(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Using an obtrusive narrator, a native of Galicia wise and tolerant concerning the foibles of men and women in love, Shmuel Yosef Agnon narrates 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 at Szybusz, a Jewish shtetl (village) in southern Poland. Baruch Meir Hurvitz and his wife, Tsirl, decide that she might well serve as a maid in the household to earn her modest keep, and they agree to shelter her. Their only son, Hirshl, looks at the girl with deeper appreciation. Though he soon falls in love with her, he is too inexperienced in the ways of the world to approach Blume and instead allows fate to take control of his romance. While he vacillates, 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 this marriage; passively, he courts the equally inexperienced Mina; passively, he weds her. Always he had thought (or perhaps had hoped) that Blume might intercede for him and that they might run off together. Such things do not generally occur in the village of Szybusz, however, where people follow Jewish traditions, and Hirshl is, if anything, obedient.

Only after his marriage does he show signs of agitation that swell into revolt against the conventions of married life and finally turn into depression and near-madness. Desperate with his unrequited love for Blume, Hirshl strays from his home, suffers an emotional breakdown in the forest, and—with the assistance of his worried family—is placed in the care of the wise Dr. Langsam, a neurologist, and committed to a sanatorium. There, allowed time for sleep and the renovation of his frayed nerves, Hirshl 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 finished. Restored to his wife and children, content with his lot as an ordinary person in an imperfect world, he resumes a life of complacency. What of Blume? The narrator chooses not to discuss her fate; hers is another “simple story.”