The Clown was an immediate best-seller. (It was later produced as a play in 1970 and as a film in 1975, though without the success of the novel.) The novel represented a break from Böll’s previous fiction, which had concentrated on experiences from the war. Beginning in the early 1960’s, in fiction and in increasingly frequent essays, Böll critically examined postwar institutions as agents of restoration or corruption.
Böll originally began The Clown as a third-person narrative but soon allowed Hans to tell his own story. As one of Böll’s few “active” heroes, however, Hans offered a solution which was neither practical in his own immediate situation nor a model for West German social protest in general. The novel was considered scandalous from the outset for its criticism of the Catholic Church. Böll repeatedly insisted that he was always faithful to that religion and, despite his withdrawal from the Church in his later life, must be considered a Catholic who attempted to improve an institution that he loved.