The Berlin Stories

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

William Bradshaw, the young British observer of Berlin life in The Last of Mr. Norris--the first of the two novellas--is a thinly disguised self-portrait of Isherwood. A would-be writer with an eye for unusual people and experiences, he is fascinated when he meets Mr. Norris on a train. The bewigged Arthur Norris soon reveals to William a bizarre world of prostitutes, decadent German statesmen, Communists, and millionaires.

A man who survives by his wits alone, Norris eventually comes to the end of his powers to deceive and double-deal. His enemies force him to leave the country. William realizes that he also has been used by Norris, and--somewhat wiser, but still fascinated--he sees Norris off at the station.

Isherwood, himself, replaces William as the observer in the second novella, Goodbye to Berlin. Here, the pages are crowded with a gallery of portraits from the streets and alleys of Berlin. Many of them pass through the doors of Fraulein Shroeder’s lodgings, where Isherwood lives.

Isherwood’s most famous character, Sally Bowles, dominates this book. Apparently the runaway daughter of a respectable British family, she sings in a low-class nightclub and makes a habit of doing what she pleases. Her mixture of sophistication and naivete astonishes Isherwood and fascinates the readers of the book. Pretending to be 25, she actually is a rather worn 19 and more vulnerable than she likes to admit. She, too, shamelessly uses people--including Isherwood.

The vivid characters who wander through Isherwood’s pages never obscure the menace and horror of the Berlin of the early 1930’s. The lurid games played by the desperate people of Berlin, the rising racial hatred and political opportunism, all color these sketches. By the end of the book, it is clear that there is no hope for these people, and perhaps not for the world. Although the book is witty and colorful, it remains an indictment of that period of Western history. And Isherwood, the character, realizes that one cannot remain the passive observer forever.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Finney, Brian. Christopher Isherwood: A Critical Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Offers a chapter on each book of The Berlin Stories as well as the real background that inspired them and the inherent structure that links the stories.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Christopher Isherwood. New York: Columbia University, 1970. Compares Isherwood with his narrators, and classifies both books as “documentaries” in which the narrator serves as a camera, maintaining a necessary distance from the action.

Schwerdt, Lisa M. Isherwood’s Fiction: The Self and Technique. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Examines Isherwood as Bradshaw, contending that The Last of Mr. Norris is really Bradshaw’s story because the reader is always aware of how Bradshaw feels while seeing Norris only from the outside.

Shuttleworth, Anthony. “In a Populous City: Isherwood in the Thirties.” In The Isherwood Century: Essays on the Life and Work of Christopher Isherwood, edited by James J. Berg and Chris Freeman. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000. Presents a detailed analysis of Norris as a corrupted aesthete who believes in his devotion to art and is blind to his parallels with Hitler and the Nazis. Identifies Isherwood’s Berlin as “a city populated by appearances” and filled with pretense and delusion, as are many of the characters and Nazism itself.

Wilde, Alan. Christopher Isherwood. New York: Twayne, 1971. Offers a symbolic interpretation of The Berlin Stories, with extensive analyses of the double in The Last of Mr. Norris and of the role of animal imagery.