Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 967
At the beginning of “A Whole Loaf,” the narrator’s suggestive comment, “I had made no preparations on Sabbath eve, so I had nothing to eat on the Sabbath,” explains why he leaves his home in search of a meal. Other reasons for going out are the hellish heat at home and his sense of loneliness, for his wife and children are still abroad and he has to see to his own needs.
The protagonist thus joins other strollers at the end of the Sabbath day, partaking of the cool Jerusalem air. Soon he is distracted from his search for a restaurant by the great sage Dr. Yekutiel Ne’eman, sitting by his window. Expecting a word of wisdom, he hears Dr. Ne’eman rebuking him for not doing something to reunite the family back in Jerusalem.
The narrator then tells of Dr. Ne’eman’s book, which has raised heated debate concerning its authenticity but which the sage claims to be a record of the words of Lord. Some believe that the book is authentic, whereas others hold that it is merely Dr. Ne’eman’s own writings, attributed by him to an unknown and never-seen Lord. One undisputed effect of the book, observes the narrator, has been that people have bettered themselves by it, whereas others devote themselves heart and soul to keeping every word in it. Praising the book, the hero is surprised and grieved when Dr. Ne’eman leaves the window. Returning soon, however, he gives the hero a packet of letters to be posted. Accepting the task, the hero promises to mail the letters as asked.
When the Sabbath is over, the hero heads for the post office to mail the letters, all the while debating whether he should not go and eat first. He finally resolves first to fulfill his obligation to Dr. Ne’eman and finds himself standing before the post office. Just as he is about to enter, he is distracted by the strange sight of a carriage driven by his acquaintance from abroad, Mr. Gressler, making its way down the sidewalk. The pedestrians, far from being upset, appear to enjoy the danger of being nearly run over by the carriage.
Recalling the close, pleasure-filled friendship he has had with Mr. Gressler abroad and in Jerusalem, the narrator remembers how his friend was instrumental in amusing him and teaching him a knowledge to counter all other kinds of wisdom. Their close relationship was halted for a while when, still abroad, Mr. Gressler persuaded the hero’s downstairs neighbor to set fire to his stock of cheap goods and collect the insurance. The fire, however, spread and consumed the hero’s home as well, burning up his uninsured books and belongings. The remainder of his wealth was squandered on the ensuing litigation urged on him by Mr. Gressler. Blaming Mr. Gressler for his losses, the hero abandoned him, immersing himself in Dr. Ne’eman’s book and leaving for the Land of Israel. On the boat, he noticed that Mr. Gressler was headed for the same destination, but his cabin was in the first-class section, whereas the hero was spending the journey in the lowliest class. On landing, Mr. Gressler helped him through customs and the journey to Jerusalem, whereupon their friendship was renewed and became even stronger after the hero’s family went abroad.
Now, joining Mr. Gressler on the carriage, the hero forgets the letters and his hunger. Soon they encounter Mr. Hofni, the inventor of a better mousetrap, whom the hero dislikes. He grabs the reins to lead the horses away from Mr. Hofni, causing the carriage to overturn. Both riders roll in the dirt, and the hero, his body aching, proceeds to the nearest hotel dining room and orders a meal (after a long and hungry wait) but insists on having a whole loaf to go with it.
Now the waiting truly begins, for many meals are served to others while he does not receive his—in part because of the search for a whole loaf. Hearing the clock strike half past ten, the hero leaps to his feet to go and mail the letters, and he collides with the waiter, spilling his own meal. The manager comforts the hero and promises that a new meal will be soon prepared for him.
With his soul flying between the restaurant kitchen and the already closed post office, the hero awaits the meal he was promised. The last of the diners having left, the lights are turned off, leaving the hero still waiting for his food. When he hears the doors being locked, he knows that no one will return until morning. Although trying to sleep, the protagonist is disturbed by a mouse gnawing at some bones left on a table. He soon becomes convinced that it is he who will eventually become a meal for the mouse. Seeing a cat, he hopes that the mouse will run, but neither pays attention to the other and the cat’s eyes take on an eerie green color that frightens the hero. The sound of a passing carriage prompts the hero to call on Mr. Gressler for help, but no help comes.
When the servants arrive in the morning, they are astonished to find the hero still waiting for his meal, and they laugh when the waiter identifies him as the one who ordered a whole loaf. The hero gets up, feeling dirty, sick, hungry, and thirsty, and makes his way back home, still unable to mail the letters as the post office is closed on Sunday. He washes and goes out to get some food, for he is still alone; his wife and children are abroad and the burden of providing for his own needs is still on him.
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