Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1020
After taking the seat of honor in a dining room filled with admirers, the indigent poet Baal shows more interest in the food on his plate than he does in the praise of his poetry. Mech, a timber magnate, offers to publish Baal’s work, but when Baal makes a pass at his wife, Emily, Mech is offended and leaves—as does everyone else.
Back in Baal’s attic, Johannes asks Baal if he should try to have sex with his fiancé, Johanna. Baal tells him to avoid it because he will not have the toughness to abandon her when his passion dissipates.
Later, Johannes and Johanna meet Baal in a cheap bar, where Baal tells a group of truckers how Emily sought him out. Now Baal is sick of her. When Emily shows up, Baal tells her to drink and then grabs a waitress. Emily threatens to leave. When Johanna offers to accompany her, Emily bursts into tears and explains that Baal always behaves this way, yet she loves him. After Baal sings a song about how much he loves using the men’s room, the truckers cheer. Ekart, a composer, invites Baal to take the party outside, but Baal declines. After Ekart leaves, Emily begs Baal to stop flirting with the waitress. Baal responds by demanding that Emily kiss a trucker. Crying, she consents and the truckers laugh. Johannes and Johanna scold Baal and leave. Emily sobs, and the truckers congratulate Baal for treating her roughly.
Johanna is in Baal’s bed. She is distraught. Baal tells her to wash herself. When she asks him if he still loves her, he says his appetite is satisfied. She leaves. Later, two sisters come to Baal’s room and begin undressing. When one mentions that a girl named Johanna had thrown herself into the river, Baal sends them away.
In the evening, Baal gets drunk and goes looking for a woman. When he returns with a woman named Sophie Barger, a disconsolate Johannes is waiting in his room. Baal sends him away. Sophie prepares to leave too. When she hesitates, Baal grabs her, kisses her, and takes her to his bed. She tells him it is her first time. On a spring night several weeks later, Baal and Sophie lie under the trees. Baal tells Sophie he loves her. She is afraid her mother will think she has drowned.
Baal shows up next in a grimy nightclub where he exchanges songs for drinks. When his request for more gin is refused, he sneaks out before completing his performance. Later, to amuse Ekart, Baal promises a group of farmers his brother will pay a high price for the bull with the strongest legs. Ekart wants to leave before the joke is exposed (there is no prize money). A good-natured parson convinces Baal to leave before the farmers return with their bulls.
Baal turns up next in a forest with a group of lumberjacks standing over a dead coworker. He scolds them for resolving to drink their fallen comrade’s remaining gin. The lumberjacks discover the gin is gone, and they accuse Baal of drinking it. Baal, drunk, says they have no proof and encourages them to join him as he marvels at the darkening sky.
Later, Baal complains to Ekart about the way Sophie has been running after them. Then Sophie shows up. She is pregnant with Baal’s baby. Ekart chastises Baal for mistreating her. When Ekart threatens to leave Baal and stay with Sophie, she confesses she cannot help loving Baal. Baal calls Ekart a simpleton, and Ekart attacks him. Holding Ekart close, Baal tells him they do not need women. They leave Sophie behind, screaming Baal’s name.
Ekart and Baal approach sick beggars awaiting treatment in a hospital tavern. One gives a speech celebrating the freedom that comes with having no feelings or desires. Ekart complains that Baal has corrupted his soul and that he will go with him no farther. Baal responds by drinking to Ekart’s health and telling him he loves him. Shortly after, Baal denounces the beggars as swine, and he and Ekart leave.
Sitting in a thicket near a river, Baal reaffirms his love for Ekart and adds that he no longer cares for women. That night, Baal wakes up Ekart to sing him a song about a woman’s pale body that decays in the water until God forgets it. Baal calls the world God’s excrement and praises its beauty. Ekart tells Baal he has not finished his quartet because he has been having sex with a redhead. When Baal asks Ekart if the redhead is more beautiful than he is, Ekart does not answer.
Later, Baal ambushes the redhead, takes her in his arms, and drags her into a thicket.
Some time afterward, when Baal asks Ekart what happened to the girl, Ekart intimates that she had drowned. Baal then shares his new song, “Death in the Forest,” about a sick man who would rather die of exposure than be carried home.
Eight years later, Ekart shares a drink with Johannes, who is now a shameless drunk. Ekart professes his love for Baal, whom he likens to a child. Baal shows up and sings about a man who dreams of a lost childhood. Jealous of the waitress in Ekart’s lap (she looks like Sophie), Baal leaps at Ekart, chokes him, and finally stabs him.
Back in the forest, Baal, alone, walks into the distance, singing about the vultures waiting to see him die. While hiding in the bushes, he overhears two police officers discussing his case. He learns from them that Ekart has died from his stab wounds.
Baal is next found lying in a dirty bed. Nearby, lumberjacks play cards and make offhand remarks about his impending death. When they get up to leave, Baal implores them to stay, but they laugh and leave anyway. Baal compels himself to crawl out the door. Some other lumberjacks later complain that Baal had stolen eggs from them while he was on his deathbed. They do not know his name.