(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In August, 1913—just one year before the assassination of Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand, which prompts the beginning of World War I—thirty-two-year-old Ulrich, exhausted by the seeming meaningless that underlies most of his life, chooses to take a yearlong sabbatical from his everyday life. He wants to search for the emotional intensity and spiritual depth that he knows must lie beneath the quotidian. As a mathematician, he has sought much of the order of life in rigorous formulas that defy easy reduction to the vagaries of spirituality and mysticism.

Ulrich has been reflecting for some time on society’s negative view of mathematics and science. He observes that many people continue to testify that the soul has been destroyed by mathematics. However, he believes that mathematics and science can change people’s lives for the better, that mathematics can turn the world around. His youthful ardor for science remains with him even as he trudges through his military and political careers. Still, Ulrich is ultimately uncertain that mathematics and science represent the only way to discover deep meaning in the world. The stability that other people demonstrate because of their deeply held political or religious positions eludes Ulrich, for his lack of qualities makes him uncertain about holding any position dogmatically.

Ulrich’s father as well as his cousin Diotima suggest another method for finding meaning and order in life; they recommend that Ulrich become the secretary of Parallel Action, a group of intelligent and patriotic minds, which is charged with planning and organizing the celebration, in December, 1918, of the seventieth anniversary of the reign of Austrian emperor Francis Joseph I. (Such efforts become futile, however, because the emperor dies in 1916 and the Habsburg Empire collapses in 1918.) Diotima’s salon becomes the gathering place for supporters of the Parallel Campaign, and at the salon Ulrich encounters everyone from...

(The entire section is 807 words.)

The Man Without Qualities Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In a typically modernist “plot” line, in which the plot itself is less important than the main character’s reflections on life, the main character, Ulrich, in The Man Without Qualities is drawn into planning the great patriotic celebration of the seventieth anniversary of Francis Joseph as Austrian emperor in the year 1918, called the Parallel Campaign in competition with celebrations for the German emperor. This project provides some degree of action and considerable, intended irony and satire in the novel’s two-part first book. Started in the mid-1920’s, the novel clearly implies that the Parallel Campaign, which Ulrich joins at the beginning of the novel in 1913, was doomed because the emperor was dead in 1916 and by 1918 his empire lay torn to pieces by World War I.

The second book opens with the appearance of Agathe, Ulrich’s long-lost sister. As brother and sister get reacquainted, they experiment with new ways of belonging. The experiment becomes the novel’s new center, while the Parallel Campaign continues. Although Ulrich is five years older than his sister, they are so close that they consider each other not only twins but conjoined twins and even refer to the myth of the androgynous being, retold in Plato’s Symposion (399-390 b.c.e.; Symposium, 1701). Human beings were double—that is, they had two heads, four arms, and so on—but the gods cut them in half. From that time each “half” has been looking for his or her original other half. In this sense, Agathe emerges as Ulrich’s “other.” The mention of ancient myths, such as that of Isis and Osiris, extends the possibility of the brother/sister relationship to include sexuality.

The actual transgression of incest is part of a manuscript chapter, “Die Reise ins Paradies” (“The Journey into Paradise”), not published until 1952. It may be understood in the context of three observations. First, the Ulrich/Agathe experiment is set up in terms of both mythology and the novel’s sense of possibility. It may be a provocative act or merely a provocative possibility to bring about the “other condition,” that is, not simply a different lifestyle but a truly higher level of experience—something that is beyond the conventional morality of good and evil. Second, the experiment itself fails because any transcendent “other condition” cannot have real permanence. This type of literary “reality check” is akin to Romantic irony, when a goal cannot be reached because there is always another obstacle that emerges. Third, Musil wrote the focal chapter of the Ulrich/Agathe story in the mid-1920’s, when he started working on the novel, which had the working title “The Twin Sister.” Over time, Musil may have increasingly doubted the validity and even morality of the brother/sister plot, which, in turn, made it impossible for him to complete the novel. This explanation, however, remains speculation because the mid-1920’s focal chapter already concluded with the failure of the Ulrich/Agathe plot.

Even unfinished, The...

(The entire section is 1268 words.)

The Man Without Qualities Summary

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

To call Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities a novel is to reduce it to a whim. It is actually a life’s work, a massive, comprehensive statement of philosophical, social, and political response to an entire epoch of modern European history characterized by the decadence of the Habsburg Empire. Written during and after the empire’s collapse, during the rise of National Socialism, the novel is both an indictment of the indifference of the masses to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and a personal observation about the indifference of all peoples to the political structure that they allow to stand through ennui and self-interest. At the same time, it is the receptacle of a vast range of ideas, speculations, observations, and conjectures by an obsessive notetaker, covering three huge volumes in which the plot itself moves through only one year in the characters’ lives.

Beginning in 1913, near the end of an era known for its attention to finery, sport, luxuries, and gentility, the text follows the monumental planning for a great celebration of the dual monarchy of Austria and Germany. This celebration, known as the Collateral Campaign, gives the novel a spine, as the story describes the life of a man known only as Ulrich, a “man without qualities,” who takes a year away from his day-to-day life to observe his existence from the outside. This premise allows the narrator to describe Ulrich watching the active characters in the story, who hurry from idea to idea, from project to project, busily establishing their “qualities,” wasting energies on meaningless activities that occasionally attract Ulrich, as passive as a piece of drift-wood in a whirlpool. By his stillness, by his refusal to act on qualities, Ulrich accidentally assumes leadership of the Campaign, finds himself in love affairs neither sought after nor avoided, and begins to follow the fortunes and misfortunes of Moosbrugger, a murderer. Plans for the Collateral Campaign proceed, made all the more ironic by the reader’s knowledge that the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire will collapse years before the planned celebration.

The novel’s plot is interrupted at every turn by philosophical observations, sometimes from characters qualified to make them and sometimes by the narrator explaining the naivete or moral indecisiveness of less introspective...

(The entire section is 963 words.)