Elfriede Jelinek Essay - Critical Essays

Jelinek, Elfriede


Elfriede Jelinek 1946-

Austrian novelist, playwright, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Jelinek's career through 2002.

One of Austria's most prolific and political writers, Jelinek is best known for her outspoken feminism and sharp criticism of capitalist patriarchy. Although openly admitting to a feminist agenda, Jelinek is primarily concerned in her writing with the material conditions of the working class in a capitalist society, paying particular attention to its effects on the position of women. Her works typically feature female protagonists who become victims of male-perpetrated abuse, such as domestic violence or sexual exploitation. Heavily influenced by the works of dramatist Bertholt Brecht, Jelinek often uses graphic depictions and crude, deliberately shocking language to lampoon cultural assumptions, conventions, and taboos.

Biographical Information

Jelinek was born on October 20, 1946, in Muerzzuschlag, Steiermark, Austria. Raised in Vienna by her Romanian-German mother and Czech-Jewish father, Jelinek struggled under a rigorous schedule of academic studies and musical training. She was enrolled concurrently in a local parochial school and the Viennese Conservatory of Music, where she studied piano, organ, viola, and composition. While she was in secondary school, her father became mentally ill and was placed in a mental institution. Following her graduation, with distinction, from the Albertsgymnasium in 1964, Jelinek also suffered an emotional breakdown. During the two years following her collapse, Jelinek became interested in writing. She continued to write while studying art history and drama at the University of Vienna, and while completing her study of the organ at the conservatory. In 1966 Jelinek received her first critical recognition and encouragement for her writing after submitting some of her poetry to the Austrian Society for Literature. In 1969 she received prizes for both poetry and prose at the Twentieth Austrian Festival of Youth and Culture in Innsbruck. After the publication of her first two novels—Lisas Schatten: 7 Gedichte (1967) and Wir sind lockvögel baby! (1970; Wonderful, Wonderful Times)—Jelinek was commissioned to write several radio plays, receiving the Radio Play Award of the West German War Blind in 1973. She moved to Berlin in 1972 and later lived for extended periods in Rome and Paris. Her involvement with the student and feminist movements as well as her affiliation with the Marxist Party led to Jelinek's public break with bourgeois values, a process she chronicled in a series of essays published between 1970 and 1971. In 1974 she married Gottfried Huengsberg. Jelinek has received several awards for her work, including the Interior Ministry of West Germany award for best screenplay in 1979, the Heinrich-Böll award in 1986, and the Honorary Award for Literature of Vienna in 1989.

Major Works

Although most of Jelinek's novels are set in a fictitious rural Austrian village, her books typically are not concerned with regional characters or issues. Instead, Jelinek's narratives use a variety of verbal images borrowed from the media, television, and comic strips to deconstruct societal myths of family, love, self-determination, and free will. In Die Liebhaberinnen (1975; Women as Lovers) two young Austrian girls, Brigitte and Paula, struggle to find personal and financial independence. While both aspire to find true love, Brigitte settles for a financially stable marriage with an electrician. Paula, however, refuses to compromise her lifestyle and begins to work at a local factory. She later marries an alcoholic who beats her and her children. Die Klavierspielerin (1983; The Piano Teacher) chronicles the story of Erika Kohut, a shy, thirty-year-old piano instructor at the Vienna Conservatory of Music. When a young student named Walter Klemmer shows an interest in her, Erika begins to rebel against her domineering mother, indulging in voyeurism and a sadomasochistic sexual relationship with Klemmer. When her emotional and physical demands become too extreme, Klemmer attacks Erika and leaves. In Lust (1989) Jelinek portrays the impossibility of female desire through the wife of a factory owner who is treated as property by her husband.

