At midday dinner, all the Cornelius family members are introduced, their personalities quickly sketched, and their relations with one another indicated. Told entirely from the point of view of the professor, the story begins as his two older children, Ingrid and Bert, remind him that they are giving a party that evening. Ingrid assures her father that he will not be disturbed. Somewhat disconcerted by the slight disruption of his orderly routine, the professor nevertheless is determined to be affable in his formal, old-fashioned way. It is clear from the beginning of the story that Dr. Cornelius is dismayed and bewildered by the discrepancies between his values and those of his older children, and by their slang, their practical jokes, their frivolous ambitions, their casual manners. It is also clear, however, that there is affection and good humor among them as well, though tolerance seems to come much more easily to the youngsters.
The case is different with regard to the two younger children, five-year-old Ellie (her father’s favorite) and Snapper (four years old and more comfortable with his gentle mother). The professor is able to set aside his natural dignity while he plays with Ellie and Snapper. Today the games are cut short by preparations for the party, so Dr. Cornelius retires to his study, the little ones return to the nursery, and the others go off on various errands. Later, while the professor is resting, the guests begin to arrive.
Slightly nervous, the professor goes down to the dining room and is introduced to several people, including Max Hergesell, who is charming, courteous, and humorous. Ellie and Snapper join the festivities, and Dr. Cornelius, having conversed with several of the guests, returns to his study to work but with his attention distracted by the dancing and singing in the room next door. In due time he goes out for his nightly walk, first pausing for conversation. He observes with a pang how Ellie persists in trying to get Max’s attention while he is dancing with a fat young woman.
As he walks, preoccupied with his professional concerns, Dr. Cornelius also thinks about the need to be just toward the younger generation, especially in these chaotic and desolate times. On his return home, he is called to the nursery, where he finds Snapper asleep but Ellie in tears, suffering because she does not understand her sorrow as her father does. It is for Max that Ellie is weeping, and when he appears to say goodnight, Ellie is transfigured with a joy she also does not understand. The father is grateful to the young man for his kindness but also feels embarrassed and hostile. After Max leaves and Ellie falls asleep, Dr. Cornelius sits by her bed thinking of his angelic daughter and of the games they will play again as Max, he thankfully supposes, will fade into a shadow with no more power to grieve and bewilder her.
‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’’ is a novella that examines the life of Professor Cornelius’s family during one day in post-World War I Germany. The scene opens with a discussion between the members of the family and how they interact. Members of the family are identified by their generation: Ingrid and Bert, both teenagers, are ‘‘the big folk’’; Professor Cornelius and his wife are ‘‘the old folk’’; Ellie and Snapper, the youngest of the Professor’s children, are ‘‘the little folk’’; and Professor Cornelius’s parents, who are only mentioned and have no part in the action of the story, are referred to as ‘‘‘the ancients.’’ Other members of the household include the servants, Xaver, the Nurse, and the Hinterhofer sisters. Several friends of Ingrid and Bert also appear in the story at the party.
The setting for the tale is Munich in the mid- 1920s. It takes place during one day in which Ingrid and Bert...
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