Bertolt Brecht Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although primarily known for his dramas and theoretical writings, Bertolt Brecht also wrote many short stories which have been unjustly neglected. He began writing stories while still at school and experimented with this genre all of his life. In 1928, he won first prize for “The Beast” in the Berliner Illustrierte short-story competition. Brecht’s early stories are nihilistic, often with exotic settings and scoundrels as protagonists. The later stories criticize society and expose social injustice; the protagonists are either ordinary people or great historical figures whom Brecht cuts down to size.

Brecht theorized less about the short story than he did about the drama, but he did make important contributions to the short-story form, and his stories show a stylistic mastery of the genre. In his later stories, he uses alienation effects to ensure that the reader does not identify with the protagonists. In “On Reading Books” in Me-ti: Buch der Wendungen (me-ti: book of twists and turns), Brecht criticizes fiction that makes the reader forget the real world and become engrossed in the work. The reader, he believed, should not be caught up in the action but should view each event in the plot critically and differentiate between appearances and facts. Books should be read so that they can be put aside from time to time for reflection. For this reason, Brecht praises the detective story since it is constructed logically and demands logical thought from the reader. Such a form is scientific, in Brecht’s view: It presents readers with facts and problems to be solved and it challenges them to think, question, and learn—the goals of all Brecht’s later works.

“The Beast”

“The Beast” is an example of how Brecht uses elements from the detective story to provoke his reader to think and observe facts, rather than be misled by appearances. The story’s opening sentence states that a person’s behavior is ambiguous and that this story, which has something shocking about it, will demonstrate this idea. Brecht, therefore, gives the reader clues at the outset as to how the story should be interpreted. At the beginning, a down-and-out old man comes to a film studio where a film about pogroms in southern Russia is being made. Because he looks like the historical governor Muratow, who incited the pogroms, he is hired and plays a scene in which Muratow receives a delegation of Jews coming to beg him to end the murders. The director criticizes the old man for playing the role like a petty official rather than like a beast, yet two Jews who were part of the real delegation are impressed because the old man’s acting corresponds to what actually took place. The director, however, refuses to believe the two eyewitnesses because they cannot recall a habit the historical Muratow had, which was, according to the director, constantly eating apples. After trying the scene again unsuccessfully, the old man is replaced by a real actor. Before leaving, however, he suggests sadistically that, instead of Muratow eating an apple, the leader of the Jews should be forced to eat one, which will stick in his throat from fear upon seeing Muratow signing the Jews’ death warrant. The suggestion is immediately accepted, and the story ends with the actor plying his role to the hilt. Similarity to the historical Muratow is clearly insufficient; art is needed to portray real bestiality. At the close, it turns out that the old man really is Muratow, which the reader should have guessed since the story can be shocking only if this is the case.

One major theme presented in this story is that of role playing. At first the old man appears to be a shy, lonely outsider with whom one should sympathize. Gradually Brecht peels away this mask, exposing the cruelty beneath, seen particularly in the suggestion about the apples which shows that the old man, far from feeling remorse for his deeds, is just as cruel as ever. More important is Brecht’s attitude toward art and reality. Brecht shows ironically how art distorts reality; as the scene is rehearsed, it moves further and further away from the real historical event and becomes more dramatic and emotional. This is precisely the kind of art which Brecht criticized in his theoretical writings. Art should appeal to reason, he believed, yet the public prefers art that captivates the emotions, and this is the art that sells.

The next stories are taken from Tales from the Calendar, which are counted among Brecht’s best and are the ones which he himself prized most highly. He was greatly influenced here by almanacs, which were widely read by the lower classes and whose stories combined popular appeal with practical moral lessons. Brecht learned from Johann Peter Hebel, who wrote for almanacs, but whereas the usual almanac story tended to teach people to be satisfied with their fate, Brecht gives his stories a radical political purpose; his goal is to unmask corruption and make people indignant at social injustice.

“Caesar and His Legionnaire”

“Caesar and His Legionnaire,” an offshoot of Brecht’s Caesar novel, uses history as an alienation effect. In his depiction of Roman society, Brecht gives the reader a yardstick by which to measure contemporary society, thus forcing the reader into a critical stance. The story’s tone is dry and unemotional, and Brecht demythologizes Caesar by showing his death from a dual perspective. The first part of the story describes the last days of Caesar’s life from his own perspective. Although he is at the height of his power, Caesar knows that his days are numbered. In an unsuccessful attempt to save his dictatorship, he tries to introduce democracy, but the people are too suspicious and fearful of him for it to succeed. He knows from a dream that he will be killed, but he is resigned to his death and goes to the senate, where the conspirators fall upon him—a laconic description of one of the most famous assassinations in history. Caesar is portrayed not as a great tragic figure but rather as a ruthless dictator, one who has put many people in prison and who has...

(The entire section is 2513 words.)