Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In Berlin Alexanderplatz, the major themes of authentic individualism (the self as subjectively inseparable from the other) and apolitical socialism (a mutualism among citizens of state that is not held in lockstep to party principles) are underscored by images of suffering, sacrifice, and conversion. The major image of suffering is the Old Testament figure of Job. Biberkopf is Job as a Berliner. He is restored, not to his fortunes after three pairs of confrontations with friends and one audience with God, but to himself after three exponentially severe blows and one audience with Death. There are two images of sacrifice: animals killed (by hammer blows) in a slaughterhouse symbolize victims ignorant of their being sacrificed, while the Old Testament’s Isaac symbolizes the willing and knowing sacrificial victim. Biberkopf passes from ignorant victim to willing victim of society. Döblin’s victim of society must adapt to life, as Döblin would have society itself adapt to reality, through learning that Death is the ruler.

This learning is an act or process of conversion, a dying and a rebirth, a transformation of the former Franz Biberkopf into the new Franz Karl Biberkopf. The prime image of conversion, recurrent like the images of suffering and sacrifice, is death. The image is carried by a poetic refrain: “There is a reaper whose name is Death, empowered by almighty God. Today he is his sickle’s whetter, and indeed it cuts much better; soon he will cut with it and we must put up with it.” The refrain is oddly reminiscent of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Reaper and the Flowers” (1839), which begins “There is a Reaper, whose name is Death” and which is optimistic in its presentation of Death as a beneficent power and a promise of life. The refrain anticipates the song that Death sings to the catatonic Biberkopf, a song optimistic in its assertion that Death is “life and truest power,” without which life “can have no worth.”