As with most narratives of catastrophe, the touchstone and point of departure of the narratives of persecution is a state of equilibrium disrupted by an act of violence. Persecution is a disruption of the normal orbit of history and the rituals of any given social body of social state of mind. In a passage from his major post-World War I novel A Guest for the Night (1939), which predicts World War II and the Holocaust, S. Agnon describes this transition from normalcy to the insecure state of the victims of a historical catastrophe.
Agnon confronts the potentially idyllic normal narrative of bourgeois and Jewish life with the real state of affairs after the catastrophe: the narrative of normalcy is disrupted by the crisis of war and persecution. The time gets out of joint, and life ceases to accommodate the major stations of the process of human change. The narrative has two permanent actants: the persecutor (singular or plural) as victimizer and the persecuted (singular or plural) as victim. The struggle between them creates a diversity of typologies of persecution, but basically it is the conflict between the powerful and the weak. The moral evaluation of the two sides is not uniform. The cat-and-mouse game is not the only legitimate plot; the conflict can be ambiguous – when, for instance the so-called criminal and an innocent victim are one (Jean Valjean in Hugo’s Les Misérables). In some instances the same plot could be interpreted differently by different witnesses: the representative of justice can be justified by one party and accused of cruelty and injustice by another. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice provides a good example of the diversity of interpretations in different times and under different social circumstances. The archetypes of Cain and Ahasuerus, traditionally understood as the fugitive victims of their sins, were reinterpreted as positively by Byron and Stephan Heym. This paper examines the different aspects of the topos and narrative of persecution.