Jelinek's plays address many of the same themes as her novels, focusing heavily on the injustices in capitalist societies and the marginalization of women. Her play Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren mann verlassen hatte oder Stutzen der Gesellschaften (1979; What Happened after Nora Left Her Husband or the Pillars of Society) was written as a sequel to Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, using Ibsen's protagonist, Nora, to show how a small capitalist elite is able to control political and economic institutions and, through them, the destinies of the many. In Jelinek's play Nora frees herself from her upper-class role as a wife and mother to become a factory worker. Clara S.: Musikalische Tragödie (1982; Clara S.: A Musical Tragedy) portrays a fictional meeting in 1929 between nineteenth-century German composer Clara Schumann and Gabriele D'Annunzio, a late nineteenth/early twentieth-century Italian author and political leader. Jelinek attracted public controversy with her play Burgtheater (1985), which depicted a selection of sordid scenes from private lives of well-known actors at the Burgtheater, Austria's national theater. Jelinek reveals the actors as shallow, petty tyrants and makes allegations about the theater's past collaboration with the Nazi regime. Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen (1987; Illness or Modern Women) is a graphic farce about gender relations that follows a woman named Emily and her friend Carmilla and their two husbands. Carmilla dies during childbirth, but is then turned into a vampire by Emily. Jelinek contrasts Emily and Carmilla's vampirism—a condition that leaves them neither dead nor alive—with the exaggerated vitality of Carmilla's husband, Dr. Benno Hundekoffer. Jelinek has also authored a number of radio plays, including Untergang eines tauchers (1973; Demise of a Diver), Die Bienenkönige (1976; The King Bees), and Erziehung eines Vampirs (1986; Bringing up a Vampire).

Critical Reception

Jelinek's unique narrative style has been the subject of much critical attention. Feminist critics have praised her examinations of the exploitation of women in patriarchal societies and her commitment to exposing the violence perpetrated against women. Nevertheless, some female scholars have argued that Jelinek's plays and novels work against feminist causes because of their brutal depictions of female sexuality, masochism, and self-mutilation. Several male critics have concurred with this assessment, citing the cold and overly analytical nature of Jelinek's prose. Such criticism has caused the Austrian media to frequently refer to Jelinek as the nation's “best-hated author.” Commentators have also debated Jelinek's use of Marxist theory in her writing, noting the firm sense of class-consciousness in Die Liebhaberinnen and other works. Lust has attracted a great deal of critical controversy, with many reviewers arguing that the novel is a work of pornography. Still, Jelinek has been consistently praised throughout her career for her skill with satire and political commentary, earning comparisons to such authors as Johann Nestroy, Karl Kraus, and Elias Canetti.

Principal Works

Lisas Schatten: 7 Gedichte (novel) 1967

*Wir sind lockvögel baby! [Wonderful, Wonderful Times] (novel) 1970

Michael: Ein jugendbuch für die infantilgesellschaft [Michael: A Children's Book for the Infantile Society] (novel) 1972

Wenn die Sonne sinkt ist für manche auch noch büroschluss! [For Some, the Setting Sun Means the End of a Working Day] (radio play) 1972

Untergang eines tauchers [Demise of a Diver] (radio play) 1973

Kasperl und die dicke Prinzessin oder Kasperl und die dünnen bauern [Kasperl and the Chubby Princess or Kasperl and the Skinny Peasants] (radio play) 1974

Die Liebhaberinnen [Women as Lovers] (novel) 1975

Die Bienenkönige [The King Bees] (radio play) 1976

Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren mann verlassen hatte oder Stutzen der Gesellschaften [What Happened after Nora Left Her Husband or the Pillars of Society] (play) 1979

Die Ausgesperrten (novel) 1980

Clara S.: Musikalische Tragödie [Clara S. A Musical Tragedy] (play) 1982

Die Klavierspielerin [The Piano Teacher] (novel) 1983

Theaterstücke (plays) 1984

Burgtheater (play) 1985

Oh Wildnis, oh Schutz vor ihr (novel) 1985

Erziehung eines Vampirs [Bringing up a Vampire] (radio play) 1986

Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen [Illness or Modern Women] (play) 1987

Lust (novel) 1989

§Malina (screenplay) 1990

Wolken.Heim (play) 1990

Totenauberg (play) 1991

Die Kinder der Toten [The Children of the Dead] (novel) 1995

Ein Sportstück (play) 1998

Macht Nichts: Eine Kleine Trilogie des Todes (play) 1999

Gier: Ein Unterhaltungroman Elfriede Jelinek (novel) 2000

Das Lebewohl: 3 kl. Dramen (plays) 2000

#In den Alpen: Drei Dramen (plays) 2002

*This work has also been translated as We're Decoys, Baby!

†This work has also been translated as The Piano Player.

‡Includes Clara S.: Musikalische Tragödie, Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren mann verlassen hatte oder Stutzen der Gesellschaften, and Burgtheater.

§The screenplay was based on the novel by Ingeborg Bachmann.

∥Includes Das Lebewohl, Das Schweigen, and Der Tod und das Mädchen Il.

#Includes In den Alpen, Der Tod und das Mädchen III/Rosamunde, and Das Werk.


