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


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

S. Y. Agnon 1888—1970

(Born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes) Austro-Hungarian-Israeli novelist, short story writer, and poet.

The following entry provides criticism on Agnon's works from 1975 through 2003.

Agnon was known for his ironic and lyrical fiction, based largely on Hebrew folklore and tradition.

Biographical Information

Agnon was born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes in Buczacz, Galicia (then Austria-Hungary, now Poland) 17 July, 1888. His father, a rabbi, taught him the Talmud and Hasidic literature, along with secular Hebrew and Yiddish writings, while his mother recited German stories. His love for literature led him to publish stories in Hebrew and Yiddish while still a teenager. In 1908 he settled in Palestine, but was rejected both by the Russian-Jewish population and the new settlers who prized manual labor above intellectual rigor. Agnon took his pen name, which later became his legal name, from the title of his first published story, “Agunot,” which was published in Jaffa, Israel, in 1909. “Agnon” is based on a Hebrew word meaning abandoned or forsaken. In 1912 he settled in Germany, finding a more comfortable life there for around twelve years and forming friendships with well-known Zionists. In 1919 he married Esther Marx, with whom he had two children. Agnon became well known among German Jews and achieved literary success when his Hebrew works were translated into German. He also built a notable collection of ancient Hebrew manuscripts and was devastated in 1924 when a fire in his home destroyed them, along with his personal manuscripts. Agnon then returned to Palestine, settling in Jerusalem. In 1929 his personal library was again destroyed by fire when Arabs rioted in the city. Agnon won the Israel Prize in 1954 and the Nobel Prize in 1966. He died in 1970.

Major Works

Agnon was virtually unknown to Western readers until his works began to be translated from Hebrew into English after he won the Nobel Prize in 1966. Unlike many other modernist Jewish writers of his era, he emphasized original folk sources and dwelled on the lessons of the Torah. His earlier short stories and novellas concerned Jewish life in Eastern Europe, but after his immigration in 1924 until his death, he wrote almost exclusively about life in Palestine. Agnon's work has been compared to that of Cervantes and Kafka in its air of mystery and its imaginative power. His short stories are remarkably diverse, some magical fables, some accounts of modern-day alienation and exile. Others attempt to deal with the ways Judaism has survived throughout history in periods of political turmoil. His first successful work was a novella, Ve-Hayah he-'Akov le-Mishor (1912; And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight). After the manuscript for his first novel was destroyed in a fire, he produced Hakhnasath Kallah (1931; The Bridal Canopy), a novel set in the eighteenth century about a Jewish man who travels about seeking dowries for his daughters. While continuing to write short fiction, he published the novel Sipur Pashut (1935; A Simple Story), an account of the development of a psychosis and its ultimate cure. Ore'ah Nata Lalun (A Guest for the Night) appeared in 1937 and in 1945, Tmol Shilshom (Only Yesterday). The former novel, a comment on the waning spirit of European Judaism, was written just before World War II; the latter is a picaresque and imaginative story set in Jerusalem, told from the point of view of a dog whose astute social and political commentary exceeds that of most his human counterparts. Bi-levav Yamim (1948; In the Heart of the Seas: A Story of a Journey to the Land of Israel), which follows a group of Jews in their journey from Galicia to Palestine, was followed by Edo ve-Enam (1950; Edo and Enam), a tale of the supernatural. Shirah (Shira), posthumously published in 1971, is a story of a bourgeois German exile in 1930’s Palestine who seeks an escape from the conformity of his life. Several editions of Agnon's short stories and a collection of his poetry also were published after his death.

Critical Reception

Critical discussion of Agnon’s work has truly been what one commentator called an “industry.” Agnon's multifaceted writings, concurrent with the growth of Hebrew as an accepted language in American and British universities, have also substantially increased interest in literature in modern Hebrew. The wealth of Hebrew and German criticism during Agnon's earlier career presaged a still-growing American and British critical following, encouraged by scholarly journals such as the Hebrew Annual Review, Judaism, and Prooftexts. Early English-language Agnon critics, such as Arnold Band, used New Critical and comparative literature approaches or discussed the dilemmas of relating modern Jewish culture to the past. From the late 1970s through the early 2000s, critical approaches to Agnon came in what eminent Agnon scholar Alan Mintz called “a polyphony of voices,” following the general trends of scholarly inquiry. Gershon Shaked and other critics emphasized the rich intertextuality of Agnon's fiction, which has provided a rich vein for further critical analysis. A variety of approaches to Agnon's work, including poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, postcolonialist theory, reader-response criticism, and feminist criticism, have developed among Agnon scholars. The close text-centeredness most Agnon critics embrace, Mintz says, suggests “the hovering spirit of classical Jewish learning.”

