Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Gesine Cresspahl

Gesine Cresspahl (gay-ZEE-neh KREHS-pahl), who was born in 1933 in the province of Mecklenburg, Germany. She immigrated to New York in 1961 and has worked in a bank there since 1964. She lives in a modest apartment with her daughter, Marie, with whom she conducts frank conversations about her own and her parents’ lives. Her thoughts are committed to a diary that extends from August, 1967, to August, 1968, and that mingles the present with the past. From 1939 to 1945, she underwent the normal education of a German child under the Nazis. After 1945, she spent more than three years in the Russian zone of postwar Germany, where she studied diligently after the Russians arrested her father. She learned to behave cautiously but nevertheless clashed with a malicious bureaucracy. From Halle University, in East Germany, she fled to West Germany, where Marie was born. The child’s father, Jakob, an East German railway official, was killed before they could be married, and Gesine, resolving to stay unmarried, emigrated. In New York, unhappy memories of her German past make her an impassioned opponent of the Vietnam War and of racial prejudice. For all her enlightened views, she spares no expense in sending Marie to a Catholic private school to avoid the squalor of public education. She finds consolation in the honest, old-fashioned truthfulness of The New York Times (which she calls “Auntie”). The paper is full of reports of the Vietnam War and of violence in American cities (including the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.). Such reports confirm Gesine’s dislike of violence, but she is growing attached to New York, influenced by Marie’s enthusiasm. She discusses her life and recent German history with a highly critical Marie. She is making good progress in her bank career. She rejects D. E.’s offers of marriage and earns the approbation of her unpleasant boss. She is learning Czech to add to her other languages, with a view to working in Prague.

Marie Cresspahl

Marie Cresspahl, the daughter of Gesine, born in July, 1957, in West Germany and brought to New York in 1961. At first, she hates the city, but now she would not live anywhere else and even dislikes speaking German or going to foreign restaurants. She wears a Vietnam War button in her conservative school and looks after a black girl from a nearby slum who is enrolled in the school as a token of integration. She finds the task onerous and takes part in a wild Halloween party to avoid having to invite the girl home. Enlightened principles prevail, so that she and Gesine do take the girl in for a short period. Marie’s teachers are disturbed by her vehement opposition to the Vietnam War, which leads her to address an inopportune and gravely naïve question on the matter to the president of Gesine’s bank. A polite child, she is highly critical of Gesine’s and Germany’s past.

Heinrich Cresspahl

Heinrich Cresspahl (HIN-rihkh), Gesine’s father, who was born in 1888. He was a cabinetmaker in Jerichow, Mecklenburg, and, for a time, the manager of a workshop in Richmond, near London. He met his future wife, Lisbeth, on a trip to Mecklenburg. They settled in Jerichow when Gesine was born in 1933, in a Germany celebrating Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. He joined the Nazi Party although he disliked the regime and had, while in England, helped German refugees. His behavior at times appeared unorthodox: He consorted with a Jewish veterinarian and, after his wife’s death in 1938, took an extended tour...

(The entire section is 1489 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Gesine Cresspahl, the narrator and the central figure, remains the most elusive character, evidently because she herself wishes to be. Johnson even breaks in occasionally to complain to her about her self-willed behavior. She is driven by secret drives and obsessions with which she brooks no interference. The reader, however, is challenged to put all the pieces together and is allowed to examine all the evidence, including facts and thoughts to which even Gesine’s daughter is not privy. Thus, there is something of the crime mystery and the spy thriller, brought to a high level of psychological sophistication, in Johnson’s treatment of Gesine.

Gesine’s extremely precocious daughter, charming in her process of Americanization, serves the literary device of confidante, drawing out her alter ego. Marie believes that “if a person comes to New York he must also come to his senses.” She is more than a little reminiscent of the wise, doomed children found in the works of William Shakespeare. Yet Marie shows the psychological development of a real child in her growing trust of Erichson and in her relationships with other children, particularly a black classmate, Francine, who is also aware beyond her years.

Lisbeth Cresspahl is a mysterious figure. She has a mythical quality, partly because Gesine must strain to remember her, for all the scrupulous detail of her evocation: “When she removed the rings from the stove, she sometimes forgot she...

(The entire section is 493 words.)