Study Guide

The Piano Teacher

by Elfriede Jelinek

The Piano Teacher Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Erika Kohut is a pianist who lives with her mother and teaches at a music conservatory. Erika’s consciousness is filled with an angry, absurdist, flow of impressions, evoking strong memories and emotions. The thirty-eight-year-old Erika is still a very compliant daughter to her overbearing mother, a controlling bully who manages every aspect of her daughter’s life.

Erika’s mother had anticipated that her daughter’s talent would enable her to realize her own ambitions for greater wealth and social status. Because Erika’s father is absent, taken away long ago in an agitated state to a mental institution, Erika’s mother places all her hopes on her daughter, imagining her as a famous musician, envied and idolized by everyone. Despite all her mother’s scheming and dreaming, however, Erika has not become a brilliant pianist. Years ago, for her debut, she chose to play a piece so esoteric that she alienated the judges, leading her away from performing and into teaching instead.

While doing everything possible to encourage Erika’s musical accomplishments, Erika’s mother warns her against boyfriends, whom she thinks would destroy all of Erika’s achievements. To discourage her daughter’s interest in men, her mother forbids her from wearing makeup and buying pretty things for herself, and she even threatens to harm Erika if she has anything to do with a man. Erika defies her mother’s control and her thrifty domestic regime by splurging on frivolous dresses that she has no intention of wearing. This leads to one of their bitterest quarrels. Erika then smothers her mother with apologetic kisses, but a suggestion of aggression and animosity remains against the woman she considers her jailer and tormentor.

Despite their disagreements, however, Erika is in many ways her mother’s daughter—as she makes her way home through the crowded streets of Vienna, she comports herself as a haughty queen subject to plebeian inconveniences. She is also competitive and envious; in high school she had reported to the authorities a...

(The entire section is 843 words.)

The Piano Teacher Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Barthofer, Alfred. “Vanishing in the Text: Elfriede Jelinek’s Art of Self-Effacement in The Piano Teacher and Children of the Dead.” In The Fiction of the I: Contemporary Austrian Writers and Autobiography, edited by Nicholas Meyerhofer. Riverside, Calif.: Ariadne Press, 1999. Suggests that Jelinek dismantles a mythical self constructed by the social ideology, causing her fictional “I” to vanish into the flow of linguistic dissidence.

Fiddler, Allyson. Rewriting Reality: An Introduction to Elfriede Jelinek. Oxford, England: Berg, 1994. An excellent introduction to Jelinek, suitable for undergraduates. Surveys her major work and provides close readings and the historical, feminist, and literary contexts of her fiction.

Johns, Jorun B., and Katherine Arens. Elfriede Jelinek: Framed by Language. Riverside, Calif.: Ariadne Press, 1994. Essays on Jelinek examine her modernist prose style, her postmodern reinvention of genre, and her feminist and antifascist themes.

Konzett, Matthias. The Rhetoric of National Dissent in Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, and Elfriede Jelinek. New York: Camden House, 2000. Analyzes how Jelinek and two other Austrian writers created new literary strategies to expose and dismantle conventional ideas that impede the development of multicultural awareness and identity.

Maltzan, Carlotta von. “Voyeurism and Film in Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher.” In Literature, Film, and the Culture Industry in Contemporary Austria, edited by Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger and Franz-Peter Greisner. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. Examines voyeurism as a source of self-estrangement in The Piano Teacher. Part of a larger study linking literature and film in Austria.

Meyer, Imke. “The Trouble with Elfriede Jelinek and Autobiography.” In The Fiction of the I: Contemporary Austrian Writers and Autobiography, edited by Nicholas Meyerhofer. Riverside, Calif.: Ariadne Press, 1999. Explores the limitations and pitfalls of choosing a biographical reading of Jelinek’s work, including The Piano Teacher.

Morgan, Ben. “Elfriede Jelinek.” In Landmarks in German Women’s Writing, edited by Hilary Brown. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. Article on Jelinek is part of a larger study of twelve women writers from the Middle Ages to the twenty-first century who have made major contributions to German-language literature.

Piccolruaz Konzett, Matthias, and Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger, eds. Elfriede Jelinek: Writing Woman, Nation, and Identity. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007. Features essays on Jelinek’s contributions to world literature and about her influence on German and European literature. Also examines her relationship to sociopolitical issues, especially the legacy of fascism.