Heimito von Doderer Essay - Heimito von Doderer Long Fiction Analysis

Heimito von Doderer Long Fiction Analysis

One of the most striking impressions one receives from a reading of Heimito von Doderer’s novels is that most of his characters are somehow incomplete. At the outset of the novels, the physical, intellectual, and emotional circumstances of his personages are usually presented in great detail, and they often appear to be quite commonplace and normal to the reader, yet, by various means, Doderer always manages to convey the notion that they are deficient in some way. Their deficiency often consists of the preponderance of one character trait at the expense of others or of the domination of one part of human nature (such as intellect) over another one (such as emotion). Such one-sidedness results in disharmony between the character concerned and the world around him or her and, in Doderer’s terms, constitutes a deficiency in that character’s humanity.

In the course of the novels, some of his characters achieve a complete integration of the various aspects of their personalities and hence what he considers their true humanity. The successful integration of the characters’ personalities establishes harmony between them and the world, or to use Doderer’s terms, their universality. In Doderer’s view, Homo universalis must be able to come to grips with the rational and irrational forces within and outside him- or herself, with beauty and ugliness, with richness and poverty—in short, he or she must accept life in all of its manifestations and must reconcile all of its extremes. The general theme of Doderer’s novels is humankind’s achievement of its own humanity.

According to Doderer, the universal man must be free in the Schillerian sense; he (or she) should do by inclination that which it is his duty to do. He must, of his own accord, accept life as it is, and he must participate in it to the best of his ability. Having understood Doderer’s standard, one can proceed to the deviations from it that constitute the points of departure for his plots. Anyone who has a fixed notion as to what his life or his environment ought to be or why it does not correspond to his notion, and who consequently attempts to change his life or his environment, is caught in a situation that Doderer calls “the second reality.” He is caught within the confines of ideology, idiosyncrasy, milieu, or whatever the case may be; he sees everything through glasses of a certain tint, his actions are conditioned in a certain manner, and he moves in a reality different from the generally accepted normalcy as postulated by Doderer. One such character is Frau Schubert, a middle-aged servant who wants to get married, even though there is not a chance in a million that she will find a husband. Nevertheless, she makes preparations, quits her job, rents a flat, buys furniture, and finally commits suicide out of desperation about her deceived hopes.

The plots of Doderer’s novels are invariably concerned with the liberation of the protagonist from his or her second reality. The treatment of the subject may at times be comical (as in the character Schlaggenberg’s chronique scandaleuse in The Demons), but the basic problem is Doderer’s most serious concern and directly related to some of the larger issues of the twentieth century. In his epilogue to the novella Das letzte Abenteuer, he differentiates between a pragmatic way of life (“thinking commensurate with life”) and an ideological way of life (“living commensurate with thought”), and he considers the latter doomed to end in doctrinairism, in reformism, and finally in the totalitarian state. Elaborating on this point, Doderer says in the same epilogue that during World War II, he discovered how much more important it is to see what is, than to ascertain what ought to be, for the latter leads to the refusal of apperception, i.e. to that devastating form of modern stupidity which, by means of so-called convictionsmakes impossible any communication about the simplest things.

Every Man a Murderer

The theme of humankind’s achievement of humanity is presented throughout Doderer’s novels with increasing emphasis. Some of his early works could conceivably be read as “stories” (to use E. M. Forster’s term), without an awareness of the theme. This is particularly true of the second half of Every Man a Murderer, which has all the suspense of a whodunit.

Conrad Castiletz, the protagonist of this novel, becomes obsessed with the idea of discovering the murderer of his wife’s sister, whose death occurred eight years earlier. Conrad neglects his wife and starts on a wild-goose chase, searching for the jewelry that the woman in question had carried with her and for the one suspect in the case, whom the police had been compelled to release for want of evidence. In the end, Conrad finds out that he himself, together with a group of students in a train, unintentionally killed the woman. After this discovery, Conrad makes another one—namely, of his wife’s infidelity. The next morning he dies in an explosion. Conrad’s obsession with his wife’s sister constitutes his second reality, which he is unable to leave in spite of several warnings by friends and associates, who admonish him to lead and enjoy his life in the normal “first reality.” When he is finally forced to accept the irrefutable evidence of his own unwitting complicity in his sister-in-law’s death, he cannot live with this knowledge.

Conrad is the only character in Every Man a Murderer that is caught in the second reality. This is typical of Doderer’s early novels, where there are usually only a few characters directly concerned with his central theme. As Doderer develops, the number of characters in his novels increases, as does the complexity of their plots, but his central theme—humankind’s attainment of true humanity—remains paramount.

Die Strudlhofstiege and The Demons

In Die Strudlhofstiege, Doderer presents this theme by means of a vast and complex array of characters. It is true that the protagonist (Lieutenant Melzer) is the only character who is involved in all the essential events of the novel, but the events do not take place solely because of him or for the sake of his development. The process of Melzer’s complete humanization serves as a basis for comparison and contrast to various other characters whose humanization is achieved only partially or not at all.

Die Strudlhofstiege is in many ways a precursor of The Demons: Many of the characters of the earlier novel reappear in the later one. The German title of Doderer’s novel, Die Dämonen, was adopted from the identical German title of the work by Fyodor Dostoevski, which is known in English as The Possessed or Devils.

There are several thematic and structural similarities between...

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