Lieutenant Gustl

The final German short story (and final text of the term) that we read was “Lieutenant Gustl” by Arthur Schnitzler, also in Appelbaum’s Five Great German Short Stories.

Arthur Schnitzler Lieutenant Gustl (1901). In the public domain. Accessed from Wikimedia Commons.

-Contradictions in the train of thought

While pondering his planned suicide, Gustl ironically questions the motives of those who commit suicide, declaring that it is “unbelievable, the things people shoot themselves over! How can people be jealous, anyhow” (133). At the same time, he decides that suicide is the only possible course of action, and reveals his jealousy at both Steffi’s unloyalty and his previous self, before the whole incident: “What a fortunate person I was an hour ago…Then Kopetzky had to go and give me the ticket – and Steffi had to stand me up, the slut” (125). Gustl makes numerous other contradictions, possibly pointing to the insecurity of his state of mind, and his confusion on what to do or believe in. Contradictions and the changing stances of one’s mind (at least for me) is common in the train of thought, and I wonder if Schnitzler created these contradictions in thinking to mirror our own strange streams of consciousness?

-Exposing anti-Semitism through the eyes of a perpetrator of anti-Semitism

According to the editor’s introduction, Schnitzler encountered many problems being Jewish during his life in Austria. I found it interesting how, instead of exposing injustice against Jewish people, the short story is written in the perspective of a man who clearly does not like them. Early in the story, Gustl idly ponders the foolishness of his girlfriend’s lover, claiming that “he didn’t notice a thing-unbelievable! Anyway, he must be a Jew! Sure, he works in a bank, and that black mustache…” (109). Not only does he perpetrate a Jewish stereotype, he makes bold and clearly anti-Semitic statements against him. As he realizes that the man may also be ” a lieutenant in the reserve”, he muses that “he’d better not come to my  regiment on active duty! And anyway, why do they always make so many Jews officers – all that talk about anti-Semitism is just a story!” (109). While claiming that anti-Semitism is “just a story”, he simultaneously hopes that the man will never visit his regiment, and complains about the abundance of Jewish officers. Similarly, he mentions that the “Mannheimers” are “Jews themselves, converted, of course…”, but notes to himself that their good looks are surprising: “you can’t tell by looking at them – especially the woman…so blonde, her figure pretty as a picture…” (109).

-Meaningless story? Or is it through lack of meaning that we achieve meaning?

The story of “Lieutenant Gustl” seems very circular and pointless and the entire conflict which defines the plot seems almost meaningless. The soldier is struck with a debate within his mind about whether or not to kill himself after being “dishonored” by a baker. Although this seemingly pointless cause for suicide is later shown to be grounded in some reason, due to the harsh expectations of military society, to me it still appeared a very trivial matter, and not enough to ponder with the amount of self-loathing and self-pity that Gustl brings up. By the end of the story, the baker is revealed to have died of a stroke, and Gustl returns to his old life – energetic, full of confidence, and just as arrogant as before. The story and the personality of the lieutenant seems to have progressed nowhere, and it makes one wonder if there was truly any meaning to his wondering at all. At the same time, much has been revealed of Gustl’s character, which would have been obscure had the event with the baker not occurred. Perhaps the absence of development and his return to his egotistical personality is a testament to the unchanging nature of a person, and shows that even with the lieutenant’s regaining of hope for life, there is in fact no hope for his redemption?

Kliest, Hoffman, Tieck, and the Brothers Grimm

Last week we read several short stories by famous German writers, several which were from Appelbaum’s collection, Five Great German Stories, but also two others not featured in the book. What I found particularly interesting was the narrative style of each story: while similar, the slightest differences can help create a completely different atmosphere in each tale.

Schneewitchen. In the public domain. Accessed from Wikimedia Commons.

“Earthquake in Chile” by Kliest

The narrator of “Earthquake in Chile” has a tendency to spout large amounts of information – in the first sentence alone, we find out that the setting is “Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile”, the time frame is “the great earthquake of the year 1647”, the consequences of the event “in which many thousands of people perished”, and the main character, “a young Spaniard accused of a crime, Jerónimo Rugera” (5). The sentence doesn’t even end there, and it is revealed that at the start of the story, Jerónimo has been imprisoned and is on the verge of committing suicide. In one long sentence, a massive amount of information has been revealed, and it almost seems like the narrator is in a hurry to get to the climax of the story.

“The Sandman” by Hoffman

What’s interesting about the narrator in “The Sandman” is that he is not an objective, omniscient narrator like the ones found in the other stories – he/she is connected on a personal level to the characters in the story and informs the reader that he obtained the letters at the beginning of the story from Lothar himself. He/she refers to Nathanael as “my poor friend”, implying that he/she sympathizes with his story, and even knows about his personal feelings, stating that Nathanael’s plight had “completely occupied [his] heart, mind, and thoughts, driving out all else” (61). Given the secrecy and controversy of Nathanael’s actions, and his difficult to understand mind, it is very strange and highly unlikely that the narrator would know these events to the degree that he/she claims, especially since he/she has established that he is human and likely not omniscient. Pardon me if I am skeptical, but it does not seem like he/she is the most reliable narrator in the world.

“Fair-Haired Eckbert” by Tieck

“Fair-Haired Eckbert” uses the conventional narrator, but also utilizes the concept of a “story within a story” – much of the narrative is narrated by Bertha, Eckbert’s wife. Not only is the reader distanced from the story because of the 3rd person narration, the reader is further alienated by another narrator within the main story. The mystic elements in Bertha’s story are further enhanced by this, and the reader becomes even more unsure of what is actually going on in the story, especially when the knight questions himself whether or not he even had a wife.

“Snow White” by the Brothers Grimm

The narration in “Snow White” is poetic and flowing, adding to the “fairy tale” aspect of the story. Often, many metaphorical statements appear quite literal, such as when the Queen “turned yellow and green with envy” (250). Although still possible to take in a metaphorical sense, given the nature of the story it does seem not out of the ordinary for her to turn yellow and green in an almost comical way (and part of this interpretation I blame on Disney cartoons). In general, the smooth and easy to read narration creates a mystical atmosphere throughout the story.