Bertolt Brecht Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2513

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.

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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 profited financially from his own rule. He is accused of having put money into Spanish banks under false names. The story also shows the ephemeral nature and corrupting influence of power.

The second part of the story deals with the same events but from the point of view of Terentius Scaper, a veteran who comes to Rome with his family because he has been evicted for not paying his rent. There are ironic parallels between Scaper’s attempts to save himself from financial ruin and Caesar’s attempts to save his dictatorship. The veteran’s daughter raises money from an old admirer, who demands favors in return; but Rarus, Caesar’s secretary and the daughter’s fiancé, indignantly takes this money, intending to return it. Instead, he uses the money to bribe the guards to help Caesar escape in Scaper’s ox cart. Before the escape can take place, however, Rarus is murdered, and Caesar dies, unwittingly owing Scaper the three hundred sesterces.

Brecht is especially concerned here with the effect of history on the common person. Caesar has brought his downfall on himself and is resigned to his death, refusing to flee. Rarus, however, has no such choice but is murdered because he is too close to Caesar. As for Scaper, Caesar’s death means financial disaster, which was also true of Caesar’s reign. Although Rome is flourishing, Scaper is poor and has not benefited at all from Rome’s conquests. The difference between what history means to the rich and powerful and what it means to the common human being is a typical theme in Brecht’s works.

“The Wounded Socrates”

“The Wounded Socrates” describes Socrates’ “heroic” deeds in the battle of Delion (424 b.c.e.), and here Brecht, who was strongly averse to conventional forms of heroism, differentiates between real and false courage. Socrates is a teacher famous for his dialectical irony. Like many of Brecht’s characters, he is a man of the people who is against speculation and for practical experience, and the story is told with a great deal of humor and irony. Against his will, Socrates has to fight in the battle which is supposedly to defend his city, but in reality, according to Brecht’s Marxist theory, is a continuation of business by other means. The aristocrats and the business people profit from the war, but the ordinary people fight and suffer yet reap no rewards. Socrates wishes only to get out of the battle safely, and his fear shows his common sense, since Brecht always regards the instinct to survive as being sensible. At the outset of the fighting, Socrates runs away, inadvertently straying into a thorn field where he gets a thorn in his foot. In pain, unable to run, and with the fighting getting dangerously close, he begins to yell and also encourages other soldiers to yell, which makes the Persians so afraid that they retreat and the battle is won. Socrates, trying to save himself, thus becomes a hero.

When he is brought home in triumph, his suspicious wife is skeptical of his heroism, thinking that he must have been drunk. Socrates tries to hide his wounded foot for fear of ridicule. For this one act of “heroism” he has become famous, but as one of his students sourly remarks, he had been making valuable contributions to intellectual thought for years and had been ignored. Socrates refuses to be honored, partly because the thorn in his foot will show the real reason why he yelled, but partly because he has always preached pacifism and this new heroic role embarrasses him. Finally, refusing to lie, he confesses to his friend Alcibiades who honors him for his real courage in telling the truth in such an awkward situation. Socrates, with all his weaknesses, emerges as a great man since he has the courage to tell the truth, and he gains dignity because he has the courage to uphold his values. Marxist notions of war as business and the destructive nature of capitalism are also stressed in this story.

“The Augsburg Chalk Circle”

The theme of the chalk circle is used not only in “The Augsburg Chalk Circle” but also in the plays Mann ist Mann (1926; A Man’s a Man, 1961) and Der Kaukasische Kreidekreis (1948; The Caucasian Chalk Circle, 1948). Brecht learned about the chalk circle from a play by his friend Klabund, who adapted a drama of the same name by Li Hsing-dao, who lived in thirteenth century China. Brecht also drew on the biblical story of Solomon’s wisdom in dealing with the two women who both claimed to be the mother of the same child.

In a sober and factual tone, Brecht begins in the style of a chronicler. The historical setting is the Thirty Years’ War, and the geographical setting is Augsburg. It is a period of religious strife, yet religion appears in the story to be more concerned with plunder than with ideals. When the Catholic forces seize the city, Zingli, a rich Protestant, is murdered because he will not leave his profitable tannery. His wife is so preoccupied with saving her material things that she abandons her small child. Even later, when Anna, the maid, tells her that the child is safe, she refuses to acknowledge the child. Brecht focuses on the contrast between the rich capitalists represented by the Zinglis and Anna the proletarian maid. Anna, who has been badly treated by the Zinglis, is humane; even in this time of danger and panic, she looks at the child too long and is seduced by the dangerous temptation in this world to goodness, and she rescues the child.

In the second part of the story, the reader sees the sacrifices that Anna makes for the child. She takes him to her brother in the country, but the brother’s position on the farm is not secure. He has married his wife, of whom he is afraid, only because she will inherit the farm, but the wife has typically petit bourgeois values, formed by religion and public opinion. Anna immediately sees that she must say that the child is hers, for her sister-in-law is not charitable. The sister-in-law becomes suspicious when Anna’s husband does not come, and she taunts Anna. Anna’s brother arranges a marriage for her with a deathly ill cottager named Otterer who suddenly recovers and takes Anna to live with him. Although Anna finds him repulsive, for the child’s sake she endures the poverty and the loveless marriage, and the child thrives. One day, years later, a fine lady takes the child away.

In the third part, Anna returns to Augsburg to sue for the return of “her” child. Court scenes, with their dialectical structure, are favorites with Brecht and also show his concern with justice. The judge is Ignaz Dollinger, a man of the people, known for his coarseness and learning, his wisdom and folk cunning. Playing the role of a distraught mother, Mrs. Zingli accuses Anna of taking the child for money, a reflection of Mrs. Zingli’s own motives, for she has only been prompted to look for the child because he will inherit the tannery and thus provide her with a good standard of living. Anna, however, cares deeply for both the child’s physical and mental development. Clearly, Dollinger favors Anna, although he knows she is lying. To solve the case, he tells his clerk to draw a circle on the floor and put the child in the middle. Dollinger says that the woman with the strongest love will be able to pull the child out of the circle, demonstrating that she is the true mother. Mrs. Zingli pulls with all her might, but Anna lets go for fear of hurting the child. Contrary to the sources, it is not the real mother who gets the child but she who best represents his interests—Anna who has sacrificed everything for his sake. Brecht thus upholds justice by abusing the actual law. The story shows a Marxian idea of the importance of social bonds rather than ties of blood, and it pits a positive heroine of the people against the materialistic bourgeoisie.

The stories discussed in this essay typify themes in many of Brecht’s works. Social criticism, an interest in the common person, the fight against injustice, a demythologization of famous historical figures, and the use of alienation effects were concerns of Brecht all of his life. The early nihilist turned into the committed Marxist who looked toward the future to bring a Utopia in which all social ills would be righted. A faint hint of Utopia is suggested in his last story—justice is done, unlike in most of Brecht’s works. Although skeptical of actually reaching Utopia, Brecht nevertheless held it up as a measure to see the shortcomings of the world.

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