(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Although Tarr is concerned largely with two artists, one English and one German, involved with the same woman, Lewis is concerned more broadly with reaching generalizations about the English and German temperaments and about the perceptions of life peculiar to each society. Frederick Tarr is a British artist who, not unlike Lewis, lives in Paris during the Edwardian period. Tarr, like Lewis, has no great fondness for Germans, although he is engaged to Bertha Lunken, a German art student. His need for her is largely physical, and once that need has been satisfied, he finds it inconvenient to have her around.

Bertha is a stereotypical German—that is, a German built on Lewis’s personal, quite negative stereotype of Germans. Tarr wants to end his engagement because he finds Bertha tedious and uninteresting. His sexual attachment to her is also fading, a fact that he attributes to his devoting all of his creative energies and imagination to his art, leaving little for his sexual indulgences. Tarr clearly is plotting his break with Bertha in such a way that he will be perceived as taking the moral high road. He will sacrifice his personal relationship for the greater good: his art.

Tarr goes to Bertha’s flat, decorated with egregious kitsch that offends Tarr’s artistic and tasteful soul. He tells her as gently as he can that marriage is not in their future. Bertha makes a prototypically bourgeois retreat into heaving sobs, reinforcing the Irish author Oscar Wilde’s observation that “tears are the refuge of plain women but the ruin of pretty ones.” Tarr leaves, feeling quite the cad, but he promises to see Bertha soon again.

Meanwhile, Otto Kreisler, a German artist living on a pittance that his father doles out fitfully, returns to Paris from Italy. Kreisler four years earlier shed one of his paramours, who promptly married his father, leaving Otto’s inheritance diminished. The father, a bourgeois German businessman, disapproves of his son’s artistic pursuits and wants him to return home and do something worthwhile—to wit, go into business. Kreisler’s allowance is late, and...

(The entire section is 871 words.)

Tarr Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Frederick Tarr, an English artist living in Paris, is engaged to a young German woman, Bertha Lunken, a student in the Parisian art schools. Tarr dislikes Germans, although he knows a great many of them in Paris. It is his theory that either one has to be very intimate with them or one has to learn how to put up with them when one is not intimate. Not wishing to have it known that he is engaged to Bertha, he is on the point of breaking with her, for he considers her a dolt. He justifies his strange attitude on the grounds that all of his finer feelings go into his art, which leaves nothing over for sex. He admits that his taste in women is deplorable.

After a conversation with a friend during which he explains his theory, Tarr goes to his fiancé’s apartment. He feels some remorse for his treatment of Bertha, but he was attracted by her bourgeois-bohemian absurdities and her Germanic floridity and unwittingly became too involved. Now, he feels, a break has to be made. He, however, underestimates the intensity of feeling that Bertha developed for him. The scene in the apartment, carefully decorated with sham art that Tarr loathes, is comic yet tragic. Tarr cannot help feeling that he is treating Bertha shabbily, yet he is passionately convinced that marriage is not for him. Nor did he expect such floods of tears; but somehow the break is accomplished, and Tarr departs with the promise to see Bertha again after a few days.

Otto Kreisler, an impecunious German artist, lives on a small allowance grudgingly doled out by his father. He just returned from a trip to Italy and is more than usually hard up. Four years before, Otto made the mistake of marrying off an old sweetheart to his father. Since he refuses his father’s urgings that he give up art, return to Germany, and settle down into business, the monthly check, in revenge, is sent at irregular intervals. At this point, he is concerned with pawning his portmanteau as the result of failure to borrow money from an affluent compatriot, Ernst Volker. On his return from Italy, Kreisler discovers, to his horror, that his position as the recipient of Volker’s bounty is taken by a Pole, Louis Soltyk, and that no more money can be expected. He already owes Volker fifteen hundred marks. It is the psychological effect of lack of money that, by indirect means, propels Kreisler toward his final tragedy.

In a mood of discouragement—the check from home is late again—he goes to the Café Vallet for lunch. By chance, he finds himself at the same small table with an extraordinarily beautiful young woman who, after some preliminary conversation, explains that she is Anastasya Vasek and that she escaped to Paris from her parents’ bourgeois home. Kreisler is strongly attracted to her, because to him women are a kind of emotional pawnshop where he can dump his sorrows. With German sentimentality, he thinks of love as sorrowful. Determined to follow up that chance meeting, and despite the fact that his evening clothes are in pawn, he accepts an invitation from a member of the German colony, Fraulein Lipmann, to join her group at a dance at a club in the neighborhood. On the afternoon before the dance, he finds Anastasya sitting with Soltyk in a cafe. Again, he decides, the Pole is interfering in his affairs.

Driven by a kind of...

(The entire section is 1355 words.)