Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The Lenz whose twenty or so days in the village of Waldsbach are depicted in this story interests Büchner in at least two ways: as a fellow literary artist and as an intensely sensitive fellow human being. His personal sufferings are clearly the more important of the two concerns. Although madness and art may go hand in hand, “Lenz” is not a very strong example of the artist-novella, for it does not speculate on the nature of artistic creativity or the social role of the artist. Even though Lenz holds forth on the subject of literature in his conversation with Kaufmann, his discourse stands in isolation and only recalls—somewhat poignantly—his earlier literary successes. It is part of the story’s realism, not a true theoretical digression.

Lenz’s humanity, the subject of greater interest for Büchner and his readers, has several facets. At the center of Lenz’s story is his struggle with himself, the schizophrenia in which “he seemed to be split in two, with one part of him trying to save the other and calling out to itself.” Self-destructive and self-preserving instincts conflict within him. At the level of the individual, Büchner is crucially concerned with this kind of derangement, one perhaps common to all humankind, but visible only in the intensified form called insanity.

Lenz turns to the hope that religious faith seems to offer him, but his faith, like his instincts, oscillates between visions of preservation and destruction, salvation and damnation. He imagines himself alternately as his own prophet-savior and as the sinner rejected by God. He tries to appropriate a religious faith like Oberlin’s, but it becomes distorted and threatening in his mind. Lenz encounters the traditional, integral Protestant faith of the age before Europe’s great revolutionary upheavals but as interpreted by the politically radical Büchner of the postrevolutionary 1830’s.