Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 706
Rosalie von Tümmler
Rosalie von Tümmler (fon-TEWM-lehr), a widowed upper-class socialite of fifty who has settled in the city of Düsseldorf following her husband Robert’s “heroic” death in a car accident while serving in World War I. She and her two children, Anna and Eduard, live quietly and modestly together. She is a child of nature, a likable, happy, thoughtful, and slightly too chatty woman. She is a good friend of her daughter, Anna, who is unmarried. Rosalie is dismayed at the onset of menopause, saying she is “no longer a woman” but only “the dried out shell” of what she once was. She falls in love with her son’s much younger American tutor, Ken Keaton. She begins menstruating again; this is brought on by what her surgeon, Dr. Muthesius, says must be “some kind of stimulation” (though their affair remains unconsummated). She thinks her love of Keaton has rejuvenated her and that her menstrual blood is a sign of the power of this love; in actuality, she has advanced ovarian cancer. Following a massive hemorrhage and unsuccessful surgery, she dies amid narcotic visions of the symbolic black swan, true love, and nature.
Ken Keaton, an American veteran who stayed in Europe following World War I to pursue his amateur interests in history and folk customs. He sustains himself by teaching English to the children of well-to-do Germans. He has all-American good looks and a simple charm. Rumors of Ken’s amorous successes with both daughters and mothers in society circles do not dissuade Rosalie from falling for his good-natured manner. Ken has American attributes more connected to 1950 than to 1920.
Anna von Tümmler
Anna von Tümmler, Rosalie’s single, thirtyish daughter. She pursues fairly serious art in the form of cubist-inspired painting, which her mother finds ugly and confusing. She is rational and detached, and in her objective, critical views of things she shows an affinity to the cultural New Objectivity of 1920’s Weimar Germany. Her exceptional determination is rooted in part in her physical deformity—a clubfoot—which has, along with one sad love affair, caused her to renounce intimacy. She and her mother carry on long pseudo-philosophical discussions on art, nature, love, and the nature of womanhood. Anna’s especially painful menstrual cramps seem to be a kind of affront to Rosalie’s experience of menopause. Anna sees her mother’s infatuation with Ken as slightly embarrassing and tries unsuccessfully with Eduard to put an end to it.
Eduard von Tümmler
Eduard von Tümmler (AY-dew-ahrd), Rosalie’s son, who is in his last year of high school. He is being taught English by Ken, whom he finds agreeable enough until Ken and his mother begin their affair. He would like to defend his mother’s honor and reputation, which both he and Anna see as compromised by her love for Ken.
The black swans
The black swans, which are encountered by the family and Ken on an outing to a nearby rococo palace. They symbolize both the round voluptuousness of the woman and the phallic power of the man. Before Rosalie and Ken kiss in a tomblike passage in the palace, they feed dry bread to the swans in the slimy garden lake. The castle and gardens are full of decaying rococo erotic symbols: Pan, nymphs, certain primeval plants, and the black swans, whose blackness is both rare and precious and the color of death. One swan hisses at the group—or at Rosalie alone—perhaps because she nibbled a bit of bread before giving it to the swans. Anna says the swan will not easily forgive her mother. This hissing swan appears again at the end of the story, in Rosalie’s dying visions of his “blood-red beak” and the “black beating of his wings.”
Dr. Oberloskamp (OH-behr-LOS-kahmp), Dr. Muthesius (mew-TEH-zee-ews), and Dr. Knepperges (KNEH-pehr-gehs), Rosalie’s physician and surgeons. Their scientific medical language contrasts ironically with Rosalie’s euphemistic descriptions of aspects of a woman’s reproductive system.
Dr. Brünner (BREW-nehr), Anna’s only love, who left her after a long courtship, causing Anna to renounce love and live only for herself and her art.
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