Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, the last work by Thomas Mann and the only one that can be categorized as humorous, is a twentieth century version of the classic picaresque novel. The picaresque approach, in which social criticism is made more palatable by a liberal application of humor, reveals the discrepancy between what people are and what they think they are. Yet because the picaresque approach aims at vice, not at the person who has it, the protagonist or picaro becomes a hero—or, to be more precise, an antihero. Appropriately, picaresque fiction is often categorized as black humor; the picaro is earthbound and filled with angst and with an existential, if comically portrayed, anguish. He is the perpetual outsider gazing into the light but forever condemned to the dark side of reality; he epitomizes the individual who is a member of society but is alienated from and isolated by it. The picaro is forced to survive by whatever means he finds available, most commonly chicanery and illusion. Thus, he projects a respectable illusion onto a receptive world, already enmeshed in delusion. Readers of picaresque fiction must be constantly aware that the presentation is subjective, the perception superficial and the point of view (generally first person) dominated by illusion, disguise, and literal and figurative masks.
Pretense, role-playing, mask-wearing, and disguise are thus traditional elements in the picaresque novel; however, in Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, Mann takes the pretense one step further, for in this work the mask eventually replaces the man. Felix Krull is a chameleon, constantly altering his color to fit his environment. He hides behind multiple personae until “the real I, could not be identified because it actually did not exist.” Felix personifies the twentieth century picaro—a hero one step beyond rebellion with no viable religion or creed, a lost soul who is floating on an island of his own imagination. It is ironic that, for perhaps the first time in the picaresque genre, the reader is allowed to penetrate the inner dimensions...
(The entire section is 862 words.)