Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446
The plot of The Case of Sergeant Grischa, an absorbing account of the last months of World War I, appeared first as a play in 1921. Its great and deserved popularity led Arnold Zweig to recast his characters in the larger framework of a novel. A brilliant novel, it is one of the best in any language to emerge from World War I. Zweig has a strong narrative sense, an excellent grasp of physical detail, and a fine ability to portray characters. Additionally, the novel relates the particular setting of the German Eastern Front in World War I to the historical and social forces, in the army and outside it, that bring Sergeant Grischa to his fate.
The story itself begins in a primitive setting, where Grischa is impelled to escape imprisonment by the most basic human feelings: the need for wife, child, and home. The story moves forward into progressively more richly textured social and political settings, where human emotions became more disguised and elaborate through their contact with the institutions of society and of war. Throughout this movement, the story itself remains prominent. Sergeant Grischa’s career remains of interest because he is so appealing as a character and because he encounters such a broadly representative spectrum of forces and circumstances in his life.
The physical details of the labor camp, forests, towns, offices, trenches, battlefields, and prisons are especially rich and provocative. Zweig is compelling in his presentations of places, using both panoramas and in-depth descriptions. This intense realism is heightened by Zweig’s superb characterizations. Grischa himself, despite his lowly status (or perhaps because of it) and despite his naïveté, is clearly of heroic proportions. He has courage, endurance, deep feelings, and, above all, great human potential. It is his potential that impresses those around him and that makes his final and seemingly inevitable fate all the more significant. As he grows more heroic, especially in contrast to the corruption around him, he still never ceases to be a victim. This heroic doubleness, perhaps the central feature of European, American, and British literature of the interwar period, marks The Case of Sergeant Grischa as an undeniably modern novel.
Unlike much literary work of this period, however, The Case of Sergeant Grischa remains firmly embedded in actual history and society. There is no sliding into the abstract; everything is rooted in social and political actuality. Real institutions and their functionaries never disappear or become merely parable; instead, they retain their particular historical features. Yet, precisely because the officials, bureaucrats, officers, and guards are so authentic and because Sergeant Grischa is himself so authentic, The Case of Sergeant Grischa retains its life and relevance.
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