom Agnon's character is named, is read in the synagogue on the sabbath when that portion of the Bible is read. Indeed, upon examining the text from Genesis, one finds many indirect parallels with "Ovadia the Cripple." Just as the patriarch Jacob was maimed in the thigh by the angel, so, too, is Ovadia a cripple. In Genesis, Reuben violates his father's marriage bed and sleeps with Bilhah; similarly, Reuven, the redhead in Agnon's story, violates Ovadia's marriage bed. The hidden parallels between Ovadia and the patriarch Jacob and between the biblical Reuben and Reuven in the story have yet another aspect, suggested by the passage from the prophet Ovadia—which deals with the bitter war between Israel and Edom, the descendants of Esau. If the people of Israel are the seed of Jacob (or Ovadia), then red-headed people are the descendants of Esau. Jacob epitomizes the spirit; and Esau, the one who is enslaved to his instincts, epitomizes flesh and blood.

Agnon does not intend the connection to the tradition to indicate that the characters should not be taken as they are. On the contrary, the story's protagonists are just what they appear to be. However, the instinctual struggle waged in the story is enhanced by the biblical connotations, which are partially parodic and partially archetypal. Those connotations do not (to use the elder Israeli critic Dov Sadan's phrase) create "a story within the story." Rather than make the story of Ovadia more profound, the biblical comparison mocks the hidden archetype—that is, Jacob, the "plain man dwelling in tents" [Genesis 25:27]. The two forces, flesh and spirit—the hands of Esau and the voice of Jacob—are presented here in an ironic, sarcastic light—the latter in its hopeless impotence and the former in all its naked coarseness. The references do not intensify and expand but rather limit and dwarf the stature of the protagonists. That is to say, the structure and the texture (the hidden text) are meant to alter and deepen the naturalistic materials.

Moreover, toward the end the author brings the story to a climax, giving it a new and broader meaning. The tale does not merely recount the story of a couple that has been over-whelmed and crushed by eros and thanatos, as well as by the hypocrisy of bourgeois society, but goes beyond the exposure of the victims. Here is the final passage of the story:

Ovadia's mouth was open, his tongue like an immovable rock, and the sweets in his hand kept melting and melting. The baby suckled with pleasure at his mother's breast, with a still small voice. Ovadia took the candies with his right hand and the crutch with his left. The baby stretched and removed one hand from the teat, and Shayne-Sirel's anger was still not appeased. Ovadia feared to give her the candies and bent down and laid them on the infant's palm.

The reader might have expected that Ovadia would turn on his heels and leave the mother and her child to their sighs. But Ovadia does not. He feels that Shayne-Seril is not guilty. Apparently, in such affairs there are neither sinners nor guilty parties but merely creatures in need of mercy. The story is cruel and naturalistic and is cleared of all sentimentality by the author's sarcasm, but it concludes with a catharsis of human compassion. Different faces are brought to light. Agnon does not convey compassion via the shortcut of sentimentality but rather by following the path of woe.

"Ovadia the Cripple" is an example of Agnon's delicate handling of coarse naturalistic material, just as "Three Sisters" is an example of his ability to craft an entire world within a balladlike dewdrop without portraying actual human situations. The two stories illustrate the concept of fate from different points of view. The characters in the balladlike story accept and submit to fate, while the characters in the naturalistic story find a humane way of overcoming it. In the folk tale, depiction is formal and restricted; hence, the function of the intratextual features is expanded. In the realistic story, the description is detailed and extensive, thus limiting the function of those features; and allegorization is prevented despite them.

"Ovadia the Cripple" may also be seen from another viewpoint. Agnon writes ostensibly as a believer to a readership of believers, as a typical bourgeois to a bourgeois audience. According to customary laws, Shayne-Seril's baby was born out of wedlock; thus, judged by the standards of the Jewish bourgeoisie he is a social outcast from every point of view.

However, Agnon turns the moral tables here. Toward the end of the story he creates an effect of moral deautomatization, which is also an effect of literary deautomatization. The child, according to this view, need not be ostracized and cast out because Ovadia, although he is not the biological father, gives the child the candies—thus, accepting moral responsibility. This is not in keeping with the naturalistic school's material world of flesh and blood, although the protagonists are portrayed throughout most of the story according to that world's basic assumptions.

The naturalistic story receives a moral and spiritual dimension from the world of grace. In contrast to the bourgeois morality based on genetic rules and regulations, a humanistic ethos is portrayed, based on relationships of grace, mercy, and responsibility—all of which contrast with traditional bourgeois values. Agnon once again shows himself to be a traditional revolutionary both in form and in content.

The Abstract Story: The Humorous Feuilleton

The comic perspective is central in Agnon's work. He exploited every possible variety of comedy—from social satire, in "Of Our Young People and Our Elders," to farce, in "With the Death of the Saint" and "The Frogs." Agnon even employed Rabelaisian grotesquery in "Pisces" and "At Hemdat's." Most of the comic stories tend to hyperbole, thus intensifying the sense of realism, although a few are stripped bare.

One example of stark, comical abstraction is the feuilleton "On Taxes" (1950), included in The Book of the State. It is an abstract story without reference to place or time, to real characters, or to human situations. Furthermore, the protagonist is not an individual but rather a collectivity—that is, the state. The fictional situation with all its ramifications provokes laughter because it evokes official bureaucracies everywhere. It is taken as a comic hyperbole, a mechanism for its own sake beyond any actual need or purpose. In the story an imaginary state is about to go bankrupt, which leads to a strike threat by the officials. From the very first the bureaucracy is characterized as a superfluous body, creating work where there was none but to no purpose: "The grumblers quipped and mocked, saying, 'What work will the bureaucrats stop doing? Perhaps they'll stop their idleness and thumbtwiddling.'"

Meaningless activities are reiterated in various contexts. Committees are constantly being formed, each merely a comic synonym of its predecessor. Agnon's technique is to amass details that do not advance the plot, showing that every action is merely repetition and that the entire plot is superfluous:

They formed a new committee. Since the active intellect is active equally in every person, that committee proposed what the first committees had proposed, aside from the bill for expenses, which was slightly different from the bills of the first committees, since in the meanwhile the cost of living had risen by several points.

The coincidental and arbitrary turning point occurs when salvation comes to the state in the form of the cane, upon which taxes had not yet been imposed. The cane deflects the course of events, giving the plot a goal. In the author's words: "However the state was fortunate. Even in a trivial matter, its luck held. It happened that a certain elderly member of the House of Lippery-waggers forgot his cane."

That turning point provokes a chain reaction: taxation of canes, discussions of the form of taxation, a black market in canes, legislation obliging people to carry canes, the importing of wood from abroad, the burning of wood, the transfer of the ashes from the site of the fire to the sea, and finally the importing of finished canes—a precipitous decline in which each event pulls down its fellow. Since the actions do no one any good, the author intervenes to repair a fault but cannot do so. His attempt comes to little more than adding fault upon fault, a comic snowball showing with increasing clarity that action does not improve matters but simply drives them round and round to no purpose, until the cycle itself attains a value of its own.

Since everything done in the state is foolishness, only that which is not done is intelligent. The state is itself evil. The author is weary of an other-oriented society whose only force is verbal, taking its own social organization as a value in itself. The story does not relate to people; it is not people who pervert the world. The root of evil does not lie in the Weichsls and Deichsls or Mundspiegels who populate "Of Our Young People and Our Elders" but rather in the House of Lippery-waggers, the tax bureaucracy, and the state itself. Moreover, the bureaucrats, so long as they are not connected with the bureaucracy, are like anyone else—trivial people who would not harm a fly, collectors of jokes and scissors who serve in high positions. However, as soon as they put on their official hats, they are liable to do damage:

So the Treasurer sat there with the members of the Committee with a cordial expression and a smile on his face, not passing over a single prominent figure in the state without telling a joke about him, one of those jokes that people amuse themselves by telling. He said, "Most likely these will commemorate our colleagues rather than their actions, even though their actions are one long joke." He kept talking that way until the members of the Committee recalled why they had come. They raised their voices and spoke to him. Immediately his bright countenance altered, his lips twisted, his nose swelled, his ear-lobes turned black, and he looked entirely like a state official. If we didn't know him, we could not discern that he was capable of understanding a joke.

Here, the comic element is impersonal. The fictional world is detached from actual social materials and is presented as a bare skeleton. It is funny because the schematization of phenomena exposes their vacuity better than would a concrete description. The abstract scheme removes the coincidental, human, and individual element from the world, and everything is frozen. The world is driven like a mechanism without direction, a comic wheel revolving upon itself without significance. The reader is left without air to breathe. Even the narrator, who appears as an objective chronicler called "the author of The Book of the State," has no human reality.

Agnon's comic point of view is, to a large extent, anarchical. He does not advocate social reform or changes in the system; rather, the entire state mechanism seems fundamentally ridiculous to him. The story might be aimed at the political establishment of the State of Israel, which had just been born and already had managed to erect its own bureaucracy. (This story was printed in Haaretz in 1950!) However, it applies to any bureaucratic system in any place at any time. Agnon saw bureaucracy as a mechanism that feeds on itself and expands at the citizen's expense without any regard for common sense. This is an anarchical work written in a classical style.

Even when writing a satirical piece with comic abstraction of social reality, Agnon remained faithful to himself. Here, too, he played the role of a revolutionary who, using irony tinged with sharp sarcasm, destroys the most sanctified establishment in any society—the bureaucracy, which feeds upon itself, and the people's representatives, who make the parliament (which Agnon called "the house of lippery") into an institution that acts in its own behalf and supports itself with meaningless jabber and pointless laws.

This sort of work has various artistic limitations. Agnon's tendency toward an abstract worldview and toward situations merely hinted at is evident in his earliest writings. It is a style that appears in various proportions in different works. The better the equilibrium between the concrete and the abstract, or the specific and the universal, the more significant is the work. Agnon's abstract writing, in its many forms, is limited to a single meaning. This is because its components are not sufficiently concretized but rather are presented as abstractions or as a series of allegorical keys; thus, the situations are not open to more than one interpretation. The paradox is, of course, that the abstract texts are much more closed and unequivocal than are the concrete and ostensibly realistic ones. These techniques, which were supposed to reflect the modern formal revolution explicitly, are not always as open-ended and multivalent as Agnon's more conservative, traditional techniques.

In Agnon's traditional techniques, the modern "revolution" is implicit and alluded to in intertextual parodies and in minuscule stylistic and compositional shifts and deviations from traditional literary conventions. If any sin may be laid at the door of Agnon's work, it is the sin of abstraction. He exerted a negative influence on younger writers primarily because they seized upon the abstract and unequivocal aspects of his work.

The Abstract, or Nonrealistic, Story

The tendency toward abstraction is found mainly in the so-called modern stories that Agnon began publishing in the early 1930s, which ultimately were collected in The Book of Deeds. That book was Agnon's attempt to satisfy modern man's need to express a new realm of experience. Such an expression might simply have been a vital need for Agnon himself and represented a fulfillment of tendencies that had existed within him almost from the first (see, for example, ). In any case, I do not consider The Book of Deeds to be the finest of his works, although its influence on younger writers has been greater than the influence of his realistic fiction.

I will take the example of "Quitclaim" (in Hebrew, "Hefker"), published in Haaretz in 1945, which follows the pattern typical of The Book of Deeds. Generally, the narrator is the hero. The pattern is a kind of journey ending in a dead end or in an unexpected reversal; and, since all the stories appear in a single collection, each sheds light on the others.

At first we seem to be reading a story about a man who has made an appointment to meet a friend in a café. He lingers for a long time and later tries to go home. Since he seems to have missed the last bus, he goes by foot, enters a cul-de-sac, and becomes entangled with an eccentric character who apparently summons him to judgment. Finally, for no reason at all and with no explanation, he appears before a strange judge. The judge does not judge him, and he sets out once again. On his way, he notes another group of Jews who apparently also are waiting for their trial. The overt text is neither plausible nor logical; the circumstances are extremely surprising and bizarre. The story has no meaning unless the reader attempts to descend to its deepest depths and rescue the latent text.

A detailed analysis shows the story's message to be that the lower and upper worlds, which are not depicted in the overt text, are controlled by powers that do not permit a person to choose his own path. The protagonist vacillates from crisis to crisis and is forced to seek his way, but the inner obstacles are beyond his strength. Not only can he find no shelter in his own home, he also cannot resolve whether he has behaved properly.

That meaning is implicit in the name of the story, "Quitclaim," which suggests a world where the law has been abnegated, without judge or judgment. It is a world in which the holy and the profane and laughter and dread are intermingled. The plot is not bound by realistic cause and effect but is instead held together by bits and snippets having the same cohesive power or meaning—that is, a unified atmosphere. The inner journey of "that man" passes through various emotional stations and reaches the destination intended from the start.

I will now analyze in detail one of those stations along the way to show how the general meaning of the story crystallizes within the reader. Here is a central passage in which the protagonist stands before the mysterious judge to pay the forfeit for a sin he has not committed:

He asked me nothing but sat before his desk and took up pen and ink and paper and started writing. In the room it was quiet and the smell of kerosene wafted up from the heater. Only the sound of the pen scratching the paper was heard. If the pen does not break and the paper does not tear, he will never stop his writing. I stood in my place and thought to myself, hasn't the middle of his mustache turned white in the meanwhile? The middle of his mustache had not turned white, but its two ends were befouled.

This text is interesting because of the relationship between the overt text and a latent one. Earlier in the story, Agnon used expressions in reference to the judge that recall attributes of the Creator found in "The Song of Honor," a kabbalistic hymn incorporated in the sabbath liturgy.

"Quitclaim" "The Song of Honot"
I saw before me a man, neither young nor aged. And Thou art held to be aged and youthful.
Gray was sown on it at both its ends. The hair of Thy head is gray and black.
And in the middle of the black mustache . . .  
He stood and donned a miter with several ends. He donned the miter of redemption.

Such a comparison seems to indicate that God is the hidden hero, latent in the figure of the judge. The figure in the overt text might also be a parody of the latent figure, by means of which the oxymorons attributed to the Creator are illuminated from a new point of view. Traditionally, the oxymoron is a way of expressing the ineffable greatness of God. This story, however, reveals a contradictory aspect of the oxymoron—that is, the eternal ambivalence of the highest judge, who lacks unequivocal answers to man's questions. In the description of the God-judge, the grotesqueness, characteristic of the previous passages, reaches a peak. The God-judge, a central figure in the story, throws the narrator-hero's world into such confusion that he is unable to reach any decisions.

When the narrator stands there like a pupil before his master or a sinner before his judge, the authority figure can be perceived as either comic or threatening. The ambiguity rests on the relationship between the overt text and the hidden one, a reciprocity that exists throughout and determines the special character of these stories.

What is the typical method of Agnon's abstract stories? As noted, the structure is based on the plot of a journey. The hero wanders through space. However, that space is not concrete but is rather the metaphorical embodiment of the soul or of a metarealistic world. Hence, the journey is not situated in historical or chronological time; it is the time of the soul, in which anterior and posterior are merely various stages in the hero's development. Such a method is closely related to expressionistic techniques, in which reality does not exist in itself; there are merely expressions of the fragmented ego or the ego's outcry.

The plot of the story knows neither causality nor probability but rather elliptical connections, which are both intratextual and intertextual. The materials that permit the discovery of the connections among the various links are given as the latent content of the overt text, and they are revealed to the interpreter as he or she fills the gaps through semantic, rhetorical, and structural analyses.