Michael Hulse (review date 21-27 July 1989)

SOURCE: Hulse, Michael. “Brute Encounters.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4503 (21-27 July 1989): 802.

[In the following review, Hulse discusses the satiric elements and disturbing subject matter of Lust.]

The main characters in Elfriede Jelinek's new novel Lust are the managing director of an Austrian paper-mill and his much-abused wife Gerti. The man is referred to as “der Direktor”, much as one might refer to “der Führer”; his attitude to women matches that expressed in Hitler's table talk. Hermann is Schiller's “Ewig-Gestrige” with a vengeance, a man whose life is spent in the pursuit of power.

His exploitation of Gerti's...

(The entire section is 621 words.)

Carole Morin (review date 28 July 1989)

SOURCE: Morin, Carole. “Dreamed of Depths.” New Statesman and Society 2, no. 60 (28 July 1989): 33-4.

[In the following review, Morin praises The Piano Teacher as a “dramatic” and “seriously comic” work of fiction.]

Good books, like haircuts, should fill you with awe, change your life, or make you long for another. Elfriede Jelinek's The Piano Teacher manages to fulfil at least two of these demands in a reckless recital that is difficult to read and difficult to stop reading. The racy, relentless, consuming style is a metaphor for passion: impossible to ignore.

Of course, thwarted passion and unrequited love have been themes...

(The entire section is 599 words.)

Dagmar C. G. Lorenz (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Lorenz, Dagmar C. G. “Elfriede Jelinek's Political Feminism: Die Ausgesperrten.Modern Austrian Literature 23, nos. 3-4 (1990): 111-19.

[In the following essay, Lorenz explores Jelinek's attitudes toward feminism and the role of women in Die Ausgesperrten.]

While Elfriede Jelinek addresses women's issues she rejects the epithet “Feminist.” Her works focus on sexual politics, the socioeconomic plight of women to which she subordinates the theme of the female body and sexuality.1 Jelinek's literary tool, satire, is an oddity in the post-Holocaust literary scene in Austria and Germany, according to Jelinek, “weil die Juden nicht mehr...

(The entire section is 3048 words.)

Carole Morin (review date 31 August 1990)

SOURCE: Morin, Carole. “Triumph of the Will.” New Statesman and Society 3, no. 116 (31 August 1990): 38.

[In the following review, Morin offers a mixed assessment of Wonderful, Wonderful Times, calling the novel “a flawed triumph.”]

My husband gave up guilt for Lent. He says guilt, like masochism, can be a subtle pleasure. And S&M is now in fashion the way bisexuality was in the early eighties.

Elfriede Jelinek wrote Wonderful, Wonderful Times before she perfected her unique voice, which combines the immediacy of the first person and the detachment of the third, in the brilliant Piano Teacher. Her publisher is not...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

Angela McRobbie (review date 2 November 1990)

SOURCE: McRobbie, Angela. “A Universe of Pain.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4570 (2 November 1990): 1183.

[In the following review, McRobbie examines the depraved and bleak world portrayed in Wonderful, Wonderful Times.]

Elfriede Jelinek's Vienna is a city of sexual squalor. Its post-war population—men, women and children—is taking revenge on its once noble or dignified past. These people bear no resemblance to the voluptuous, sexually satisfied creatures of Klimt's paintings. Nor are they the sexually curious but refined patients who filled Freud's consulting-room. Jelinek's men and women inhabit a universe of pain for which there is no “talking cure”....

(The entire section is 863 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 16 December 1990)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “A Cuckoo Clockwork Orange.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 December 1990): 3

[In the following review, Eder notes the “black irony and jarring distortion” in Wonderful, Wonderful Times, comparing Jelinek to Austrian author Thomas Bernhard.]

Since Wonderful, Wonderful Times is set in the 1950s gloom of postwar Vienna; since everyone in it is crass, corrupt or distorted; and since it ends in a horrible blood bath, the title could justifiably be taken as gallows humor of the crudest kind.

It is, in fact. Jelinek's characters, and the voice she uses to tell of them, are fashioned with black irony and...

(The entire section is 1153 words.)

Tobe Levin (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Levin, Tobe. “Jelinek's Radical Radio: Deconstructing the Woman in Context.” Women's Studies International Forum 14, nos. 1-2 (1991): 85-97.

[In the following essay, Levin examines the gender and feminist themes explored in a selection of Jelinek's radio plays.]

Australian expert in bioethics, Paul Gerber, commenting on the possibility of using braindead women as incubators for implanted fertilized eggs and as storage for donor organs, stated that this development would not only be ethically sound but in fact “progressive” and “a great” idea. The professor from the University of Queensland made his views known at a recent...

