Death Before Dishonour

Both Gustl in Schnitzler’s Lieutenant Gustl and ancient Japanese samurai/nobility have a deep sense of social obligations where suicide is considered an honorable death or punishment. There are quite a few differences between the methods of how one commits this act, in the name of pride, which I will now proceed to expand on and compare down below.

In feudal Japan, はらきり (Harakiri) or せっぷく (Seppuku) is the act of disembowling one’s stomach. This act was most prominent in the 15th to 16th century and was mainly reserved for samurai and those of nobility, as a consequence of bringing shame to one’s high and recognizable status. However, it was condoned as a privilege and grace to be able to take one’s own life in this way.  Similar to Gustl’s social duty as an officer, where his position demands that he follow the expectations associated with his rank, Gustl must stay calm and professional where he may not deny/refuse a duel, nor may he allow his title to be offended.  Failure to do so results in social ostracization which then causes one to conclude that it is more “honourable” to take responsibility for one’s pride as well as avoid public shame by committing suicide.

Gustl is fearful of both death and scandal. He failed on numerous occasions to defend his sense of a strong and dominant masculinity against the baker. Not only did he fail to follow his social obligations but he was also humiliated in the process. The baker retorts, “Do you understand, you fool? … You, Lieutenant, just keep still now” (119), having no care for Gustl’s position as an officer by degrading him to a fool and commanding, in addition to speaking down on him. But as we all know (SPOILERS), Gustl excuses himself from the responsibility of committing suicide at the instance he hears news of the baker’s death. The fact still remains that Gustl is insecure and anxious. He was not in the position or authority to duel with the baker, but even if he had, he would be no match for him in terms of identity; the baker is older, much stronger, and self-aware. The least that Gustl could have done was to stand up for himself, yet his insecurity caused him to freeze and allow for the more capable baker to take control of the situation.

Samurai would commit seppuku regardless of any fear, as they were focused to remain noble even through death. Unlike Gustl, they had a commitment to their status where they were completely confident of their identity as a samurai and the code of conduct that they followed. Seppuku was an “honourable punishment” that even rivaling nobles/samurai were given when captured. Committing seppuku in battle meant controlling one’s life and continuing to take on a noble status; the act of committing seppuku allows the samurai to take control of their life and death, refusing to allow this power to fall into the enemy’s hands and thus, die honourably.

While suicide is considered an appropriate punishment for shamed officers such as Gustl, it was possible for seppuku to be executed with assistance. The earlier, ritual form of seppuku took place in the 11th century where the samurai was first clothed in a white kimono.  The candidate would then initiate seppuku by cutting their abdomen with a short dagger, moving it from the left upper body to the right. (It was believed that cutting the stomach would release the samurai’s spirit straight into the afterlife.) A かいしゃく人 (Kaishakunin) then steps in to finish the ritual by cleanly beheading the samurai once they have lowered their head. (Kaishakunins could be individuals who were close to the samurai.) A quick and accurate cut meant less suffering for the samurai and despite the assistance of death, these forms of seppuku were still considered “honourable”.

For the officers of the Viennese time, dueling and committing an “honourable” suicide were limited to only certain members of the noble class, where neither Jews nor women were allowed to participate. This was not the case for the principle of seppuku. Despite being reserved for samurai and nobility, it was acceptable for women and commoners to commit seppuku. The method of carrying out this act differed for women. Instead of using a short dagger, they would use a long knife or sharp hairpin to stab their heart. Although rare, seppuku could be used to demonstrate ultimate loyalty for the deceased or death of a loved one as well.

It appears that the most critical social obligation for the Viennese officers were their pride of masculinity. I wonder if Gustl, according to the principals of an officer, truly valued masculinity. Obviously he is anxious and insecure of how others perceive him and his “authority”. He is also very defensive, but I question if he is this way because he feels he must dominate other men or if he believes he is entitled to some other form of power due to his occupation. I assume it is the influence of both, as without a solid sense of masculinity, his status as an officer would deteriorate just as he tries to avoid the social obligation in his time: death after shame.


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