I have noted already that the overt text may be a parodic substitute for the subject hinted at by the latent text (the judge, the Lord of the Universe). The contrast sometimes reaches grotesque dimensions, as, for example, when the feeling of dread seems justified in the latent text but is comical and unfounded in the overt text. The relationship between what is implied in the two levels of expression is typical of the grotesque in these texts.

The latent text emerges for the reader both through a metaphorical understanding of the physical settings (for example, the cul-de-sac appearing in this story) and also through the accretion or extension of motifs as later ones shed light on those that came earlier. Thus, for example, the handkerchief (in the sense of a scarf or a shawl) appears in "Quitclaim" as the garment in which the narrator-protagonist wraps himself, not wanting any connection with the world about him.

All of these factors indicate that the world depicted is not anchored in reality but rather in a realm including far more than what the narrator-hero, who presents the story to the reader, is capable of interpreting for himself. The world of the story is a kind of psychological pattern. It could be interpreted as a repressed reality (in psychoanalytic terms), or as a metareality (following various metaphysical systems), or as a world of archetypes (according to Jung). In any case, the determining factor is the material representing multisemantic relationships between the latent subject and the overt one.

Naturally, one must realize that in fiction of this sort characterization declines in importance, and the protagonists cease being portrayed as unique individuals. As in folk tales, the character in the abstract story has a largely formal function. Even when the author gives names to his characters, they do not exist in their own right but must be taken as anonymous embodiments of emotional and identional elements of the psyche. Their appellations are likely to be allegorical, hinting at the latent text—the broad cultural connotation. But in such a case, one must understand the character from various points of view—that is, according to the meaning implicit or implied by the character's name (for example, Yekutiel = God shall acquit me and Ne'eman = faithful; both of these are epithets of Moses in midrashic literature, and they are used in Agnon's "A Whole Loaf ) or through the cultural links derived from the epithets (such as in 'The Song of Honor").

Although the story is told by a narrator-hero, a consciousness with a psychological structure, he functions within the story without comprehending his context. In his journeys, the narrator-hero encounters various characters that seem to be superfluous to the logic of the plot. Through the use of chance appearances, the "I" encounters projections of himself, which become aspects of the structure of the relationship between him and the emotional factors that comprise the work's internal structure. The parallel between microcosm and macrocosm gives these emotional factors metarealistic significance; as a result, the interpretation of the story is transferred from the psychological level to an abstract level and thus to metaphysical concepts and values.

Since Agnon's fiction of this type attempts to present the realm in which problems exist rather than the realm in which they are solved, the parodic technique of multiple meanings is an appropriate one. Agnon portrays an ambiguous world that is filled with anonymous heroes and settings and is studded with epigrams and generalizations. The symbolic coloration of the elements leads us to interpret them as though the author sought to identify the Everyman in his story with every person outside of the story, and that the author attempted to provide a complete exposition of what is known as the human condition. That is to say, he presents his own inability and the inability of Everyman to give unequivocal ratification to the content of the work or to any values as a general truth. Human alienation, the solitude of his generation, the opacity of reality, and the impassivity of the powers that be are the subjects of the story.

If this assumption is correct then the form of the story fits its subjects, and the latter are suited to the form. This story is the most extreme instance of the embodiment of the modern worldview in Agnon's oeuvre. Here, Agnon also used intertextual techniques related to the cultural tradition. The intertextuality is generally parodic in effect; it is extreme and, in most cases, leads to grotesque results. The messages of these texts are ambivalent. However, it is not the kind of ambivalence that portrays something and its opposite at the same time but an ambivalence that disorients the addressee. Despite the traditional style and the intertextual connection to a latent traditional text, the story exposes the social and moral anarchy of modern man.

Agnon was quite conscious of the "writerly" effect of these stories. The dreamlike codification demanded an "analytical" decodifier. The signifiers in these texts do not have determinable signifieds but are quite multivalent and have, of course, no definitive referent. Moreover, they do not have any informant-analysand in presentía who could provide the reader with further information by bringing up "unique" connotations and associations in reference to specific signifieds—by excluding irrelevant information and including relevant data. The result is that the analyst-addressee (the reader) has to fill the "empty" semantic units, using paradigms and semantic connotations alluded to in the text or drawn from the addressee's own life experience. In addition, the addressee must fill in missing links and gaps, sometimes using analytical (that is, Freudian) techniques.

The addressee must "rewrite" the text to the best of his or her abilities in the areas of explication, elucidation, and interpretation. In a sense, the text "wants" to be and actually becomes a "writerly" text. As a result of this demand upon the addressee, the circle of potential readers is diminished. The author expects his readership to be composed of analytical readers who act as critics or of critics who act as analytical readers.

Nonetheless, this type of story does not represent Agnon at his greatest. His powers are most impressive in stories where reality is mingled with what is beyond, in the private and collective spheres, as in the novellas or in the short stories, such as "Three Sisters" and "Ovadia the Cripple"—one of which is built mainly upon sonorous, rhythmic, and stylistic effects; whereas the other is based on scenes and concrete situations. The best of Agnon's nonrealistic stories are those with an element of the concrete, such as "The Overcoat," Edo and Enam, and "From Lodging to Lodging."

Between Abstract and Concrete: Stories Conveying a Philosophy of History

Several of Agnon's stories can be interpreted in many ways and operate simultaneously on several levels of meaning; these include "The Overcoat," "From Lodging to Lodging," Edo and Enam, and Forevermore, stories that are both existential and sociohistorical. Of course, the main meaning is existential, and the historical stratum is not a chronicle but rather the penetration to the roots of a situation through mythical writing. The mythic character of these stories, particularly Edo and Enam and Forevermore, tilts them toward a bond with traditional texts, which convey themes bearing on a philosophy of history.

"The Covering of Blood," included in the posthumously published Within the Wall (1975), constitutes the final link in that chain of stories. The existential level is less pronounced in "The Covering of Blood" than in the earlier stories, and the emphasis is placed on the historical stratum. This long short story may be regarded as a social survey of the history of the Jewish people in past generations. It is a general summation by the author, who looks at the past and anticipates the future. The traditional revolution reached its peak in these stories. In them, Agnon concretized the social and historical significance of the revolution that contained its own end within it. The revolution destroyed the tradition and, in the process, sowed the seeds of its own destruction.

The narrator-witness is confronted with the life stories of the three protagonists: Hillel, Adolf, and the old American. The three men are uprooted from Europe; two end up in the Land of Israel and one in America. They are not victims of the Holocaust; however, they are victims of the Jewish history that is epitomized by the Holocaust.

Hillel, an ordained rabbi, never is appointed to a rabbinical post because of baseless hatred within Jewish society, and even the post of ritual slaughterer is given to him as a favor rather than by right. Jewish society rejects him because it no longer believes in the values of the Torah and prefers material values. When he is exiled to the United States, his leg is amputated because Gittele-Frumtshis, the owner of the slaughterhouse, demands that he work day and night—not even releasing him to break his fast after the seventeenth of tammuz. Hillel is the victim of Jewish society in two versions of its exile, the European and the American (the latter is a kind of exacerbation of the former).

Adolf, a sergeant in the First World War, saves Hillel from death but is a victim of events between the two wars. He eats with Gentiles and lives with their women; assimilation makes him need their favors. He drifts from place to place and meets with destruction everywhere, until he emigrates to the Land of Israel. There, too, he is a beggar.

The old American reaches the New World as a child. He serves as a cantor's assistant until he marries a wealthy woman. Then he goes through a miniature holocaust: his daughter commits suicide after being deserted by the gentile singer who has gotten her pregnant, and his son is murdered by his friends after joining a band of thieves. The old man is bereft and solitary, undone by the assimilation of the second generation in the new place of exile.

The Holocaust is in the background, melding the three into a single figure that represents different aspects of the surviving remnant. The main character, Hillel, is a kind of Job whom the Lord does not bless in his later years. Both of Hillel's wives die because of the war, as do all of his children. He never has any possessions. In his confessions to the narrator-witness, there is a touch of a reproach directed on high. By choosing the name Hillel, Agnon asserted a connection between his character and the historical personage: the ancient rabbi who founded a school called the House of Hillel and who tempered the letter of the law with mercy. It was a later sage by the same name, Hillel, who said: "The Jews have no Messiah because they already devoured him in the days of Hezekiya." The reproaches of Hillel the sage, like those of Hillel in the story, are directed chiefly against the Jews who gobbled up their Messiah, both in earlier times (represented by the quarrel between the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim) and in the time of the State of Israel. National redemption brought no change. Rather than redemption replacing exile, exile usurped the place of redemption. The ordained rabbi became a slaughterer, and the slaughterer became a beggar. Hillel is now without the House of Hillel.

In the course of the story, Hillel mediates between the two other characters: Adolf, who saved Hillel from death in the First World War, and the old American, who saves him from starvation after his leg is cut off on the seventeenth of tammuz in Gittele-Frumtshis's slaughterhouse.

The irony, or rather the grotesquery, of history is shown mainly in Gittele-Frumtshis's slaughterhouse, where Hillel says the benediction over the slaughtering and is covered with blood. The implicit parallel in the written language is the legend about the prophet Zechariah, who was slaughtered by the Jews and whose blood bubbled up and could not be covered until Nevuzaradan came and slaughtered ninety-four thousand residents of Jerusalem on the blood of the prophet. That event took place on the seventeenth of tammuz (an unlucky day in the personal life of Agnon's Hillel). According to tradition, that is the day when the first tablets were broken, when the walls of Jerusalem were broken through, and when an idol was placed in the Temple. Such linguistic and cultural allusions also point to Bialik's poem "On the Slaughterer." Perhaps one is justified in viewing the hundreds of chickens that are slaughtered while multitudes of Jews were being murdered overseas as part of the ceremony of repentance. (The owner of the slaughterhouse sends Hillel eighteen dollars as compensation for his leg.) The parallel creates an unusual link between reward and punishment. Hillel's "blood" will not be atoned for until the Jews are slaughtered. Gittele-Frumtshis operates an assembly line of slaughter; she presses for increased productivity, her heart bent on gain. Jews eager for money lost sight of what was happening across the ocean. The dreadful "hand in hand" (the subtitle of the story) shows that the Jews are bound up with each other, creating a strange and grotesque kind of logic—a justification of fate, which is not sufficiently justified. It is almost possible to say that the technique of analogy ("hand in hand") is no longer a literary stratagem here but has become the ironic and grotesque subject of the story.

Analogy is an important device in most of Agnon's writings and serves various functions in his works. For example, in A Guest for the Night, he uses analogy to depict the disintegration of society despite the common fate of the individuals within it. In "The Covering of Blood," ironic analogy is an expression of Agnon's ironic view of history. The parallels among various phenomena that affect the social group shed ironic light both on the group itself and on the ironic author—the hidden entity, the master of history who creates phenomena so different and yet so similar. The writer's revolutionary irony is directed against both the Master of the Universe and the chosen people, whom He chose above all other nations. Another ambiguous parallel, as though blaming the Jews themselves for the Holocaust, is the name Adolf given to the Jewish sergeant:

Hard days came to him. He had no choice but to beg from door to door. At any rate he praised himself for not doing what Hitler did and standing at the doorways of convents for the bowl of sauce they handed him.

Adolf is a fornicator. A number of gentile women give birth to his progeny, and he suspects that the destroyers of the Jewish community are descended from him. Adolf confesses to Hillel, who describes the state of affairs to the narrator-witness:

I found him very depressed. I asked him what had happened to him, and he told me he had dreamt that a certain heathen of Hitler's party had struck a Jew and killed him cruelly, and that Jew was his nephew, and the heathen was the son of the lady who had had him by Adolf. In the daytime as well he sees all kinds of visions, and most of them are related to the results of that sin.

It is as if the victim created his murderer. But the ambivalent relationship to basic situations is created not only through the context of the names but principally by a parodic view of extraliterary situations, which are shown in a new light in the text. For example, the heroes frequently are caught in predicaments with no way out, and only saviors from the outside can rescue them from starvation and death. Their rescue offers neither consolation nor salvation. Rather than bringing redemption to the rescued, it brings profit to the rescuers, as when the slaughterer saves Hillel from starvation in order to exploit him (to keep a place open for his grandson) and when Gittele-Frumtshis behaves similarly. The story becomes a parody of the Jewish efforts at rescue between the two world wars. Even basic Zionist values, such as the ingathering of the exiles, are seen in a new light. The two immigrants—the survivors—do not journey to the Land of Israel of their own free will. Adolf is brought to Palestine by mistake. He is asked to serve as a translator for a circus, although he knows no Hebrew; he wanders about the country as a beggar without finding a place for himself. Hillel is sent to the Land of Israel at the expense of a rich American, but the ingathering of exiles does not bring unity. Here, art—as parody always has—distorts extraliterary motifs. As the reader compares fiction to reality, the meanings of the motifs are altered.

What is achieved through the intra- and intertextual connections, by means of the parodic use of extraliterary states of affairs, also is achieved through several fundamental symbols of the story: the severed leg, the hurdy-gurdy, the monkey, the parrot, and the dollars. Hillel's leg was not cut off when he was a child; a prince's coach did nearly run him over; and he was saved by a poor Jewish porter. His leg was not severed when he was buried in a landslide during the First World War; then, Adolf, another poor Jew, saved him. Only after ending up in Gittele-Frumtshis's slaughterhouse is his leg cut off because of her lust for wealth. All of the tension between rescue and rescue for the purpose of profit is exposed by the fate of Hillel's leg. The leg's value decreases progressively in the Land of Israel: an automobile destroys the rubber leg, and a wooden one takes its place (the gift of the Fair Measures Brotherhood); and holes turn up in the leg because a mad Hassid has done something with it. As the value of the leg decreases, so, too, does the value of Hillel's dollars. The state takes the dollars intended for the survivors of the Holocaust and derives profit from them.

Another central symbol is the hurdy-gurdy. Adolf receives the instrument from a beggar in Europe. He wanders through Austria with it and then brings it to the Land of Israel. The hurdy-gurdy plays the song of the sons of Korah (a rebel who opposed Moses) at the gates of the underworld ("Moses is one and his Torah is one"), but the song no longer expresses actual values. There is only the hidden echo of a not-so-splendid past. What remains is the hurdy-gurdy as a symbol of wanderings, to which the "Gypsy" monkey and the parrots are joined. The wandering Jews, Adolf and Hillel, have inherited a Gypsy legacy of aimless roaming.

In contrast to Agnon's decoherent stories, "The Covering of Blood" is not broken off but actually comes to a conclusion. The end attempts to predict the future of the native Israeli generation, as though returning to the question posed in A Guest for the Night.

The heroes of "The Covering of Blood" are alone. The American branch of survivors has no posterity. The children commit suicide or are murdered because they have assimilated. Yet Hillel is not alone in the way that Adolf, whose illegitimate sons are the murderers and destroyers, is. The only son and inheritor is Adolf's nephew:

I do not recall whether I mentioned Adolf's sister's son. Adolf told me he was the Adolf from a certain city, all of whose Jewish inhabitants were killed by Hitler, to the last man, and of those who went to the Land of Israel, some died of hunger during the First World War and others were killed by the Arabs' shells during the conquest of the land. Adolf had one sister whose second marriage was to a Hebrew teacher, and she had a son by him. The boy's father, his sister's husband, that is, died, leaving her nothing. She raised the son in poverty, by dint of hard work, and every penny she saved she spent on his education. When he got older he joined the youth movement, and in the end he settled in the Land of Israel and promised his mother he would bring her. He arrived in the Land of Israel close to the time of the war between the Jews and the Arabs. He took part in the war, was wounded, and recovered. After the war he went to a kibbutz and became a tractor driver. One day the Syrians crossed the border, seized him, and took him prisoner. Since that time no one has heard anything of him.

