Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man

by Thomas Mann
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 257

Thomas Mann traces the progress of the "confidence man: of the title from his childhood through young adulthood. Felix, born and raised in Germany, begins life in a well-off family. Even as a child, Felix is captivated by acting after attending his first theatrical performance. His father, who makes champagne, unfortunately suffers serious setbacks, ultimately goes bankrupt, and, in despair, kills himself. These disasters prompt his family’s move from the countryside to Frankfurt. Felix is supposed to enter the military, but he fakes his way out of it. Thus released from doing his proper duty, he takes the train to France. En route, he steals a jewel case from another traveler.

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Once in Paris, he starts work in a hotel, where he takes a different name and sells some of the jewels. In a convenient plot twist, he also becomes the lover of the wealthy woman who previously owned the jewels and, when it is revealed that he stole them, does not seem to mind. Felix uses his own name in his evening forays into Paris nightlife. He befriends a young nobleman who wants to stay in Paris with his charming mistress, but his parents want to send him away. Felix strikes a deal to impersonate the marquis and travel in his stead. On a train to Portugal, he meets a natural scientist, who provides the supposed aristocrat with an introduction to his family in Lisbon. While his daughter is initially captivated with Felix, it turns out that it is her mother whom Felix finally seduces.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1162

Felix Krull is born in the Rhine Valley, the son of a champagne maker named Engelbert Krull. Townspeople consider the Krull family upper class but frown on the easygoing way of life in the Krull household; Engelbert, for one thing, shows too much interest in one of his female employees. The Krulls frequently invite friends, among them Felix’s godfather, Herr Schimmelpreester, for merry parties, in which Felix and his sister Olympia are allowed to take part.

The greatest experience of Felix’s youth is a dramatic performance by a famous actor, Müller Rose. Since the actor is a friend of his father, Felix is allowed to visit backstage. When he sees the actor removing his makeup, he is completely disillusioned, but he marvels at the impressions an actor can create. Before long, Felix himself becomes an actor. He starts extending school vacations by falsifying his father’s signature on absentee notes, but he finds even more satisfaction from feigning sickness so convincingly as to leave the family doctor completely persuaded of his illness.

The champagne business unfortunately does not prosper. Englebert’s champagne is bottled exquisitely, but the wine is of such poor quality that even Herr Schimmelpreester speaks of it only with disdain. The loss of his business and, soon thereafter, his friends is too much for Engelbert, who shoots himself. Herr Schimmelpreester recommends that Frau Krull open a rooming house in Frankfurt. He arranges for Olympia to be employed in a light opera company and Felix to be apprenticed in a Paris hotel. When the prospect of military conscription prevents Felix’s departure, he is free to explore city life in Frankfurt, although lack of financial means restricts his role to that of an outside observer. He studies the behavior of society at theaters and learns from window displays what is recommended for gentlemen. With equal interest, he studies the lives of prostitutes. Until now he had only one experience with one of his father’s female employees. He meets Rosza and, while her procurer is in jail, becomes her lover.

If Felix wants to follow Herr Schimmelpreester’s advice to seek employment in Paris, he has two alternatives: to serve his military term or to be excused entirely from service. After careful preparation, he goes to the army medical examination center. While declaring his fervent desire to serve the fatherland, he manages to convey the most unfavorable information about his background, and he crowns his performance with a pretended epileptic fit. Pretending to be heartbroken because of his military rejection, he leaves for Paris. During the confusion at customs inspection, he inadvertently, as he assures himself, slips the jewel case of a woman traveler into his suitcase.

In Paris he finds himself the lowest member of the hotel hierarchy. With the help of a roommate, he sells some of the stolen jewels. As an elevator operator in a luxury hotel, he makes every effort to please his customers, especially the women. The hotel director gives him the name Armand. One of the guests in his elevator turns out to be the original owner of the jewel case, Madame Houpflé, the wife of a rich Strasbourg merchant. When Armand realizes that the woman does not suspect him of the theft, he is very considerate toward her and is rewarded with an invitation to visit her during off-duty hours.

Armand becomes her lover. Madame Houpflé especially enjoys the humiliating aspect of the affair and talks about her need to be humiliated. Armand considers the moment appropriate for confessing the theft of the jewel case. Madame Houpflé enjoys the confession because it increases her abasement, and she suggests that he should rob her of all her valuables. He gladly obliges.

After he sells the valuables, he rents a room in town. A dual life begins: During the day, he is Armand the hotel employee; during the night, he is Felix, man about town. Thanks to his excellent manners, he is soon promoted to the post of waiter. Difficulties, however, arise when the sixteen-year-old daughter of a wealthy family falls hopelessly in love with him, and when the Scottish Lord Strathbogie is determined to have Armand as his valet. Armand says no to all offers; freedom to do as he pleases seems to him the most valuable goal in life.

His favorite customer is the young Marquis de Venosta, who enjoys the witty remarks of the waiter Armand. The nobleman’s mistress, a Parisian dancing girl named Zaza, also approves of him because he does not fail to call her Madame la Marquise. It is de Venosta who finally discovers Armand’s double life when he comes across Felix dining in a famous restaurant.

A great dilemma develops for de Venosta. His parents do not approve of his relationship with Zaza and plan to send him on a trip around the world. Because he finds the thought of parting from Zaza unbearable, the marquis is happy to find in Felix a sympathetic listener. Felix explains that the only way for him to stay with Zaza would be to let someone else assume his identity and travel under his name. Delighted with the idea, de Venosta decides that Felix is the best candidate.

After elaborate preparations and much coaching, Felix receives a letter of credit and takes the train to Lisbon. On the way, he meets Dom Antonio José Kuckuck, director of the Museum of Natural History in Lisbon. Impressed by the high social standing of his fellow traveler, the professor explains the outline of his philosophy. Felix finds in the professor’s theories an explanation of his own being; all developments of natural history seem to him only steps toward himself. The professor’s opinion that all phases of development are still with them and around them give Felix a clue to the stagelike appearance of the world. He gladly accepts an invitation to visit Kuckuck in Lisbon.

When he meets Dona Maria Pia Kuckuck and her daughter Susanna, who is called Zouzou, Felix is struck by the beauty of the two women, who are in turn equally impressed with the handsome “marquis.” Determined to kiss Zouzou before his departure but finding his time in Lisbon running short, Felix writes a letter to “his parents,” presenting his stay in Lisbon in such a favorable light that they agree to the postponement of the scheduled trip to South America. Under the pretext of wanting to show some of his drawings to Zouzou, Felix meets her secretly in Kuckuck’s garden. The incident results in a kiss, which is suddenly interrupted by Dona Maria, who sternly asks “the marquis” to come into the house and reprimands him for abusing her hospitality. Outspoken Dona Maria wants to know why Felix cannot appreciate maturity instead of asking satisfaction from childishness. Dona Maria throws herself into his arms, and he realizes that his attempted seduction of the daughter ends with the unforeseen conquest of the mother.

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