A Simple Story

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1258

S(hmuel) Y(osef) Agnon’s classic A Simple Story, first published in Hebrew in 1935 as Sipur pashut, is now available for a wider audience in Hillel Halkin’s lucid English translation. For this Schocken edition, Halkin also contributes an insightful afterword, partly to provide for the general reader useful background information to the novella, partly to analyze Agnon’s complex treatment of theme and structure. However simple the story appears to be, the work rewards close and careful attention. Like other fiction by the 1966 Nobel Prize-winner, this novella also re-creates the lost world of early twentieth century Jewish life. In general, Agnon’s work is—at least superficially—nostalgic, conservatively religious, often moralistic. On a deeper level, his fiction treats a quest for values in a once-static society slowly disintegrating or changing because of modern pressures. As such, A Simple Story, like Days of Awe (1938), A Guest for the Night (1939, 1950), or The Bridal Canopy (1931), should be read not merely as an old-fashioned narrative depicting a bygone age but also as an ambiguous moral parable that concerns the human soul in turmoil.

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From the point of view of an obtrusive narrator, a native of Galicia wise and tolerant concerning the foibles of men and women in love, Agnon tells a simple tale that grows ever more complex and meaningful. He begins with the fortunes of Blume Nacht, an attractive, clever, and industrious young woman who, as a penniless orphan, arrives at her cousin’s home in Szybusz, a Jewish shtetl in southern Poland. Baruch Meir Hurvitz and his shrewd wife, Tsirl, look the girl over, decide that she might well serve as a maid in the household to earn her modest keep, but their only son, Hirshl, looks at the girl with deeper appreciation. In time he falls in love with her, but—too inexperienced in the ways of the world to approach Blume—he allows fate to take control of his romance. Hence the shtetl matchmaker, Yona Toyber, works out for the young man a much more promising match—with Mina Ziemlich, from the nearby village of Malikrowik.

Passively, Hirshl allows his parents to prepare for his marriage; passively he courts the equally inexperienced Mina; and passively he weds her. Always he had thought—or perhaps he had hoped—that Blume might intercede for him and that they might run off together. Such things, however, do not generally occur in the village of Szybusz; people follow Jewish traditions, and Hirshl is, if anything, obedient.

Only after his marriage does he show signs of agitation, which swell into revolt against the conventions of married life and finally turn to depression and near madness. Desperate with his unrequited love for Blume, Hirshl strays from his home, suffers an emotional breakdown in the forest, and—through the assistance of his worried family—is placed in the care of the wise Dr. Langsam and committed to a sanatorium. There, allowed time for sleep and the renovation of his frayed nerves, he regains his sanity. Indeed, he recovers more than his wits: He returns home to his wife and to his vocation as a shopkeeper with a new vigor. His rebellion is over. Restored to his wife and children, content with his lot as an ordinary townsman in an imperfect world, he resumes a life of complacency. As far as Blume is concerned, the narrator chooses not to discuss her fate; hers is another “simple story.”

How simple, indeed, is Agnon’s novella? His narrative pattern, seemingly straightforward, is full of strange twists. The reader at first supposes that Hirshl’s love for Blume will, after overcoming the impediments of his parents’ opposition, eventually triumph in wedlock. Instead, he marries Mina, a less spirited but otherwise suitable mate. At this point, Blume’s role in the story as romantic focus diminishes, although it never entirely fades; she persists in Hirshl’s imagination as the unattainable fair one. The reader now expects that Hirshl will persist in his quest for Blume and that, somehow (perhaps with tragic consequences), his desperate ardor will win her heart. Again, Agnon surprises: Hirshl, to be sure, is driven nearly mad with vexation over his unrequited passion, but Blume remains chaste and is indifferent to his clumsy advances. What therefore will become of the pining lover deprived of his amorous goal? The reader expects Hirshl to decline as a result of his erotic madness into a deeper pit of depression. Instead, he recovers and, against expectations, returns home as a solid, respectable Szybusz merchant—more mature a husband and a father, more responsible a businessman, more conventional a Jew.

