(Short Story Criticism)

Christopher Isherwood 1904–-1986

(Full name Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood) English short story writer, novelist, playwright, essayist, translator, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Isherwood's short fiction career through 1994.

Isherwood is best known for his stories of Berlin, collected in The Berlin Stories (1946), which includes the short fiction collection Goodbye to Berlin (1939) and the novel Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935). These stories underscore the decadence of Berlin during the years before World War II as well as the tyranny of the Nazi regime. The Berlin Stories enjoyed widespread and enduring popularity: the book was adapted into a successful play, I Am a Camera (1951); an award-winning musical, Cabaret (1966); and a popular film version of Cabaret (1972).

Biographical Information

Isherwood was born on August 26, 1904, in High Lane, Cheshire, England. In 1924 he attended Cambridge for a year, and briefly attended the University of London as a medical student in the late 1920s. Although born and raised in England, it was his years spent in Germany and California that most shaped Isherwood and his writing. From 1930 to 1933, he lived in Berlin, gathering the material that would eventually become the definitive portrait of pre-Hitler Germany. While there he fell in love with a young German man named Heinz. Their time together ended when Heinz was arrested and sentenced to prison, and then to service in the German Army, for his homosexual activities. Heinz's conscription contributed to Isherwood's later pacifism. In 1939 Isherwood immigrated to the United States. A conscientious objector during World War II, he became an American citizen in 1946. He worked as a writer in Hollywood and became active with the Vedanta Society of Southern California, a religious organization. Isherwood died of cancer on January 4, 1986, in Santa Monica, California.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Goodbye to Berlin is regarded as Isherwood's most popular work. The stories address Hitler's rise to power in the 1930s and the decadence of Berlin in the years before World War II. The collection is framed by a couple of diary entries recorded a year apart, the first of which introduces the narrator, Isherwood. It was with Goodbye to Berlin that Isherwood established the matter-of-fact style indicative of his work. By blending fact and fiction, he sought to achieve a naive, honest style. The phrase “I am a camera” often appears in his work, indicating his belief that a narrator should serve the role of a simple recording device. The novella Sally Bowles (1937) features the character of Sally, a vain, outrageous Englishwoman working as a dancer in a Berlin cabaret. She has remained one of Isherwood's most enduring and compelling characters. Sally becomes ambiguously involved with Isherwood, but abruptly disappears at the end of the novella. “On Ruegen Island” chronicles the curious relationship between Isherwood, his friend Peter, and a youth named Otto while vacationing in a Baltic resort during the summer of 1931. In “The Nowaks” Isherwood and Otto live together in the slums of Berlin, and Isherwood becomes a regular at the gay bars of Berlin. His friendship with Bernhard, a young Jewish businessman, is explored in “The Landauers.” This story portrays the growing Nazi cruelty to the Jewish population in the early 1930s; by the end of the story, Bernhard is killed mysteriously, presumable by the Nazis.

Critical Reception

Much of the critical discussion regarding Goodbye to Berlin centers on Isherwood's use of the first-person narrator. Commentators note that the author's detachment from the characters he encounters mirrors the spiritual blight that affected Berlin in the years during World War II, a malaise that paved the way for Hitler's growing power. In this way, some critics have perceived Goodbye to Berlin as a significant political work. Critics have noted the autobiographical aspects in the book, particularly the homoerotic relationships in the stories. In fact, sexuality in Isherwood's fiction is a rich area of interest for commentators, as they trace Isherwood's treatment of homosexuality in the stories and how it reflects his own experiences and relationships. Although some reviewers deemed the stories as flat, Goodbye to Berlin has remained Isherwood's most popular work, and has been successfully adapted to stage and film.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Sally Bowles 1937

Goodbye to Berlin 1939

The Berlin Stories 1946

Exhumations 1966

The Berlin of Sally Bowles 1975

The Mortmere Stories [with Edward Upward] 1994

All the Conspirators (novel) 1928

The Memorial: Portrait of a Family (novel) 1932

Mr. Norris Changes Trains (novel) 1935; published in the United States as The Last of Mr. Norris, 1935

Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties (autobiography) 1938

Prater Violet (novel) 1945

The World in the Evening (novel) 1954

Down There on a Visit (novel) 1962

A Single Man (novel) 1964

A Meeting by the River (novel) 1967

Kathleen and Frank (autobiography) 1971

Christopher and His King, 1929-1939 (autobiography) 1976

People One Ought to Know [with Sylvain Mangeot] (verse) 1982

The Wishing Tree: Christopher Isherwood on Mystical Religion (nonfiction) 1987

Where Joy Resides: A Christopher Isherwood Reader (essays, novels, autobiography) 1991

Diaries, Volume One: 1939-1960 (diaries) 1997

The Repton Letters (correspondence) 1997

Lost Years: A Memoir, 1945-1951 (memoir) 2000

Kate O'Brien (review date 3 March 1939)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Brien, Kate. “Fiction.” Spectator (3 March 1939): 364.

