Analysis of Amos Oz’s My Michael

My Michael was Israeli writer Amos Oz’s second novel and first translated work. The Hebrew edition was published in Israel in 1968, shortly after the Six-Day War (ArabIsraeli War) in 1967, and in English with translator Nicholas de Lange in 1972. The novel established Oz’s reputation internationally. It was made into a film by Dan Wollman in 1975.

Published when Oz was 29 years old, My Michael speaks to the tensions between idealism and reality, pleasure and pain, love and death. The novel portrays the inner life of an Israeli housewife whose marriage to a patient and attentive yet unexciting, aspiring geologist places such demands on the melancholic young woman that she withdraws into a world of fantasy from which she distantly observes her husband and their child. In a series of daydreams, she imagines herself erotically involved with illusory images of Arab twins from childhood who either obey her commands or abuse her in captivity. Other reveries include memories of her dead father. The young wife flirts with her private student, a sensitive young man who lives in the apartment above theirs writing poetry. Meanwhile the husband drifts into a platonic relationship with a female colleague who supplies the stability and encouragement he needs.

Amos Oz, pictured in 1989. Photograph: Tom Pilston/The Independent/Rex/Shutterstock

Disappointed by the mundane details of a middleclass family life, which critics have called Oz’s vehicle for exploring the insularity of Israeli society, the narrator and protagonist Hannah (Greenbaum) Gonen suffers from a sadness that is inexplicable to her. She feels great affection for her husband, Michael, and their young son, Yair, and at the same time she often resents their demands on her. She confesses to beating her son in fits of anger or frustration and wonders several times in the narrative why she has married Gonen, whom she professes not to know. Importantly, she admits feeling excluded from her husband and son’s man-to-man or father-to-son talks. This in part harks back to her childhood wish to have been born a male, a desire that manifests itself in adult fantasies showing the female protagonist usurping masculine power and privileges. Esther Fuchs reads these fantasies as Hannah wedding together Eros and Thanatos, or love and death.

According to Fuchs, in post-1960s fiction by Israeli male novelists, female characters such as Hannah Gonen are symbolic of death and destruction although they are depicted as romantic figures. These women victimize the male protagonists in the novel, who nevertheless reach their potential, while their wives degenerate into psychosis. In My Michael, Michael Gonen achieves his goal of launching a career that will bring him professional rewards and economic stability. Hannah, on the other hand, haunted by the voices of her dead father and a former professor at the university who encourage her to pursue scholarship in Hebrew literature, becomes paralyzed by grief. Her failure to fulfill what she perceives to be the expectations of these men, due perhaps to a fear of failing, fills Hannah with shame and selfloathing, which plunges her deeper into realms of fantasy and reminiscence. In the end she bitterly rejects her husband’s help and the doctor’s advice and succumbs to the mental breakdown foreshadowed in the first pages of the novel. Fuchs argues that such representations reinforce the binary construction of dynamic males and passive female characters in Israeli fiction.

Characters such as Hannah and Michael reappear in Oz’s early fiction. Generally, the author’s plot focuses on a man and woman locked in a power struggle that the husband does not fully understand. He is often depicted as mild and unassuming and occasionally callous, while his wife possesses depths of emotion that threaten to destroy them both. These strong women and weak men disappoint and deceive each other in various ways, but they seldom abandon their families. Hannah, for instance, recovers from her mental collapse and anticipates the birth of their second child, and Michael resumes his role as the dutiful husband and doting father. Disillusionment has shattered the romantic fantasies they once clung to; yet their commitment to the family endures. And repeating their fathers’ mistakes, both Michael and Hannah hope that their son will make up for their failures and disappointments with his own victories and successes.

Contemporary literary critics have interpreted the family romance in the novel as symbolic of the difficulties in constructing a cohesive national identity in Israeli fiction. Hana Wirth-Nesher reads the novel’s alienated protagonist as representing the isolation and fear of Israelis living in a state of siege, and Fuchs argues that the internecine relations between Michael and Hannah are metaphors for Israel’s social and ideological disillusionment. Pointing to Yosef Oren’s study of Israeli fiction, Fuchs writes, “The gradual transformation of the pioneer, idealistic society, into an embattled, highly bureaucratized state often takes the shape, in Israeli fiction, of love gone awry.” It can be argued that in Oz’s fiction, failed romances such as Michael and Hannah Gonen’s do not necessarily reflect the bureaucratized nation-state that Israel has become as much as it does a movement from idealism to realism in Israeli politics and society.

Upon publication in 1968 the novel drew fire from segments of the Israeli public for its ostensibly apolitical content. Detractors objected to the focus on the emotions of its female protagonist at a time when the country struggled for political empowerment. They expected the novel to represent the ideology and aspirations of the newly formed nation as national literature has done traditionally in European contexts. Literary critic Hillel Halkin would agree. He argues that while Oz’s characters possess a certain degree of political awareness, perhaps the writer should include more of his own political beliefs in the novels.

Amos Oz, however, avoids mixing politics and fiction, which he calls “the realm of bad fiction.” He is quoted as saying, “In the Jewish tradition, [writers] are supposed to be the prophets who show the way and get stoned in the marketplace. . . . [But] when I am writing a novel, I myself have [no] politics. I am on everyone’s side.”

Analysis of Amos Oz’s Black Box

BIBLIOGRAPHY Balaban, Abraham. Between God and Beast: An Examination of Amos Oz’s Prose. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993. Mazor, Yair. Somber Lust: The Art of Amos Oz. Translated by Marganit Weinberger-Rotman. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002. Wirth-Nesher, Hana. City Codes: Reading the Modern Urban Novel. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Categories: Israeli Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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