Peter Handke tells the story of a woman determined to break with her husband and her past and to form a new life for herself. Marianne, a mother and hausfrau in her thirtieth year, begins to examine her life keeping house in the suburbs of a large industrial city in West Germany. Her husband, Bruno, who works as sales manager for a porcelain company, is due to return from an extended business trip to Scandinavia. Her eight-year-old son, Stefan, is a student who is working on an essay entitled “My Idea of a Better Life.” The theme of his essay apparently becomes the theme of the novel. Since the story is told from a detached, objective, dramatic point of view, however, this possible connection is left for the reader to make.
Mother and son drive to the airport to meet the returning father. The story opens in winter, at an unspecified time after Christmas. Returning from Helsinki, the father is exhausted but happy to be back in Germany with his family. He explains that he was “afraid of going mad with loneliness” in Finland, where he did not understand the language.
Bruno’s key statement introduces the contradictory logic that dominates the story. After telling his wife that he loves her and feels bound to her, he adds, “I now feel I could exist without you.” The statement has more meaning for his wife than he might guess. There is a slight suggestion that Bruno might have been intimate with his German-speaking interpreter in Finland, “a woman with a child and no husband.”
After sending their son to bed, Bruno takes his wife to a hotel for a festive dinner, then gets a room for the night. The next morning, the woman tells her husband about “a strange idea” she had, a discovery, an “illumination.” The idea is that they should separate, that her husband should leave her. Surprised, Bruno agrees to a separation, thinking it may be only temporary.
The rest of the novel concerns the woman’s attempt to adjust to her life as a single parent. She discusses her new status with her friend Franziska, who is also Stefan’s schoolteacher. Marianne once worked as a translator at a publishing house and knows that she can earn money translating books. Franziska invites her to...
(The entire section is 913 words.)