Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The German title, translated more literally as “the confusions of the schoolboy Törless,” both situates the story in a school setting and introduces the novel’s main theme. The school is a military boarding school, similar to those of Musil’s own experience; however, rather than realistically described, the novel’s setting and atmosphere reflect the confusions of young Törless’s adolescent growing pains.
The surface plot focuses on a small group of four students. As money is stolen from Beineberg and other students, the student Reiting figures out that only Basini, one of their fellow students, could be the thief. Reiting and Beineberg take it upon themselves to punish Basini during secret and sadistic nighttime meetings. Törless is drawn into these meetings but tries to keep his distance. His dual attraction to and repulsion from the sadism, as well as homosexual acts in which Basini engages separately with his punishers, show Törless struggling with his confusions.
Over just a few weeks, Törless matures and learns to form his own opinion and stand up for it. As Reiting and Beineberg increase their mental torture by planning to expose Basini in front of the school, Törless convinces Basini to turn himself in to the headmaster. The school officials attempt to keep the ensuing scandal as small as possible; however, although Törless succeeds in obscuring the full extent of his involvement, he is implicated in the events and, at the close of the investigation, is told to leave the school—a decision that is...
(The entire section is 634 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: World Fiction Series)
One afternoon, young Torless, a boarding school student, and some friends accompany Hofrat and Frau Torless to the railway station. The Torlesses are returning home after a visit to their son’s boarding school. The prestigious reputation of the school has been the determining factor in sending Torless there, in spite of the considerable distance involved. Indeed, Torless readily adapts to his new surroundings: An early case of what seems to be homesickness soon disappears, and he finds friends such as Prince H., a sensitive and delicate boy, and, later, the more rough and masculine Reiting and Beineberg. Acknowledging the other boys’ superiority of size and age, Hofrat Torless commends his son to their vigilance before he boards the train with his wife.
On the way back to school, Torless and Beineberg, the only two of the group who have permission to stay out longer, stop off at a cake shop and then visit Bozena, a prostitute at a tavern of ill repute. When they arrive at school, Reiting calls a meeting of himself, Torless, and Beineberg; he has discovered who has been stealing from the lockers. In their secret lair in the attic, they learn the details from Reiting: Basini, another classmate, is in debt to everyone and claims to have only borrowed the money. He must be punished. Torless, who believes the thief should be reported, is taken aback at Reiting’s suggestion that he not be. The boys finally agree simply to keep Basini under close surveillance, at least for the present. Torless is further confused by his parents’ response to the situation; not only do they not express shock and surprise but they also recommend giving Basini a chance to reform. He does not understand and tears up their letter in despair.
One night very late, Beineberg wakes Torless from his sleep and leads him to the attic to talk. Previously, Beineberg had observed Reiting and Basini having sex and explains that now he holds Basini in the palm of his hand, a power he fully intends to use: He will torment Basini in the name of spiritual training. On one hand, Torless does not fully comprehend Beineberg’s meaning. On the other hand, he senses that Basini is destined to play an important part in his own life, and he feels a need to make sure that Basini stays for a while.
The next day, Reiting and Beineberg approach Torless. They have been conspiring and have fixed the time and place of Basini’s moment of reckoning: eleven o’clock that night in the attic. They meet at the appointed time and, as the other two beat the naked, groaning Basini, Torless observes his own reactions. He is dizzy with excitement which turns sexual, making him feel disconcerted and ashamed. They hold an interrogation during which Basini is forced to agree to comply with all of their terms and orders from that point forward.
(The entire section is 1164 words.)