(The entire section is 7935 words.)

Charlotte Innes (review date 18 March 1991)

SOURCE: Innes, Charlotte. “Death in Vienna.” Nation 252, no. 10 (18 March 1991): 346-48.

[In the following review, Innes compliments Jelinek's exploration of fascism in Wonderful, Wonderful Times, noting that the novel is “a comedy of the absurd.”]

In the summer of 1962, I spent a vacation in Austria with my family. One night, in a small village on the Danube, my father went to a Bierkeller with some friendly locals, who before long were singing Nazi songs and reminiscing about the good old days. I was only 11 years old, but I remember that it really spooked my father, who was not just an English tourist who spoke good German (and whom they oddly assumed...

(The entire section is 1221 words.)

Barbara Kosta (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Kosta, Barbara. “Inscribing Erika: Mother-Daughter Bond/age in Elfriede Jelinek's Die Klavierspielerin.Monatshefte 86, no. 2 (1994): 218-34.

[In the following essay, Kosta analyzes the mother-daughter relationship in Die Klavierspielerin.]

Before they were mothers Leto and Niobe had been the most devoted of friends.


While the Oedipal battles that have informed much of Western literature continue to rage on, the figure of the mother, traditionally less visible, slowly begins to take her place among the dramas of identity. Only recently has the mother become a...

(The entire section is 7582 words.)

Elfriede Jelinek and Gitta Honegger (interview date spring-summer 1994)

SOURCE: Jelinek, Elfriede, and Gitta Honegger. “The German Language: An Interview with Elfriede Jelinek.” Theater 25, no. 1 (spring-summer 1994): 14-22.

[In the following interview, Jelinek discusses the influence of philosopher Martin Heidegger on her work, her role as an artist, and writing within the Austrian literary tradition.]

On a home movie screen a middle-aged woman carrying a suitcase wanders along a mountain path. Hannah Arendt is returning, after the war, to visit Heidegger in Todtnauberg, his beloved Black Forest country retreat. For her play's title, Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek extracts the root words hidden in the village's name. It only...

(The entire section is 5563 words.)

Susan L. Cocalis (review date autumn 1996)

SOURCE: Cocalis, Susan L. Review of Die Kinder der Toten, by Elfriede Jelinek. World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 946-47.

[In the following review of Die Kinder der Toten, Cocalis argues that Jelinek's prose style and subject material are enjoyable in “small doses,” but are too excessive and overwhelming in novel form.]

While reading Elfriede Jelinek's latest novel Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead), one cannot help thinking that Ingeborg Bachmann is not the only postwar Austrian woman writer who was obsessed with death and ways of dying (Todesarten). In the tradition of Bachmann's prose works, Jelinek...

(The entire section is 695 words.)

Brigid Haines (essay date July 1997)

SOURCE: Haines, Brigid. “Beyond Patriarchy: Marxism, Feminism, and Elfriede Jelinek's Die Liebhaberinnen.Modern Language Review 92, no. 3 (July 1997): 643-55.

[In the following essay, Haines utilizes the theories of feminist theorist Luce Irigaray to delineate the relationship between Marxist and feminist thought in Die Liebhaberinnen.]

Despite their common roots in enlightenment discourses of liberation, Marxism and feminism have always regarded each other with a degree of friendly exasperation. The central problem of Marxism from a feminist point of view is its failure to theorize adequately either subjectivity or gender. In addition, though Marxism...

(The entire section is 7670 words.)

Christine Kiebuzinska (essay date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Kiebuzinska, Christine. “Elfriede Jelinek's Nora Project: Or What Happens When Nora Meets the Capitalists.” Modern Drama 41, no. 1 (spring 1998): 134-45.

[In the following essay, Kiebuzinska discusses how Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hatte oder Stützen der Gesellschaften functions as both a deconstruction and re-appropriation of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House.]

The distinguishing feature of the creative output of the contemporary Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek is the unmasking of the illusion perpetuated by misreadings of canonical texts. In her play Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hatte oder Stützen der...

(The entire section is 5643 words.)

Gregory H. Wolf (review date autumn 1998)

SOURCE: Wolf, Gregory H. Review of Ein Sportstück, by Elfriede Jelinek. World Literature Today 72, no. 4 (autumn 1998): 823-24.

