Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 679
Bruno A., called the Son, who in 1938 is a twelve-year-old schoolboy. He looks on helplessly and with only partial comprehension as his family and their comfortable existence fall to pieces in a world of jarring anti-Semitism. Aching for love and warmth from his estranged parents, the boy has intimations of decay and doom that intensify as he is shunted from provincial home to country resort and back again. In the second part of the novel, he is a middle-aged man. He returns to confront childhood ghosts after the breakup of his marriage in Jerusalem.
Father, an Austrian writer and literary critic. His successes bring joy neither to him nor to his family. A tired, absentminded, surly man, he succumbs to bitterness and paranoia as he is attacked for the sickly Jewish spirit of his writing. His hatred of petit bourgeois Jews and raggedOstjuden (Eastern European Jews) is second only to his fear of being regarded as one of them. As anti-Semitism blocks his career and destroys his self-respect, he soothes his soul with alcohol and impossible dreams of a literary and cultural renaissance. This delusion leads him to abandon his family for a baroness in Vienna.
Mother, a tall, tight-lipped, unhappy woman. She bears her husband’s physical and spiritual distance in stoic fashion and strives to preserve an atmosphere of normalcy and dignity even as Jewishness makes her family an object of derision and loathing. A woman with strong philanthropic impulses, she devotes herself frantically to charitable institutions as her personal life deteriorates. After her husband runs off to Vienna, she dutifully responds to a call from the local rabbi to join the Jews assembling in the synagogue. That night, she is imprisoned with her son and adopted daughter.
Theresa, Bruno’s aunt and Mother’s younger sister. She is a diligent university student. Tall like her sister and radiating her inner life, she has the air of a priestess. After a fit of depression lands her in Saint Peter’s sanatorium, she emerges for a family vacation only to be stricken by another fit of otherworldly melancholy. Her psychosis leads her to convert to Christianity with a sacrificial gesture, and soon thereafter she dies suddenly and mysteriously within the walls of Saint Peter’s.
Brum, a onetime friend of Bruno’s parents. He transforms himself from a thin, ascetic, cowering person into a bold and blunt character, renouncing his Judaism along the way. In the second part of the novel, he is an old, bitter anti-Semite. He receives a beating from Bruno yet never owns up to his Jewish past.
Stark, a sculptor. Born of a Jewish mother but reared at an “Aryan” military academy, he transmutes the anti-Semitism he encounters into a passionate yearning for his mother’s faith. Much to the horror of Father, this strong-spirited man and erstwhile champion of the family’s dignity has himself circumcised and submits to the squalor of a Jewish almshouse.
Salo, Father’s brother. Flamboyant and vigorous, he aims to shock his conventional family. He and his mistress are a breeding ground for scandal. Salo belongs to the merchant class that Father detests.
Danzig, Bruno’s violin teacher. His attempts to root out the imperfections in his playing have made him a nervous wreck. Plagued by an inferiority complex and an uncontrollable twitching of his left shoulder, he leaves for Australia.
Louise, a nubile maid, the only vibrant and sensual element in the otherwise icy household. With her rustic innocence and high spirits, she captivates Bruno and his male relatives. Bruno later discovers that Louise, who becomes fat and devoid of charm, once prostituted herself to his uncles.
Helga, an orphan adopted by Bruno’s family. She gradually loses her untamed, fearless...
(The entire section contains 980 words.)
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