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Ironic Characterization in the Works of S. Y. Agnon

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 October 2009

Esther Fuchs
Oriental and African Languages and Literatures, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78712
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[Reb Zevi] saw and realized that the business was leading [Reb Issachar] astray, that he was being distracted by it and was distracting others, until finally he felt like one tugged by a distorted idea, a senseless bit of sophistry or vain embellishment, like one who becomes increasingly bogged down as he trudges from one pilpul to the next, from one piece of vanity to the next, until it finally drags him into a morass from which he can never emerge.

Research Article
Copyright © Association for Jewish Studies 1982

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1. Agnon, S. Y., 'Ir u-melo'ah(Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, 1973), p. 124. This and all subsequent translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.Google Scholar

2. Culler, Jonathan, Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty(Ithaca, 1974), p. 90.Google Scholar

3. Ibid, p. 90.

4. Hillel Barzel, for example, contends that Agnon's most substantial novels present a harmonious balance between the individual and the collective experience. See his Sippurei'ahavah shel S. Y.'Agnon(Ramat Gan, 1975), p. 127. Cf. Isaiah Rabinowitz, “Darkhei 'Agnon be'iṣṣuv gibboro ha-sippuri” in Dov Sadan and Urbach, E. E., eds., Le-'Agnon Shai(Jerusalem, 1966), pp. 245246.Google Scholar

5. Agnon, S. Y., Hakhnasat kallah(Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1964), p. 8. Excerpts from Hakhnasat kallahare for the most part based on The Bridal Canopy, trans. L. A. Lask (New York, 1967),Google Scholar

6. Ibid, p. 9.

7. For example, Ibid, p. 59.

8. Ibid, p. 99.

9. Ibid, pp. 221–24.

10. Ibid, p. 270.

11. Ibid, p. 202.

12. Book 1, Chap. 16, which is dedicated to the family's wretchedness, is followed by Chap. 17, which describes Reb Yudel as comfortably ênsconced in a sumptuous hotel. Ibid, p. 214.

13. Ibid, pp. 343, 345–47.

14. Ibid, p. 207.

15. Ibid, p. 209.

16. Ibid, p. 271.

17. Ibid, pp. 283–85.

18. Ibid, pp. 229–30 (Lask, p. 244).

19. Ibid, p. 232.

20. Ibid, p. 390.

21. Ibid, p. 326.

22. Ibid, p. 57 (Lask, pp. 58–59).

23. Ibid, (Lask, p. 59).

24. Ibid

25. Ibid, p. 267.

26. Ibid

27. Ibid, p. 272.

28. Ibid, p. 27.

29. Ibid, p. 344.

30. Harvey, J. W., Character and the Novel(Ithaca, 1965), p. 78.Google Scholar

31. According to Hochman, Baruch (The Fiction of S. Y. Agnon[Ithaca, 1970], p. 54),Google Scholar“The Bridal Canopyat once celebrates Reb Yudel and mocks him relentlessly.” Hochman largely follows the ambivalent interpretation of Penueli, S. Y. in Yeṣirato shel S. Y. 'Agnon(Tel Aviv, 1960), pp. 5963.Google Scholar

32. An excellent article on the subject is Golomb, Harai, “The Combined Speech in Agnon's Prose” [Hebrew], Hasifrut 1 (1968): 378385.Google Scholar

33. Cohn, Dorrit, Transparent Minds—Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction(Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1968), p. 117.Google Scholar

34. Sippurpashuṭ(Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, 1971), p. 105.

35. Shirah(Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1971), p. 103.

36. Ibid, p. 118.

37. Ibid, p. 269.

38. Ibid, p. 453.

39. Ibid, p. 118.

40. Baruch Kurzweil maintains that the protagonist reflects the author's point of view. See Massot'al sippurei S. Y.'Agnon(Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1975), p. 403. Hillel Barzel too identifies the auctorial and figural perspectives. See Sippurei'ahavah shel S. Y.'Agnon(Ramat Gan, 1975), p. 130.Google Scholar

41. Shirah, p. 93.

42. On the ironic function of syntactic awkwardness, see Boris Eichenbaum, “How Gogol's ‘Overcoat’ Is Made!” in Maguire, Robert, Gogol from the Twentieth Century(Princeton, 1974), pp. 267292.Google Scholar

43. Shirah, p.91.

44. Ibid, pp. 145, 232, 314, 358, 359, 532.

45. Ibid, p. 200.

46. Ibid, pp. 16, 193, 194,422.

47. Robert Alter suggests that Herbst's failure as an academic stems from his consciousness of the “tentativeness of our knowledge of the past.” See his article, “A Novel of the Post Tragic World,” Jewish Writers and Modern Historical Crisis(Philadelphia, 1977), pp. 169–86.

48. On the failures of Leo the Heretic, see Ostrogorski, George, History of the Byzantine State, trans. Hussey, J. (New Brunswick, 1969), pp. 7880.Google Scholar

49. Baruch Hochman criticizes the author for avoiding examination of the meaning of critical issues: “Agnon, for all his mockery of Herbst, seems so closely identified with him that he does not want to probe the meaning of his experience. So deep is his identification with Herbst that he seems to lose perspective on the issues that arise in the course of Herbst's presentation.” See his article “Agnon's Posthumous Novel,” Midstream17 (1971): 68–75.

50. Shirah.p.137.

51. Agnon, S. Y., 'Ad hennah(Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1966), p. 282.Google Scholar

52. Ibid, p. 250.

53. For additional examples of the same technique, see Ibid, pp. 288,291.

54. It seems to me that the repeated invocation of the gods does not justify the allegoricaltheosophical interpretation endorsed by Abraham Kariv, Dina Stern and Hillel Barzel. The function of the gods in the novella is mainly ironic, and there is nothing in the operation of this motif to suggest that the other characters in the story signify allegorical entities (e.g., the consul= God; Rechnitz = lsrael, etc.).

