Arthur Schnitzler Dream Story Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

Dream Story Arthur Schnitzler

Austrian short story writer, playwright, novelist, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents criticism of Schnitzler's novella Traumnovelle (1926; Dream Story). See also Arthur Schnitzler Drama Criticism.

Published in 1926, Traumnovelle (Dream Story) has been described as a tale of one man’s journey through the hidden depths of his own psyche. Set in fin-de-siècle Vienna, Schnitzler’s story exposes the hypocrisies of bourgeois culture by exploring the repressed desires, fantasies, and passions underneath the surface of a seemingly happy marriage. Commentators note that Schnitzler also addresses themes of sexual fantasy, jealousy, obsession, and death. In 1999, Dream Story was adapted for Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut

Plot and Major Characters

Dream Story is set in early-twentieth-century Vienna. The protagonist of the story, Fridolin, is a successful thirty-five-year-old doctor who lives with his wife Albertina (also translated as Albertine) and their young daughter. One night, Albertina confesses that the previous summer, while they were on vacation in Denmark, she had had a sexual fantasy about a young Danish military officer. Fridolin then admits that during that same vacation he had been attracted to a young girl on the beach. Later that night, Fridolin is called to the deathbed of an important patient. Finding the man dead, he is shocked when the man’s daughter, Marianne, professes her love to him. Restless, Fridolin leaves and begins to walk the streets. Although tempted, he refuses the offer of a young prostitute named Mizzi. He encounters his old friend Nachtigall, who tells Fridolin that he will be playing piano at a secret high-society sex orgy that night. Intrigued, Fridolin procures a mask and costume and follows Nachtigall to the party at a private residence. Fridolin is shocked to find several men in masks and costumes and naked women with only masks engaged in various sexual activities. When a young woman warns him to leave, Fridolin ignores her plea and is soon exposed as an interloper. The woman then announces to the gathering that she will sacrifice herself for Fridolin and he is allowed to leave.

Upon his return home, Albertina awakens and describes a dream she has had: while making love to the Danish officer from her sexual fantasies, she had watched without sympathy as Fridolin was tortured and crucified before her eyes. Fridolin is outraged, as he believes that this proves his wife wants to betray him. He resolves to pursue his own sexual temptations. The next day, Fridolin learns that Nachtigall has been taken away by two mysterious men. He then goes to the costume shop to return his costume and discovers that the shop-owner is prostituting his teenage daughter to various men. He finds his way back to where the orgy had taken place the night before; before he can enter, he is handed a note addressed to him by name that warns him to not pursue the matter. Later, he visits Marianne, but she no longer expresses any interest in him. Fridolin searches for Mizzi, the prostitute, but is unable to find her. He reads that a young woman has been poisoned. Suspecting that she is the woman who sacrificed herself for him, he views the woman’s corpse in the morgue but cannot identify it. Fridolin returns home that night to find his wife asleep, with his mask from the previous night set on the pillow on his side of the bed. When she wakes, Fridolin confesses all of his activities. After listening quietly, Albertina comforts him and they greet the new day with their daughter.

Major Themes

Commentators agree that the dominant thematic concerns of Dream Story are psychological in nature, focusing on the inner desires and fantasies of a married couple. The marital relationship between Fridolin and Albertina addresses themes of fidelity and infidelity, jealousy, and guilt. As the couple confess their sexual fantasies, both cope with feelings of insecurity, betrayal, and resentment. Critics assert that the novella underscores the tensions between duty and desire through both Fridolin and Albertina’s temptation to sacrifice family and marital stability in pursuit of sexual fantasies. Death is also a major theme of Dream Story, as commentators contend that Fridolin’s sexual temptations are juxtaposed with images of death and mortality. Schnitzler also addresses broader issues of social hypocrisy, as the story explores inner psychological yearnings at odds with the values represented by bourgeois marriage and family. Critics also note that Schnitzler effectively blurs the line between reality and fantasy in the story; at the end, Fridolin and Albertina agree that no dream is ever entirely unreal, and that reality does not encompass the entirety of an individual life.

Critical Reception

Dream Story is widely considered to be among Schnitzler’s greatest literary achievements. The novella has long been praised as a depiction of the hypocrisies with bourgeois marriage in fin-de-siècle Viennese society. Dream Story has also been viewed as a fictional psychological case study exploring the nature of dreams and the inner workings of passion, desire, and fantasy in the human psyche. Moreover, the novella has been commended for its psychological insight into the nature of dreaming and the unconscious mind and compared to Sigmund Freud’s seminal work of psychoanalytic theory, The Interpretation of Dreams. Some critics have further pointed to the significance of the implication that Fridolin and Albertina are Jewish, asserting that the story addresses the outsider status of Jews in Viennese bourgeois society. Dream Story has enjoyed a resurgence of critical interest with the 1999 release of the film Eyes Wide Shut, which was adapted from Schnitzler’s novella. Recent reviewers have underlined the relevance of the story to today’s readers, some seventy-five years after its initial publication.