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ve-Hayah he-'Akov le-Mishor (novella) 1911-12

Das Buch von den Polnischen Juden [editor, with Ahron Eliasberg] (folk tales) 1916

Giv ‘at ha-Hol (short stories) 1920

Be-Sod Yesharim (short stories) 1921

“Me-Hamat ha-Metsik” (short story) 1921

'Al Kapot ha-Man'ul (short stories) 1922

Bidmi yameha [In the Prime of Her Life] (novella) 1923

Ma'aseh he-meshulah meerets ha-Kedosha (short stories) 1924-25

Polin: Sipure agadot (short stories) 1924-25

“Ma'aseh rabi Gadiel ha-Tinok” (short story) 1925

Al Olam [Forever More] (novel) 1926

“Ha-Nidah” (short story) 1926

Sipur ha-Shanim ha-Tovot [Ma'aseh ha'Rav Veha-Orah] (short stories) 1927

Agadat hasofer (short stories) 1929

Laylot (short stories) 1930-31

*Hakhnasath Kallah [The Bridal Canopy] (novel) 1931

*Me-Az ume-Ata (short stories) 1931

*Sippurei Ahayim (novel) 1931

Sefer HaMa'asim [The Book of Deeds] (short stories) 1932

*Be-Shuva u-ve-Natat (short stories) 1935

*Sipur Pashut [A Simple Story] (novel) 1935

Kovets Sipurim (short stories) 1937

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

Yamim Nora'im [Days of Awe: Being a Treasury of Traditions, Legends and Learned Commentaries Concerning Rosh ha-Shanah, Yom Kippur and the Days Between. Culled from Three Hundred Volumes, Ancient and New] [A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days] (nonfiction) 1938

“Pi Shenaim: O me-Husar Yom” (short story) 1939

*Elu va-Elu [A Dwelling Place of My People: Sixteen Stories of the Chassidim] (short stories) 1941

Shevu'ath Emunim [The Betrothed] (novella) 1943

“'Al Berl Kaznelson” (character sketch) 1944

Sipurum ve-Agadot (short stories) 1944

Sipurim (short stories) 1945

*Tmol Shilshom [Only Yesterday] [Just Yesterday] (novel) 1945

Bi-levav Yamim [In the Heart of the Seas: A Story of a Journey to the Land of Israel] (novel) 1948

Edo ve-Enam (novel) 1950

*Samukh ve-Nireh (short stories) 1950

*Ad Heinah (short stories) 1953

“Sifrehem shel Anshe Butshatsh” (article) 1956

Tihella, and Other Israeli Tales [with others] (short stories) 1956

Atem re'item [editor] (collection of rabbinic sources) 1959

Kelev Hutsot (excerpts from Temol shilshom) 1960

Sihfrehem shel Tsadikim [compiler] (articles) 1961

Ha-Esh ve-Ha'etsim (short stories) 1962

Sipurum (short stories) 1966

Two Tales: “Betrothed” and “Edo and Enam” (novellas) 1966

Sipure Yom-ha-Kipurim (short stories) 1967

Selected Stories of S. Y. Agnon (short stories) 1970

Shirah [Shira] (novel) 1971

Twenty-One Stories (short stories) 1971

Ir u-Melo'ah [A City and Its Fullness] (short stories) 1973

Mr. Lublin's Shop (novel) 1975

A Book That Was Lost and Other Stories (short stories) 1995

Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law (non-fiction) 1996

Agnon's Aleph Bet: Poems (poetry) 1998

*These works published in the collected works, Kol Sipurav Shel Agnon (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv), 1947-1957; standard edition, edited by Agnon (Schocken Books) 1953-1962; [Kol sipurav shel Sh. Y. ‘Agnon] 8 vols., 1968.

Bernard Knieger (review date 1975)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Knieger, Bernard. “Shmuel Yosef Agnon's ‘The Face and the Image’.” Studies in Short Fiction 12, no. 2 (1975): 184-85.

[In the following review of an Agnon short story, Knieger calls attention to the Hebrew meaning of the phrase “face-to-face,” concluding that the narrator is facing his own isolation from traditional faith.]

One of the Agnon stories in Twenty-One Stories (New York: Schocken, 1970) 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...

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Nehama Aschkenasy (essay date winter 1983)

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SOURCE: Aschkenasy, Nehama. “Biblical Substructures in the Tragic Form: Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge; Agnon, And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight.Modern Language Studies 13, no. 1 (winter 1983): 101-10.