According to Agnon, because the Jews of the Land of Israel did not change, even in their own country, their fate is liable to be like that of the Diaspora Jews. Regarding both the children of the American father and those of Hillel, we could say in the most general fashion that the fathers are sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge. But in the case of Adolf's nephew, we are stunned. There is no proportion between the sour grapes and the setting on edge of teeth. The narrator is himself astonished at that strange fate, just as he wonders over and over again whether there is any connection regarding reward and punishment between the behavior of an individual and the fate of the nation.

The fate of Adolf's nephew, the last remnant of a destroyed family, remains obscure. Hillel is waiting for the young man, who might not be alive. If he is alive, his life might not be worth living, considering the inheritance left for him by his Uncle Adolf—that is, things from the Diaspora and symbols of Gypsy life: the hurdy-gurdy, the monkey, and the parrot. That, of course, is a harsh vision. It is a prophecy of agonies that do not purify; it is exile with no redemption.

The only light in that darkness is Benyamin, an American boy whose soul yearns for Torah and who has settled in the Land of Israel to study with Hillel. Perhaps that is the final life raft: the Torah, which is independent of place or time and exists beyond the dialectic of exile and redemption and holocaust and rebirth.

In this story, abstraction and concrete illustration are intermingled. Each episode—Hillel during the war, Hillel in the slaughterhouse, Adolf in the Land of Israel—is detailed and stands by itself. However, the connections among the episodes and the paradigmatic, or intertextual, links with various cultural materials give the story its meaning as a statement of a philosophy of history. The technique of the multifaceted parallels is an adequate correlative for the subject: what happened to the Jews, "hand in hand," in different historical settings. We have here an actualization of history that has become fantastic, or else a grotesque illumination of real situations that seem to compete with each other in their deformation.

This long short story more or less sums up the thematics of the traditional revolution: On the one hand, it describes the dead end in which the Zionist revolution culminated after inheriting the inner crises of the traditional society—as shown by the life and wanderings of Hillel and Adolf. However, on the other hand, the story shows clearly that, according to Agnon, the Zionist revolution did not bring a balm to cure the protracted ills of the Jewish people. In the Land of Israel—where the revolution took place, where everyone believed that "all hopes would be fulfilled" (to quote a famous song of the Second Aliya), and where the "Divine Presence would also dwell"—the revolution did not bring the longed for results. This story seems to show that the solution to the inner paradoxes of the revolution that destroyed the tradition might be a strange return to the roots of the Jewish tradition—before it was established in any traditional or secular institutions. That return, which could be a way out of the morass, is embodied in the figure of the young American Jew who comes to the Land of Israel to combine the study of Torah and working the land. The Torah, in its purity, might be one way out of the situation with no way out. The narrative situation in "The Covering of Blood" resembles the situation in A Guest for the Night, and I believe that the analogy was a conscious one. Here again, the narrator-author is an addressee-witness to Hillers story or confession. In turn, Hillel is the addressee and witness of Adolf's story. These are two modern interpretations of the myth of Job—recollections of the suffering of two individuals who happen to be victims of the last fifty years of Jewish history. Like Job, they have lost their loved ones and their possessions. The two storytellers are victims of the collective history of their community. The addressee is similar to the "guest" in A Guest for the Night—that is, an aesthetic involved/noninvolved spectator. His guilt is the "implied" blame of Job's companions, who bear witness and listen to Job's complaints but who were mere bystanders, seeing Job's afflictions and doing nothing but misunderstanding and misinterpreting them intellectually.

The implied author's goal and message is the transference of the implicit guilt feelings of the narrator as addressee to the implied readers. In the act of reading, the readers become witnesses and spectators for the primary and secondary narrators of the story. The implied authors demand that the readers take responsibility upon themselves for the miseries inflicted upon their brethren. The readers also belong to the social circle (Jews in America and Israel) that, in the literary model, was at least partly responsible for the suffering of the victims and the survivors. Moreover, I believe that Agnon indicates that any survivor must accept some responsibility for the miracle of survival while his or her group was victimized. This is the meaning of the stories of Hillel and Adolf, and this is their significance for the narrator, for their addressees, and for the narrator's addressees as well.

Based on the inner logic of the plot, "The Covering of Blood" is also one of Agnon's most ambiguous and grotesque stories. For example, Adolf, the pursued, is given the first name of Hitler—the arch pursuer. Between the two a bizarre synonymity is created. The story also ends in deep despair, with a strange prophecy for the future of the Jewish state—the children of which are liable to inherit the Gypsy heritage. However, with the motif of Benyamin, Agnon concludes one of his last stories—apparently written in the 1960s—in a manner similar to the author of Ecclesiastes, the most pessimistic of the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible. There, it is written:

The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man. For God shall bring every work into the judgment concerning every hidden thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil.

Lippman Bodoff (essay date 1993)

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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 faith, is an underlying theme in much of Agnon's work. He simultaneously developed this theme and reflected it in his writing technique, by using modern literary approaches to character analysis and plot development, together with traditional Jewish symbols, allusions and subtexts. Nowhere is his concern about the importance of maintaining the Jewish core in Israeli life—indeed, in the lives of Jews everywhere, but even, perhaps, especially, in Israel—than in his two novellas, Edo and Enam (1950), and Betrothed (1943).

Betrothed, written in the midst of the Holocaust, sought to provide some reassurance that, somehow, the bones of Jewish tradition would yet live—or, more precisely, magically come alive again in the Yishuv, in the newborn Jewish homeland of Erez Yisrael. The reassurance is conveyed in Betrothed through the mystical doctrines of kabbalah, that portray history as the pre-destined process of the liberation of the sparks of Divine holiness temporarily captured in a world of evil, and their ultimate reunification with the Godhead through a spiritually redeemed Israel (Jacob in the story) united with the Shekhinah (Shoshanah in the story). But Agnon adds a strong dramatic touch to his novelistic treatment, pitting the spiritual, feminine Shekhinah of kabbalah against six secular, lovely, but lethal, spiritually debilitating young women of the Yishuv, in a cosmic battle for the soul of Jacob. The latter, in context, is made into an anti-hero; while ambitious and dedicated to his own professional advancement, he remains passive, uninterested and even oblivious of the spiritual battle around him.


As children, living in the European Galut, Jacob and Shoshanah (before Betrothed starts) had sworn eternal faithfulness to each other while playing together at the home of her parents, who had reached out to Jacob when his mother died in his youth. Their betrothal is consummated in a ceremony in which she cuts off a lock of her hair and his, and burns the hair, and they both consume the ashes. As the novella opens, Jacob is a young man living in the Land of Israel. His aliyah was funded by Shoshanah's wealthy father, Ehrlich, but started as an educational and career opportunity rather than as an expression of any Zionist idealism by either of them. Jacob has remained in the Yishuv as a teacher at a university, where he does research in the dead plant life of the Mediterranean, an activity "remote from the interests of the Jewish settlements"; not surprisingly, his cultural interests run to Hellenism rather than Hebraism.

He lives in a secular city, Jaffa, where each person is busy "pursuing his own ends." and associates with a circle of six similar secular young women; together, they become known as the "Seven Planets." Oddly, there is not even the hint of any sex or romance between Jacob and any of them, despite their variety of origins, physique and personality. They spend time together in the homes, streets, and beaches of Jaffa, on the Mediterranean, under what seems like a remote, unseeing, star-filled sky—bonded to nature, happy together in an innocent, almost childlike way, in a cyclical, unchanging existence, with no evident goals, cares or concerns. Jacob is passive to them, and to the land and its culture.

Suddenly, Jacob learns that Shoshanah and her father are coming to Palestine for a brief visit, at the end of a long, worldwide trip that has taken them to many countries, before returning home to Vienna. Meeting Shoshanah for the first time as an adult, after many years, he immediately senses a permanent attachment to her—based more on their mutual childhood covenant than on any special feelings that she now engenders. But he feels undeserving of her, and unhappy, without knowing why. Shoshanah seems jealous of his six girl friends—particularly of Tamar, to whom Jacob has been most physically attracted (although Shoshanah had no evident way of knowing this)—and insists that Jacob repeat his childhood vow of faithfulness and marriage. But their future as a couple is clouded. First, there are her continued bouts of somnolence, interrupted only by a rewarding tour of the Yishuv—in which she is impressed by the rebuilding of the land and language of the Jewish people, while her father continues to view it as a place for the old, for retirement and death. Second, Shoshanah's and Jacob's outlooks are fundamentally different. He values his freedom and his career, and looks at the world optimistically, as a place of opportunity. She sees herself as separated from the world, a world which humans have nothing "to be proud about." Third, Jacob is offered an attractive new position in America, and he quickly decides that it's time to move on, even if this means leaving Palestine and Shoshanah.

At this point, Shoshanah falls into a virtual coma; her doctor's scientifically based prognosis is that she will die unless she returns promptly to Vienna for some unspecified treatment. Jacob finds out about her illness and, this one time revealing a religious sensibility, prays: "Oh God,. . . save me in Your great mercy" (emphasis added). Yet, he is determined to go to America. To deter him, Tamar attempts to seduce Jacob, but they are interrupted by the rest of the women, who succeed in moving the action, one last time, to the seashore, under the stars. They determine that one of them shall marry Jacob and go to America with him—the victor in a race that reverses the Greek practice: the girls will race for the man. The night and the rite capture the passive Jacob into seeming acquiescence at his coming captivity. Just when it appears that Tamar is about to win the race, Shoshanah appears and overtakes the pack, captures her human prize, and crowns herself with the garland of seaweed which the girls prepared for the victor.


The battle of the contending forces of tradition and modernity in Jewish history is portrayed in Betrothed through the Jewish community in the Land of Israel, as it struggles to create a new homeland for the Jewish people. Agnon praises those who love the land and its people, who come to the land, work the land, and stay in the land—for whatever reason or motive. The Yemenite Jews have difficulty in reconciling Biblical texts with the world of reality, but—unlike Jacob—they continue to live and work in Israel, and to study Torah and obey its commandments. The Russian Jews are enthusiastic and passionate to the point of incivility, and the Sephardim are unsociable and superior—but both are loyal to their People and their Land. Yet, while the return to the Promised Land has required the destruction of the passivity, the defeatism—indeed, even the traditional faith—of most of Diaspora Jewry, Agnon recognizes that there can be no justification for the return unless the new Israel, represented by Jacob, inherits the tradition of Jacob's ancestors—represented, as we shall see, by Shoshanah. Even her secular father, Ehrlich, is able to discern that she and Jacob are eternally tied together, as he says to Jacob after the latter has decided to leave Shoshanah and the Land of Israel:

"Let me put it to you this way. Suppose I am holding on to some valuable object, which I am about to return to its rightful owner. Suddenly, the object slips from my hands before it has reached the owner and there we are, both left empty-handed; I who had it in my grasp and he who reached out to take it" (emphasis added).

But that eternal bond, that alone can give a reborn Jewish people an identity, is threatened by secularism, on two fronts. First, is the battle for Jacob's loyalty to the Land, represented by the invitation from New York that he go there to become a full professor and occupy an academic chair that has been established in his honor. Second, is the looming battle for Jacob's spiritual and cultural loyalty between Shoshanah and the six maidens—indeed between Shoshanah and the entire secular ambiance of the story, from Vienna to Jaffa, from her father to the "Seven Planets," from ancient sea to modern university. Both battles are ultimately a battle between Judaism and Hellenism, for Jacob's soul. Given his secular training and career, and a life that is not rooted in Jewish tradition, it seems inevitable to Agnon that secular Judaism means the death of Judaism and ultimately of the Jewish people.

Thus, Jacob's response to the call of New York to his career is single-minded and unreserved acceptance. His decision to leave, and Shoshanah's resultant sickness, produce another challenge, one last attempt by the six maidens to capture Jacob as a husband for one of them, if not for the land and its people. For them, the issue is who will go with Jacob to America. Looking out from the shore to a passing ship, too far to permit a perception of its direction, "to Jacob and his companions it made no difference where the ship was headed." For them, as for Ehrlich, travel is the goal, to see the world; all places and cultures are equal. Leaving the Land of Israel is no different than coming to it, if there is no special meaning to Erez Yisrael.

We are now ready to understand Shoshanah, and her role in the battle for Jacob's soul—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, the three-century old Death of Religion and its rebirth. For Agnon, however, there is more to the tale than just that clash; at stake is the inevitability of its resolution—an inevitability that Agnon represents for us in the symbols that permeate Betrothed.

Jacob is seemingly a permanent part of a secular circle which Agnon describes, in the words of the Jaffa community, as the "Seven Planets." These, in turn, represent the kabbalistic concept of the seven lower sefirot, or emanations of God, which represent the Divine in the material, observable universe, and guide its destiny. The three uppermost sefirot are Keter (the "ein sof" or eternal Godhead), and Hakhma and Binah (wisdom and intelligence), the two forms of knowledge in their male and female aspects. Together they make up the three upper sefirot that man cannot even approach. But through Torah, and the kabbalistic understanding of its symbols and commandments, man may comprehend and achieve the essence of the seven lower sefirot: Tiferei (beauty or compassion) (Jacob and the People of Israel); Hesed (love) (Abraham); Gevurah (power) (Isaac); Nezah (endurance) (Moses); Hod (majesty) (Aaron); Yesod (foundation) (Joseph); and—the tenth and most mystical of the sefirotMalkhut (kingdom) (David). The last sefirah is not limited, however, to David. Indeed, in Lurianic kabbalah it stands for the Shekhinah, the feminine, merciful aspect of God that must combine with Tiferet (Jacob) and ultimately with the Godhead itself, with Keter, in order for the world to operate in harmony and thereby be redeemed and returned to its original perfection, the perfect unity of God. Shoshanah, in Jewish tradition, is the Shekhinah. Thus, the history of the universe becomes, in kabbalah, a spiritual process of world redemption, in which the Shekhinah is the catalyst. Somehow, Shoshanah must become part of Jacob's circle of seven—and transform it by her presence and union with Jacob from seven secular "planets" to seven holy sefirot. Because of this Divine Plan, comprising the subtext of Betrothed, harmony will come, and redemption is inevitable.

The Israeli critic, and my revered teacher, Gershon Shaked, has recognized the importance, for Agnon, of the miraculous in explainning Jewish history and its eternality. He argues that Agnon usually provides non-realistic, even miraculous escapes from the historical abysses and deadends faced by Jewish ideals and traditions, when his characters are confronted or mocked by the stubborn realities of modernity. Agnon generally provides

. . . a miraculous and non-rational counter-plot, deriving from irrational realms. . . . These works do not end happily, with reconciliation, but rather with acknowledgement of the dead-end, the gap between the powers at odds with each other. . . .

What emerges from a general examination of the plots of these novels is that Agnon argued that only by means of irrational counter-plots (or a rational one contrasting with an irrational act based on nostalgia, the return to the doomed shtetl) can this generation grapple with the conflicts it confronts. According to the nature of things and logic, recent generations of Jewish society have reached a cul-de-sac, and each generation, everywhere, is threatened with devastation. One might possibly say that the final lesson of Agnon's view of history and society is that the society exists by virtue of miracles, and if we do not depend on miracles, we have nothing to depend on.

