Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“A Whole Loaf” is perhaps the most frequently cited of Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s Sefer hama’asim (1932; book of deeds), an anthology of short stories characterized by unreal, dreamlike situations and categorized as materialistic stories—namely, tales, or episodes within larger works, whose connotational import is in a higher (timeless) sphere than the denotational plot.

The key to this story’s meaning has been identified by scholars as its title, with particular emphasis on the possible connotations of the term “loaf.” There are a number of possible interpretations of what the loaf and the narrator’s hunger for one represent, ranging from a yearning for spiritual, religious nourishment to one for selfish, material rewards, all the way to a desire by the hero to practice idolatry.

The difficulty with explaining the meaning of the term “loaf” may be skirted by focusing on the title’s adjective. Thus, one may say that the protagonist’s insistence on having a loaf (whatever it may mean) that is whole constitutes the crux of the difficulty in providing him with one, thereby leaving him hungry physically, but even more so existentially, for an unattainable wholeness.

The story focuses on the hero’s state of loneliness and his inability to commit himself to a specific set of values. He is of two minds about issues such as Dr. Ne’eman’s book, his desire to eat or carry out the promise to mail the...

(The entire section is 569 words.)