[In the following excerpt, O'Brien praises Isherwood's detached narrative style in Goodbye to Berlin.]

Mr. Isherwood has brought to something like perfection the laconic and unemotional selectiveness of the camera. He swings his lens and refrains from running commentary. That is to say, if there is a joke in what he catches it is in it—it is not spoken “off”; if there is an emotion, the film takes its shadow and the camera-man finds nothing of his own to say. For this relief much thanks. It is a beautiful, quick way of record, and the care and passion which lie behind its present state of accomplishment deserve the highest praise.

I do not think that criticism nowadays is sufficiently generous to the pains and virtues of technique. We are forever praising the blundering “masterpieces” of would-be writers who, having, let us concede, something or other to say, do not appreciate that that condition is the common lot—but that the saying again of these oft-said things is the real issue—at which the business of being a writer begins. Reviewers of fiction must know very well that until a writer's manner is immediately recognisable it is senseless to give excited tongue after his matter. We do not mistake a Picasso woman for a Matisse, or a Utrillo landscape for a John Nash—and that is why these people...

(The entire section is 582 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (review date 4 March 1939)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood. Times Literary Supplement (4 March 1939): 133.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic offers a mixed assessment of Goodbye to Berlin.]

Four of the six sketches or diary fragments that make up this “roughly continuous narrative” have already appeared in print, one of them in book form. As the narrative now stands it has an uneven quality and leaves a mixed impression. The best of it is very good—clever, honest, anxious, ribald, sometimes pungent, touched with the perplexity and the striving for sympathy, if not with sympathy itself, that together seems to enclose Mr. Isherwood's...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

David Garnett (review date 11 March 1939)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Garnett, David. “Books in General.” New Statesman and Nation XVII, no. 420 (11 March 1939): 362.

[In the following positive review, Garnett considers the short fiction in Goodbye to Berlin as a series of character portraits.]

William Blake's parable in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is called A Memorable Fancy. It begins with an angel coming to him and exclaiming: “O pitiable foolish young man! O horrible! O dreadful state! consider the hot burning dungeon thou art preparing for thyself to all eternity. …” But the angel had picked the wrong man, for after they had contemplated the abyss together, Blake turned the tables by...

(The entire section is 1445 words.)

Alfred Kazin (review date 12 March 1939)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Kazin, Alfred. “Leaves from under the Lindens.” New York Herald Tribune Books (12 March 1939): 10.

[In the following review, Kazin views Goodbye to Berlin as an accurate portrayal of Berlin in the years before World War II.]

There are cities lost in history, like Sodom, Jerusalem and Confederate Richmond, which were once capitals of some national spirit and whose grandeur has been so mixed with time that they remain mysterious even when the legends they sprouted have grown dull. Today there are cities, somehow always capital spirits incased in the monuments of office, that are far to the present. They have become a new Sargasso Sea, choked with hopes...

(The entire section is 1037 words.)

Basil Davenport (review date 15 April 1939)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Davenport, Basil. “Atmosphere of Decay.” Saturday Review XIX, no. 25 (15 April 1939): 14.

[In the following review of Goodbye to Berlin, Davenport contends that “Mr. Isherwood combines an uncanny accuracy of observation and ability to convey his impressions with a universal sympathy almost unknown in English literature.”]

The first section of this book is called “A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930)”; the last is “A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-3).” Between lie four narrative pieces, tranches de vie with hardly enough plot for the name “short story,” but with too much depth to be called sketches, although that is the word Mr. Isherwood...

(The entire section is 469 words.)

G. F. Green (review date August 1939)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Green, G. F. Review of Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood. Twentieth Century CXXVI, no. 750 (August 1939): 238-40.

[In the following mixed review of Goodbye to Berlin, Green deems Isherwood a promising author.]

If the spirit of this age is faithlessness, or an unstable grasp of demi-faiths, Christopher Isherwood is then a sign of the times. In writing, lack of faith tends to rapportage, as Cocteau puts it, ‘a mere aping of the original,’ since it is the writer's outlook, or particular faith, that forces out his plot from the ‘stream of mere phenomena.’ Some of the best young writers today, imitators chiefly of Hemingway,...

(The entire section is 739 words.)

E. A. M. (review date summer 1939)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood. Queen's Quarterly XLVI, no. 2 (summer 1939): 244-45.

[In the following review, the reviewer provides a favorable assessment of Goodbye to Berlin.]

In Goodbye to Berlin Christopher Isherwood continues his account of the Berlin of pre-Hitler days, begun in Mr. Norris Changes Trains. One section of the book, Sally Bowles, has already been published as a separate volume. Goodbye to Berlin deals with that period of the author's life when he was earning his livelihood as a tutor in the German capital. Poverty and inclination led him to live in the cheapest boarding houses and...

(The entire section is 247 words.)

