By Joey Royal
Will Eisner, who died in 2005 at the age of 87, was an influential cartoonist and comic book writer. Of his many achievements, perhaps his greatest was A Contract with God (1978), which popularized the idea of the “graphic novel” and helped to establish the potential for comic books to be an art form rather than a disposable product marketed to adolescents. A Contract with God is a short story cycle revolving around Jewish immigrants living in a New York City tenement during the early 20th century.
In the title story, the main character is a deeply religious Hasidic Jew named Frimme Hirsch who carves a contract with God on a stone tablet. The story is an unfolding of his life in light of that contract, and the agony and confusion that arises when tragedy invades his life. Eisner has called this story “an exercise in personal agony.” When he wrote it, he was grieving the death of his daughter from leukemia. According to Eisner: “[Frimme’s] anguish was mine. His argument with God was also mine. I exorcised my rage at a deity that I believe violated my faith and deprived my lovely 16-year-old child of her life at the very flowering of it.”
The book is drawn in stark black and white with lots of contrasts (although apparently the original printing was in sepia). The characters, although set against realistic urban backgrounds, are exaggerated, particularly their faces, which convey vivid emotion. The opening lines set the tone for what follows:
All day the rain poured down on the Bronx without mercy. The sewers overflowed and the waters rose over the curb to the street. … “Like the ark of Noah,” it seemed to Frimme Hirsch as he sloshed homeward. Only the tears of 10,000 weeping angels could cause such a deluge! And, come to think of it, maybe that is exactly what it was. … After all, this was the day Frimme Hirsch buried Rachele his daughter.
In that, the story’s themes are evoked: the death of a child and the wrenching grief that accompanies such loss, as well as the main character’s ambivalence toward God. This is ultimately a book about one man’s relationship with God, a God whom he holds responsible for the death of his daughter Rachele. In the words of the narrator, Rachele was “plucked, as it were, from his arms by an unseen hand — the hand of God.” The book calls God’s justice into question; after all, Frimme had kept his side of the contract with God blamelessly. As he laments his suffering at the crushing hand of God, Frimme reminds us of Job: “I was at ease, and he broke me in two; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces” (Job 16:12).
The book begins with Frimme’s early life, including his childhood in a Jewish village in Russia amidst terrible anti-Semitic pogroms. As a young boy, Frimme was good to others. He is told, after each good deed, that he is favored by God and should expect God to reward him for his good deeds. Convinced by this idea of divine-human reciprocity, Frimme carves a contract with God on a stone. The precise wording of the contract is not spelled out, but the gist of it is that Frimme promises to do good works and in exchange God is expected to bring him prosperity and blessing (echoes of Proverbs, and perhaps Deuteronomy).
He keeps his end of the bargain, at least initially. Upon settling in New York City, he lives a good life, becoming a respected member of the community and the synagogue. When he finds an abandoned infant on his doorstep, he adopts the child without hesitation. He names her Rachele, after his late mother, and pours out his love unreservedly on his daughter: “She grew up blossoming in the warmth and nourishment of Frimme’s gentle heart and pious ways. She was indeed his child and the joy of his years.”
But then — quite suddenly — Rachele falls ill and dies. Frimme is furious and feels betrayed by God: “You violated our contract!” he rails at the heavens. “The old tenemant trembled under the fury of the dialogue,” the narrator tells us. Finally, in resignation and despair, Frimme throws his contract stone out the window. With that, he also throws his commitment to God out the window: he abandons his faith, becomes a miserly businessman, take a Gentile mistress, and buys a penthouse. Upon purchasing the tenement where he once lived, he raises rents on his former neighbors and is deaf to their pleas for mercy. And yet this tenement continues to have a hold on him — it reminds him of his old life, of his daughter, and of the God he is trying to run away from.
Eventually Frimme becomes dissatisfied with his life. He wants to recommit his life to God so he seeks out a group of rabbis, asking them to help him draft up a new contract. Surely something was wrong with the previous one, he reasons, and therefore this new one, done under the careful supervision of these rabbis will “work” as it should. But his new life is not to be because, suddenly, Fremmi’s heart stops and he dies, and all his hopes die with him. The narrator evokes the book’s opening lines: “At the exact moment of Hirsch’s last earthly breath … a mighty bolt of lightning struck the city. … Not a drop of rain fell. … Only an angry wind swirled about the tenements.”
The story ends with an epilogue. Sometime later, fire consumes e Fremmi’s old neighborhood, sparing only the tenement. A Jewish boy, Shloime, saves people from the fire. Like young Fremmi, he is praised for his goodness and promised rewards and blessings. One day, as Shloime is fighting off bullies, he discovers Fremmi’s contract stone, which had been thrown out the window so long ago. Shloime puts his name on the stone, below the name of Fremmi Hirsch, “thereby entering into a contract with God.” The story ends there, in ambiguity.
What is ultimately left ambiguous in this story is the presence (or absence) of God. God is spoken to, entered into contracts with, and invoked in blessings and curses but in the end the book leaves open the possibility that this is all human projection. Maybe, after all, there is no God, and no justice. But then what drives Fremmi? “Something” seems to be operative in his life — drawing him, calling him, shaping him.
And what about the way the natural world — rain, clouds, lightning — is personified and given agency, or at least controlled by an outside agent? It rains “without mercy” and an “angry wind” blows at the moment of Fremmi’s death. A metaphor? Yes, but more than that. The natural environment is written this way only at crucial moments in Fremmi’s life with God. It is no accident that these natural occurrences echo biblical representations of God’s presence, most notably at Sinai where Israel entered into the foundational “contract” with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
And what of Fremmi’s death, right at the moment he gets his new contract, the one written the “right way”? Is this yet one more example of the absurdity of a godless world, like those who wait endlessly for Godot? Does it suggest a cruel or indifferent God? Or does it push us deeper into the mystery of God’s providence, a good but often enigmatic ordering of the world? Again, more ambiguity.
It’s the ambiguity in this story that makes it so resonant and fascinating. And, I’d like to suggest, it’s the ambiguity of the story that makes it suitable for Lent, a season marked by ambiguity. How so? It’s in Lent that we zero in on experiences like being tempted, giving alms, and fasting from food or other good things. And these experiences, none of which are unambiguously “good” in and of themselves, are honored and celebrated for their purging and cleansing effect. In other words, the season of Lent is a time when we commit to becoming vulnerable, to letting risky experiences chip away at us and break us down. And we assume these experiences, difficult as they may be, are tools in the hand of God, even though God may well “smash” us with them (Jer. 51:20-23). Scripture suggests some provisional answers as to why pain and suffering afflict us — like God disciplining us (Heb. 12:5-11) — but ultimately pushes that question deep into mystery, a mystery as deep as creation itself (Job 38-41).
Is this a hopeful story? I don’t know. But it is an honest story. It’s honest about what it’s like to be broken open through profound suffering, and how those experiences can drive us to God, even if we carry doubt and despair and dereliction with us. But in carrying that to God do we not carry it in a particular direction — in the direction of the cross, in the direction of Good Friday? Granted, this direction is not explicit in this story, but it is in “the story” — that is, the grand story of God that scripture reveals. We are not granted clear meaning to our suffering, no ultimate purpose that somehow makes it all okay, but our suffering is nevertheless given a christological shape. It aligns with, and is amplified by, the God-forsaken cries of the Son of God. That’s all we’ve got. And maybe that’s enough, for now.