["By Some Miracle: S.Y. Agnon—the Literary Representation of Social Dramas," Modern Hebrew Literature, Spring/Summer, 1986]

Jewish tradition is rich in the symbolic importance of the Shekhinah and its metaphor, Shoshanah (or rose). The Midrash speaks of the Shekhinah as the Divine Presence, an aspect—and more particularly the feminine, daughter, sister and bride, aspect—of the Godhead, to which (a male) Israel seeks to cleave. It also equates that term with Knesset Yisrael—the Jewish people in its ideal (feminine) form, which claims (a male) God as hers alone, as Shoshanah claimed Jacob when they were children. Their mutual oath in Betrothed is like a modern double ring ceremony; each is dedicated to the other—"Dodi li, v'ani lo," as we read in Song of Songs, the canonical love duet and love longings between God and Israel as they eternally search for each other in the streets of Jerusalem. The Midrash speaks of Israel, the shoshanah of God, as a "rose among the thorns," in that, like Agnon's Shoshanah, it withstood foreign cultures while in Galut, preserving the purity of Jewish belief, of Jewish monotheism and spirituality.

Agnon does not leave Shoshanah's status, as a player in a cosmic process, to our imagination or speculation. He does more than simply provide her with a name with traditional connotations. He endows her dramatically with redemptive qualities. She is a Galut girl who—unlike Jacob—has not lost her Jewish pride and identity despite the past secular ambience of her family and country. Though a latecomer to the Holy Land, she knows where she belongs when she gets there.

The Shekhinah (Shoshanah) has been in Galut, where our tradition tells us it went to accompany and preserve Israel in its wanderings among the nations (B. Meg. 29 a). It has always sought to remain close to Israel, just as Shoshanah and Jacob, although having different parents, lived together in Vienna as part of one family. Shoshanah and the People of Israel were, from the beginning of exile, betrothed, as God took Israel for His bride on Mount Sinai. It was an oath taken to last until redemption, and the final unity of the People of Israel with the Shekhinah, in the Land of Israel.

But, as the Zohar represents, they have become separated, and, wandering from land to land, she is now tired, sleepy, although still able to withstand long voyages. Agnon's imagery reminds us of Song of Songs, where Shoshanah (there representing the Jewish People [2:1]), describes herself as "asleep, but my heart is awake" (5:2). She can endure separation and endless travel among the nations away from Jacob as long as she is not permanently rejected by him. She is prescient (recall her meeting with Tamar), suggesting powers that are more than mortal, the powers of spiritual insight. Indeed, when Jacob and Shoshanah first meet, as adults, in Erez Yisrael, Shoshanah speaks optimistically of "the resurrection of the dead," a concept which the secular Jacob emphatically rejects. For Shoshanah, there is more to history than man's perception of reality; for Jacob, there is only reality, the lessons of science. Her response, as if sensing that there will soon come a time when resurrection of the dead will have to be a reality for both of them, is described in the following way by Agnon:

At that moment Shoshanah seemed to hover (merahefet) over those blue distances she had spoken of. Then, suddenly, she answered Jacob's gaze. She took out her handkerchief, wiped her eyes, opened them and looked at him with absolute love. After a while she said, "I am going to close my eyes and you, Jacob, are to kiss me on the eyelids."

Jacob's own eyes filled with tears. With the tears still there, he placed his lips on her wet lashes.

Later, when Jacob is about to be enveloped in a pagan marriage rite orchestrated by the six maidens, this kiss and its remembrance will save him, protecting him from an enveloping, consuming alien embrace. We should note Agnon's use of the word "merahefet," hovering, to describe Shoshanah's spirit, with its connotation of the Divine Spirit, from the opening lines of Genesis.

Shoshanah is not close to her father, who is secular; and Agnon suggests that his love for her is less as a daughter than as an heirloom, a treasured object of which one is proud, behind glass or in a portrait, but which is not a part of one's active life. She remains aloof from foreign cultures and uncontaminated by them. For Shoshanah, her childhood oath with Jacob is a lasting one. She loves the Land of Israel, as we see in her joy at her father's decision to settle in Erez Yisrael, and at the use of the Hebrew language as the language of prayer and daily life by her reborn People in a reborn Land. Shoshanah identifies Hebrew with the sidur, the language of prayer, that brings man in direct contact with God. Unlike Jacob, she believes in personal rebirth—personal resurrection—one of Maimonides' thirteen fundamental creeds of Judaism.

Jacob, like her father, shares neither her spirituality nor her faith. Indeed, she is the only protagonist in the story with a belief in, and an attachment to, Jewish land, liturgy, ritual, history and theology. Neither her father, nor Jacob, nor the "six maidens," show a loyalty to these values. It is her full acceptance of Jewish tradition that differentiates her from the others, that separates the Shekhinah from the other, opposite, forces contending for Jacob's soul. These forces include the locus of the story—multi-national, secular Jaffa, which Agnon points out was established by Japheth, father of Indo-European nations and cultures, and the Greek and Roman traditions and values of Western civilization. Jacob still clings to them; Shoshanah easily sheds them.

To realistically portray Jacob as both Shoshanah's beloved and the object of her spiritual battle for him, Agnon insightfully makes Jacob merely a passive, easily diverted, symbol of Hellenism. His life represents not Eros and instinct, as in the case of the six maidens who surround him, but knowledge and science—not Dionysus but Apollo. As we have seen, the key to the meaning of Shoshanah's relationship with Jacob is provided by the kabbalah and its imaging of the cosmic process of redemption. Significantly, for Agnon, it is Shoshanah who must pursue and capture the passive Jacob, who is incapable of overcoming his desire to pursue, alone, a secular scientific life—despite his instinctive understanding that without Shoshanah he is nothing.

At the beginning of the story, the Shekhinah and Israel have become separated; we recall her words in Song of Songs, "ani yeshena, v'libi er," "I am asleep but my heart is awake," and we read about Shoshanah's initial intermittent dazedness, sleepiness, and her glazed, uninterested look as she waits unsuccessfully for Jacob to choose her over her spiritual adversaries, and bring redemption to the world. She has been this way since he left her years ago to find his individual fulfillment. Meanwhile, Jacob has been bound up in a life from which every element of Jewish tradition has been lost. But, soon after Shoshanah's arrival in Palestine, she has Jacob reaffirm his oath of loyalty to her, to the Shekhinah, which he does without hesitation or reservation, although—as his actions show—still without real love and total commitment.

From that moment on, Shoshanah is alert, active—even enjoying material pleasures. Yet, Shoshanah is still unhappy as she contemplates the future, knowing from her past European, Viennese experience that life even together with Jacob will be difficult in a hostile, warring world, in which evil is so powerful. Shoshanah's sadness is not a private death wish, but the real concern of someone who is aware of Jewish suffering, foreseeing that so much hardship is in store for them in the real world.

In contrast, Jacob is optimistic about the future, which he can see only as a vibrant young man, and not as a Jew threatened by the cultures that surround him. "Both of us are young enough, with all of our life before us." It is Jacob, the modern man of science and reason, who is unrealistically optimistic, who—caring only about himself—cannot accurately see where a world without spirituality is heading. But Shoshanah, sensitive to Israel's tradition and history, despairs, because she is concerned that the future may not be "any better than the life that lies behind." The depth of Agnon's own despair in the middle of the Holocaust is represented by the despair of the Shekhinah itself, even as it contemplates renewed spiritual union with Israel, in the Land of Israel.

Jacob, because of his estrangement from Judaism, now is twice tempted to betray Shoshanah. First, he accepts the offer to become a professor in a New York university, without thought or regret. Shoshanah presumably learns about Jacob's decision when the rest of Jaffa learns about it, as they do very quickly. Only then does she succumb to a new kind of sleep, seemingly permanent and just short of death, an illness both real and metaphysical, as she is about to be abandoned again by Jacob.

But the lure of a new, voluntary Galut in New York is not the only temptation facing Jacob. A far more serious test immediately awaits him, a test to which Shoshanah herself must respond, lest the Divine Plan for redemption go awry. For the six maidens now make one last effort to capture Jacob permanently, which is to say, to exclude the Shekhinah permanently from their community, and from ever marrying Jacob. It begins as Tamar comes to see him in his room for the first time—Tamar, whom Shoshanah perceived as the true obstacle to her spiritually and physically uniting with Jacob and entering the "circle of seven," as Jewish tradition envisions, and thereby changing its essence from natural "planets" to spiritual sefirot. It is Tamar to whom Jacob has been most attracted physically and with whom he has most nearly formed a physical attachment. It is this Tamar—whose name connotes a dark moral aspect in Jewish tradition—who now appears, asking Jacob for advice on two strangely contrasting career paths, which now become understandable in their symbolism. The first alternative is for Tamar to go to Europe and become a doctor (a traditional and honorable career for a Jew) and thereby leave room for Shoshanah to join the circle of seven. The second, is for Tamar to remain in Israel and take up sculpturing (symbolic of graven images) and the beauty of form, a cultural symbol of Paganism and Hellenism, with their emphasis on strength and beauty. As we shall see, Tamar's appearance in Jacob's room, ostensibly for career advice, is a ruse for arousal. Tamar is out to become, and is about to become, the wife of Jacob—which will permanently exclude Shoshanah from the "planets," destroy the reunification of the Divine sefirot, and bind Jacob forever to all that Tamar represents.

In short order, Tamar is joined by the other five girls, and there soon commences an unmistakably pagan, Greek rite under the stars, at the water's edge of Jaffa. They encircle and dance around Jacob, reminiscent of the psalmist's remark, "sabuni gam sevavuni" ("they compassed me about"), in describing the encirclement of Israel by its enemies. Soon, the girls decide to emulate the Greeks and have a race, with the winner—the "mighty runner"—to be crowned by Jacob and given to him in marriage. Jacob is described as in a state of being "carried beyond himself," as he had been all those other nights that he and the six maidens had walked by the sea under the stars feeling at one with the mighty beauty of nature around them—heaven and earth, land and sea—"which had become a single whole."

But, adds Agnon, so that the reader keeps the invisible Divine role in mind, "this [unity of nature] was contained in yet another greater whole that no eye could see." Indeed, while Jacob now "put[s] Shoshanah entirely out of his mind" and is completely in the power of the maidens and the outcome of their rites, Agnon has not forgotten her: "Her memory formed a circle around his heart, like the golden lashes around her eyes as she slept," the lashes that she had earlier insisted that Jacob kiss, with evident prescience.

The race commences, with the one who proves to be the most "mighty," not the one whom Jacob truly loves, to be his bride. Here, Agnon presents a powerful irony. Jacob, who prides himself on his independence and freedom, has now become the object of capture and enslavement by those who symbolically represent precisely those values and virtues he has most sought in life. His enslavement will be symbolized by his being crowned by the victor with the very seaweed, the subject of his professional excellence, that symbolized that freedom and independence. To compound the irony, his enslavement is about to be achieved by Tamar, who is about to win the race, and with it Jacob, and thereby change a destiny that, of course, cannot be changed, because for Agnon there is a "greater whole that no eye could see." We know that Tamar wants to win the race and Jacob, because Agnon is careful to point out that she overtakes first Rachel and Leah, then Mira, Asnat and Raya, who had alternately taken the lead. Indeed, it is now evident from this effort that winning Jacob was her objective when she came to his room, ostensibly to discuss career choices.

Shoshanah suddenly appears, in her white nightgown, "like a maiden suddenly alarmed in her sleep," alarmed because history is about to be irrevocably changed, because a destiny foretold in Jewish tradition is about to be permanently altered, nullified. She almost literally rises from the dead and wins Jacob's hand, crowned by the garland of seaweed prepared by her adversaries, which recalls her garland when, as children, she and Jacob first vowed their eternal union. She triumphs not because such an outcome is rational, but because for Agnon she is an instrument—the crucial instrument—of God's Divine plan for Israel. Harmony has been restored to history through the Divine Plan as understood by kabbalah.

Agnon's imagery of a near-death Shoshanah saving Jacob, the assimilated Jew, from extinction, re-enacting a preordained cosmic process, points to an important message. Shoshanah can never be re-united with Jacob unless she pursues him, because the modern pull of acculturation makes him incapable of permanently identifying with and choosing either Shoshanah or her opposites. For him, as Gershon Shaked suggests, [in "Portrait of the Immigrantas a Young Neurotic," Prooftexts, January, 1987], they are all sisters, each other's and his, and so he cannot independently unite with any of them without help. But, Agnon inverts the kabbalistic tradition of the Shekhinah waiting for an impatient lover, the ze'ir anpin, to symbolize how difficult the process of redemption will be. In the modern world, man cannot rely on a kabbalistically foretold destiny; only a miracle, wrought by those who believe in miracles and embrace those who do not, will suffice.


Agnon never lets us be certain of what the verdict of history will be, which is to say, whether history and not God will really write the final text of his story. For, at the end of Betrothed, we are told that this is the end of the story "for the time being." On what does the outcome depend? That we are not told. In the end, perhaps, it is for each of us to answer that question, by our faith, or our actions, perhaps both. Is Israel safe, even within the Land of Israel, if its culture, indigenous or imported, is a secular culture without religious content? For the hideous possibility of Israel permanently exiled in its own land, Betrothed provides the healing balm of the possibility of a faith that such a permanent separation is impossible between Jacob and his eternal, historic, covenanted companion, Shoshanah. Such an exile, resulting from the permanent incompatability between the Shekhinah and Israel, would be contrary to God's plan in Jewish tradition, which provides the underlying text for this story.

There remains the question of whether there is a possibility, as some critics suggest, that the ending of Betrothed is a parody of Jewish tradition, a sick joke played at Jacob's expense. Is Betrothed a story of Thanatos, symbolized by Shoshanah capturing Jacob in a final deathly embrace, or as I have suggested—a symbolic tale of hope for a Judaism and a Jewish people saved at the last minute from the deathly embrace of Hellenism and assimilation?

There does seem to be a sharp contrast, as Shaked suggests, between the Shoshanat Ya'akov, the Shoshanah of Jacob in the Jewish tradition (in the Purim poem established by the Great Assembly in the 5th Century, B.C.E.) who is zahala ve'sameha, happy and joyous, and the almost always sad, sleepy, and death-obsessed Shoshanah of Agnon's novella. Yet, it is difficult to support the view that Agnon is parodying the tradition—giving us a story ending in death and not life (or ignoring Jewish tradition altogether, as a minority suggest)—rather than employing it, as I argue, as a serious subtext for Betrothed. To adopt the parody view, one would have to believe that Agnon adopted in Betrothed, while the Holocaust was raging, the critique of traditional Judaism by the anti-Semite Nietzsche as the life-denying way of life, par excellence. One would have to believe that Agnon embraced in Betrothed, while Jewry's religious sages were being murdered, the anti-religious, secularist-nationalist views of such as A. D. Gordon, M. J. Berdiczewski and Ahad Ha'am. This is too radical a view for Agnon; it is not his way. I believe, therefore, that Shoshanah is seriously and not ironically symbolized, and her sadness and death obsession are not meant to ridicule the Shekhinah of Jewish tradition but to reflect on its historic crisis and describe its ultimate redemption. But there are additional historical and textual reasons that may be adduced.

