Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Musil’s total philosophy is expressed in this novel, composed of a complex weaving of ideas, related and contrasting. Order, soul, morality, and love are the themes. What is Musil’s intention as he weaves them throughout the text? Details in the novel, developments and relationships, point to this intention in the end. For example, Ulrich’s early resolve to take a “vacation from life” for a year is emblematic of Musil’s own attitude toward the novel. Here is the direction that the main character is taking: a suspension from the common narrative order, from the serial progression of events that one calls one’s life, a period of pure examination. It is in this suspended atmosphere that the events of the novel take place. Thus the first clue to Musil’s intentions is that the ideas presented are contemplative ones, ideas designed to be viewed in the abstract, away from the demands of pragmatism. The reader would be in error, then, to question the efficacy, the practicality, of any suggestions that the author-narrator makes. They are ideas only. This approach itself is revealing of the author’s intent: He wishes to investigate what can be, not what is. In this respect, the novel is utopian, but without a concrete resolution to offer in place of the real world.

The novel’s themes are condensed in the male-female relationships. These relationships are presented in detail, from outside the relationship and from the points of view of each participant. All the relationships are imperfect, all the relationships echo one another, and in every pair the similarities between the two participants are a force of exterior combination, as though narrative order brings them together but abstract ideas keep them apart. Walter and Clarisse are childless, by Clarisse’s wishes and against Walter’s. They both play Wagner, they both have Ulrich for a friend. Rachel and Soliman are both servants, both devoted (on the surface) to a greater authority and both demonstrating basically romantic tendencies. They are in the shadow of the far greater, superficially purer, relationship between their masters, Arnheim and Diotima. The servant pair and the master pair are pitiable echoes of each other in the idealistic nonsense of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the women and the outwardly gentlemanly but inwardly conniving natures of the men. Soliman is a small, black version of Arnheim, as Rachel is a stupid, lower-class version of Diotima.

Another pair that reflects all the others in a frightening way is the pair made up by Moosbrugger and his victim. On the animal level where prostitutes and itinerant carpenters survive, Moosbrugger and his victim perform the same pas de deux performed by the other pairs—the vague, often-imperceptible sense of “right living” snuffed out suddenly by the “frothing lunacy” which seems eternally to threaten the moral sanity of every man (and here Musil refers to the polarities of love and sex as well). Moosbrugger is plagued by his victim just as Ulrich is plagued by the series of women who throw themselves at his feet. Ulrich’s seduction of Gerda, for example, bears so many of the same motivations as Moosbrugger’s murder that the reader is astonished at the brazen admission that the episode implies. Ulrich seduces Gerda to rid himself of her, despite his disgust for her plainness, despite his “moral” code which forbade it. Gerda is as persistent and as gnawing as the poor prostitute who dies at Moosbrugger’s hands.

One specific passage demonstrates the complexity of the novel’s plot, always tied to inaction or the inability to act. Clarisse visits Moosbrugger in the insane asylum, where she herself will be eventually. Before this visit, Clarisse has attempted to force Ulrich into fathering her child. She goes to his room, does all she can to arouse him, and fails. Her desire to see Moosbrugger is a sublimation and a symbolic fulfillment of that same wish—the wish to see man reduced to animal by his passions, passions (like so many of Wagner’s themes) which underlie and negate all lofty moral propositions, all order, and all concepts of some other reality in which the soul dares to be defined.

Moosbrugger, on the other hand, does not articulate his feelings, and the nature of the relationship between Moosbrugger and Ulrich poses an interesting question. On the surface, the answer is simple: Ulrich, in his contemplation of what is “right living,” sees Moosbrugger’s plight as a rent in the pious, legal, or social definition. Ulrich’s father spent much energy trying to determine the degree of guilt in a madman, but his father was a man of qualities, who was clear about the nature of morality and whose life had a narrative order. Moosbrugger attracts Ulrich because of his honest face, in marked contrast to the shackles which bind him. Yet this surface attraction does not fully explain the blatant comparisons of Moosbrugger and Ulrich. One cannot help thinking that Ulrich sees a Moosbrugger in himself, in all people. Ulrich and Moosbrugger are personifications, perhaps, of two sides of a human being: the ideal and the real, the mind and the body. This duality is...

(The entire section is 2109 words.)