V. S. Naipaul (review date 18 March 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Naipaul, V. S. “The Writer.” New Statesman 71, no. 1827 (18 March 1966): 381-82.

[In the following review of Exhumations, Naipaul offers a mixed reaction to Isherwood's detached narrative style.]

Isherwood says that this annotated compilation—of stories, reviews and magazine pieces done over nearly 40 years—is ‘chiefly for those who feel some interest, never mind how slight, in my writings and, hence, in me.’ The circumstances are special, but the plea is unnecessary. Isherwood has always been one of those writers, like Maugham and Hemingway, who have invited an interest in what we might call their professional personalities.


(The entire section is 958 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (review date 7 April 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Tourist and Camera.” Times Literary Supplement (7 April 1966): 296.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic derides Isherwood as a writer who has never reached his literary potential.]

The reviewer is warned from the start. Writing of himself as a reviewer (about thirty-five reviews in three years for The Listener), Christopher Isherwood remarks: “I dare say I was no more or less dogmatic, spiteful, irresponsible and smart alecky than my colleagues or the run of people who do the job today.” That, you would think, spikes the critical guns before they can fire on this collection of stories, articles, and verses, which Mr. Isherwood himself...

(The entire section is 1143 words.)

David P. Thomas (essay date winter 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Thomas, David P. “Goodbye to Berlin: Refocusing Isherwood's Camera.” Contemporary Literature 13, no. 1 (winter 1972): 44-52.

[In the following essay, Thomas discusses the narrators in Isherwood's work.]

I am a camera with its shutter open,
quite passive, recording, not thinking.
Recording the man shaving at the window
opposite and the woman in the kimono
washing her hair. Some day all this will
have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.

The second paragraph of Goodbye to Berlin (1930)1 has become almost the obligatory starting point for discussions of Christopher Isherwood's fiction. Richard Mayne asserts that it...

(The entire section is 3582 words.)

Joe Blades (essay date July 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Blades, Joe. “The Evolution of Cabaret.Literature/Film Quarterly 1, no. 3 (July 1973): 226-38.

[In the following essay, Blades chronicles the adaptation of The Berlin Stories to the stage and cinema.]

From 1929 to 1933, I lived almost continuously in Berlin, with only occasional visits to other parts of Germany and to England. Already, during that time, I had made up my mind that I would one day write about the people I'd met and the experiences I was having. So I kept a detailed diary, which in due course provided raw material for all my Berlin stories.1

—Christopher Isherwood,...

(The entire section is 7296 words.)

Valentine Cunningham (review date 22 August 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Cunningham, Valentine. “Cabaret.” New Statesman 90, no. 2318 (22 August 1975): 229-30.

[In the following review, Cunningham explores the emphasis on the character of Sally Bowles, which is reflected in the edition of Isherwood's stories entitled The Berlin of Sally Bowles.]

‘I wonder,’ she was fond of remarking, ‘what they'd say if they knew that we two old tramps were going to be the most marvellous novelist and the greatest actress in the world.’

Thus Sally Bowles to Chris Isherwood, in one of their frequent conversations about ‘wealth, fame, huge contracts for Sally, record-breaking sales...

(The entire section is 546 words.)

Peter Thomas (essay date February 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Thomas, Peter. “‘Camp’ and Politics in Isherwood's Berlin Fiction.” Journal of Modern Literature 5, no. 1 (February 1976): 117-30.

[In the following essay, Thomas traces Isherwood's utilization of Camp motifs in his work.]

The agonizing of the “Auden generation” over their support for leftish causes called forth a good deal of suspicion at the time, and George Orwell's description of the typical English bourgeois intellectual of the Thirties crystallizes this feeling:

It is the same pattern all the time; public school, university, a few trips abroad, then London. Hunger, hardship, solitude, exile, war, prison,...

(The entire section is 5398 words.)

David Lodge (review date 22 March 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Lodge, David. Review of Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood. Washington Post Book World XXII, no. 12 (22 March 1992): 7.

[In the following essay, Lodge reflects on the enduring popularity of the character of Sally Bowles.]

Character is arguably the most important single component of the novel. Other forms (such as epic) and other media (such as film) can tell a story just as well, but nothing can equal the great tradition of the European novel in the richness, variety and psychological depth of its portrayal of human nature. Yet character is probably the most difficult aspect of the art of fiction to discuss in technical terms.


(The entire section is 6556 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Burgess, Anthony. “Candid Camera.” Spectator (18 February 1966): 201.

Mixed review of Exhumations.

Haynes, Douglas. “Christopher Isherwood's Revision of The Berlin Stories.The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 73, no. 2 (April-June 1979): 262-65.

Chronicles the revisions to The Berlin Stories.

Rahv, Philip. “A Variety of Fiction.” Partisan Review VI, no. 3 (spring 1939): 106-13.

Brief favorable review of Goodbye to Berlin.

Reiner, Max. “Queer People.” The Canadian Forum XIX, no. 219 (April...

(The entire section is 158 words.)