Betrothed was written in 1942-43, when Hitler still occupied most of European Russia and most of North Africa, and was close to seizing Palestine and the rest of the Middle East, when the Holocaust had become known as an actuality if not in its full dimensions of 6 million Jewish dead. Shoshanah has a right, as it were—without symbolizing Thanatos—in a work written to be read by readers living in the awesome eye of Hitler's racial devastation, to envy the dead and to foresee tragedy lying ahead for her and for Jacob. Yet, she seeks and obtains Jacob's commitment to marriage and a future life together, and looks forward to it; she praises the rebirth of Hebrew and the Jewish people in the Yishuv; and she literally jumps for joy when learning that she and her father will live in Erez Yisrael. These are not the indications of a person that craves death, but of a sensitive, aware, realistic person who spiritually and ideologically wants to live and achieve her destiny, even while—on a realistic and rational level—she recognizes how difficult Jewish life can be.

And there is the concluding personal observation by Agnon at the end of Betrothed, where he tells us that, because Shoshanah and Jacob were betrothed to one another through a solemn vow, he has titled the work Sh'vuat Emunim, the vow of those who are faithful (to God? to each other? to both?) and not, as "at first we had thought to call it, The Seven Maidens'." The concept of covenant between Jacob and Shoshanah overcame the secular, ambivalent, ironic concept of seven maidens (i.e., the inappropriate combination of the Shekhinah with her spiritual antagonists). For, without Jacob, there is no special content to "seven maidens"; they would merely symbolize seven women fighting for the loyalty and love of a man. But, because of the childhood oath sworn by Jacob and Shoshanah, symbolizing the covenant at Sinai between Israel in its historic youth and God, the title—and the story's significance—had to be restated as the "Vow of the Faithful."

The tale will, indeed, continue, as Agnon has noted, but the chasm between Jewish dreams and Jewish realities—and the modern chasm between what our minds believe and our souls perceive—will ultimately be bridged, as Betrothed reassures those with faith in Jewish destiny and redemption.

Nitza Ben-Dov (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7004

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.

—Cynthia Ozick "Agnon's Antagonisms"

In this [essay], we shall be concerned exclusively with examining how the multiplicity of meaning so integral to Agnon's style, which makes it difficult for his readers to retrace a situation, utterance, motif, or even the plot of his narratives without sensing that the concealed exceeds the revealed, owes much to the linguistically allusive dimension of his stories, hidden in which are elements whose importance is often greater than that of more visible surface features.

The connotative riches of Hebrew, a language encompassing three thousand years of literary creativity and a great network of intertextual commentaries and references, have been used for fictional purposes by many modern Hebrew authors, but by none with the narrative cunning of Agnon. Intertextual allusions in Agnon's work create complex layers of meaning through their evocation, often by means of a single word or brief phrase, of entire passages from antecedent texts. They are, however, commonly overlooked not only by readers of his work in translation, which cannot possibly reproduce such effects, but also by many Hebrew readers, who lack the traditional Jewish education needed to follow the recondite hints of Agnon's language. Even those readers who make the effort, aided by dictionaries, concordances, and so on, to trace Agnon's many literary allusions to their source often miss the subtleties, narrative implications, and parody that contribute to the tension between the explicit and implicit which is the essence of his artistry.

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. Only two are quarried exclusively from what the Israeli writer Amos Oz has called the Hebrew language's "biblical bedrock" ["Thoughts on the Hebrew Language," in Under This Blazing Light (Hebrew), 1979]. One of these is the novella In the Prime of Her Life; the other is the collection Tales of Poland, a short story from which called "The Dance of Death, or the Lovely and Pleasant" will be the focus of the present [essay]. By means of this story I hope to show how Agnon's extraordinarily subtle use of the Hebrew tradition of intertextuality can endow a narrative with a hidden meaning, a meaning even which is a contradiction of the apparent surface meaning. Thus, allusion performs a function analogous to dream-imagery in opening unsuspected perspectives through a strategy of indirection.

Before examining "The Dance of Death," however, I would first like to say a few . . . words about the use of biblical language in In the Prime of Her Life. I have contended that the critical consensus that this novella ends on a note of desired consummation is mistaken, and that the real theme of In the Prime of Her Life (as of all Agnon's love stories) is not fulfilled but disappointed love. What I wish to do now is demonstrate how this claim can be substantiated by a close reading of two biblical allusions that, occurring in a passage at the beginning of the novella, harbor within themselves the covert content of the entire work. . . .

Agnon had obvious mimetic reasons for composing In the Prime of Her Life entirely in biblical Hebrew, for his narrator Tirtza Mintz is a woman of a traditional Orthodox Jewish upbringing who has been schooled in the Bible but not in Rabbinics. A closer reading of the story, however, reveals that purely aesthetic considerations determined the choice of its language too. The laconic style of biblical prose, which mutes emotive voices and screens dramatic feelings, fits the solemnly tempered tone and melancholy atmosphere of the novella. The grim mood of the story's opening; the growth of its heroine in the shadow of her mother Leah's premature death; the girl's love for Akavia Mazal, Leah's first and only romance; Leah's chronic illness which Tirtza reenacts in the form of acute lovesickness; Tirtza's ultimate marriage to Akavia, a man far beyond her years, who spends his days recording local history and unearthing ancient tombs; and finally, the death wish with which the story ends as Tirtza, now pregnant, feels her unborn child quicken in her womb—all of these are effectively captured by the use of scriptural language.

The very first encounter between Tirtza and Akavia illustrates the quiet power of biblical allusion in this complex love story. At the end of their year of mourning for Tirtza's mother, Tirtza and her father take a walk together to Akavia's home, which is located at the edge of town. Akavia, a scholar-poet and antiquarian, has been asked to compose the epitaph for Leah's tombstone. Tirtza narrates:

At that time my father stopped saying the mourner's prayer. And he came to me and said, "Come, let us go see to a tombstone for our mother." And I put on my hat and gloves and said, "Here I am, father.". . . We took a long route around the town. My father put his hand in mine and said, "Let us go this way."

As we reached the end of the town, lo, there was an old woman digging in her yard. And my father greeted her and said, "Please tell us, good woman, is Mr. Mazal here?" And the woman set aside the spade with which she had been digging and answered, "Yes, sir, Mr. Mazal is at home." And my father put his arm in mine and said, "Come, my daughter, let us go in."

To the Hebrew reader who knows his Bible, this description immediately brings to mind two scriptural episodes: the binding of Isaac and Saul's quest for his father's asses. We are alerted to the first of these the moment Tirtza says hineni, "Here I am," which is Abraham's response to God when he is called upon to sacrifice Isaac. Subsequently, this scene from Genesis is suggested several more times in the course of the passage, as in the long, circuitous walk Tirtza and her father take (Abraham and Isaac walk for three days to reach the place of Isaac's sacrifice) and in the frequent use of the verb "to go," as when Mr. Mintz, using a grammatically archaic form, tells Tirtza, "Let us go this way" (nelkha-na shama, a clear echo of Abraham's nelkha ad koh, "We will go yonder"). By using such language Agnon intimates that Tirtza, like the biblical Isaac, will passively undergo an extraordinary ordeal at the hands of her elders, who will sacrifice her upon the altar of their own emotional needs.

The second biblical allusion in this episode is implicit in Mr. Mintz's query, "Is Mr. Mazal here?" the unusual Hebrew phrasing of which ha-yesh ba-zeh mar Mazal? occurs only once in the Bible. This is in I Samuel 9:11, where Saul and his servant, who are seeking the prophet Samuel in order to inquire about Saul's father's lost asses, ask some maidens they meet at a well, "Is the seer here?" (ha-yesh ba-zeh haro'eh). In the Bible, of course, especially in the Book of Genesis, an encounter between a young man and a maiden at a well is a frequent prelude to betrothal, and there is thus a special significance in Tirtza's encounter being with an old woman. The age of Mazal's servant presages Tirtza's future romance with a man twice her years and implies that her fate will be radically different both from that of Saul, who sets out in search of his father's asses and discovers a kingdom, and from that of the Patriarchs, who discover youthful love at a well. Unlike them, Tirtza is entering an aged world of excavated antiquities, an eccentric realm over which there hovers a spirit of death.

In the Bible itself, these two episodes have no verbal or thematic relationship. Even in Agnon's tale, they function in opposite ways. Tirtza and her father's walk to Akavia's home directly parallels the biblical story of the binding of Isaac and thus takes on a mythic or epic quality. In contrast, the story of Saul's search for the asses that results in his unexpected elevation to the monarchy is inverted in In The Prime of Her Life: whereas Tirtza thinks she is setting out on a romantic adventure when she goes to meet Akavia Mazal, her mother's youthful love, she is in fact taking a first step toward entrapment in a mundane, oppressive marriage. The Saul allusion, therefore, is ironic; it contrasts the destiny of Agnon's characters with those of the great heroes of the Bible. As [is the case] in In The Prime of Her Life, part of the difficulty in interpreting Agnon's allusive language lies precisely in deciding when it is "mythic" and when "ironic," when it reinforces certain apparent meanings or implications in the text and when it undermines them. In addition to the many other kinds of indeterminancy in Agnon's fiction that have been discussed in these pages, this one too must be taken into account in any close reading.

This technique of compound scriptural allusion is commonly used by Agnon in his Tales of Poland, a slim, early volume that has been commonly considered by critics to be little more than a minor exercise in the literary recasting of Jewish folk materials. In the following analysis of one of these tales, "The Dance of Death," a story only four pages long, I hope to show how Agnon's choice of specific biblical allusions is always deliberate and thematically significant; how even small and seemingly inconsequential markers whose significance appears to be localized are part of a larger design; how this design interweaves these components so that a coherent and surprising interpretation of the text is made possible; finally, how, even when such coherence is achieved, the many-sided indeterminacy that is . . . characteristic of Agnon's work, is preserved and even intensified.

At first glance, "The Dance of Death" has a strong thematic resemblance to apparently similar stories in the literature of the 19th-century Hebrew revival which make use of Jewish martyrological materials both to immortalize Jewish suffering at the hands of a cruelly anti-Semitic world and to challenge traditional Jewish assumptions of a benevolent Providence that guides Jewish fate. A careful stylistic analysis of "The Dance of Death," however, demonstrates how far removed in fact it is from such stories, whose thematics it restates for its own deeply ambivalent ends. In Agnon's tale, the center of gravity is subtly shifted from questioning the reliability of Providence to questioning the reliability of the Jewish soul itself. The many binary relationships that exist in "The Dance of Death"—Gentile and Jew, Jew and God, human responsibility and human passion, law-giving and law-receiving, life and death, sin and punishment, retribution and atonement, man and woman, daughter and father, individual and community, rich and poor, Jewish past and Jewish future—can support various readings of the text, of which that suggested here is only one of many possibilities. Moreover, "The Dance of Death" was written by Agnon in several versions, including an original Yiddish one called Der Toytntantz. In each of these versions the focus shifts slightly, but I believe that the "deep" meaning is the same in all of them, and it is this meaning, as it is most acutely revealed through the use of biblical language, that concerns me in the last version examined here.

Agnon apparently composed his Tales of Poland in biblical language in order to stress the antiquity and consolidation of the Jewish community in Poland and to suffuse it with a glow of nostalgia in which fantasy and history coalesce. Moreover, as in In the Prime of Her Life, the biblical language of these tales fits the romantic and morbid aspects of the themes of unrequited love, desperate yearning, and tragic death that permeate them. In the case of "The Dance of Death, or Lovely and Pleasant" we already know from the story's title and accompanying epigraph from II Samuel 1:23 ("Lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in death were not divided") that we are dealing with a story heavily steeped in scriptural allusions. On the surface, these allusions seem to do little more than Judaize what is essentially a brief gothic romance. The story begins with a short introductory passage in which the narrator describes a peculiar local phenomenon:

On the edge of Poland, on the outskirts of a small town, there stands a very old synagogue. Beside this synagogue is a stone mound some four cubits high, sprouting with blood-red grass. Weddings are not held there. The voices of joyous grooms are not heard there. And none of the priestly descendants of Aaron tread upon that mound unto this day.

The tale is an explanation of this phenomenon. A lovely, chaste bride and her groom, a young man of surpassing erudition and piety, stand one day beneath a wedding canopy outside the main synagogue of the city. Suddenly, the festive ceremony is disrupted by the appearance of a man on horseback, identified as the local Count. As the Count reaches the canopy, the bride's exquisite beauty unleashes a paroxysm of desire within him. He brandishes his sword, strikes the groom a mortal blow, kidnaps the bride, and rides off with her to his castle. In order to "arouse the wrath of vengeance," the townspeople bury the groom, enshrouded in his blood-stained nuptial raiment (kittel), at the site of the canopy. Subsequently, in the castle, the bride's life is also cut short: one day when the Count is out hunting, she vividly recalls the scene of her wedding day, asks her ladies-in-waiting to dress her in her wedding gown, and thus adorned, she dies. The Count returns to find her lifeless and buries her in a Christian grave on Christian ground. But the lovely and pleasant bride and groom, torn asunder on their wedding day, reunite and embrace after death. Every day of the year, "in the secret of the night," the bride's grave opens and "a veiled woman arises . . . [and] with anguished steps she walks toward the Great Synagogue. Then from his grave rises the dead groom whose blood was spilled beneath the canopy. In the secret of the night he stretches forth his arms, draws his bride to his heart, and together they dance the dance of death." "Therefore," the narrator concludes, "the priests do not tread on that mound and weddings are not held there unto this day."

And so, "lovely and pleasant in their lives," the groom and his bride are, like Saul and his son Jonathan in David's lament, not divided in death. True, the analogy is inexact, since the bride and groom of "The Dance of Death" do not die on the same day like Saul and Jonathan; yet this discrepancy is resolvable, since the abducted bride is likened to a dead person. The townspeople mourn over her no less than over the groom, and the words used to describe her abduction—"and the bride was not there, for the Count had taken [lakah] her"—are those used for the death of Enoch in the Bible: "And Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him" (Genesis 5:24). In a similar vein, alluding to the Book of Job, the narrator comments: "What could they [the wedding guests] do? The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. They had not come to a wedding feast but to accompany the dead on their last journey." Further on in the text too, the bride's death in the castle is identified with the groom's at the wedding: like the groom in his kittel, she breathes her last in her white wedding gown, and the Count's arrival at that exact moment in his blood-drenched hunting garb brings to mind the murder beneath the wedding canopy.

If, however, one continues to pursue the analogy suggested by the story's epigraph, it becomes problematical. Saul and Jonathan, the Bible tells us, were "lovely and pleasant in their lives," whereas the bride and groom of our story are parties to an arranged match who hardly know each other up to the moment of their wedding. Indeed, Agnon's narrative clearly implies that the match may not even have been to the bride's liking: it has been arranged, we are told, by her father, a wealthy and distinguished member of the community, who found his daughter "a man after his own heart" (emphasis added). At the very least, this seems to mean that the bride was not consulted about the match; at the most, that she was unhappy with the husband chosen for her.

Agnon's inversion of the analogy with David's lament does not end here. Its greatest irony, when the lament is read in the light of our story, lies in David's plaint, "Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you in scarlet, with other delights; who put on ornaments of gold upon your apparel." This clashes with the story in that the bride has dressed for her wedding in a plain white dress because she has been forbidden anything fancier by the laws of the Jewish community of Poland. The community has put a ban on expensive wedding clothes because they "consume the wealth of Israel," that is, lead to competitiveness that poorer families can ill afford. Indeed, on the story's overt level, this decree, or rather, the bride's father's opposition to it, may well be what brings on the tragedy. Because the father is annoyed that he cannot parade his wealth at the wedding, he petitions the authorities to waive the ban especially for him—and his hubris in doing so, it is hinted, which persists after his request is rejected (even under the wedding canopy, we are told, "he was clearly unhappy with the ban on [fine] clothing"), is punished by Heaven with the Count's frightful deed.