[In the following essay, Aschkenasy compares biblical references in The Mayor of Casterbridge and And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight, concluding that Agnon's use of the biblical dimension is more subtle than Hardy's.]

Bringing together Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)1 and Agnon's And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight (1912),2 a novella not yet translated into English, may seem an...

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Jeffrey M. Green (review date spring-summer 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Green, Jeffrey M. “Inside Agnon.” Modern Hebrew Literature 9, nos. 3-4 (spring-summer 1984): 80-4.

[In the following review of Estherlein, a compilation of Agnon's letters to his wife from 1924-1931, Green states that Agnon reveals few literary secrets but offers insights into his thinking about other matters.]

For those of us whom he captivates, Agnon is incomparable. While they might seem to be limited to a narrow realm of experience and interests, his writings have an emotional range extending from the depths of tragedy to the most caustic of wit. His works include Hassidic legends, astonishing surrealistic dreams, allegory-like fantasies as well...

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Esther Fuchs (essay date fall 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fuchs, Esther. “Wherefrom Did Gediton Enter Gumlidata? Realism and Comic Subversiveness in ‘Forevermore’.” Modern Language Studies 15, no. 4 (fall 1985): 64-79.

[In the following essay, Fuchs deconstructs an Agnon story emphasizing the central irony, which she claims other critics have neglected.]


S. Y. Agnon's story “Ad Olam” (“Forevermore”) has stirred much critical controversy over its ideological meaning. Meshulam Tochner sees the story as a polemic against modern Biblical criticism and modern Hebrew literature.1 Eddy Zemach claims that the story argues against secular Judaism.2...

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Gershon Shaked (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shaked, Gershon. “Midrash and Narrative: Agnon's ‘Agunot.’” In Midrash and Literature, edited by Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick; chapter translated by Lois Bar-Yaacov, pp. 285-303. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986.

[In the following chapter from a collection of essays discussing literary manifestations of Midrash, an ancient biblical form of exegesis, Shaked demonstrates how Agnon's early story “Agunot” uses forms of intertextuality borrowed from old Hebrew traditions.]


From love of our language and adoration of holiness I abase myself before the words of the Torah, and starve myself...

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Arnold Band (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Band, Arnold. “The Kafka-Agnon Polarities.” In The Dove and the Mole: Kafka's Journey into Darkness and Creativity, edited by Moshe Lazar and Ronald Gottesman, pp. 151-60. Malibu, Calif.: Undena, 1987.

[In the following chapter from a book of essays on Franz Kafka, Band reviews previous criticism comparing Kafka's and Agnon's writings, arguing that many of the alleged similarities in the works of the two writers have been overemphasized.]

The comparison of Kafka with other writers of the modern period has become such a beaten path in Kafkakunde that one often shudders upon encountering another “Kafka and …” study. Despite this academic ennui, we...

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Cynthia Ozick (essay date December 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ozick, Cynthia. “Agnon's Antagonisms.” Commentary 86 (December 1988): 43-8.

[In the following essay, Ozick uses Agnon's novella Edo and Enam to reflect on the ambiguities of translation and on the oppositions between ideas of safety and destruction, redemption and illusion, and exile and return.]

Shmuel Yosef Agnon, the 1966 Nobel winner for literature, was born one hundred years ago, in Galicia, Poland, and died in Jerusalem in 1970. Not long after his death, I wrote a story about Agnon, a kind of parable that meant to toy with the overweening scramble of writers for reputation and the halo of renown. It was called “Usurpation” and never...

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Nitza Ben-Dov (essay date September 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ben-Dov, Nitza. “Discriminated Occasions and Discrete Conflicts in Agnon's A Simple Story.Prooftexts 9, no. 3 (September 1989): 213-27.

[In the following essay, Ben-Dov discusses the “assertive mother” theme in A Simple Story and describes Agnon's use of repetition or variation of motifs to highlight the rivalry between two women for one man's attention.]

The powerful influence of Agnon's Jewish mothers on their sons has long been observed by his critics. Yet the psychology of the mother herself—her motives, thoughts, words, and actions—has not been explored. A Simple Story, the novel that is Agnon's masterpiece of...

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Alan L. Mintz (review date February 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mintz, Alan L. “Agnon without End.” Commentary 89, no. 2 (February 1990): 57-9.

[In the following review of the English translation of Shira, Mintz states that the novel portrays the end of the liberal German-Jewish world view.]

The translation for the first time of a major work by S. Y. Agnon (1888-1970), the greatest writer in modern Hebrew, is sufficient cause for celebration; the fact that this work is a novel makes the event that much more interesting, but also more equivocal.