55. Literally, “she did not show him a content countenance.”

56. 'Ad hennah, p.215.

57. See Even's, Yosef“Ha-di'alog be-sippurei S. Y. Agnon ve-darkhei 'iṣṣuvo”, Hasifrut 3(1971): 281294. Even stresses in particular the schematic frame of the dialogue, and its static repetitiousness.Google Scholar

58. 'Ad hennah, p. 269.

59. An identical device characterizes Hirschel's dialogues with Bluma in “Simple Story.”

60. Agnon, S. Y., 'Al kappol ha-man'ul(Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1971), p. 355.Google Scholar

61. Ibid, p. 365.

62. Agnon, S. Y., Temol shilshom(Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1964), p. 161.Google Scholar

63. Ibid, p. 142.

64. Ibid, p. 153.

65. Ibid, p. 365.

66. 'Al kappot ha-man'ul, p. 452. Based on “Metamorphosis,” trans. I. Schem, in Agnon, S. Y., Twenty One Stories, ed. Glatzer, Nahum (New York, 1970), p. 114.Google Scholar

67. Ibid, p. 467 (“Metamorphosis,” p. 132).

68. Agnon, S. Y., Samukh ve-nir'eh(Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1964), p. 95.Google Scholar

69. Ibid, p. 96.

70. Even if we concede the allegorical interpretation construing the lady as the Christians and Joseph as the Jews, we must not overemphasize the substitutive elements at the expense of the structural relationship between them, which creates suspense, dramatic irony, and irony of events and which underlies the ironic characterization of the protagonist.

71. Note that reported rather than narrated monologue is the central ironic vehicle in this story.

72. 'Ad hennah, p. 360. Based on Two Tales by S. Y. Agnon, trans. Walter Lever (New York, 1966), pp. 170–71.Google Scholar

73. 'Ad hennah, p. 394.

74. See Tukhner, Meshulam, Pesher 'Agnon(Ramat Gan, 1968), p. 112 and Kurzweil, Massol, p. 148.Google Scholar

75. Agnon, S. Y., Ha-'esh ve-ha-'esim(Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1952), p. 319.Google Scholar

76. Moked, Gabriel, Shivḥei Adi'el 'Amzeh(Tel Aviv, 1957).Google Scholar

77. Ha-'esh ve-ha-'eṣim, p. 324. For a more detailed account of the ironic characterization in the story, see my article “'Ad 'olam-patos o 'ironyah,” to appear in Jerusalem Studies in Hebrew Literature2 (1982).

78. Tukhner, Pesher'agnon, p. 134.

79. Zemah, Adi, “'Al ha-tefisah ha-historiyyosofit bi-shenayim mi-sippurei 'Agnon hame'uharim”, Hasifrut 1 (1968): 378385.Google Scholar

80. Amzeh is presented as heroic, tragic and symbolic of the Jewish people by Tukhner, Barzel and Zemah.

81. Samukh ve-nir'eh, p. 269.

82. 'Al kappol ha-man'ul, p. 312.

83. Ibid, p. 311.

84. Ibid, p. 349.

85. According to Arnold Band, Hemdat indeed represents the young Agnon prior to his immigration to Palestine: “So highly personal was this attempt at satire, that Agnon could not keep it within the bounds of objective treatment.” See Nostalgia and Nightmare(Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1968), p. 124.

86. Kurzweil, Massot, p. 53.

87. Agnon, S. Y., 'Oreaḥ naṭah la-lun(Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1964), pp. 18, 30, 48, 56, 62, 71,80, 177, 193,216,250,365.Google Scholar

88. Gumovietz, Ignatz and Daniel Bach are maimed. “The baby” is asthmatic. Freida, Shulkind, Enoch and Reb Haim die in the course of the novel.

89. 'Oreaḥ naṭah la-lun, pp. 42, 57, 58, 76,94, 102, 112, 154, 336.

90. Employing an entirely different critical methodology, Yair Mazor reaches a similar conclusion concerning the preponderance of “Eretz Israel” as a countervailing theme to the idea of “galut” in the novel. See his book Ha-Dinamiqah shel moṭivim bi-yeṣirot 'Agnon(Tel Aviv, 1979), pp. 6871.Google Scholar

91. 'Oreaḥ naṭah la-lun, p.114.

92. Ibid, p. 241. A similar ironic effort is produced by the imaginary encounter of the narrator and the ghosts of Enoch and his horse, pp. 211–14.

93. For another dubious theodicy, see Ibid, p. 192.

94. 'Ad hennah, pp. 64, 84,93,95,99.

95. Ibid, pp. 89, 99, 105, 126.

96. Ibid, pp. 68–76.

97. Ibid, p. 169.

98. Ibid, pp. 39,46, 52, 102, 109, 110–12.

99. According to Sadan, Dov, the value of these stories consists in what they authentically reveal about the “inner depth of the author's soul”. See his book, Massot u-ma'amarim'al S. Y. Agnon(Tel Aviv, 1978), p. 59.Google Scholar

100. Structural cacophany, incongruities and textual inconstancies are formative in the grotesque. See, for example, Thomson, Philip, The Grotesque(London, 1972).Google Scholar

101. Sadan, Massot, p. 29; Kurzweil, Massot, p. 130.

102. According to Baruch Hochman, “Agnon has no real stomach for his harshest insights. To argue with a writer on these grounds — especially of Agnon's stature — is to argue dire issues. It is to say that in the final accounting, Agnon sidesteps the harshest and most meaningful confrontations of all.” See Fiction of S. Y. Agnon, p. 189.