Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Walk” is the longest and most famous of the more than fifty sketches of walks that Robert Walser wrote after his return from Berlin to Switzerland in 1913. Walking for Walser, who is clearly visible behind the transparent persona of his narrator-protagonist, was an essential creative activity and served a far different function from a normal recreational and diversionary stroll. As Walser’s walker tells the tax collector, it is his principal connection to daily life, the only real means that a solitary individual has to confront and communicate with the everyday world.

Walking is also Walser’s narrative means of creating space (the German word for “take a walk”—spazieren—means literally “to space”) for the free flow of ideas and perceptions. The walk itself is the only element that binds together the numerous observations, reflections, and soliloquies that make up the story. The external world is little more than a set of slight and fleeting encounters that provoke a wide range of emotional, perceptual, and philosophical responses. In the moment of the epiphany at the railroad crossing, the narrator comments that the inner human being is the only one that truly exists. Thus, the conversations and images in the story can be seen as outward projections of inner needs and fantasies—particularly, the need for recognition as an honest, unpretentious writer in search of enduring relationships and connections. The men in the story are almost all ostentatious, dishonest, or threatening figures, whereas the women and girls are alluring, witty, and artistic. Similarly, the moments of joy, contentment, and euphoria occur usually in conjunction with images of women and are constantly threatened by memories of a frightening past (embodied in the giant Tomzack) and fear of future loneliness (the figure of the forsaken man in the forest). The celebration of the details of everyday life in “The Walk” may thus be viewed as an attempt to ward off the threats of a crude, male-dominated society and to keep open a more benign aesthetic space for future imaginative and literary excursions.