The bride's entire family is so obsessed with the matter that when the Count is first galloping toward them in the distance their initial reaction is, "Look, the head of state [that is, of the Jewish kehillah] has sent us a special messenger to allow us to wear silk clothing." (Oddly, only the bride seems unperturbed by the prohibition.) Immediately, however, a darker note is struck by the words "a man on horseback," literally, "a rider on a horse," which evoke the phrase in the "Song of Sea" (Exodus 15:1) used to describe the Egyptian cavalry in pursuit of the fleeing Israelites. Indeed this is not a bearer of good tidings but a menacing figure who will transform the wedding day into one of everlasting woe. In another moment the groom's blood-stained robe will present the family's materialistic concern with fine clothing in a different perspective.

If the father and his guests are not at first aware of the approaching horseman's identity, is there anyone who is? Let us look closely at the passage describing his approach:

Then the groom took the wedding ring, and the groom put the ring on the finger of the bride and said, "Behold, thou are sanctified unto me," and all the guests and all those assembled cried, "Mazal tov!" And the groom broke a glass in memory of the Temple, and the marriage contract was read, and the women . . . struck up a dance. And they took two braided breads and clapped them against each other while one woman cried, "O groom like a king," and another answered, "0 bride gracious and beauteous," and everyone called out, "Mazal tov, mazal tov!" The bride lowered her pure eyes to the ground. Who was riding on his horse? Like the shadow of a great rock, so his shadow fell between her and the groom.

We have seen before how in Agnon's works a few seemingly innocent words can contain a clue that leads us to revise our reading of an entire text. Such are the sentences, "Who was riding on his horse? Like the shadow of a great rock, so his shadow fell between her and the groom." In whose mind or minds do these thoughts take place? If in everyone's, they are not particularly significant. But we must pay attention to the fact that between them and "everyone" ("everyone called out, 'Mazal tov, mazal tov!'") another consciousness, the bride's, has been interposed ("The bride lowered her pure eyes to the ground"). The reaction to the horseman, then, would seem to be hers alone—and if it is, we are being told something of the utmost importance: unlike the rest of the gathering, the bride has an inkling of who the mysterious rider is and of what his arrival portends. Why else indeed would she perceive his shadow as falling "between her and the groom?" (That this is her subjective perception and not that of the guests is further demonstrated by the fact that she and the groom are standing so close together that there would be no room for an actual shadow to be cast between them even if the rider—as does not seem to be the case—had halted his mount directly in front of them.)

It is at this point that Agnon's use of biblical allusion is revealed in its full artistry. The phrase "the shadow of a great rock" has a decidedly ominous ring to it and would seem to be no more than a reflection of the bride's dark premonition that something terrible is about to happen—unless we happen to know its origin. This is Isaiah 32:1-2, in which we read: "Behold, a king shall reign in righteousness, and princes shall rule in judgment. And a man shall be as a hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place; as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land." For Isaiah, who is speaking about a sun-ravaged countryside where shade is a boon, "the shadow of a great rock" is not something to be feared. It is a positive and protective image, no less than "a covert from the tempest" or "water in a dry place." With this observation we are compelled to reassess "The Dance of Death" in its entirety.

Therefore, if the biblical allusion here is context-incorporating—and we have seen that in Agnon it invariably is—its clear implication is that the bride welcomes the approaching horseman, who is for her "a prince ruling in judgment" come to rescue her from an unwanted marriage to a husband chosen by her father against her will. Her "pure eyes," it now appears, have not been lowered to the ground in modesty at hearing herself praised with the ritual phrase of "bride gracious and beauteous," but rather in the knowledge of what is about to take place, for her abduction is something that she and the Count have planned together.

Once aroused, our suspicions concerning the bride's relations with the Count prior to her wedding deepen when we realize that the sentence describing her abduction, "The bride was not there because the Count had taken her," can admit alternate interpretations. Overtly, this allusion to the biblical verse that tells of Enoch's unusual and preternatural death seems aptly to represent the unique situation of the abducted bride as one who hovers between life and death threatened by both corporeal and spiritual annihilation. But we must also remember that before his death, the Book of Genesis tells us, Enoch "walked with God," that is, was especially intimate with Him. Read contextually, therefore, is not our story implicitly informing us that, before being "taken" by him, the bride's relationship to the Count was of a similar nature?

A Jewish bride who, before her wedding, has an illicit romance with a Christian Count and connives with him to be snatched from under the wedding canopy—not only does such a reading of "A Dance of Death" seem improbably subversive even for Agnon, an author incorrigibly fond of inverting the surface meaning of his own narratives, it also seems irreconcilable with the rest of the story. For if, contrary to all appearances, the first half of "The Dance of Death" is not about violated innocence but rather about sexual defilement and treachery, what are we to make of the story's second half, which tells us that the bride and groom are eternally united in death? How can such a union be possible if the proposed reconstruction of affairs up to the wedding drama is correct?

The answer, as a close reading will reveal, is that "The Dance of Death" is a story not only of concealed crime, but also of concealed repentance. If one reads the story on its overt level, of course, there is no need for the bride to repent because she has done nothing wrong. Read for its allusive content, however, its concise account of her penitence is once again full of surprises.

That the bride of "The Dance of Death" does repent after being taken to the Count's castle can be shown by a comparison of two passages, the one cited above describing her abduction and a second in which, before her death in the castle, she remembers this scene. It is noteworthy that in her recollected version most of the particulars—the wedding ring, the breaking of the glass, the reading of the marriage contract, the dancing women—are missing. At this remove from the event only the significant details are recalled:

She remembered the days of her youth, her wedding day when she stood to the right of the groom near the Great Synagogue. A rider gallops on his horse, gallops toward the canopy. The best men clap hands and sing, "O groom like a king" and the bridesmaids clap loaves of braided breads and sing, "O bride gracious and beauteous." And everyone assembled calls out, "Mazal tov." Who rides on his horse, his shadow weighing on her heart like a great rock? The canopy trembles over her head and its poles fall to the ground. And with that she collapsed, for her heart was stricken.

Let us begin by considering the opening phrase of this passage, "She remembered the days of her youth" (vatizkor ne'ureha). Since there is a linguistic allusion here to Jeremiah 2:2, "Thus saith the Lord, I remember the kindness of thy youth [zakharti hesed ne'urayikh], the love of thy espousals," there is surely significance in the fact that the word "kindness" is missing from the bride's recollection. Unlike the God of Jeremiah, who lovingly remembers His relationship with Israel in the desert, compared to a period of betrothal, the bride has no fond memories of the period of her own betrothal, which was forced upon her by her father. Now, however, reliving the day of her wedding, her perspective has changed radically. No longer does the shadow of the Count lie shelteringly between her and the groom; rather, it now weighs on her heart, transforming the Count himself, the "great rock," from a protective to a crushingly burdensome presence. Nor, it would seem, can she bear to remember the moment of lowering her "pure" eyes, which is also not mentioned. Indeed, no one but she knows how impure she has been—nor was her impurity ever greater than at the very moment she appeared to be modestly looking at the ground. "She remembered the days of her youth": the God of Jeremiah is willing to forgive Israel its transgressions, but can she be forgiven?

"And she collapsed, for her heart was stricken"—a logical conclusion to a painful process of recollection. Plainly put, the bride dies from extreme physical and emotional exhaustion. Here too, however, a complex of biblical allusions calls this simple reading into question. The pivotal sentences announcing the bride's death are borrowed from a passage in the Book of Samuel that describes the death of the high priest Eli and his sons. More precisely, the account of the bride's death parallels that of Eli's daughter-in-law, the wife of his son Phineas, who dies in childbirth upon learning of the capture of the Ark of God by the Philistines and of the death of her husband and his father. Occurring in both the biblical account and Agnon's tale, the Hebrew verb va-tikhr'a, "And she collapsed," has the root k. r.'a, which possesses the primary meaning of kneeling or going down on one's knees, but can also signify going into labor. Here are the two texts, first the modern and then the ancient:

And she collapsed [va-tikhr'a] for her heart was stricken. And as she lay dying, the women attending her said, "Thy Lord has returned from the hunt." She did not answer or give heed. And she said, "Let them bring my wedding gown that I wore when I first came hither." And they brought her the wedding gown that she wore when she came to the castle.

["The Dance of Death"]

And she collapsed [va-tikhr'a] and gave birth, for she was stricken with labor. And as she lay dying, the women attending her said to her, "Fear not, for thou hast brought forth a son." But she did not answer or give heed. And she named the child Ichabod [i.e., Inglorious], saying, "The glory has departed from Israel," because the Ark of God was taken and because of her father-in-law and her husband. And she said, "The glory has departed from Israel, for the Ark of God is taken." (I Samuel 4:19-22)

In the Bible, Phineas's wife is a symbol of national consciousness in the wake of national destruction. Going into sudden labor when she hears the catastrophic news of the capture of the Ark and the death of her family, she finds the catastrophe of Israel even greater than her own personal calamity and—dying in childbirth—names her son Ichabod to commemorate the dishonor of her people. If we continue to regard Agnon's biblical allusions in "The Dance of Death" as contextual, must we not then infer that the bride of his tale is pregnant with the child of the Count and dies, acknowledging her disgrace, while giving birth to an adulterous son?

This possibility is less far-fetched than it may seem to be at first glance; in fact, an early story of Agnon's entitled "ha-Panas" ("The Lamp") confirms that it is precisely what he had in mind! Written when Agnon was still in his teens, "The Lamp" is structured as a bedtime story related by a mother to her son, in the course of which he is told by her:

Once upon a time, under a marriage canopy, there was a Count who murdered a groom and stole his bride. He led her to his chambers and there he lived with her. It is said that a grandson and heir to the family converted and studied the Torah in the old House of Study next to the Great Synagogue. And so that the convert would not walk in darkness as he went to the House of Study, a lamp was lit.

Of course, if the bride of "The Dance of Death," who is quite obviously a later version of the bride of "The Lamp," has a grandson, she has a son or daughter too! In eliminating any overt reference to such a child in "The Dance of Death," Agnon clearly did not wish to eliminate the child from the narrative, for in that case he would not have chosen to describe the death of the bride in language parallel to that concerning Phineas's wife. His intention was rather to conceal the child's existence within the covert network of meanings of "The Dance of Death," whence it may be extracted only by probing the story's pattern of biblical allusions in depth. Does Phineas's wife die from the shock of the terrible tidings or from a complication in childbirth? The Bible does not offer an unequivocal answer but rather emphasizes the coincidence of both factors. Similarly, the death of the bride in "The Dance of Death" can be seen as the result of both physical and psychological factors, a fusion so complete that it is impossible to determine which one of the two is the cause and which the result of her suffering. Do the pains of a fatal labor make her repent what she has done? Or is it rather a penitent awareness of sin that induces labor? And if the latter, does she deliberately choose death as her atonement? Just as the attendants of Phineas's wife assume that the delivery of a newborn son will gladden their stricken mistress, so the abducted bride's ladies-in-waiting assume the news of the Count's return will gladden her, but the recognition that she has sullied the honor of Israel renders her, like Phineas's wife, oblivious to their message of consolation.

The conclusion to "The Dance of Death" develops the parallel with the biblical story of Eli even further by means of an additional linguistic allusion. The last sentence of the tale—"Therefore the sons of Aaron do not tread on this mound of stones, nor is the wedding canopy placed upon it unto this day"—returns us to its beginning, in which the narrator tells us that he is going to explain why, on a certain mound of stones, weddings are never performed and "the priestly descendants of Aaron do not tread." Of course, since according to Jewish law priests are forbidden to have contact with the dead or even to enter a cemetery, the presence of the groom's grave under the mound is enough to explain this prohibition. It is not, however, the only explanation. On the concealed level of biblical allusion there is a second one, which is suggested by yet another verse in the Book of Samuel's account of Eli's death. After the Holy Ark has been captured by the Philistines and triumphantly displayed in the temple of their god Dagon, Dagon's idol miraculously falls down before it—in grieving commemoration of which, the Bible tells us, the priests of Dagon do not "tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod unto this day" (I Samuel 5:5). The allusion to this verse in "The Dance of Death" would appear to suggest that in Agnon's story too the desecrated spot is avoided because the enormity of the misfortune that took place there cannot be forgotten or forgiven. Despite the bride's efforts to erase the memory of her life with the Count, she can never wash away the stain of her ignominy. Just as the elders of Israel failed to foresee the consequences of their decision to bring the Ark to a war with the Philistines, so the bride had no sense of the disaster that her plot with the Count would wreak upon the innocent groom. It is a deed beyond expiation, and when she delivers a child of dishonor, she suffers, dies, and remembers her sin every night as she joins her groom in the dance of death.

And yet as is always the case in Agnon's stories, every interpretation bears its own contradiction. The Book of Samuel makes clear that the national dishonor brought about by the Philistines' capture of the Ark of God is only temporary. By felling the idol of Dagon, the God of Israel manifests his supremacy; the Holy Ark is later returned to the Israelites with great pomp and ceremony and the Ashdodite priests' ritual avoidance of the threshold is in fact a tribute to the triumph of the Hebrew God. By analogy, therefore, the abduction of the bride in "The Dance of Death" and the dishonor she brings upon herself are but temporary too; although she is buried in alien soil, she arises from her grave every night to join her groom, her people, and her God. The sacred custom of the priests with respect to the site where she has both betrayed and asked forgiveness of her groom is a testament to her moral victory in casting off her sin and returning to the God of Israel.

This, then, is the key to understanding "The Dance of Death." The bride does not rise from her grave each night because she has forgotten her love for the Count and wishes to dance an erotic dance with the groom. Rather, her dance is a celebration of religious and moral triumph, a point reinforced by the story's biblical title. In the light of the great disaster of their defeat, both personal and national, whatever conflict existed between King Saul and his son Jonathan in their lifetime (and indeed, the Bible tells us that it was severe) disappears from view; they will forever be remembered as having been lovely and pleasant in life as they were in death. So, separated by murder and reunited by contrition, will the bride and groom of "The Dance of Death."

I have proposed here an interpretation of "The Dance of Death," based on a close reading of its biblical allusions, that is—I hope, at least to some readers—surprising but coherent and based upon reasonable evidence. With all this, is it "valid"?

The quotation marks around "valid" provide, I think, a large part of the answer. Obviously, if there is no such thing as "correctness" in the interpretation of literary texts in general, but only a graded plausibility of possible readings, this is even truer of Agnon, who—as we have seen in the course of this study—delights in indeterminacy and multiple significances. It is certainly possible to read "The Dance of Death" as I have proposed doing here. It is also possible, however, to read it conventionally, as the tale of an innocent Jewish bride abducted by a cruel Gentile and reunited with her husband after death. Indeed, both readings are not merely possible. Both, although they are to all appearances mutually exclusive, are forced upon us not only by the conflict between an overt level of the story that seems to tell us one thing and a . covert level that seems to tell us the opposite, but by deliberately planted contradictions within the covert level itself.

