Melancholy, Passivity, and Sexuality: The Gender of Stasis and Productivity in Sideways and The End of Everything

Uri Nisan Gnessin’s novella Sideways and David Bergelson’s novel The End of Everything illustrate the internal worlds of protagonists who struggle with feelings of hopelessness, insatiability, and stagnancy. Through layered narrations, personified landscape imagery, and cyclical markings of time, these stories depict conditions of melancholy and stasis. The authors orchestrate expressions of passivity and placelessness by accentuating the femininity of their protagonists. An exploration into the nuances of gender and sexuality in Sideways and The End of Everything will uncover the authors’ perspectives about the potential for creative Jewish production and its gendered implications.

In both stories, the protagonist’s melancholic psychological state is produced through free indirect discourse, personified landscapes, and cyclical temporality. In Sideways, the objectivity of the narrator is often blurred with psycho-narration, a mode of expressing the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings through the language of the narrator. Such layered narration is further complicated by the author’s use of free indirect speech. In a scene of conversation between Hagzar and Rosa, the protagonist’s dialogue is recounted in third-person narration:

“Gradually he shifted to how quickly young people grew up nowadays, how nothing ever stayed the same, and how little there was in human life to hold on to. Even when you considered what still might lie ahead…to say nothing of what you had already seen, heard, and knew… even then life always seemed to slip sideways and to come to nothing in the end. Was that all there was to it? Did she understand him?” (19)

The End of Everything displays comparable moments of free indirect speech, which dominates in the scenes of dialogue throughout the novel. Similar to Gnessin’s psycho-narration, Mirel’s thoughts are presented in free indirect style, characterized by third-person voice and the syntax of inner contemplation. Bergelson writes,

“The overriding concern was that every day she felt something ought to be done, but didn’t know what or how. Every day she thought she’d know what it was the next day, but the next day she failed again because she still found herself under the same roof as Shmulik, and was still his wife. Sooner or later she’d have to find some means of escape from this whole existence. There was nothing more— —Other people spent years looking for the same means of escape, and when they failed to find it, they eventually took their own lives, leaving behind half-foolish, half-perceptive notes” (165).

Free indirect discourse generates a feeling of distance between reader and protagonist. Even with access to their inner thoughts, the third-person narration inhibits a sense of proximity to the characters’ deepest feelings. Such consistent third-person narration in moments of conversation and inner-dialogue accentuates Hagzar and Mirel’s passivity. By removing the protagonists’ direct voice, free indirect discourse diminishes the characters’ agency. These blurred levels of narration produce an impression of obscurity and aimlessness that emphasizes the protagonists’ feelings of confused placelessness and futility. Free indirect discourse creates an atmosphere that corresponds to the characters’ melancholic psychological states, which are described in the quotes above.

Another common element in Sideways and The End of Everything is the mirroring of landscape and human emotion. In both tales, the landscape is invested with symbolic imagery that reflects the protagonists’ melancholic feelings. The presence of mud is especially notable and significant in Sideways, which reads, “Afterwards, when autumn came and—buttoned up in his bulky overcoat and wearing his high boots—he had to knead with his feet several times each day the thick batter of mud into which the town square was transformed…” (4). Recurring throughout the novella, mud signifies Hagzar’s feelings of paralyzed stagnancy. In this landscape imagery, the protagonist is both literally and symbolically stuck in the town, a place that is meant to be only a temporary, transitional stop along the way to the cultural grandeur of Europe. In this way, Gnessin employs the landscape to articulate the inescapable liminality and paralysis that plague Hagzar. Bergelson also uses this technique in The End of Everything. With impressionist, panoramic images, the landscape is characterized by Mirel’s feelings of decay, futility, and gloom. In one of the many instances of this phenomenon, Bergelson writes, “Smoke puffed from the chimney of one of the houses, but instead of rising up into the sky it sank downward, feebly described circles in the air, and finally spread itself over the snow” (33). Like the smoke, Mirel feels dreary and leaden, incapable of progress, and too insignificant to make a real impact on the world. Gnessin and Bergelson compose landscape imagery that augments the melancholy of the characters’ psychological conditions.

