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?

One thought on “Lieutenant Gustl

  1. Great questions, and we had a good discussion of them in class on Friday. On the last one, I think you’re spot on with the point about no hope for his redemption. And that he ends up getting nowhere, with nothing changed, says something about him as a character. But as we talked about on Friday, it makes sense to say that he is also representative of a certain type of person in the military, one that was likely common enough that the doctor’s barb at him was probably actually true (not only of him, but of many others)–that they weren’t there just to defend their country. When it came to actual danger (the altercation with the baker), he froze up; would he have done the same had he actually faced a real battle? Is he all talk and little ability to follow up? I spoke with Prof. Lieblang, and he said that Gustl was the sort of character that a number of people were criticizing at the time, someone who did little but gamble, sleep around, engage in duels. So, as I think we came to in seminar, it seems to me that the pointlessness of the story is to show up that sort of character, to satirize it.

    And you know, I noticed but forgot to say in seminar: Gustl actually says that if the baker had a stroke that “I still know … I know … and I’m not a man to continue wearing the uniform and the saber with such a disgrace on his head!” (127). Guess he is.

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