Berlin Alexanderplatz

by Alfred Döblin

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Critical Evaluation

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Berlin Alexanderplatz is an unusual twentieth century, avant-garde novel in being both a popular and a critical success. Readers liked the book’s cynical, acid portrayal of Berlin’s underworld as well as its happy ending, and the critics were enthusiastic about Alfred Döblin’s use of montage techniques to create an electrifying portrait of a metropolis.

The breezy, hard-boiled tone, which characterizes much of the book, is a hallmark of Berlin’s interwar writing. Germany’s premier playwright of the time, Bertolt Brecht, perfected this tone in such works as The Threepenny Opera (1928). Works of this type depict the world of small-time criminals, shysters, prostitutes, and other outcasts and deviants. Their lives, like those of gamblers, are filled with abrupt rises and falls. Relationships are unstable and unpredictable, passions hot, and loyalties only for the short term. To these characters, highly industrialized, modernized Berlin seems to be governed not by rational procedures but by a whimsical, inscrutable fate. The only way to live in such a world is with a shield of knowing cynicism. In Döblin’s book, characters such as Herbert and Eva have adopted this cynical attitude, and Franz acquires it in modified form at the conclusion. He learns about the mysteriousness of fate when he is repeatedly laid low by such unexpected disasters as Meize’s disappearance.

However, Franz’s outlook at the end is not purely cynical but includes a more positive element. This element, which accompanies the book’s fatalism throughout, is the celebration of primal, resilient vitality. Döblin reflects this vitality both in the ongoing nascence of the city—a city that is constantly being demolished and reconstructed—and in the ingenuity of its inhabitants, who invent innumerable dodges to survive and strive in the difficult conditions. In his 1924 essay “The Spirit of the Naturalistic Age,” Döblin asserted that the twentieth century would produce improved humans, who would arise from the energy of people living in giant collectives. The massification of humans, which many writers deplored, represents for Döblin the staging ground for the emergence of a happier, more fraternal, humanity. In Berlin Alexanderplatz, he points to this new spirit by frequently departing from his narrative to present a collage of the components of urban life that testify to the vitality of the metropolis and in his description of Franz’s regeneration. In the asylum, Franz feels his body dissolve and flow out to take sustenance from the age’s massed energy. This leads him to a nondenominational religious exaltation wherein he is healed through connection to the inner principle of his age.

Critical enthusiasm for Berlin Alexanderplatz focused on the author’s use of montage, that is, the juxtaposition of heterogeneous materials. While working on his book, Döblin had been reading the Irish novelist James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), in which the montage method is extensively utilized. However, where Joyce deploys a different battery of devices in each major section of his text, Döblin takes the single tool of montage and uses it in various ways for varied effects. One is to interrupt his narrative by a cascade of facts and observations about Berlin life. He quotes advertisements and public notices, catalogs streetcar stops and the departments in a giant corporation, and chronicles the weather and stock market prices. The cumulative effect of such information is to lend immediacy to the novel’s setting, Berlin. A second type of montage uses the thumbnail sketch. When Franz is hiding out after the Lüders disaster, for example, Döblin goes through his apartment building, room by room, and briefly describes each resident. Each life holds a spark of interest, and this is another indication of the city’s fertility....

(This entire section contains 755 words.)

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Last, Döblin mixes in tales taken from the Bible and heroic sagas to deepen the novel’s perspective. InUlysses, Joyce uses the parallels between his story and the Greek myth referred to in his title to cast a dual light on his characters and to suggest both that they are degraded in relation to the classical prototypes and that their survival in the city demands a degree of heroic mettle. By contrast, when Döblin compares his protagonist’s betrayal by Reinhold to the classical precedent of Orestes, who is betrayed by his mother, he does not use the parallel to imply connections between the times. Instead, the author explicitly declares that the Greek tale can no longer have anything but picturesque value once the classical style of life is surpassed.


Critical Context