Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 476

This work could be categorized as the first telephone novel in literary history. With the exception of his father’s visit and a brief encounter in the hall with a neighbor’s wife, Hans’s contact with the outside world is maintained exclusively by means of this modern instrument. While Böll is able...

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This work could be categorized as the first telephone novel in literary history. With the exception of his father’s visit and a brief encounter in the hall with a neighbor’s wife, Hans’s contact with the outside world is maintained exclusively by means of this modern instrument. While Böll is able to create telephone dialogues as effective as traditional dramatic discourse, such conversations serve primarily as stimuli; they trigger Hans’s memory, and the recollections, in turn, constitute the bulk of the novel. The various conversations also lend credibility to the predominantly subjective narrative stance from which Hans Schnier tells his own story; his monologues and memories could be seen as the mistaken ramblings of a paranoid young man were it not for corroborative statements made in these telephone conversations.

A recurring theme in Böll’s works concerns the reactions of contemporary society to its guilt-ridden past of Fascism and war. Since society has repressed its historical past in favor of reconstruction and restoration, there is no one but this obscure clown to provide a social conscience. His commentary—indeed, his presence—is unwelcome, as it exposes hypocrisy in the highest circles. For Böll, the one institution which most dramatically exemplifies con-temporary hypocrisy is the Catholic Church; since Böll has chosen Bonn as the site for this work, the Church there should be seen as representative of all West Germany. The primary aspect of the novel which calls the Church’s hierarchy into question revolves around the timeless sanctity of marriage: Is marriage derived from a spiritual or a legal base? Is the Church’s blessing vital to its existence? Finally, is marriage even possible in a corrupt society? These are questions that arise when Hans argues that his unlegitimized relationship with Marie was “moral,” and that her present marriage (though legal in the eyes of the Church) is prostitution.

Böll intended such bold distinctions to provoke a thoughtful response to present practices within a church which has long prized its historical and theological mission of mercy and salvation. In Böll’s works, the Church as an institution has aligned itself with the existing power structure to secure its own position within the status quo. Its representatives are no longer shepherds of the flock but personalities whose fashionable intellectual stance has perverted their mission. No church official of significance in the entire novel displays mercy, tolerance, or understanding of Hans’s individual plight. In fact, they seem to be scheming either to incorporate him into the Church or to isolate him completely from society—in either case, to render him harmless. The ultimate antidote to this attitude is offered in the epigraph to the novel, a biblical quotation from Romans 15:21: “To whom he was not spoken of, they shall see; and they that have not heard shall understand.”

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 357

Representative of Boll's literary oeuvre, The Clown incorporates many of the prominent thematic elements considered by Boll to be of fundamental significance in his work: the alienation of the individual by a dehumanizing, materialistic, and often emasculating society; the corruption of Christian ethic and spirituality; the loss of traditional familial and social unity; and the failure of mankind to accept the moral responsibilities of the age. In the novel, Hans Schnier, the son of a wealthy industrialist father and socially-dominated mother, emerges as the unique and endangered protagonist, artistic, temperamental, at times irrational, yet inherently kind and decent. Refusing as a young man to conform to middle-class standards, Hans chose instead to become a clown, surely a personal statement directed toward his family as well as a means to express in his performances the absurdities of existence. Successful in his profession, Hans falls in love with Marie Derkum, seemingly his counterpart in rebellion, who eventually leaves him, rejecting both his lifestyle and his refusal to adopt her religious ideology. Typical of many of Boll's protagonists, Hans represents the individual victimized by the world in which he lives, struggling to survive, yet refusing to compromise his principles for mere survival.

Beginning with the publication of Billiards at Half-Past Nine (1962), Boll initiated a creative process to systematically investigate and analyze the development of German society while intertwining in his fiction the generation which experienced the First World War and the generation which grew up under Hitler. As part of this process, The Clown represents a satirical commentary on contemporary Germany. Compressed within a single evening following a disastrous performance, the novel unfolds with stinging clarity as Hans purges himself of association with society and accentuates his rejection with symbolic protest dressed in clown-white and costume. Although set in the present, The Clown is undoubtedly intended as a reflection of the past, permeated with the unmistakable presence of the war, its futility, its waste and destruction, and its impact on the Schnier family. Similar to the character of Hans, Boll demands and will accept nothing less than unmitigated truth, infinitely aware that its realization could prove to be painfully final.

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