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Hans Schnier

Hans Schnier (shneer), a professional clown. All events in this first-person novel are seen through the eyes of Hans, the twenty-seven-year-old son of a wealthy industrialist. He is not, however, the typical son of a rich businessman. As a youth, he showed little aptitude for school, and he...

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Hans Schnier

Hans Schnier (shneer), a professional clown. All events in this first-person novel are seen through the eyes of Hans, the twenty-seven-year-old son of a wealthy industrialist. He is not, however, the typical son of a rich businessman. As a youth, he showed little aptitude for school, and he has never had any interest in business. Instead, Hans has the character traits and temperament of an artist: He is spontaneous, impulsive, creative, naïve, and innocent, and he cannot feign feelings that he does not possess. Nor can he, as someone once urged him, “be a man.” To “be a man,” he would have to become like everyone else, which he cannot and will not do. Similarly, he cannot act on his father’s criticism that he lacks the very quality that makes a man a man: the ability to accept a situation. Hans, unlike most of his friends and acquaintances, does not want to accept the past and gloss it over, nor does he want to be merely swept along by the new tide of democracy. These qualities make him a misfit and an outsider. The loss of Marie destroys his primary link to the real world. Without her, he turns more and more to drink and ends up alone, playing his guitar and singing for a few coins from passersby at the train station.

Marie Derkum

Marie Derkum (DEHR-kuhm), the young woman whom Hans considers to be his wife, although they are not legally married. Sweet, trusting, and religious, Marie is in many ways the antithesis of Hans: She is from a very poor background, performed well in school, and is a devout Catholic. In time, her desire to return to the good graces of the church and to have a conventional, church-sanctioned marriage overcomes her love of Hans, and she leaves him to marry Prelate Züpfner.

Alfons Schnier

Alfons Schnier, the director of a coal-mining company and father of Hans. When Hans was growing up, his mother was the dominant personality in the family. Hans also has vivid memories of his father, such as how he courageously defended Hans when, as a boy of about ten, he called Herbert Kalick a “Nazi swine.” Schnier is now a handsome, distinguished-looking man in his sixties who has recently discovered that he has a talent as a television talk-show guest. He offers his son financial assistance, but only on the condition that Hans take formal training from the best teacher. Hans does not accept his father’s offer.

Mrs. Schnier

Mrs. Schnier, Hans’s mother, a homemaker and socialite. Hans considers her to be stupid, stingy, and hypocritical. During the war, she was a staunch racist and a fanatical German nationalist. She even sent her only daughter, sixteen-year-old Henrietta, to fight (and die) on the home front. Now Mrs. Schnier is president of the Executive Committee of the Societies for the Reconciliation of Racial Differences. Hans has never forgiven his mother for the death of his beloved sister, and he has not seen her since he left home to live with Marie and become a professional clown, more than five years earlier.

Heribert Züpfner

Heribert Züpfner (HEHR-ih-behrt ZEWPF-nehr), a Catholic prelate, about the same age as Hans. Züpfner, who as a youth was kind to Hans and occasionally went out with Marie, is one of several prominent young Catholics among Hans and Marie’s friends, including Sommerwild and Kinkel. By convincing Marie to leave Hans for him, he shatters Hans’s world.

Herbert Kalick

Herbert Kalick (HEHR-behrt KAH-lihk), a recent recipient of the Federal Cross of Merit for his work in spreading democratic ideas among young people. When he was a youth of fourteen, Kalick, while serving as the leader of Hans’s Hitler Youth group, was responsible for the death of one small boy and for the persecution of another lad who could not prove his Aryan background. Now a shining light in the new democratic movement, Kalick has recently invited Hans to his house to ask forgiveness for his past mistakes. Hans, however, cannot forgive and strikes him before leaving without accepting the offer of reconciliation.

Leo Schnier

Leo Schnier, Hans’s younger brother, who became a Catholic and is now a seminary student. He is generous, undemanding, and generally supportive of his brother.

Martin Derkum

Martin Derkum, Marie’s father, a not very successful shopkeeper. He is an intellectual and thought by many to be a Communist. Kind, generous, and not the typical chameleon of the times, changing with each new situation, he is one of the few men Hans respects.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 654

Hans, as a clown, immediately evokes several cultural and historical associations. First, he is Pagliacci, the clown who is “laughing on the outside, crying on the inside” as a result of his separation from Marie. Despite his spontaneity and innocence, at the age of twenty-seven he is no longer a romantic youth but a mature adult who has not joined the establishment because of his nature and profession. He is not an acquisitive materialist; he enjoys simple pleasures such as playing Parcheesi, taking long baths, reading newspapers, singing liturgical music, and making love with Marie.