The modes of temporality in Sideways and The End of Everything deepen the sense of futile stasis that Hagzar and Mirel experience. In describing the impact of melancholy on one’s perception of time, Luisa Banki writes, “As the effect of an unavowable loss and the cleaving to the lost object, melancholia is stuck in a past that never passes” (94). In a melancholic state, one is incapable of moving on from a lost past, resulting in a painful feeling of paralysis. Gnessin and Bergelson weave into their works calendric marks of time that both exasperate a feeling of wasted, passing time and a sense of fruitless, inescapable repetition. The plot of Sideways cycles through numerous winters and springs, and Hagzar frequently yearns for certain seasons. These marks of seasonal time logically indicate that time has passed, but readers have no real sense of how much. Instead of illustrating progression or development through time, the repetition of seasons in Sideways makes the reader feel trapped in an unproductive cycle, yielding a sense of stasis despite the advance of time. This effect is evident in The End of Everything as well. Throughout the novel, readers learn of holidays on the Jewish calendar that approach, arrive, and pass. The progression of the Jewish calendar stands in direct opposition to Mirel’s emotional immobility. These calendric markings work in the same way that Gnessin’s seasons do, illustrating the protagonist’s stagnant state of melancholy, “stuck in a past that never passes.”

Gnessin and Bergelson further the description of their protagonists’ alienation, hopelessness, and paralysis by portraying the characters as feminine. Hagzar is repeatedly emasculated in Sideways. His friend Carmel is presented as a strong, masculine rival who continuously draws attention to Hagzar’s femininity. Teasing Hagzar’s vegetarianism, physical weakness, and nervousness, Carmel challenges him to wrestle, only to highlight Hagzar’s femininity. This femininity is a source of personal regret and strife. Looking at a photograph of Carmel, Hagzar thinks,

“The trace of laughing mockery upon [Carmel’s face], which seemed reminiscent of something and cut to the heart’s quick—that subtle trace that kept reappearing and vanishing into the mystery of those unsullied lips, reappearing with triumphant insolence and vanishing, as though tauntingly, with the cunning of a cat—that laughter haunted him, like the forgotten end of a dream” (5).

Unlike Hagzar, Carmel achieved his dream to travel to Europe. Carmel’s success, assertiveness, and confidence directly oppose Hagzar’s paralysis, passivity, and self-deprecation. These characterizations are orchestrated by the author’s feminization of Hagzar. Similarly, Bergelson utilizes Mirel’s femininity to articulate her marginalization, stagnation, and passivity. Mirel often becomes the passive recipient of a male gaze, which transforms her into inactive object of desire. One moment of Mirel’s objectification reads,

“Looking at her, lewd thoughts passed though the mind of this polytechnic student with his lecherous, grinning face. For some reason his lascivious glance aroused in her an unspoken, lustful excitement that intermixed prurient thoughts with deep inner dejection. The lustful arousal disappeared with the departing sleigh, but the dejection remained, grew stronger, and yielded to an innermost sense of emptiness and regret. All at once she appeared small and demeaned in her own eyes and, wanting to shake off this feeling” (66).

This hegemonic objectification nullifies Mirel’s agency and produces her shame, alienation, and self-deprecation. Hagzar, as a man, is emasculated, and Mirel, as a woman, is objectified. In both characters, their femininity is immobilizing, embarrassing, and alienating. In this way, Gnessin and Bergelson render their protagonists as feminine in order to facilitate the characters’ passivity, marginality, and helpless stagnancy.

By representing Hagzar and Mirel as bearers of femininity, the authors illustrate the challenges of creative productivity and social order in Jewish society. In Sideways, Gnessin paints Hagzar’s femininity as an obstacle to creative production. The author achieves this effect by creating a connection between sexual satisfaction and writing. Hagzar’s sessions of failed writing are correlated with episodes of failed sexual intimacy. On a walk together, Rosa and Hagzar stumbled in the snow. With words of violence like “grabbed,” “shriek,” “seized,” and “hold,” the incident displays Hagzar’s inability to commune with Rosa due to his awkwardness, passivity, and weakness—Hagzar’s feminine attributes that beckon Carmel’s ridicule. Following this emasculating event, the protagonist sits down to write:

“And when the spindly, crooked, rat-tailed letters ran from his pen at last, their sickliness so filled him with loathing that he broke off in the middle, threw himself on his bed with a suffering noise, and lay there for hours grunting and tossing in turn” (17).

Just as Hagzar’s femininity prevents him from attaining sexual realization with Rosa, so too does his femininity thwart his creative productivity. Despite the protagonist’s frequent submersion in atmospheres of feminine sexuality and potential satisfaction, Hagzar’s preference for autoeroticism is prevalent throughout the novella. In the sisters’ home, Hagzar is literally enveloped by feminine sexuality, as portrayed by the description of furniture and the intimate openness of the sisters. With “half-ajar” doors open to the girls’ bedrooms, Hagzar looks into the sexual worlds of these women as he sinks into the “red velvet couch” (9). The protagonist expresses intense sexual desire in this environment, but he does not act on it. Instead, he turns inward, relieving his sexual tension with repetitive fidgets and motions, even when he has the opportunity for sexual fulfillment.

