Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Like the other fiction by the 1966 Nobel Prize winner, A Simple Story 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, however, his fiction treats a quest for values in a once-static society slowly disintegrating because of modern pressures. As such, A Simple Story, like Oreach nata lalun (1939, 1950; A Guest for the Night, 1968) and Hakhnasat kala (1931; The Bridal Canopy, 1937), 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.

In A Simple Story, Agnon’s parable lacks a distinct moral focus because his vision is comic. From the vantage point of retrospection, he examines his characters with amused tolerance for their follies, with compassion for their suffering. His tale ends, as most great comedies end, 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 entire community. As is also true of 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 Golet v udoli (1937; The Bitter and the Sweet, 1964) than of Sholom 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 are—but also no worse.