Self-Awareness and Companionship in the Struggles of Gehenna

The hero in “From Lodging to Lodging” by Agnon narrates the journey from ignorance and resignation to the endeavor for reaching insight and meaning.  The author emphasizes the dichotomies of reality—Hell and Heaven, loneliness and connection, youth and old age, ignorance and awareness. The narrator’s personal decisions parallel his growth in the acceptance of his needs and potential. Through an examination of the motif of eyes, the symbolism of sleep, and the parallels between characters, readers may grasp the story’s message about life’s challenging but fulfilling significance.

Agnon emphasizes an important contrast between the main character’s home in Tel Aviv and the home on the hill. In Tel Aviv, the narrator complains of the disturbing noise, excruciating heat, and commotion of the city that invades his space, preventing him from resting and healing. Originally moving to Tel Aviv in hopes of curing an illness with the sea air, he feels abruptly rejected by the city’s inhabitable atmosphere. The narrator’s helpless experience at the beach emulates the initial coercion and then expulsion he feels from the city.

The reader understands that the lodging in Tel Aviv symbolizes Hell, and the narrator even explicitly draws this comparison to Gehenna.

The home on the hill outside of the city center is everything that the character’s Tel Aviv bedroom is not—peaceful, quiet, and cool. A sense of holiness emanates from the environment’s description, evoking imagery of the Garden of Eden with vineyards, fish, flowers, and pools. The landlord’s wife presents her home as a gift provided by the goodness of nature and God.

From this symbolism and sentiment, the residence on the hill represents Heaven. It seems that the opportunity to move to this lodging would resolve all of the hero’s grievances, and he certainly expresses his longing for such an ideal.

While this dichotomy between the hellish Tel Aviv and the heavenly home on the hill may seem clear-cut at first, the story embeds important nuances that eventually lead to its unexpected conclusion. Through the narration’s subtleties and meaningful parallels between characters, readers learn that ‘Heaven’ may not be so fitting for the hero. The narrator asserts that the home on the hill would be a paradise compared to the Gehenna of Tel Aviv. Still, a sense of overcompensation for his doubt is apparent, such as in his words,

Through the similarities and differences of the narrator with the landlord, Agnon hints that the main character should not settle in the Heaven-like residence. The landlord’s narrative about his immigration to Tel Aviv clearly parallels the narrator’s experience. The landlord left the Gehenna of abroad, seeking refuge in Israel, and encountered a sleepless habitat of noise and bustle about which the narrator also complains. The man solved his problems by building a home of paradise and peace. While the narrator relates to the landlord’s previous struggles, their differences in character and experience demonstrate that he is not ready to follow the landlord’s same path. The landlord is an old man who has struggled in life and engaged in meaningful relationships with his wife and daughter. These two qualities are present in the motif of his eyes.

The narrator’s character contrasts with these two traits; he is young and lacks human companionship. With this comparison between characters, readers learn that the narrator will only be suited for ‘Heaven’ after he has grappled through life’s hardships into old age and shared personal companionship with others.

The comparison between the narrator and the landlord’s daughter is also relevant in understanding why ‘Hell’ is the more appropriate home for the hero. Her mother tells the narrator that her daughter left  abandoning the easy life in her family’s heavenly home to join a community and work hard (175).  The narrator points out a painting by the daughter, which illustrates the loneliness that occurs when a young person resigns from a challenging, connected life by living in ‘Heaven.’ The landlord’s daughter exemplifies the necessity for a young person to fulfill life’s meaning through hard work and forming personal relationships, and her action to leave her lodging on the hill highlights the narrator’s contrasting inaction.

Sleep is an important symbol throughout the entire story. In the beginning of “From Lodging to Lodging,” the narrator expresses his belief that sleep is the meaning of life.

Readers learn much about the narrator’s outlook on the world by this confession. To sleep is to be unconscious of one’s surroundings, to abandon reality, and to indulge only in personal needs without connecting to others. In these ways, sleep resembles death. Therefore, the hero initially asserts his belief that life’s purpose is to not live. The house on the hill outside of the city is a place to sleep—to resign from livelihood. The room in Tel Aviv is a place to live, though this life is defined by its challenges and its involvement in relationships. Despite its adversity, the narrator must choose life over death; he must choose Tel Aviv over the home on the hill, because he otherwise will never achieve life’s real meaning.

The character that most influences the narrator is the young boy on the doorstep, Bobby. A clear parallel is drawn between these two figures. Both the hero and the boy are sick, alone, and suffering. The difference between the two is their ability or inability to realize their shared need for human companionship. Bobby reaches out to the narrator, asserting his desperation for a personal relationship. The narrator, on the other hand, denies his attraction to Bobby and even expresses his struggle with creating friendships, as he comments,

Due to his unawareness and incapacity to act on his deprivation of relationships, the narrator cannot choose between fulfilling a sincere life in Tel Aviv or resigning for sleep in the home on the hill. At the climax of this decision, the narrator complains about an ailment of his eyes, which emphasizes this motif once again. His impaired vision represents an unawareness of his need to live through the challenges of ‘Hell’ and embrace deep companionship.

The hero finally breaks through this unawareness and chooses life, thanks to his interactions with Bobby. The narrator eventually realizes that his needs are the same as the boy’s. The author presents this evolution by employing the eyes motif. At the start of “From Lodging to Lodging,” only Bobby recognizes the two characters’ shared desperation for companionship, as it is written,  Bobby’s reflection symbolizes the commonalities between him and the narrator, and he actively acknowledges and responds to this connection. Finally, the narrator identifies with Bobby, admits his need for human relationships, and acts on this need by returning to Tel Aviv.

Now the narrator understands his connection to the boy, as a result of his gained self-awareness, which leads him to understanding that his appropriate lodging must allow for fostering bonds with others, despite evident struggles.

By the conclusion of the story, the narrator’s journey in his decision reveals the complexities of the not-so-simple dichotomies in our lives. Through symbolism and parallel, Agnon illustrates the nuances and difficulties in choosing to propel oneself towards achieving his potential, in opposition to a natural instinct to resign to reality’s hardships. The narrator’s decision to return to the Gehenna of Tel Aviv teaches us the difficult truth—meaningful life requires meaningful relationships and meaningful struggle.

By Lucille Marshall

Written for Fiction of S.Y. Agnon with Professor Alan Mintz at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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