Dr. Peter Kien
Dr. Peter Kien (keen), a world-renowned sinologist. Kien is a forty-year-old recluse who wants to live only for his scholarly work in his private library of twenty-five thousand books. His life is completely regulated, and his library is cared for by his housekeeper Therese, whom he decides to marry in order to ensure the continuance of this good care. The marriage, however, changes this misogynist’s life into a nightmarish existence. In searching for his bankbook and will, Therese makes Kien’s life so unbearable that he is forced to leave his home and library. Kien is rescued by Benedikt Pfaff, who in turn imprisons Kien and brutalizes him. Eventually, Kien’s brother George comes from Paris to rescue him. George reestablishes the original order of Peter’s life by removing Therese and Benedikt from his home and restoring his library. Believing that everyone is satisfied, George returns to Paris. At this point, however, Peter Kien has a complete breakdown. Fantasizing that all (including his books) are plotting against him, Peter sets fire to his library and hurls himself onto the flaming pyre.
Therese Krumbholz (teh-RAY-zeh KREWM-hohlts), Peter Kien’s housekeeper, a fifty-six-year-old unmarried woman who is seeking material wealth and security for her old age. Mistakenly believing that Peter Kien has considerable wealth, she sets out to obtain his bankbook and to become his sole heir after they are married. Her vicious greed and her merciless babbling of unbearable clichés and platitudes drive Kien from his home. Therese also has an absurd view of her physical and sexual charm; she is in fact a repulsive hag. This obsession, for example, leads her to mistake the flattery of a furniture salesman (referred to as “that superior young man”) for amorous advances, to be followed by an encounter in the showroom of the store, where she removes her skirt and tries to embrace him with her fat and ugly body, much to the amusement of the crowd of shoppers. Whereas Kien’s insanity leads him to bookishness, Therese’s mania makes her pursue her greed and sexual frustrations. When George Kien tries to help his brother reestablish his life, he provides Therese with a small dairy-produce shop on the outskirts of the city on the condition that she never return to Peter Kien’s home.
Fischerle (FIH-shehr-leh), also known as Siegfried Fischer (ZEEG-freed FIHSH-uhr), a hunchbacked dwarf whose mania drives him to imagine that he can become the world’s chess champion. He exploits Peter Kien’s psychosis, first by being his assistant while “unpacking” his imaginary books from his head, and then by organizing a group of four friends who “sell” books to Kien at the municipal pawn shop (the Theresianum), while Fischerle makes off with most of Kien’s money.
Benedikt Pfaff (pfahf), a retired policeman and caretaker of the apartment house where Kien lives. He lives in a cellar apartment, from which he exploits and brutalizes everyone who enters or leaves the house. After Therese has driven Peter Kien out of his home and library, Pfaff becomes her lover. Together they set out to sell the library to the municipal pawn shop. Pfaff rescues Kien from the police, who think he has murdered Therese, only to incarcerate him in a dungeonlike room of his cellar apartment, where Kien is then subjected to physical harassment and brutality while Pfaff enjoys life upstairs with Therese. After Peter Kien’s brother arrives, Pfaff is set up in business near Therese in another part of town.
George Kien, Peter Kien’s younger brother, a psychiatrist and director of an asylum for the insane in Paris. Although George may be the only sane character, he too is portrayed as suffering a touch of madness in his unorthodox methods of treating his patients. It is obvious that his analysis of his brother’s mental condition is incorrect, as it leads quickly to Peter Kien’s demise.
(The entire section is 1,267 words.)