Characters Discussed

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Richard Schroubek

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Richard Schroubek (SHREW-behk), a thirty-one-year-old bookseller by trade, recently abandoned by his girlfriend, Hannah Beyl. For Richard, who calls separation the most terrifying and shattering of all types of personal catastrophe, Hannah’s departure means the destruction of all prior connection to and identification with society. Without actually quitting or calling in sick, he simply stops working and sells an inherited Max Beckmann etching as a means of financially supporting his state of misery. He establishes a postal checking account, forgoing interest for the sake of solitude (he can withdraw money through the mail), and retreats to his apartment. Richard’s isolation is interrupted initially only by Frau N., the cleaning woman, and then by Fritz, another man rejected by Hannah. Gradually, the protagonist develops bad habits such as not bathing, not changing clothes regularly, and not cleaning. The general dirtiness and disorderliness of the apartment are greatly intensified by the mishaps to which the protagonist becomes prone.

Hannah Beyl

Hannah Beyl (bil), the twenty-five-year-old girlfriend who suddenly and without explanation abandons Richard. Later, she spends three days with Fritz, only to leave him just as suddenly. Twice, Hannah seemingly attempts to re-establish contact with Richard. It is obvious from her appearance at an eventual meeting with Richard that she has suffered since leaving him. Her eyes are red and her face ashen; she has lost weight; she is drunk, dirty, and unkempt; and she seems to be involved in some questionable financial dealings. Hannah remains indifferent and unresponsive toward Richard, unwilling to engage herself in the dialogue he so desperately desires.

Fritz

Fritz, a school porter. Fat, in his mid-twenties, and very nervous, Fritz enjoyed a brief affair with Hannah. Apparently deeply disturbed by her sudden disappearance, Fritz pushes his way into Richard’s apartment and attempts to enter her study; however, Richard, who regards Fritz’s misery and suffering as superficial in comparison to his own, blockades himself in Hannah’s former room. He leaves when Hannah calls to arrange a meeting; she calls back later to cancel, but Richard already has left and Fritz answers the phone. Fritz arranges to meet Hannah and is still in her company just prior to Richard’s arrival.

Frau N.

Frau N., the house cleaner. The same age as and originally hired by Hannah, Frau N. stops coming to clean the apartment when Richard can no longer pay her. Richard misses her normality, her loquaciousness, and her constant references to Hannah.

The Characters

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When he wrote Devotion, Botho Strauss was, like his protagonist Richard Schroubek, thirty-one years old, a resident of West Berlin, and an apolitical recluse and introspective survivor of the German student movement of the late 1960’s. Despite these similarities and Schroubek’s Strauss-like observations on Berliners and contemporary West German cultural stagnation, Strauss distances himself from his character by making him comically grotesque. The deeper Richard works himself into his self-imposed isolation and verbal narcissism, the more ridiculous he becomes. As he tries to cover up with a bohemian existence the emotional and social emptiness of his life, his despair becomes a pose, his increasing slovenliness a facade. He is aware of his own comic posturing as “Richard-without-life” and adds that “the comedy is only a protective ether that keeps the pain fresh.”

Richard’s greatest fear is of his own normality, the fact that he might be just like every other jilted lover, “lethargic, dim-witted, constipated,” as Fritz tells him. Although Richard misses the cleaning lady after her dismissal, she, twenty-five and happily married, epitomizes for him the kind of person he does not want to be, a self-satisfied, comfortable, unenlightened member of the consumer society. He, on the other hand, claims to long for poverty, solitude, shabby physical surroundings, and an erotic sensitivity to phenomena. Yet his growing addiction to television and his rapid return to normality after his brief encounter with Hannah unmask his own basic shallowness.

Lacking political and social energy, Richard has no creative outlet outside his writing. Yet his own attempts to intensify experience pale beside the great works of literature. When he reads Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, he finds that the novel’s characters live “on a higher plateau of sensibility” that has no correspondence to the “low-calorie emotional diet” of contemporary daily life. Without a sympathetic and faithful listener or reader (such as his idealized Hannah), Richard’s utterances threaten to deteriorate into inarticulate gurglings, like those of the Dante’s accidiosi, the melancholy and apathetic slime dwellers of the Inferno. Nevertheless, compared to the “dull tumult of images” emerging from the television, writing, “the great intensifier, the tracing,...the lasting spoor of language,” is the sole activity that makes him feel alive.

When Richard finally meets Hannah again, he hardly recognizes her. She is in some ways a mirror image of his own appearance: “[B]oth were dirty and had lost weight, were in rags, and unprepossessing to the point of being unrecognizable.” The narrator dryly calls them two “social casualties of love.” Although very little is revealed about Hannah, her love is likely not for Richard and perhaps not even for the unattractive school porter Fritz, who was with her at the bar. While Devotion invites comparison to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1779), Richard is at best an emaciated Werther, and Hannah, rather than being the subject of Richard’s adoration and praise, as was Werther’s beloved Charlotte, is the object of his self-indulgent fantasies. Richard’s solipsistic world thus remains virtually intact once he returns to his apartment after retrieving his manuscript. Without the hope of ever reaching his lover through his writing, he seems condemned to a lifeless existence in front of his television set.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 16, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 57

Adelson, Leslie. Botho Strauss and West German Prose of the 1970’s, 1983.

Adelson, Leslie. “Subjectivity Reconsidered: Botho Strauss and Contemporary West German Prose,” in New German Critique. XXX (Fall, 1983), pp. 3-59.

Dickstein, Lore. Review in Saturday Review. VI (July 21, 1979), p. 50.

Judd, Inge. Review in Library Journal. CIV (July, 1979), p. 1487.

Shrimpton, Nicholas. Review in New Statesman. XCIX (February 29, 1980), p. 325.

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