Heinrich Böll, one of the most famous German writers of the post-World War II period, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1972, a year after the publication of Group Portrait with Lady. Described by many critics as the conscience of his nation because of his political and social views, he attempts in this novel to examine World War II and its aftermath. Böll once said that he placed the entire burden of German history from 1922 to 1970 on Leni’s shoulders. The work shows a culmination of Böll’s themes and stylistic devices. Using the story of the Gruytons, Böll presents the political and social climate in the Rhineland before, during, and after the war. He probes the relationship between government, business, and religious establishments and the individual, concentrating on the physical, emotional, and economic survival of ordinary citizens whose needs are often neglected when they conflict with the desires of the institution.
Since the focal point of the novel is World War II, the havoc that government can create for its citizens permeates the novel. However, the novel focuses not on the evil that the Nazi government unleashed but on the effects of those policies on the individual. Leni, for example, loses her family, her lovers, her mentor, and her home because of war.
For Böll, the economic establishment is as destructive as any government, since the two join together in a terrible alliance of war for profit. All of the fortunes in the novel are created through war: Hubert Gruyton built fortifications; Walter Pelzer begins his career collecting gold from corpses after World War I; the Hoysers start their empire through “Anti-Aryanization,” buying property that the Nazis stole and are now forced to sell. Erhard’s cry about dying for a noble profession is an ironic comment on the guilt of the business world. The evils of materialism are not just a product of war, however; peacetime also allows profiteers to flourish at the expense of the common people. The Hoysers represent the inhuman quality of capitalism. Leni does not wish to acquire wealth, and they condemn her for it. Although they have lived free in Leni’s house for years, they charge her rent as soon as they own it. When she sublets to people they do not approve of—foreigners and refuse workers—lowering the value of the...
(The entire section is 956 words.)