In Agnon's story, immediately after the announcement of the bride's abduction, "And the bride was not because the Count had taken her," comes the sentence, "The maiden cried out [tsa'akah ha-na'arah] and there was none to save her." Of course, if we wish to interpret "The Dance of Death" in the nonconventional manner that I have suggested, the bride's screams are to allay suspicion. The problem is that here too we have an unmistakable echo of biblical language. The allusion is to Deuteronomy 22, where we read (verses 23-26), "If a maiden that is a virgin be betrothed unto a husband and a man find her in the city and lie with her [without her crying out] . . . ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the maiden, because she cried not. . . . But if a man find a betrothed maiden in the field, and the man force her and lie with her . . . unto the maiden thou shalt do nothing . . . for . . . the betrothed maiden cried and there was none to save her."

The point of the biblical law is clear: if a betrothed young woman is violated within earshot of other people who do not hear her cry out, she is presumed guilty of having participated willingly in the act; but if she is violated "in the field," that is, out of earshot, she is presumed innocent on the assumption that she screamed and was not heard. To read this allusion intertextually, therefore, would appear to compel the conclusion that the bride of "The Dance of Death," who screamed and was heard by all the wedding guests, is innocent after all! But is it so? We have already seen that many of Agnon's biblical allusions are "inverted," that is, point not to a correspondence but to a discrepancy between the biblical situation and the situation in the modern story. How can we be sure that this is not the case here too? How can we know, for that matter, whether any biblical allusion in this or any other Agnon story is consonant or dissonant, a mythopoetic strengthening or an ironic undermining of the apparent meaning of the text?

Is not this an interpretive impasse into which Agnon has knowingly led us, not only in "The Dance of Death" but in all his writing? . . .

Agnon rarely means what he seems to be saying—there are always other possibilities of interpretation lying in wait to surprise us. And because so much is conveyed through indirection, we are implicated as readers in a incessant process of inference, in the course of which new discoveries do not rule out previous or additional aperçus, even if they appear to contradict them. Agnon, in sum, has devised a fictional technique that seeks to match the complexity and constant overdetermination of human psychology and the insoluble dilemmas of moral judgment. I have tried in my analyses to adopt a reading mode which comprehends the fullness of this play of indeterminacy without investing it with the status of an exclusive exegetic principle. . . .

I would now maintain that, just as what appears secondary or marginal in Agnon's narratives is not always so, so those purportedly minor or irrelevant works of his that have thus far escaped serious critical attention are not necessarily undeserving of it. Indeed, in scrutinizing them one sometimes discovers that they display Agnon's artistic technique in sharper relief than the familiar narratives.

Naomi B. Sokoloff (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6129

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 for many centuries was studied almost exclusively by men. It was only the major cultural upheavals and transformations of the Jewish Enlightenment and Zionism—sources, as well, of the Hebrew linguistic and literary renaissance of the last two centuries—that led to significant changes in women's social and intellectual roles. The inevitable tensions between a male-dominated tradition and modern cultural change have left their mark on literary representations of women in Hebrew writing by men, even as they have fostered a singular set of obstacles and stimuli for the creation of a female literary tradition in modern Hebrew literature. In light of these considerations, In the Prime of Her Life (1923) invites a feminist rereading, since this novella by Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Nobel Prize winner and preeminent Hebrew novelist of the first half of the twentieth century, is centrally concerned with the sounding and silencing of female voice.

Much of the feminist critical agenda has aimed at documenting ways in which female figures have been represented by men, as well as ways in which women have spoken back, representing themselves through their own vocal self-assertion. Agnon's novella, which features a female narrator, a young woman who marries her mother's former suitor and recounts her life story in the form of a written memoir, raises questions of interest for both modes of reading. Consequently, even as In the Prime of Her Life represents women through the filter of male perceptions, the text poses as a woman's account of her own experience and so calls attention directly to women's expression and language.

In this fiction such issues develop explicitly through insistent treatment of tensions between suppressed and emergent voices. Though critical appraisals have been curiously silent on this matter, Agnon in effect structures the entire novella around a series of verbal exchanges and keen thematic attention to talk. Virtually every paragraph centers on obtrusive reference to or citation of conversations, interior monologues, and varieties of written messages. In this way the text endorses the primacy of linguistic acts as plot actions that regulate matters of will, power, and social relations. It is noteworthy, too, that the representations of language, like the social conflicts they imply or convey, are marked by sexual difference. Just as men and women behave differently, so they express themselves differently, and their uses of words illuminate contrasting privileges and predicaments. The novella in this way highlights the protagonist's attempt to make herself heard by stating her convictions and expressing her own desires. This is not to say that the text necessarily applauds her efforts. At times it clearly decries them. Agnon himself was by no means a feminist nor an advocate of women's liberation, and he sometimes casts his character in a distinctly unflattering light. The narrative nevertheless maintains an intense scrutiny of women's voices, and for this reason feminist theory may provide a productive critical framework for examining In the Prime of Her Life, illuminating aspects of the text that have been overlooked, underestimated, or marginalized by critics.

From the start, In the Prime of Her Life concentrates on the silence of a female character, Tirza's ailing mother, Leah. In the process the text associates subdued voice with death and confinement. Describing the period of Leah's declining health, the opening paragraph relates: "Our house stood hushed [dumam] in its sorrow and its doors did not open to a stranger." The next paragraph reiterates and augments this introductory announcement: "The winter my mother died our home fell silent [damam] seven times over." Both passages play on the Hebrew root d-m-m, recalling the sounds of the title and the first sentence of the novella: "In the prime of her life [bidmi yameha] my mother died." Demi, "silence," functions in this last phrase to signify "in the prime" of her days. Submerged within it, too, heightening its ironic nuances, is reference to blood (dam). These lines thereby connect silence with the snuffing out of vitality in a young woman who died too soon. Subsequently the narrative illustrates the cruelty of Leah's fate by relating another image of suppressed language: letters Mother received from her true love, Akaviah Mazal, have been kept under lock and key for years. She opens them, it is recounted, only to destroy them, burning them in a room whose windows are locked tight. In this stifling setting of enclosure and repression, smoke rises in an allusion to the sacrifice of Leah's true desires.

After her death, Father's arrangements for the inscription on Leah's tombstone reconfirm the entire pattern of her life as silenced and suppressed desire. To understand this episode we should remember the feminist claim that patriarchal culture has often defined woman according to its needs rather than hers; it has also frequently represented females as passive beings unable to produce their own meanings. In this way, as Susan Gubar argues, men have attempted to create woman through masculine discourse, and women, serving as secondary objects in someone else's scheme of things, have been perceived as blank pages on which to write and be written [Gubar, "The Blank Page' and the Issues of Female Creativity," in New Feminist Criticism, edited by Elaine Showalter, 1985]. In Agnon's story, these descriptions are apt; men have been writing the script for Leah all her life. Not allowed to sound her wishes, she has been denied intentionality. Most importantly, her father marries her to the wrong man, one who is better off financially and considered more socially desirable than the suitor she herself prefers. As a result she dies at an early age, her heart physically and metaphorically weakened because deprived of love. Through the incident of the tombstone Agnon creates a startling, culminating illustration of this phenomenon. The woman, her spirit extinguished, has been transformed into an object, her identity reduced to a name carved in stone. It is pointed out, moreover, that her husband thinks more about her epitaph than about her. Though he is genuinely and deeply aggrieved at the loss of his wife, in choosing the lettering for the grave he "all but forgot" the woman. The writing, his defining of her, eases his pain. To Mintz's credit he does reject a highly formulaic epitaph, one which Mr. Gottlieb has prepared, in favor of one more meaningful. The first inscription is very clever; it is based on an acrostic of Leah's name that also incorporates the year of her death into every line of the poem, but there is nothing personal in it. Recognizing this shortcoming, the husband opts for something more authentic. He goes to Mazal, the former beau and author of those now burnt love letters, to commission a second inscription. Though it is finally too late, and though he acts only through an intermediary who is a man, Mintz makes at least some concession toward acknowledging his wife's suppressed desires and inner life: her ardent feelings for Mazal.

Tirza, the daughter, who is at once the narrator and the primary focus of the narrative, establishes her own significance in opposition to these actions on the part of the men. Her initial introduction of herself, for example, in the first paragraphs of the story, serves as a celebration of her mother's voice: "Lying on her bed my mother's words were few. But when she spoke it was as though limpid wings spread forth and led me to the Hall of Blessing. How I loved her voice. Often I opened her door to have her ask, who is there?" While the rest of the paragraph insists on suffocation and enclosure, rendering the mother's thoughts inaudible, Tirza here emphasizes aperture (the outspread wings and the open door) along with sound, self-assertion, listening, and response. These emphases evolve into question about Tirza's identity ("Who is there?") and so constitute an affirmation of her own presence.

Tensions between the suppression and emergence of female voice develop further as the plot unfolds into a story of the daughter's search for independence. Tirza sets her heart on marrying Akaviah Mazal, falls ill in a kind of duplication or reenactment of her mother's final illness, and, surviving this, convinces her father that she and Mazal should be wed. The assertion of her desires, as a recuperation of her mother's lost life, progresses through any number of verbal encounters that disclose identifiably distinctive masculine and feminine aspects. When, for example, Mrs. Gottlieb invites Tirza to spend the summer at her home, the narrator recounts: "My father readily agreed, saying 'Go now.' But I answered, 'How will I go alone?' and he said, 'I will come and visit.' Kaila stood dusting by the mirror and she winked at me as she overheard my father's words. I saw her move her lips and grimace in the mirror, and I laughed to myself. Noticing how my face lit up with cheer my father said, 'I knew you would heed my words,' and he left the room."

This passage could be a textbook illustration of sociolinguistic observations on female verbal behavior. Women, because of the more vulnerable status they occupy in many societies, often tend to avoid language that threatens or endangers the stability of relationships. Consequently, they rely heavily on a range of politeness strategies meant to deflect attack and help maintain interpersonal equilibrium. These include attentiveness, approval, flattery or indirectness, the use of honorifics, appeals to a higher law, generalizations, and excuses of exigence. In the passage cited, Tirza, too, is deferential because of her subordinate position. Accordingly, she restricts her comments to a question. Despite her unhappiness about the plans for the summer, she leaves the father's decision open and does not impose her own mind or views on him. The housekeeper likewise avoids straightforward declaratives. Trying to convince Tirza to agree with her father and respect his desires, Kaila expresses herself only by indirections and distortions. Tirza, aware of the preposterous incongruity of her servant's actions, laughs with amusement at the linguistic inequity prevailing in this exchange. Only fourteen, she does not yet take her own powerlessness quite seriously. She remarks innocently in the next paragraph: "Kaila, God be with you, speak up, don't remain silent, please stop torturing me with all your hints and riddles." For this she is reprimanded and reminded of the gravity of the situation: this trip is for the father's well-being, not hers, and would she but look at him closely she would realize that he is lonely and needs the opportunity to visit the Gottliebs in the country. In short, Kaila first acts on the conviction that she mustn't express herself directly, and then, when pressed, conveys this same message more overtly to Tirza. The girl's personal desires must remain unspoken. As a result of all the indirectness, Mintz for his part misreads Tirza entirely. "I knew you would heed my words (lishmoa' bekoli)" he says, thus reinscribing her back into his code of understanding. Using an expression typical of biblical discussions on obedience to God, he reinforces his patriarchal authority and reconfirms his failure to appreciate the inner thoughts of the women in his life.

Other incidents as well contrast the discourse of men and women, demonstrating an imbalance of power between them. For instance, the matchmaker who comes to visit talks at great length, making tiresome chitchat and keeping Tirza a captive but courteous audience. Tirza's father, for his part, unselfconsciously exercises strategies to dominate conversations. Not only does he direct talk to his own preferred topics (generally, his personal misfortune due to Leah's death); he also extends his own words to encompass everyone: "We are the miserable widowers," he laments, and Tirza comments, "How strange were his words. It was as though all womankind had died and every man was a widower."

In addition to these scenes in which Agnon neatly contrasts masculine communicative prerogatives with the women characters' cautions and insecurities about speaking, on other occasions male characters explicitly impute negative qualities to or give misogynistic interpretations of female speech. In an embedded tale recounting Mazal's past, Leah's father is quoted as chiding his wife for engaging in "woman's talk"—that is, talk he deems to be idle and impious. A comparably condemnatory comment surfaces when the doctor comes to visit the Mintz family after Mother's death. Remarking that the daughter has grown and that she has on a new dress, he asks if she knows how to sew. Tirza responds with a maxim, "Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth." Restricting herself to a nonassertive stance, this character offers a formulaic reassurance of the male interlocutor's initiative in conversation. All the same he responds by saying, "A bold girl and looking for compliments." What the man takes as an act of boldness is more properly an evasion of confrontation and a highly reticent hint at a topic the daughter is actually eager for others to acknowledge: her budding sexuality, her own growing up which has been overlooked because everyone is preoccupied with mourning. This incident, like the scolding Leah's father gives his wife, underscores attention in the text to the characters' stereotypic notions of women's speech and to a conviction that female expression should remain sharply circumscribed.

In a pivotal scene concerned with these issues, Tirza at first submits to the discourse of men characters. Quelling her own impulses, she molds her expression to conform to their expectations. However, the episode quickly becomes a turning point, a moment of rupture in which she attempts to emancipate herself from male-dominated patterns of verbal interaction. This happens when Mintshi Gottleib, her hostess, discloses that Akaviah and Leah were once in love. Tirza, struck by melancholy and confusion, is then approached by Mintshi's husband, and the following exchange ensues: "'Look, our friend is boring a hole through the heavens,' Mr. Gottlieb said laughing as he saw me staring up at the sky. And I laughed along with him with a pained heart." Afterwards, although she has humored him, Tirza remains deeply troubled by Mrs. Gottlieb's revelations about the past and she cannot let the matter rest: "Night after night I lay on my bed, asking myself, 'What would now be if my mother had married Mazal? And what would have become of me?' I knew such speculations to be fruitless, yet I did not abandon them. When the shudders which accompanied my musings finally ceased, I said: Mazal has been wronged. He seemed to me to be like a man bereft of his wife yet she is not his wife." Shortly after that her ruminations resume:

How I loathed myself. I burned with shame and did not know why. Now I pitied my father and now I secretly grew angry at him. And I turned my wrath upon Mazal also. . . . Sometimes I told myself: Why did Mintshi Gottlieb upset me by telling me of bygone memories? A father and mother, are they not man and woman and of one flesh? Why then should I brood over secrets which occurred before my time? Yet I thirsted to know more. I could not calm down, nor could I sit still for a moment's quiet. And so I told myself, if Mintshi knows what happened surely she will tell me the truth. How though will I open my mouth to ask? For if I but let the thoughts come to mind my face turns crimson let alone when I speak out my thoughts aloud. I then gave up all hope. More I could not know.

Tirza's lengthy internal monologue offers an explicit meditation on her fears of speaking up. In its very length the passage itself is an act of verbal self-assertion—a muffled voicing of her anxieties, to be sure, but at least a way of formulating and sounding her preoccupations in her own mind. Here once more the character's remarks consist of questions rather than declaratives or imperatives, but, in contrast to her earlier silences and deferential reserve, these questions are angry and searching. Language, moreover, serves specifically as a way of constituting a self. Probing her origins, Tirza asks overtly, who am I? and ponders what she might have been had her mother married somebody else.

