Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 862
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 of a rounded character only to find that, too, is a disguise. Felix sculpts himself and those around him to support his role-playing. From his childhood dress-up and pretend games to feigning epilepsy at his military induction examination, Felix is so adept an actor that he is lost in the impersonations, separated not only from society but also from himself.
Although he is more sophisticated than his fellow picaros and his criminal behavior is the byproduct of chance and not contrivance, Felix demonstrates that survival with style still takes precedence over morality. He moves through initiation fully aware that the person who loves the world shapes himself to please it and that, in turn, he who loves himself shapes the world to suit himself. Despite his dealings in illusion and verbal magic, the character is a realist, knowing well the darkness beyond, of which he is a product. He is also aware that regardless of how thoroughly he may succeed in deceiving his fellows, the darkness still waits, ready to topple him from his temporary pedestal of success and suck him back into obscurity. Felix subsists in a dual struggle with the illusion he creates to survive and the reality that it is an illusion.
Felix, alias Armand, alias the marquis, proposes a theory of interchangeability according to which the sole difference between people is monetary; with a change of clothes, the servant can become the master. This theory becomes the controlling factor in the work and in the protagonist himself, who becomes so adept at it that the real Felix, if there ever was one, disappears and the character becomes no more than a sponge, soaking up each new identity in turn and altering his shape at will.
Through his association with the professor of natural history, Professor Kuckuck, Felix grasps that all humanity is created from raw material much as he has created himself. Mann dedicates long passages of the work to anthropological discussions of the rationalization that if evolution created humans from primeval slime, humans should be able to re-create themselves from whatever material is available. The professor explains evolutionary theory as stages of three spontaneous generations, and it is not inconceivable to relate this hierarchy to the three stages of Felix’s life, which culminate in his rebirth as a marquis.
Given his century’s overpopulation and zealous mass media, the twentieth century picaro, in contrast to the picaro of previous ages, is forced inward into the chaotic world of the unconscious. Mann does not use the character Felix to castigate the potential disintegration of society, for he sees it as already complete. Rather, it becomes Felix’s chore to symbolize the disintegration of the individual.
Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, Mann’s last work, remained uncompleted at his death. Although readers of picaresque fiction are accustomed to episodic wanderings and the unresolved cessation of action, this novel cries out for additional details to dispel the impression of the unfinished. All the easier, however, is it for the reader able to agree with Mann that “life is an episode, on the scale of aeons, a very fleeting one.”
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