Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Bluebeard is a logical next step, perhaps the final step, in the intellectual and literary development of the Swiss author Max Frisch. A variant of this tale first appeared in Frisch’s novel Mein Name sei Gantenbein (1964; A Wilderness of Mirrors, 1965). In this story, as in Bluebeard, a cultured man is accused of the murder of his former lover, a prostitute, and despite a lack of substantial evidence is unable to persuade the public of his innocence. Moreover, the themes and the plot of Bluebeard are reverberations of previous works. For example, in expressing his ideas about the deteriorating human condition, the relativity and unknowability of moral truth, the manner in which guilt erodes true identity, and the near impossibility of living truthfully, Frisch returns to themes about which he wrote with great inventiveness in his first grand masterpiece, Stiller (1954; I’m Not Stiller, 1958).

While Frisch’s works reveal an underlying consistency, in more recent years he has developed a decidedly different narrative technique. Unlike his earlier novels, which were filled with eloquence and abundance, Montauk (1975; English translation, 1976) and Der Mensch erscheint im Holozan (1979; Man in the Holocene, 1980) underplay his storytelling genius. In these works, he deliberately strips away all decorative speech until nothing is left but the pure, functional form. With Bluebeard, Frisch continues this stylistic shift toward literary silence. Blunt and more objective, the mature Frisch limits his expressiveness, often combining short introductory phrases with laconic sentence fragments. Such narrative techniques leave more space for interpretation and masterfully serve to remind his readers how little one truly knows.

Perhaps the last sentence of Bluebeard, “You are in pain,” is in part an autobiographical statement of a chillingly frank artist who understands well the ontological suffering that accompanies moral uncertainty. At any rate, Bluebeard preserves Frisch’s much-deserved reputation as a creator of cerebral labyrinths in the tradition of Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges. This novel is another fitting encore to a brilliant career.