Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Bluebeard is a sparsely yet elegantly written tale about guilt and innocence in an age of bureaucracy. Schaad (the name itself means “damaged” in German) is a true self-tormentor who has worried himself into a state of suicidal guilt. Although wrongly accused of a serious crime, Schaad self-destructs when placed under intense public scrutiny and ultimately becomes the man others think him to be. With the headline “Bluebeard in Court” the press not only destroy his reputation but also succeed in convincing him of his own guilt. He is a tragic victim living within a highly civilized, technological age—an age in which individuality is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Yet, while not guilty of the specific crime, Schaad is far from innocent. Upon self-examination, he finds himself to be a blatantly egotistical creature who destroyed the loves of all the women who once adored him. A failure in seven marriages, he cannot even comprehend, much less learn from, his experiences. Schaad’s refusal to respond to the prosecutor’s disturbing question, “Is it correct to say...that the moment things go contrary to your masculine wishes, you very quickly lose your temper?” does not hide his sense of guilt. Indeed, Schaad was not the murderer, but he could have been, and perhaps, might have been had not another nonpersonality completed the deed for him. To Schaad, as to other characters in Frisch’s works, memory brings not happiness but remorse; memory, by confronting individuals with their personal failures, merely reminds them of their inevitable jealousies, betrayals, and broken relationships. Schaad, like human nature itself, is morally corrupt—not because of a specific human act but because of the general condition of his soul.

Finally, Max Frisch uses the tale of Bluebeard to remind the reader that there is no simple prescription for truthful living. On numerous occasions, the unrelenting prosecutor instructs his witnesses to “Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth” or face the penalty for perjury. Yet, as the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly apparent that there is a fine line between truth and fiction and that moral truth is not easily pinned down or established beyond doubt. Life must be lived in the face of ambiguity, for, to Doctor Schaad as well as to the author, the more important aspects of human experience are largely unknowable.