(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Over the past fifteen years, Peter Gay has published a magisterial five-volume study of the Victorian world which he has called The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud (1984-1998). Intending to correct misperceptions about nineteenth century middle-class life, he has been at some pains to provide evidence that our ancestors were not as prudish, materialistic, or conventional as had formerly been thought. His task has been monumental, and in pursuing this collective historical enterprise, he has unearthed a library of original source material only scantily examined before. As a result, Gay has more than made his point. In his works the Victorian middle class—and within this category he includes the middle class in North America and throughout western Europe, not just in Great Britain—comes off as much more delightfully human, enjoyable, and accessible.

In Schnitzler’s Century: The Making of Middle-Class Culture, 1815-1914, Gay provides a synthesis of his findings previously published in those five separate volumes. Although the author is careful to explain that this present work is not just a compilation of his previous findings, the book is in many ways just that and will provide those unfamiliar with his other volumes with an excellent and condensed version of them. For this present work, Gay has chosen to focus on the life and work of the Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) as a kind of palimpsest through which to revisit his earlier findings.

Schnitzler proves an excellent choice for such a task. The son of a well-to-do Viennese Jewish physician, he grew up in the same environment and with the same background as Sigmund Freud, one of the central figures Gay refers to throughout his work. He even wrote a biography of the psychoanalyst along the way. Schnitzler himself was often described as the Freud of fiction, since much of his literary output deals with the same psychocultural world that Freud examined and which formed the basis for his extraordinary breakthrough in the field of psychiatry. In fact, as Gay points out, Freud even wrote to Schnitzler about the far-reaching agreement between his own studies and Schnitzler’s fiction, especially on erotic questions. Gay quotes Freud, never very generous with his praise, who enviously wondered how Schnitzler had arrived at the secret knowledge through the artist’s intuition without having to do the laborious research imposed on the psychoanalyst.

Schnitzler is probably best known for his plays, novellas, and other short fiction, in which he examined the erotic relationships between men and women in turn-of-the-century Vienna; relationships, Gay points out, that often mirrored Schnitzler’s own. His fiction frequently involves a male philanderer and his emotional and erotic exploits with a series of more of less compliant female partners. Although Schnitzler was primarily focused on his male characters, in many of his works he presented women sympathetically, particularly in their erotic experiences, and he did so with some complexity. His emphasis on female sexuality was one of the primary reasons that his work attracted Freud’s attention.

Gay admits that Schnitzler was hardly a typical bourgeois but, as he confesses, in the course of his research he discovered that Schnitzler had the qualities that made him a credible and resourceful witness to the world of the middle class that Gay had been depicting in his previous books, and so the historian decided to make him the center of his current one. Schnitzler was a man who bridged two centuries—a man of the nineteenth century, he lived well into the twentieth—and he provides an example of how indebted the present world is to the Victorians. A writer who helped to revolutionize modern drama, Schnitzler was one of the avant-garde artists who contributed to the fashioning of modernism, the primary artistic movement of the last century. Widely read, open to high culture, and sympathetic to new movements in the arts, he was still a solid bourgeois in his own, highly individual way, and therefore he can be a useful touchstone for Gay’s own theories about the Victorian middle class.

Gay begins his examination of the middle classes by recounting a brief, but highly suggestive, entry in Schnitzler’s youthful diary, which his father, Arthur, discovered in his son’s locked desk. In his schoolboy enthusiasm, Schnitzler recounted his erotic exploits to what he believed was the sacrosanct privacy of his personal diary. This episode, the breach of the son’s trust by his father, and its aftermath, a heated lecture by his...

(The entire section is 1874 words.)