Second, Hans conforms to the archetype of the medieval fool, who, because of his fool’s freedom, is allowed to speak openly; that is, he has official permission to make any statement, regardless of its veracity, as long as it is entertaining. Ironically, these pronouncements frequently represent truth or wisdom. As a clown, Hans shows audiences the comic nature of their everyday routine, the foolishness behind their overly serious drive to succeed and acquire. Hans’s strength of character and single-minded purpose make him a sympathetic individual even though, in his private life, Hans cannot help but alienate those powerful figures whose lives he exposes.

Though Hans is an artist, and the reader learns much about his life-style and preferences, his experiences and convictions, this work is not primarily a Kunstlerroman. Heinrich Böll uses the artist as an outsider, a knowledgeable but distanced observer of German society—most specifically, the influential circles of church and industry—with a strong personal interest in the outcome. Hans is innocent but not naive; he observes and understands the power structure but without any desire to participate. Nevertheless, society cannot tolerate such an individual who, through his art, brings insight into the hypocrisy of everyday life.

Marie is a mysterious figure throughout the novel. She vacillates between her love and devotion to Hans and to the Church. She does not actually appear in the novel, other than through Hans’s recollections and references from other characters. Why she ultimately left Hans to rejoin the Church and marry Zupfner is unclear. Feminist critics have emphasized Hans’s ignorance of her individuality, but this argument is specious: Marie had made many choices of her own free will to reconcile with Hans after their inevitable lovers’ quarrels, and he was the one who encouraged her wavering faith by waking her Sunday mornings to attend Mass. Regardless of her motivation, it is imperative for the novel’s development that Marie, the one person in this outsider’s life, be separated from him. He had hoped to live quietly with Marie on the fringe of society but soon learns that society will not allow him to do so. Now, completely alone, Hans is motivated to “fight for her,” to voice his objections to the hypocrites and conformists who have stunted his development.

Though politicians and members of the military are criticized in passing, the industrial Schnier family and church hierarchy are the main targets ofThe Clown. The Schnier family itself represents a cross section of German society: the sister, Henrietta, is the innocent civilian killed in the futile war effort; the brother, Leo, is the uncertain youth who denies his heritage and converts to Catholicism, studying in the seminary and, thus, denying his worldly existence; the mother is the blind patriot, and materialist who adapts to prevailing social trends without hesitation; the father is the sensitive but responsible industrialist, brave in time of need but ultimately made impotent by his rigid standards of property and propriety. Of the entire family, Hans is the only one who will not, indeed cannot, forget the past.

There are several characters who represent different aspects of the Catholic establishment, including Sommerwild, Fredebeul, Kinkel, and Blothert, for example, though it is difficult to distinguish between them. They represent types more than distinct personalities, since their conformity tends to obliterate any distinguishing traits.


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Hans Schnier is the "Clown" of the novel's title and invariably the spokesperson for Boll as the author. A contradiction of terms, the twenty-seven-year-old Hans is at once worldly and naive, emotional and lethargic, antagonistic and remorseful. Possessing a genuine faith in humanity, Hans is searching for a meaningful existence, yet his quest seems inevitably doomed to failure. Agnostic as well as enigmatic, Hans rejects the organized institutions of society in favor of self-conceptualized isolation. Consequently, although his integrity as an individual is preserved, his personal life and professional reputation are sadly destroyed.

Throughout the novel, Hans remains the primary focus of attention, and apart from a visit by his father, the only character physically introduced to the reader. Of interest, however, either by telephone conversation or recollection, the reader becomes intimately familiar with the major participants in the protagonist's life: family, former friends, professional associates, and personal enemies. Boll is most attentive in the novel to the female characters, illuminating Hans in light of the contrast between the hypocrisy of his mother and the innocence of his sister Henrietta, whose unnecessary death during the war triggered Hans' systematic withdrawal. In addition, the character of Marie is presented as an enticing mixture of human sexuality and sensualness, ultimately corrupted by the conventions of a manipulative and unfeeling society. Without Marie, Hans is aimlessly adrift, consumed with despair, yet unfailing in his love and impenitent in his belief.

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Critical Essays