[In the following review, Wolf praises the lack of plot-driven action in Ein Sportstück, contending that the long passages of dialogue and monologue “allow Jelinek to diagnose and criticize directly society's ills.”]

Ein Sportstück, the latest drama from the controversial Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, is a brutally graphic condemnation of contemporary society's obsession with sports, the athletes who compete, the narcissistic attitude bred by athletics, and the language used to describe competition and victory....

(The entire section is 674 words.)

Rebecca S. Thomas (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Thomas, Rebecca S. “Subjectivity in Elfriede Jelinek's Clara S.: Resisting the Vanishing Point.” Modern Austrian Literature 32, no. 1 (1999): 141-58.

[In the following essay, Thomas explores the theme of female subjectivity in Clara S., contending that “Clara's usurpation of power and will separates this drama from Jelinek's other works.”]

“Nur die Frau gibt es nicht und darf es nicht geben.”1 This dictum reflects Elfriede Jelinek's view that women are impossible as subjects in what she frames as a fascist, patriarchal, postwar, capitalist society. Work, love, marriage, motherhood, and art, all western institutions in which...

(The entire section is 6991 words.)

Erika Swales (essay date April 2000)

SOURCE: Swales, Erika. “Pathography as Metaphor: Elfriede Jelinek's Die Klavierspielerin.Modern Language Review 95, no. 2 (April 2000): 437-49.

[In the following essay, Swales delineates the effects of Jelinek's “fierce pathography” through a close reading of Die Klavierspielerin, contending that her stridency generates “a sense of tensions that invite the reader to be not reductive but reflective.”]

Whatever kind of reputation Elfriede Jelinek may have, it is not that of a subtle, thoughtful author. Indeed, for many readers and critics, the stridency of her writing is the most defining characteristic, a stridency that has been variously...

(The entire section is 7170 words.)

Gregory H. Wolf (review date spring 2001)

SOURCE: Wolf, Gregory H. Review of Das Lebewohl: 3 kl. Dramen, by Elfriede Jelinek. World Literature Today 75, no. 2 (spring 2001): 369.

[In the following review of Das Lebewohl: 3 kl. Dramen, Wolf compliments the social commentary in Jelinek's three dramas, but notes that without a firm understanding of Austrian politics, “one will not catch their poignant political critique.”]

Elfriede Jelinek's latest work, Das Lebewohl, a collection of three short dramas, problematizes the serious political developments and situation in Austria since Jörg Haíder's ascension to a position of prominence in national, indeed European politics. The phenomenon...

(The entire section is 787 words.)

Eva Ludwiga Szalay (essay date summer 2001)

SOURCE: Szalay, Eva Ludwiga. “Of Gender and the Gaze: Constructing the Disease(d) in Elfriede Jelinek's Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen.German Quarterly 74, no. 3 (summer 2001): 237-58.

[In the following essay, Szalay investigates the influence of the theories of French philosopher Michel Foucault on Jelinek's Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen.]

Weiβt du, einer sagt, die Geschichte beruhe in letzter Instanz auf dem Körper des Menschen.1

In staging what might be called the symbolically or metaphorically diseased condition of modern women, Elfriede Jelinek's Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen sets...

(The entire section is 12882 words.)

Stephan Atzert (review date winter 2002)

SOURCE: Atzert, Stephan. Review of Gier: Ein Unterhaltungroman Elfriede Jelinek, by Elfriede Jelinek. World Literature Today 76, no. 1 (winter 2002): 184.

[In the following positive review of Gier, Atzert calls Jelinek “one of the few established and interesting authors in the German-writing world.”]

In nine numbered but untitled sections [in Gier], Elfriede Jelinek tells a story of violence, set in rural Austria. The police officer Kurt Janisch is interested in women and houses. His wife watches TV serials in their home, while the elderly original owner slowly disintegrates psychologically, uncared for in her upstairs flat. By means of...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Further Reading


Jelinek, Elfriede, and Index on Censorship. “Viennese Whirl.” Index on Censorship 29, no. 5 (September-October 2000): 170-74.

Jelinek discusses Austrian right-wing political activist Jörg Haider's Freedom Party, her dramatic works, and issues surrounding tourism in Austria.

Olson, Steven E. Review of The Piano Teacher, by Elfriede Jelinek. Antioch Review 48, no. 2 (spring 1990): 258.

Olson offers a generally positive assessment of The Piano Teacher.

Rocamora, Carol. “The Germans Call It ‘Vergangenheitsbewaltigung.’” New York Times (13 May 2001): AR10....

(The entire section is 118 words.)