Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Images of ice, of loneliness, and of the long, slow, passage of history dominate Man in the Holocene. The novel is set amid the glacial architecture of the Alps, and one of the few books that Geiser reads during his isolation is a guidebook to Iceland. The rain that forms the novel’s backdrop turns without warning to icy hail, destroying Geiser’s garden. Geiser’s most significant memory is of his near death during his descent from the Matterhorn.

Given this pattern of images, it is plausible to interpret Man in the Holocene as an existential parable about the status of man in the universe. Although Geiser evidently loved his brother, wife, and daughter, Max Frisch chooses not to emphasize Geiser’s place in a network of human bonds. Instead, Geiser is placed in the context of geological time. The reader is reminded, by Geiser’s clippings on dinosaurs, that man has not always existed and that beings larger and stronger than man have thrived on earth only to become extinct. Other clippings dwell on the passing of civilizations or species. Overall, the novel portrays man as a temporary inhabitant of a world which will continue well after his extinction.

Despite the potentially grim message implied in the idea that man is insignificant in the grand scheme of time, Man in the Holocene is not entirely a pessimistic work. It is certainly not a denunciation of man or a warning that man is destroying the world. On...

(The entire section is 439 words.)