Nine years after writing The Clown, a work that exemplifies the themes and methods employed in his other novels, Heinrich Böll received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Böll was a post-World War II German writer from a Catholic, pacifist family, a writer who fought in the war and was wounded four times before being captured and taken to an American prisoner-of-war camp, so his life and fiction encapsulate the religious, moral, and political dilemmas of post-World War II Germany. The Clown is the personal narrative of a single person, one individual, Hans Schnier, who is the clown of the title. In focusing on the character’s idiosyncratic view of the world and in particular on his love for Marie, the novel explores the problems of all humans in twentieth century societies.
On a political level, the book recounts Hans’s involvement with a Nazi youth group; his sister’s death for the Nazi cause; his mother’s anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi views; his own condemnation by another youth as a “defeatist”; and his father’s tacit support of the Nazis. The focus of Böll’s satire is on those hypocrites who blindly supported fascism as well as on those who impetuously shifted their allegiance after the war. Hans’s mother, for example, an ardent Nazi supporter before 1945, afterward becomes the president of a society for the reconciliation of racial differences. Böll accurately depicts and attacks the erstwhile Nazis who attained positions of power in Germany during the 1960’s, but on a more universal level the author satirizes all humans who heedlessly pledge allegiance to any political cause.
The Clown also explores a religious schism in German society. Hans is from a Protestant family, but Marie is an ardent Catholic and belongs to an influential and powerful Catholic group. The clown’s brother abandons his family’s Protestant religion and trains to be a Catholic priest in a seminary, a decision that hurts his parents. On one level, Böll examines the split between German Protestants and Catholics, but on another level he looks at a more universal question that parallels the political dilemma: To what extent should an individual blindly accept the doctrine of a religion? Marie accepts the teachings of her group and leaves the clown. Leo abandons his parents’ faith to join the Catholic Church, but his decision appears no more thoughtful than had been his decision to enlist in the army. The religious and political themes ultimately reinforce the novel’s discussion of marriage.
Who has the right to sanction a marriage? Hans learns that the state must issue a license before a church will perform the marriage. In his case, he would have had to sign a document swearing that he would raise his children in the Catholic Church. In opposition to these conventional, institutional definitions of marriage, the clown, Hans, advocates a monogamous, common-law definition that allows him to claim Marie as his wife. The issue of marriage moves the political and religious themes to a very personal level, forcing the reader to consider whether marriage is a private, personal commitment between two individuals or a public, religious matter.
These questions of politics, religion, and marriage are presented ironically through the eyes of Hans, whose interior monologue conveys his anger, suffering, headaches, depression, and grief. The reader can identify with him because in his suffering he exposes the failings of others, even though his persona as an alcoholic clown can elicit little empathy or compassion. His role as a clown symbolizes his inability to commit and to take life seriously, but despite his faults the clown represents the individual who locates morality and responsibility within himself and fears those who abdicate their responsibility to society at large. Through Hans, Böll explores the harm done by those who dogmatically accept the beliefs of political parties or organized religions. The Clown ultimately exhorts individuals to contemplate their relationship with authority and other human beings.