Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514
In “The Whole Loaf,” Agnon characteristically transformed real events into a powerfully evocative literary gem. The story’s opening recaptures Agnon’s own experience when, in 1925, renting a room in Jerusalem, he had yet to arrange for the immigration of his wife and children, who were still living with his wife’s family in Germany. Agnon’s separation from the family, his sense of guilt at not heeding his wife’s urging to arrange for their speedy reunion in Jerusalem, and the constant dependence on the postal service for linking him with his loved ones are but the most visible biographical details from that period incorporated into this tale of the struggle between modernity and tradition for the soul of the hero. For example, in a letter to his wife dated March 18, 1925, Agnon recounted the unusually hot spring weather in Jerusalem that prevented him from remaining in his room, because its outer walls were covered with sheets of metal.
Eight years later, Agnon drew on these memories to embellish and reflect the spiritual torments of his protagonist, whose sense of loneliness is greater than the mere pain of being apart from his family. Agnon generalized and abstracted his own loneliness, hunger, and discomfort to indicate the existential predicament of the tradition-sensitive hero, who has become skeptical about the very existence of Lord and about the origins of Dr. Ne’eman’s book (details mostly omitted by Agnon in the revised and translated version of the story).
The protagonist’s shaken faith may also have been suggested by Agnon’s decade-long exposure to modernism as manifested by the broad array of German intellectual life, at that time a new and unprecedented experience in the author’s life (whether in Galicia or the Land of Israel), leaving a deep and lasting impression on his worldview and his literary creativity. Thus, Agnon observes in this story the bipolarity of modern-day Jewry, a conflict expressed in the rift within the hero’s personality between allegiance to a Mosaic way of life (as represented by the character with the Hebrew name, Yekutiel Ne’eman) and allegiance to the life of secularism (indicated by the character bearing the German name, Gressler).
Furthermore, the fire that consumed the hero’s books and household belongings, the outcome of the satanic temptation of Mr. Gressler, is a transmutation of an emotionally traumatic fire in 1924, which burned Agnon’s library (and never-to-be-published book) while he was living in the German city of Homburg.
In the story, the events reflect the hero’s sense of guilt for associating with Mr. Gressler and living abroad; his reaction to the fire, for example, was a break with Mr. Gressler and his secular lifestyle, an immersion into Dr. Ne’eman’s book, and immigration to the Land of Israel.
“A Whole Loaf” thus bears out the point that Agnon’s approach to writing stories was an intimate fusion between his experience and his imagination, the latter working on the former to condense and refine it and reflect the ideas and values he hoped to relay to his readers.
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