On the surface Dr. Fischer of Geneva is a disarmingly simple book. In straightforward first-person narrative it tells the story of Alfred Jones’s love for Anna-Luise Fischer, daughter of the mysterious and powerful doctor, his marriage to her, his attendance at two of the doctor’s bizarre parties, and the eventual demise of his wife by accident and of Dr. Fischer by suicide.
Yet, anyone familiar with Graham Greene’s fiction will not be startled by the complexity of theme and characterization that evolves from the simple plot. This is a novella in which minor details of setting and language have imposing significance. For example, the final supper between Dr. Fischer and his guests—one is tempted to call it the Last Supper—is patently demonic in its symbolism. Likewise, the doctor is not above such comments as “I like to think that my greed is a little more like God’s,” which of course fairly prod the reader to stretch well beyond the immediate dialogue toward the realm of allegory. (Anna-Luise, too, speaks of the doctor both as “hell” and “Our Father.”) As a result, there is always something decidedly cryptic about Dr. Fischer of Geneva. It is never merely a story about an eccentric doctor, a vacuous protagonist, or a motley group of hangers-on who indulge Dr. Fischer for their own benefit. It is also a moral lesson the subject of which is human greed; a statement about human values, notably money versus love; and a sly means of posing the Big Questions: Does Good or Evil rule the world? Are they two aspects of the same Being? Is either real? Is man an embodiment of either/both, or does he just arrogantly imagine himself to be?
It is not correct to term the novella an allegory. First, none of the characters represents an ethical absolute with any consistency; second, the plot events are clearly so loose and generalized that one is hard pressed to see them as identifiably symbolic of certain specific actions. Rather, Dr. Fischer of Geneva is allegorical. In the manner of William Styron’s novella The Long March, it uses its modest length and symbolic settings and characters to hint at issues which are deeply philosophical.
Styron’s work relates the march to life itself. As with anyone, the marines in his book struggle over the physical landscape in defiance of their military taskmaster, one of the officers—a rebellious voice—tormented by a nail in his foot. It takes little insight to appreciate the complex, allegorical thrust of Styron’s artistry. Christ, God, Satan, and Man are shifting roles which he accords to various of the officers at different stages of the work. Thus The Long March is not an allegory. It does not retell the story of Satan’s or Man’s disobedience against God or of Christ’s intercession and subsequent humiliation. Rather, throughout a mythic action (namely the forced march) it weaves such powerful, symbolic suggestions of character and theme that the action is elevated to an allegorical plane.
It is precisely this sort of technique that Greene employs in Dr. Fischer of Geneva. The doctor is a mixture of scant Good, great Evil, and moderate Indifference. Incredibly wealthy and enviably powerful, he has all the outward trappings of a god. He toys with the “Toads” (Anna-Luise’s name for toadies) at his parties, obviously amused by the debasements they suffer in order to satisfy their greed. He regards them as contemptible, and it is plain to see that he wants to experiment with his son-in-law, Alfred Jones, to find out if an ordinary man can be enlisted among the fallen host. He is flatly indifferent to his daughter’s welfare, as he is to so much of life. At other times he is all beneficence, dispensing valuable gifts to those who endure his torments.
Is he God? Is he merely Godlike? Are humans to God much the same as the Toads are to Dr. Fischer, objects of scorn and abuse, trapped by the hell of our own choices yet rewarded for our endurance? Or, is Dr. Fischer nothing more than a too-powerful man who, having despised the world, has come at last to despise himself? Is he simply a figure in a moral lesson, an illustration of hubris who deserves only pity? These are the kinds of questions which Greene prompts throughout the novella, waiting until the very end to provide some (though not all) of the answers.
Alfred Jones, as his name suggests, is a man who stands for plainness (“Jones”) and tradition (he was nearly named Aelfred). His moral corruption, then, were it to occur, would at once signify the corruption of common man. A person of modest talents, honest but underpaid in his work as a translator, he is anything but a grand figure in the struggle between Good and Evil. Indeed, he makes it clear that he is amazed at Anna-Luise’s love for him, considering not only his economic limitations but also his physical disfigurement—the loss of a hand.
As opposed to Jones, the truly corrupted figures in the book are wealthy, famous, or successful. In each case they are also joined by a common bond of practicing sycophancy born of greed. None of them appears to have any understanding of love....
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