What, then, is the moral of this parable? That the old ways, the ways of traditional obligations and traditional constraints upon freedom, are the best, so Hirshl finally comes to his senses by abandoning his foolish dreams of pursuing his romantic ego? Or does Agnon mean to say that Hirshl, a decent enough fellow but not a truly extraordinary soul, does not deserve the finely tempered Blume? Does Agnon side with the winds of change in complaisant Szybusz or with the solid verities of the past? More to the point: How is the reader to interpret this bittersweet story which lacks villains but also lacks heroes? The most nearly heroic figure is Dr. Langsam, who represents the emerging educated Jewish professional class but still maintains tenuous links to his orthodox religious heritage; a victim of existential doubt, he is torn between the two worlds, able to heal the neuroses of others but not his own psychological wounds.

What becomes of Blume? Agnon’s treatment of this sharply defined character is curious indeed. The story begins with an account of her struggles to survive and concludes, enigmatically, with these sentences: “Hirshl and Mina’s story is over, but Blume’s is not. Everything that happened to Blume Nacht would fill another book.” The reader is left to imagine the incidents of such a book, and indeed, in spite of Agnon’s reticence to disclose information about Blume’s future (she has rejected another lover), her image is powerfully suggestive. Will she emigrate from Szybusz to seek a more spacious, freer life abroad? Will she ever find a lover worthy of her? From what is already known about her, readers can imagine not only a different fate for her but also a better one than that of the historically doomed Galician Jews. As the dark (or nocturnal) flower that her name symbolically suggests, Blume’s mystery remains fragrantly external to the central parable of the novella.

In effect, Agnon’s parable lacks a distinct moral focus because his vision is comic. From the vantage of retrospection, he examines his characters with amused toleration for their follies, with compassion for their suffering. His tale ends, as most great comedies do, with an impulse toward reconciliation; with the ceremony of marriage for many of the minor characters; with the promise of integration and unity for the whole community. And, like most great comedies, Agnon’s miniature world is touched by the sadness of life. No one who reads the account of Hirshl’s early discontent in a loveless marriage can dismiss the book merely as a folk romance. More in the pattern of Ivan Olbracht’s neglected masterpiece The Bitter and the Sweet (1937) than Shalom Aleichem’s popular stories, Agnon’s comic vision rarely sentimentalizes or trivializes the past. As both a realist and a man of deep religious faith, Agnon treats his characters no better than they deserve—but also no worse.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

Agnon’s irony begins with the title of A Simple Story. Nothing in this simple story is as it seems, aesthetically or thematically. Like many of Agnon’s works, it is set in a shtetl in Galicia during the first decade of the twentieth century. Bluma Nacht is orphaned and taken to Shisbush, where her aunt, Tsiril Horovitz, and her uncle, Baruch Meir Horovitz, take her in but require that she serve as their maid. Bluma is a romantic figure, an unconstrained spirit. Heartbreak complicates the plot when Hirshel Horovitz, Bluma’s cousin and in spirit her direct opposite, falls in love with her. Socially awkward and especially inept at romance, Hirshel is railroaded into a marriage with Minnah Tzeimlich, someone more appropriate to his station. Even this triangle seems simple compared to what is revealed when Bluma leaves the Horovitz household and goes to work for Akavia Mazal, who had, earlier in life, also been kept from marrying his love for economic reasons as had, incidentally, Baruch Meir Horovitz and Bluma’s mother, Mirel.

Just as Hirshel could not oppose his mother and the matchmaker, so he cannot assert control over anything else in his life. Like the other characters, he does not have the religious faith of the world of The Bridal Canopy. Things are done in certain ways merely because that is the way they are done. Empty ritual provides no meaning. His frustration is turned inward, and he descends into madness, as have others in his mother’s family, purportedly as the result of a curse. Hirshel in his madness is unable to speak, instead crowing like a rooster and croaking like a frog. Just as Hirshel’s psyche fragments, so does the society in which he lives. As Minnah’s mother says, everyone’s troubles (including madness) can be attributed to the fact that “belief has been weakened.”

Married to Minnah, Hirshel longs for Bluma. Agnon’s gift for haunting ambiguity is manifested in plot and theme. If this were, in fact, a simple story, the theme would be that the good of the individual is served by that individual’s serving his or her society. It is not a simple story, however, and Agnon’s is not a simple consciousness.

Hirshel does not descend into complete madness, nor does he possess the object of his obsession. He is cured by Dr. Langsam and takes his appropriate place within his marriage and his society. Bluma, a sympathetic character, disappears from the narrative. Her story remains open-ended. The narrator says that the ensuing events of her life “would fill another book.” The narrator seems to see the other characters as mediocre and plodding, but theirs is the world that remains intact. Ritual, whether meaningless or not, provides for tranquillity and stability.

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Themes