Agnon, who was born and brought up in Eastern Europe and moved to Palestine for the first time in 1907, most naturally displayed his narrative...

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Anne Golomb Hoffman (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hoffman, Anne Golomb. “Introduction to Between Exile and Return: S. Y. Agnon and the Drama of Writing, edited by Sarah Blacher Cohen, pp. 1-20. Albany: State University Press of New York, 1991.

[In the following excerpt from the introduction to her full-length semiotic study of Agnon's writings, Hoffman reviews her complex textual approach, encompassing psychoanalysis, traditional Hebrew criticism, and poststructuralist literary theory. (Hoffman's book contains a complete bibliography of primary and secondary sources.)]


Each of these terms—“modern,” “Jewish,” “writer”—provides...

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Naomi B. Sokoloff (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sokoloff, Naomi B. “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, pp. 216-35. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Sokoloff applies a feminist critique to an Agnon novella, which she says associates the tradition and uncertain future of the Hebrew language with its repressed and unfulfilled female characters.]

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...

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Aharon Appelfeld (essay date spring-summer 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Appelfeld, Aharon. “Between Shelter and Home.” Modern Hebrew Literature 14 (spring-summer 1995): 9-11.

[In the following essay, Appelfeld disputes other critics who say that Agnon exemplifies the “sacred” in Judaism vs. the “profane” of secularism, asserting that Agnon had a more holistic approach which combined both tradition and change.]

It has become commonplace to describe Agnon's writings as representing the tension between the sacred and the profane, or as the critics put it, between the traditional and the secular. In other words, between the polar opposites that were deeply rooted in the souls of the writer and his contemporaries. This...

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Mark Bernheim (review date summer 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bernheim, Mark. Review of A Book That Was Lost and Other Stories, by S. Y. Agnon. Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 3 (summer 1997): 397-99.

[In the following review, Bernheim offers a mostly positive assessment of a new edition of Agnon short stories.]

In modern Jewish literature, S. Y. Agnon has long occupied a particular place. Undeniably the great Hebrew language craftsman of the century, this 1966 Nobel Laureate has been relatively inaccessible in the English-speaking world. Two other Nobel winners—I. B. Singer and Saul Bellow—are far more widely read and viewed as the voice of Yiddish literature on the one hand and explorer of besieged cultural...

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William Riggan (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Riggan, William. Introduction: “Hebrew Literature in the 1990s,” World Literature Today 72, no. 3 (1998): 479-84.

[In the following excerpt from an essay on contemporary Hebrew literature, Riggan calls Agnon the best of the “conservatives” who appreciated the nuances of the Hebrew language tradition.]

To read the creative and critical texts gathered here in this special issue of World Literature Today commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel is to witness, by and large, precisely such a turn from the collective to the personal, from state-building to the construction and protection of one's own private,...

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Shulamit Almog (essay date fall 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Almog, Shulamit. “Literature, Politics, and the Law: On Blacksmiths, Tailors, and the Demolition of Houses.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 1, no. 1 (fall 1999): 37-52.

[In the following essay, Almog draws linguistic comparisons between a story by Agnon and the transcript of an actual legal case in modern-day Israel, concluding that the literary text reveals more of the true nature of human conflict.]


In 1962, Haim H. Cohn, at the time the Attorney General of the State of Israel, approached Shmuel Yosef Agnon and asked him to contribute to a collection of articles being prepared to commemorate the seventy-fifth...

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David G. Roskies (essay date 2003)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Roskies, David G. ”Essay on ‘The Sense of Smell’.” In Reading Hebrew Literature, edited by Alan Mintz, pp. 118-25. Hanover, N.H.: Brandeis University Press, 2003.

[In the following essay from a collection which offers several commentaries about specific works of Hebrew literature, Roskies discusses the complexities of an Agnon short story, “The Sense of Smell.”]

Despite its brevity, Agnon's “The Sense of Smell” combines disparate elements that are not easily reconciled. The story's homiletic structure, storybook headings, archaic style, and anecdotal plot, and its coincidental encounters, dream sequence, and moment of mystical reverie bespeak a...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Goldberg, Isaac. “Shmuel Yosef Agnon: Israel's Nobel Laureate.” AB Bookman's Weekly 87 (April 1 1991): 1267.

Brief overview of Agnon's life and work.

Lutske, Harvey. “S. Y. Agnon.” In History in Their Hands: A Book of Jewish Autographs, pp. 173-74. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson Inc., 1996.

Brief sketch about Agnon.


Aberbach, David. At the Handles of the Lock: Themes in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984, 221 p.

A study of themes in Agnon's fiction, emphasizing the blurring of...

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