This character's progress toward self-expression is subsequently impeded but then also spurred on by her engagement, engineered by the matchmaker Gotteskind, with a young man in whom she takes no interest. Recoiling at the prospects of an arranged match, Tirza dreams that her father has married her off to an Indian chief and that her body is "impressed with tattoos of kissing lips." If, as feminist criticism has argued, the female predicament entails the imposition of a male cultural script onto woman, a writing of her that determines her sexual life and social status, in this passage we find a graphic image of a woman whose destiny is being inscribed directly onto her body. The verbal and sexual power so prominently featured in In the Prime of Her Life as part of the male domain converge in this scene. They are presented through a single dramatic symbol of female disempowerment: the mouth, locus of both kisses and speech, appears here as tattoo, sealing the young woman's dreaded fate of being married off by force to someone entirely foreign and alien to her. This episode makes Tirza all the more determined to have Akaviah Mazal, whom she perceives as the true object of her desire.

As she pursues Akaviah and so expresses her own will, Tirza again resorts to speech characterized by indirection and generalization. She does so, though, with a new flare. According to accepted protocol, she cannot easily speak with her beloved. Mazal is not only older than she; he also becomes her teacher when, turning sixteen, Tirza begins attending a teachers seminary. With increasing daring she devises pretexts for making conversation with Akaviah. To reach him she pretends that a dog has bitten her hand, and so, under the guise of soliciting compassion and protective care, she dupes him into allowing her to reveal her erotic intent. (As many readers have noted, the dog in Agnon's texts is frequently an indicator of uncontrolled sexuality and also of madness, that is, of impulses threatening to the accepted limits of society.)

Tirza's most extreme declaration of desire occurs when societal constraints are further removed. During her illness, at the height of feverish delirium, she etches the name "Akaviah Mazal" many times into her mirror. She also writes Akaviah a letter, noting, "You shall dwell in my thoughts all day." In both instances the young woman is trying to write him, to inscribe him, into her inner self or subsume his signature into the image of herself which she receives from the mirror. In this way Tirza attempts to reverse that early pattern, epitomized by the episode with the tombstone, in which the men inscribed Leah's name in their discourse. It is significant that she does this at a time when she is sick and suffering delusions. Literary equations of woman's rebellion with madness have been noted recurrently in feminist criticism. At times, too, feminist interpretations have considered this identification of aggression or self-assertion with insanity as an attempt to discredit female protest. Tirza's temporary derangement conforms in part to such a pattern; her daring is a function of illness and irrationality. Agnon's text, however, is subtle in its judgment of her. The scene serves less as an attempt to trivialize Tirza's situation than as a sensitive acknowledgment of how profound are the disorders that plague the entire family and culminate in the events of the daughter's life. Yet, by contrast with those gravely disturbing matters, her efforts at self-expression do come to seem of diminished seriousness. What remains certain is that, opening a Pandora's box of emotional troubles, this character courts disaster. Something has gone fundamentally wrong in this home, and Tirza's sickness is highly overdetermined. Not only the occasion for speaking out, the fever is an expression of psychic dis-ease. Tirza invited a chill by wearing inappropriate attire (a summer dress in winter), and her illness then is instrumental in manipulating her father's (and perhaps Mazal's) sympathy. That this partially unwitting ploy is effective results from the susceptibility of the older generation to emotional blackmail as well as from their complicity, their willingness to arrange a new marriage to settle old scores. Each for his own reasons agrees to the match. Therefore, because of the complicated interpersonal context in which Tirza's development takes place, In the Prime of Her Life is only in part the story of a young woman's rebellion against social mores; beneath the surface there is another agenda, one in large measure pessimistic about the ability of a young woman to free herself of patriarchal imperatives.

Tirza's name has been understood as both "will" (ratson, from the Hebrew root r-ts-h) and "pretext" (teruts, from the root t-r-ts). A range of meanings delimited by these concepts underlies the events of her life and complicates the rather straightforward examples of incipient self-assertion brought forward in the first half of this essay. At issue, most crucially, is the protagonist's dangerous psychic involvement in the events of the past and in the unresolved tensions of her parents' youth. Her reliving of Mother's life turns out to be less a renewal than a repetition of mistakes, and in this light determination becomes a pretext for passivity and determinism. Agnon explores these matters by combining attention to mother/daughter relations—a central topic in current feminist criticism—with one of his own major thematic preoccupations: struggles between individual will and forces beyond the control of the individual, be those explained as destiny, divine intervention, or the workings of the unconscious.

Many critics have claimed that Tirza's recreating of her mother's life enacts a variation on the familiar Agnon theme of the love triangle. The young woman marries a father figure and continues to yearn for her father's company, even as Mazal marries the daughter instead of the mother he loved. Leah similarly married Mintz instead of her beloved, and Mintshi, enamored of Mazal, married Gottlieb and buried herself in ceaseless activity. Each case creates a three-some that interferes with the attainment of intimacy or displaces love from one object of passion to a dissatisfying substitute. What has not been sufficiently recognized and stated, though, is the degree to which Tirza's problems are those of an adolescent, specifically a female who must deal with the death of her mother, and the connection between these issues and that of emergent voice.

Adolescence is a time of gradually letting go, of loosening bonds with parents in preparation for making choices of all sorts, but most importantly erotic. As Katherine Dalsimer notes, [in Female Adolescence: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Literature, 1986], this withdrawal from parents accounts for the unique place this stage of life occupies in psychoanalytic writing. Deemed at once to be a time of possibility and aperture, it is also an age of pain. Because tensions present since earliest childhood are reactivated in adolescence, this is a moment of awakening that permits new resolution to old conflicts. At the same time, pulling away from parents is felt subjectively by youngsters as a profound loss or emptiness not unlike mourning. The actual death of a parent, occurring at this juncture, inevitably heightens that inner loss experienced in the normal course of growing up. It can also influence the reworking of psychic conflicts essential for the young person to attain new maturity. If all deaths are greeted by the living with some degree of denial, the impulse to disbelieve the finality of the loss proves that much more intractable for children or teenagers. Unchallenged, unmodified by day-to-day experience, such wishful fantasy may prove even more difficult to abandon and may result in further magnified esteem for the lost figure.

Tirza's life is decisively affected by just such a turn of events. Matters are complicated further, because she is female. The field of psychoanalysis has increasingly recognized the enduring nature of a daughter's relation to her mother. In adolescence there is heightened need for mother as the individual who provided crucial primary intimacy, and much as was true in the earliest days of childhood, the daughter often looks to her mother as a mirror through whose approval and disapproval she can recognize, define, validate, delimit, and forge herself. Tirza Mintz moves toward maturity with difficulty, for in her case the pull to identify with the mother is at once unhealthily strong and also exacerbated by Leah's death. Tirza's father, for his part, cannot compensate for the mother's absence. He is singularly unable to provide his daughter the mirroring she needs because he is deeply self-absorbed, preoccupied always with his mourning and his business dealings. Not only does he misread his daughter, as in the passage examined earlier; in addition he overlooks her awareness of her own emerging womanliness. When, for instance, concerned with her appearance, she puts on festive new clothes, his reaction of surprise leads her to feel deeply guilty; though the mourning period has passed, she comes to perceive her attentions to herself as a failure of devotion to Leah. As she moves one step toward embracing life, he encourages her to prolong mourning for her mother. Tirza notes explicitly: "In my grief I said, my father has forgotten me, he has forgotten my existence." This passage alludes neatly to the two kinds of grief the reader can identify in Tirza's adolescent experience: she suffers a natural loss of intimacy, a withdrawal between parents and children, but this is a blow intensified many times over by the physical death of the mother. Both are made worse by the father's self-centered reactions.

It is in this context that Tirza tries to realize the fantasy of reenacting and revising her mother's life; she wishes to redress the (perceived) wrong done Mazal, even as she would like to reverse her mother's romantic disappointment, and so she tries to make the crooked straight (that is, letaretz—"to straighten"—a word that again recovers the sound of the protagonist's name). She attempts, too, to preserve a memory, to deny Leah's absence, and to find validation of herself as a woman. The implication raised by this set of circumstances is that, though Tirza believes she is pining away for love of Mazal, in effect and at a deeper level she attempts to hold onto childhood and maternal intimacy. That highly important psychic business of adolescence, the need to develop autonomy, is retarded and distorted by confusion of her own identity with that of her mother. The tragedy of this excessive attachment is then compounded by the incestuous quality inherent in the solution Tirza seeks out: her marriage to Mazal. Altogether, Tirza's adolescence, far from an emancipation, has become a subjugation to the parents' past and to her continuing need to imitate her mother. In a chilling scene Tirza, now pregnant, foresees for herself an early death parallel to Leah's. Part of this fantasy, moreover, is that she prays for a daughter—to take care of Mazal. This eventuality would result yet again in a displacement onto another of the maternal role; her wish hints that Tirza wants less to be a mother than to implore someone else to do some mothering.

The full extent of the protagonist's tragedy becomes apparent, like many other developments in the narrative, through the treatment of dialogue, talk, and matters of voice. For example, one of the first signs that Tirza has made a serious mistake in pursuing Mazal occurs early on in their courtship. She feels attracted to him precisely because she expects she can confide in him. Overcome with ennui at the seminary she notes, "I saw there wasn't a person to whom I could pour out my heart; and I then said, I will speak to Mazal." Her projected scenario does not materialize. Welcoming her into his house, Akaviah latches onto her as a listener and, telling her his life story, doesn't allow her to get a word in edgewise. Tirza, instead of speaking up, is drawn into his discourse. It is the long ago that remains dominant here, and not Tirza's newly emergent young life. It is significant that Mazal's monologue is presented as a long interpolated sequence in the novella; the very status of his speech as embedded narrative indicates that it is essentially extrinsic to Tirza's story, yet absorbs her attention and displaces the novella's focus from her present onto the past. Subsequently, in another scene that relies on pointed reference to voice, Tirza's description of her illness testifies to the increasing intensity of her problems. She has come more and more to resemble her mother. The text observes, "My heart beat feebly and my voice was like my mother's voice at the time of her illness." A similar remark appears, too, when her marriage fails to bring her the happiness she had expected. Pregnancy precipitates a crisis of depression that confirms and clarifies the nature of Tirza's discontent. She has not progressed to a mature autonomy, and when her father brings presents for the new baby, the mother-to-be speaks as if she were herself the child: "Thank you, grandfather,' I said in a child's piping voice."

This scene also makes strikingly clear that forces operating in Tirza's life invalidate, alter, or bring additional layers of meaning to her vocal self-assertions. Noting, "The child within me grows from day to day," the text here recalls the first description of Tirza listening to her mother's voice, which stated "I was still a child." Though the young woman is not aware of it, the reference to the child within may include Tirza as much as her offspring. Here, as throughout the narrative, what is said aloud is quite different from what the characters mean. If at first woman's speech is indirect, a kind of deferential duplicity determined by relations of power and powerlessness, later on words also function in another way to both conceal and reveal. They contain hidden significations, and Tirza at times unknowingly discloses deep motivations she herself would not recognize. For such reasons voice cannot in any simple sense be synonymous with will. While Tirza's early attempts to make herself heard were intended to help her wield some power, it becomes clear in the course of the text that her unconscious desires, deeply powerful ones, exceed and elude the goals she has defined and willed for herself. Nor does the birth of her child signal joy; her final melancholy is one more manifestation of the crooked that cannot be made straight.

At the end of In the Prime of Her Life the question of voice reasserts itself, complicated by such matters. Tirza seeks out a new kind of expression by composing a memoir. This fact has several implications. On a simple dramatic level, the effort to chronicle is plausibly motivated by Tirza's adolescence. Given the enlarged self-preoccupations typical of teenagers, keeping a diary is a natural activity for this time of life. In Tirza's case such writing is a more formal attempt at the task begun earlier in the story: to constitute a self through language, to puzzle over her life and ask, who am I? (For Tirza this self-definition is crucial if she is not to subsume her identity totally within that of someone else.) That she is a female brings additional meaning to this act. She is, after all, a figure who has sought and is still seeking to assert her own voice in a society which discourages outspokenness by women. She turns, significantly, to the form of writing often favored by women: the diary or memoir not intended for publication but meant to provide an outlet for emotion and a forum for self-expression. Her purposes of self-definition and self-expression are stymied, though, because she finds herself unhappily trapped in a situation much larger than her own imagined script of events. Since other powerful forces are at play, and since even her public speaking up has led her to an all-encompassing, seemingly preordained pattern of relations, writing serves as a last resort, a way for her to seek solace and not as a way for her to arrive at an unambiguous enunciation of identity. As her persistent unhappiness and continuing restlessness lead her to one last act of speaking out, she brings the uncertainties of her stance to the fore in her closing comments: "Sometimes I would ask myself to what purpose have I written my memories, what new things have I seen and what do I wish to leave behind? Then I would say, it is to find rest in my writing, so did I write all that is written in this book." Caught between the new and the old, she is left still searching for a context for her own voice, establishing it—only ambiguously—in a private realm of writing.

Yet Agnon's purposes extend beyond Tirza's private female predicaments to his concern with larger collective issues. Throughout the history of Hebrew writing, female figures have often served to symbolize an entire reality or the Jewish people as a whole—from the desolate widow of Lamentations, to the personification of Zion as beloved in medieval poetry, to A. B. Yehoshua's contemporary psychohistories of Zionism. While Agnon deals in depth with Tirza's personal tale specifically as a woman's experience, he also uses her to alert readers to a series of questions, both historical and linguistic, connected with national rebirth. Tirza lives in an East European shtetl at the turn of the century. From an enlightened family, she receives a Hebrew education that is unusual for a girl of this time. As Agnon, at various junctures in the novella, brings out the theme of Enlightenment and transformations of tradition, there emerges a parallel between his protagonist's individual efforts to revive the past and the communal effort to create a Jewish cultural renaissance and to forge a rebirth of the Hebrew language. Tirza's psychological dilemmas—especially her struggle for a context in which to make her own voice heard—parallel the struggle of the Hebrew language to achieve a new audience and new vitality. In addition, attention to Tirza's Hebrew schooling makes for a specific dramatic situation, in this sociohistorical milieu, that turns questions about women's social roles into an integral part of the collective issues treated here. It is a novelty for a woman to have the opportunities Tirza has—to study and to insist on her own wishes in rebellion against her father's plans for her marriage. Her audacity becomes possible in a climate that has begun to encourage human beings to shape their own future. Within that context, where the question of individual freedom looms so large, Agnon examines the possibility of freedom for a woman whose expected lot in life is very different from that of the men around her.

Two major thematic concerns thus coincide and enrich one another in In the Prime of Her Life: the return of what has been repressed, and the repression of female voice. The past of the mother resurfaces even as the daughter's early inclinations reemerge in adolescence with destructive force. Agnon's use of a woman's struggle for emancipatory language, together with the portrayal of the female adolescent as partially emergent voice, effectively symbolizes and conveys the drives at once present and absent in these lives. Tirza takes remarkable initiatives, but they become enmeshed in cultural and historical circumstances that irrefutably oppose her willfulness.

In In the Prime of Her Life it is the past both personal and mythic that fatalistically overshadows the future, leaving Tirzah Mintz Mazal incapable of determining her own fate. Yet, while he does not champion her cause, Agnon does pay serious attention to female predicaments and grants them credence as a legitimate topic for literary art, bringing remarkable insight and what can only be described as a brilliant synthesis of themes, narrative strategies, and stylistic sensitivities to his representation of a woman's voice. While designed to serve his own artistic aims, the treatment of women's speech and silence in this narrative renders In the Prime of Her Life exceptionally responsive to feminist readings.

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Agnon, S. Y. (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)