When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories Critical Essays

Isaac Bashevis Singer


(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Singer dedicates When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories to the memory of his father and mother, “great and enthusiastic storytellers.” Reared by adherents of Hasidism—a mystically fervent, pious sect of Judaism—Singer believed in the transforming power of stories and in the ability of children to grasp profound ideas presented imaginatively in tales. Legends and fables, known in Yiddish as bubah meises (roughly translated as “tales my grandmother told me”), have served to transmit lessons and values from generation to generation.

According to Canadian critic J. A. Eisenberg, Singer’s fiction owes its emotional charge to the principle that the greater the fall, the more forceful the moral or message communicated. In “Utzel and His Daughter Poverty, ” Utzel’s redemption is highlighted by the contrast between the degraded state in which the reader finds him and the exalted state that he achieves. In “Rabbi Leib and the Witch Cunegunde,” just as it appears that Cunegunde has secured Rabbi Leib’s defeat, her own greed and vanity seal her destruction. The extremes that they absorb not only add to the emotional tension of Singer’s stories but also invest his characters with an archetypal significance.

Because archetypal figures—from saints to fools to devils—formed a vibrant part in shtetl consciousness, the real and the mythical appear to coexist naturally in Singer’s tales. By surrounding his shtetl characters with a mythology authentic to their lives, Singer keeps his work free of the artificiality and abstractions that can sap the vitality from allegorical writing,...

(The entire section is 673 words.)