“[Rosa’s] speech had a feverish intensity, which she broke now and then with a softly enigmatic laugh while regarding him with confident affection. Hagzar rose at such times to his feet, tucked his hands behind his back beneath the skirts on his frock coat, and paced step by step across the soft carpet, absentmindedly enjoying each squeak of his shoes as they sank into the pliant fabric” (7).

In this moment, Rosa’s female sexual desire is obvious. Her “feverish intensity,” “enigmatic laugh,” and “confident affection” elucidate her invitation for intimacy with Hagzar. Sensing the potential for sexual attainment with Rosa, Hagzar distances himself from her and gains pleasure from rubbing his hands on his back and sensing the friction between his feet and the floor. These autoerotic choices indicate Hagzar’s incapacity to achieve satisfaction from the feminine sexuality he desires. Readers learn that this unfulfilled desire is essential to the creative process.

Hagzar’s singular moment of sexual fulfillment with Hanna Heler does not lead to a successful session of writing. Returning home from his fruitful sexual episode, Hagzar is stripped of any creativity or motivation for literary production:

“He removed a box of matches from his pocket, cast it on the table, made his way in the dark to his bed, and sank into the mountain of pillows upon it; then he rose and walked about the room until his knees were weak and his chest began to ache. An enervating slackness spread through his limbs and his brain felt stupidly blank. Again he collapsed on the pillows and lay there a long while without moving, feebly musing how pointless was the life of self-denial and how some people were born to it nonetheless—which seemed to console him, so that he fell asleep thinking of the subtle, soapy odor given off my Hannah Heler’s white breasts” (23-24).

Sexual satisfaction does not breed creative success. In fact, Hagzar’s creative resources shut down after intercourse with Hannah, as represented by his “stupidly blank” mind. He only gains consolation for this loss by returning to a state of autoeroticism, unfulfilled desire, and thoughts of melancholic futility. Paralleling his behavior in the sisters’ house, Hagzar paces back and forth for relief and engulfs himself in pillows. The incapacity of sexual satisfaction to spark Hagzar’s successful creativity complicates Gnessin’s connection between sexual desire and writing.

An analysis of Hagzar’s successful writing scene will uncover the authors’ conception of sexuality and productivity. This moment is preceded by the protagonist finding a new room, which is described in similar terms to the sisters’ house:

“That same day Hagzar moved in. In the evening Rosa and the girls can to visit. They praised the room and joked with the peasant land-lady, laughing especially when she paused on her way out, pointed with a finger to the pillowy mountain, and declared: ‘I do believe you’ll sleep well here…’” (11)

Although Hagzar does not attain sexual communion with Rosa or her sisters, his desire is stimulated, so much so that he feels “as though his soul were incubating within him” (11). Readers see that this “incubation” of Hagzar’s masculine sexual desire leads to his creative production. Such creativity is not attained through the harmony of feminine and masculine sexuality, but instead through Hagzar’s unsatisfied desire and his autoerotic relief. Autoeroticism is clearly evident in his successful writing session that follows this incubation:

“For a long time he sat on his new bed with his feet tucked beneath him and one hand supporting his head. Then he rose, turned up the collar of his buttoned frock coat, and paced slowly back and forth in the room, his left hand holding the collar in place while his right hand braced his left against his chest. After a while, he sat down at his desk and remained immobile there with his pen aimed at a blank sheet of paper. Yet when he began to write, the round, curlicued, carefully formed letters raced handsomely across the page. His face grew intense and excited. His breath came and went irregularly, and his movements were nervous and quick. With dizzying speed he filled lines and whole pages, and he did not stop to rest until he had finished a large and crucial section of his new article. Only when he had marked the final period with a large, black inkstain and had drawn a black line beneath the last sentence did he throw down his pen on the table with a sigh of relief” (11).

Hagzar reaches a climax of literary productivity through his own masculinity, not through the satisfaction of a sexual relationship. The femininity of Rosa and her sisters incites Hagzar’s desire, but he is left unfulfilled. The protagonist’s masculine insatiability nurtures his capability to produce successfully through his own autoerotic measures. While Hagzar’s femininity marks him as passive, paralyzed, and alienated, Hebrew writing awakens his masculinity and ultimately offers him an escape from stagnation. At the beginning of this writing scene, Hagzar is “immobile” with “his pen aimed at a blank sheet of paper.” For much of the story, Hagzar is unable to move past this condition of paralysis, due to his feminine qualities of passivity and weakness. He achieves creative production only after incubating his most base masculinity—his sexual desire—and arousing creativity by way of his own, personal energy. Marking the Jewish intellectual’s struggle in the transition to modernity as a condition that fosters potential for creativity, Gnessin promotes Hebrew literature as a method to reclaim Jewish productivity. The author arrives at this conclusion in Sideways by linking gender and sexuality to the stagnation of Jewish culture and the nurturing of new productive (and therefore masculine) achievement.

