A Serious Man: Interpretation as a Fairy Tale

The first time I saw the Coen Brothers film A Serious Man, shortly after it debuted in 2009, I was deeply moved by the opening vignette: a snowy scene in an East European shtetl involving a husband and a wife who receive a mysterious visitor.  Is the visitor a dybbuk or not?  It reminded me so much of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales I had studied in Zurich as part of my analytical training. Only one of these stories had a Jewish theme, “The Jew in the Brambles”, and it was nothing like the incredible story I saw unfold at the beginning of this movie. I wondered what Marie Louise von Franz, one of Jung’s closest associates, or Kathrin Asper, a Zurich analyst who bridged the gap between the classical Jungian work with fairy tales and a more clinical, object relations approach to them, would make of the incredible tale that evolves in the film. It gripped me so intensely that I was moved to bring a Jungian inspired interpretation to bear on this movie, experiencing it as if it were a fairy tale. How does this film resemble a fairy tale? A fairy tale is a story in which truth is cloaked in symbolism and metaphor. Extracting the essence and getting to the truth requires penetrating the meaning of the symbols and the dynamics of the story. According to the Oxford Dictionary , in common parlance, a fairy tale is a story that is meant to deceive. If you accuse somebody of telling you a fairy tale, you mean that the storyteller is trying to tell you something that is not true. The fairy tale reaches into a magical domain where opposites and contradictions can co-exist, and characters and situations may not be what they appear to be. The Grimm Brothers differentiated the fairy tale from the myth and the legend. The myth is a symbolic tale of the distant past that concerns the origin and the nature of the universe, whereas the legend is a story from the more recent past, considered in the popular mind to be historical, even if not verifiable. According to von Franz a fairy tale is the simplest and purest expression of the collective unconscious and thus offers the clearest understanding of the basic patterns of the human psyche . (von Franz, 1978, p. 1) Although beloved by children, fairy tale themes are often too graphic, violent, or sexual for them; they are really meant for adults as a guide for psychological development. The “once upon a time” aspect of the fairy tale is certainly present in the opening vignette of the movie. Often in a fairy tale there is a magical animal. And, contrary to Walt Disney versions of fairy tales, they do not necessarily have happy endings. This film qualifies as a Jewish fairy tale, every bit as much as “The Jew in the Brambles”, a dark tale about a Jew falsely accused of stealing before he is hung unceremoniously at the end of a trial by a kangaroo court. A Serious Man is definitely a corrective in its dark and mischievous spirit to the anti-Semitic fairy tale the Grimm Brothers included in their famous collection. It is a corrective in that it takes seriously at a deep level the Jewish experience rather than marginalizing it and ultimately dispatching with it summarily as the Grimm Brothers do.

The rest of this paper is available in the Summer Issue (Volume 7, Number 3) of the Jung Journal, along with three other papers, all of which were presented in response to a showing of the film at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on 13 January 2013.

Dr. Seth Isaiah Rubin, Ph.D.