The Last Demon


If both Hoffmann and Akutagawa intend to instil horror in their readers, the approach of Isaac Bashevis Singer in The Last Demon is more satirical, as we can tell from the opening lines:

“I, a demon, bear witness that there are no more demons left. Why demons, when man himself is a demon?”

The story concerns a demon who has been sent from Lublin to Tishevitz, in his own words, “a godforsaken village; Adam didn’t even stop to pee there.” He bemoans the fact that, as a demon, he feels increasingly redundant:

“It has reached the point where people want to sin beyond their capacities. They martyr themselves from the most trivial of sins. If that’s the way it is, what are we needed for?”

However, he meets a local imp who tells him of an incorruptible young rabbi – “You might as well try to break through an iron wall.” The demon determines to corrupt the rabbi, having been promised a transfer to Odessa if he succeeds:

“It’s as near paradise as our kind gets. You can sleep twenty-four hours a day. The population sins and you don’t lift a finger.”

The remainder of the story concerns the demon’s attempt to tempt the rabbi, until, that is, its comic tone takes a sudden shift at the end. The demon, stuck for eternity in Tishevitz, laments the destruction of its Jewish population:

“The community was slaughtered, the holy books burned, the cemetery desecrated… There is no further need for demons.”

What seemed like an amusing satire becomes something much fiercer and sadder.

This volume also contains the short story ‘Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,’ a revelation for anyone like me who associates Yentl entirely with Barbara Streisand. This story is, indeed, the original inspiration for the film (though via a play), but I can only hope that some parts (“Anshel [Yentl] had found a way to deflower the bride”) did not make it to the screen. A third story, ‘The Cafeteria.’ convinces that there is a compelling strangeness about Singer’s tales.

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2 Responses to “The Last Demon”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I just read this myself. I’ve had it ages, but seeing you’d read it inspired me to do so myself.

    The first story is as you say funny and then devastating. I thought it worked very well. With Yentl, I have seen the movie and because it’s Hollywood and Streisand it’s warm and funny and life affirming (and actually a bit dull if I recall correctly, a bit too worthy). The story? Not so much. Yentl steps out of her societal role, but her society has no way to manage that. I thought it rather sad.

    The third story I see you say least of, and if I were writing this up that would probably be true for me too. I liked it, but it didn’t have the punch for me of The Last Demon or Yentl.

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m glad you decided to pick it up. I’ve also had it for ages, and the Penguin 60s are now twenty years old! It was a good introduction to Singer’s work for me as I’d never read him before.
      Though The Last Demon was my favourite of the three stories, there were elements of The Cafeteria I also liked. As I’m trying to write a review a day I’ll do anything to keep them brief!

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