In The End of Everything, Bergelson also depicts femininity as an obstacle to Jewish social production and order. Mirel is the opposite of productive. In fact, the only clear decision she makes throughout the novel is to undergo an abortion, an act that bluntly obstructs any possibility for production. Like Hagzar’s emasculation, Mirel’s femininity, as displayed through her passivity, objectification, and stasis, is a barrier to progress. As a symbol for the shtetl, Mirel represents the downfall of Jewish traditional life in the face of modernity. Luisa Banki describes this transition as a breakdown of Jewish social order. She writes, “The decay of tradition is experienced as a loss of form in so far as the spoken and unspoken social laws of tradition have lost their validity and meaning” (92). This formlessness is represented through Mirel’s femininity, which embodies her state of melancholy. Comparable to Hagzar’s fruitless sexual relationships with Rosa and her sisters, Mirel cycles through phases of infatuation and revulsion with numerous male suitors. None of her relationships consummate in successful sexual satisfaction or partnership. Mirel’s bonds with her suitors continually end in disappointment, her unexplained lack of desire, and male sexual frustration. Each of these men reappears throughout the novel, indicating Mirel’s cyclical stasis, just like the rotation of seasons in Sideways. Her feminine traits of aimlessness, displacement, and paralysis prevent Mirel from constructing any sensible order in her life. As a representation of traditionalism, Mirel’s femininity illustrates the loss of form in Jewish society.

Like Gnessin, Bergelson elucidates the potential for productivity that lies within unproductive femininity. Banki shows that “the loss of form is the condition of possibility of form” (94). She argues that Bergelson harnesses formlessness to produce a new form, the modern Yiddish novel. The author overcomes the stagnancy of Jewish society by nurturing his desire for social order, resulting in successful creative production. In this way, Bergelson resembles Hagzar. New Yiddish literature awakens Jewish masculinity (as opposed to the femininity of formlessness) and permits an escape from stagnation. Symbolized by the suitor’s unsatisfied sexual desire in The End of Everything, the built-up masculine yearning for form creates impetus for Bergelson’s new literary product. In creating the new Yiddish novel, the author aims to eradicate the feminine formlessness of Jewish society. He does so by “incubating” the reader’s masculine sexual desire, which will inspire creative productivity like Hagzar’s writing. At the end of the novel, Mirel disappears without any dramatic or explained exit. The reader is left with the same unfulfilled desire as Mirel’s unsatisfied suitors. With Mirel’s femininity as the novel’s encompassing atmosphere, The End of Everything offers a place to nurture unfulfilled masculine sexual desire, like the pillowy house of Rosa and her sisters. The reader feels like Hagzar, struggling with the frustration of stagnation and the impulse of masculine desire. By evoking such desire, the novel contains the necessary tools to overcome the feminized conditions of formless paralysis. Bergelson posits a new form amid the breakdown of Jewish social order. This new form, as an opportunity to revive a sense of organization in Jewish society, is gendered masculine, as it is an effort to obliterate the femininity of static formlessness.

Sideways and The End of Everything depict the melancholic, passive, and paralyzed condition of their protagonists through blurred narration, symbolic landscape imagery, and cyclical, static temporality. Gnessin and Bergelson accentuate these traits of stagnation and placelessness by feminizing their characters. Both authors seek to access base masculinity through the incubation of unfulfilled, masculine sexual desire. The reclaiming of Jewish masculinity, as a symbol of Jewish progress and order, is expressed by successful creative production. Through the intricate connections drawn between sexuality and productivity, these authors articulate the impetus for new Jewish achievement in the transition to modernity.

By Lucille Marshall

Written for The Construction of Gender in Yiddish and Hebrew Literature with Professor Barbara Mann at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Works Cited

Banki, Luisa. “Melancholy and Modernity: Dovid Bergelson’s Nohk Alemen.” Universitat Konstanz (2010): Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden. Web.

Bergelson, David. The End of Everything. Trans. Joseph Sherman. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. Print.

Gnessin, Uri Nissan. “Sideways.” Beside & Other Stories. Trans. Hillel Halkin. New Milford, CT: Toby, 2005. Print.

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About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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