Franz Grillparzer Grillparzer, Franz (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Franz Grillparzer 1791–-1872

Austrian dramatist, novella writer, poet, and critic.

Grillparzer was a well-known Austrian writer who wrote in an age of transition, between the classical romanticism of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller and the realism of the middle and late nineteenth century. Known primarily as a dramatist, Grillparzer's reputation as a short story writer is based on his novella, Der arme Spielmann. This story is considered a classic Austrian novella and has garnered much critical commentary throughout the ages.

Biographical Information

Born on January 15, 1791, in Vienna, Austria, Grillparzer was raised in a wealthy and privileged family. His father was a lawyer; his mother possessed great musical talent. Like his father, Grillparzer studied law at the University of Vienna. Following his graduation in 1811 he worked as a private tutor for an aristocratic family. In 1814 he became an administrator at the Imperial Archives, and in 1832, he was appointed director. Grillparzer began to write for the stage, and on January 31, 1817, Die Ahnfrau was performed at the Theater an der Wien, launching his prestigious playwriting career. In 1826 he was arrested as a member of the Ludlamshöhle Club, a group of writers and artists suspected of propagating subversive ideas. The charges were dropped. On his retirement from the Imperial Archives in 1856, he was named Hofrat (privy councillor). Furthermore, he was appointed a member of the Upper House by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1861. Grillparzer died on January 21, 1872, at the age of eighty-one. He was so popular at his death that tens of thousands of people participated in his funeral procession.

Major Works

Grillparzer wrote two novellas in his career: the little-known Der Kloster bei Sendomir and the renown Der arme Spielmann, which was written in 1848. As Spielmann opens, the narrator visits a street festival in a Viennese suburb and is intrigued by the horrible fiddling of a seventy-year-old street musician, Jacob. The two men meet, and a few days later Jacob relates his tragic background to the narrator. Raised in a respectable, middle-class home, Jacob was working as an unpaid copy clerk in a government office. One day he heard his neighbor, the grocer's daughter Barbara, sing a popular song, and at that moment, decided to devote his life to music. When Jacob visits Barbara to learn about music, a servant sees the two together and a scandal ensues. Jacob is expelled from his father's house, and the tragedy is compounded when his father dies suddenly. He is befriended by Barbara as well as her father, who hopes for a share of Jacob's inheritance. When Jacob discovers that he has been swindled out of his inheritance by his father's clerk, Barbara's father discourages their deepening relationship. Eventually she marries a butcher. Jacob throws himself into music, becoming an itinerant street musician. After hearing Jacob's story, the narrator loses touch with him, only to find several months later that Jacob died of a fever. The narrator attempts to buy Jacob's violin from Barbara, but she refuses to part with the instrument. As he departs, the narrator sees her silently crying over the loss of her former lover.

Critical Reception

Der arme Spielmann is considered one of the best Austrian works of fiction in the nineteenth century. At the time of its publication, the novella was virtually ignored. In fact, serious critical examination of the work did not begin until 1925, when scholars began to explore the autobiographical aspects of the story. A recurring theme of commentary has been the perception that the narrator and Jacob should be considered as the two sides of Grillparzer: the pragmatic cynic and the idealistic artist. Jacob's problems with women and his inability to communicate his ideas seem to parallel Grillparzer's life. Several critics have attempted to place Der arme Spielmann within the literary and political context of the nineteenth century. Stylistic examinations of the novella focus on the role of the narrator and the effect of the frame story. In addition commentators have discussed the portrayal of Jacob and debated the role of music in the story.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Der arme Spielmann (novella) 1848

Blanka von Kastilien (drama) 1809

Die Ahnfrau [The Ancestress] (drama) 1817

Sappho (drama) 1818

Das goldene Vliess [The Golden Fleece] (drama) 1821

König Ottokars Glück und Ende [King Ottocar: His Rise and Fall] (drama) 1825

Ein treuer Diener seines Herrn [A Faithful Servant of His Master] (drama) 1828

Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen [Hero and Leander] (drama) 1831

Der Traum ein Leben [A Dream Is Life] (drama) 1834

Tristia ex ponto (poetry) 1835

Weh dem, der lügt! [Thou Shalt Not Lie] (drama) 1838

Die Jüdin von Toledo [The Jewess of Toledo] (drama) 1872

Ein Bruderzwist in Habsburg [Family Strife in Habsburg] (drama) 1872

Libussa [Libussa] (drama) 1874

Sämtliche Werke. 42 vols. (drama, novella, poetry, and criticism) 1909-48

Ivar Ivask (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Poor Fiddler, by Franz Grillparzer, translated by Alexander and Elizabeth Henderson, Frederick Ungar, 1967, pp. 5-25.

[In the following essay, Ivask places Der arme Spielmann within the context of nineteenth-century fiction and assesses its impact on Austrian fiction.]

“ … For it is by perfection of form that poetry enters life, external life. True emotion can convey only what lies within. But it is the task of all art to exemplify the inner life by the outer surface.”1

The Poor Fiddler, the story of a failure, is told with genuine sympathy and yet objective detachment. It could well have had as its author one of the great Russian novelists of the last century—Gogol, Dostoevsky, or Turgenev. The first-person narrator characterizes himself as a dramatist and a passionate lover of his fellow men, especially the common people. He also stresses his strong anthropological bent and psychological curiosity. Indeed, he believes that “In truth, no one can understand the lives of the famous unless he has entered into the feelings of the humble. An invisible but continuous thread connects the brawling of drunken market porters with the strife of the sons of gods, and Juliet, Dido or Medea exist in embryo within every young servant girl. … ” This rather astonishing credo of realism comes from a writer who was a contemporary of Goethe, writing at the height of idealism and romanticism in literature. The story was begun in 1831, completed some ten years later, but not published until 1847.

The author, Franz Grillparzer (1791-1872), was born and died in Vienna. His father was a lawyer; his mother possessed great musical talent. Grillparzer studied law at the University of Vienna and was later employed as a civil servant in various positions, finally as director of the State Archives (1832-56). After his mother's suicide in a fit of religious madness, he set out on an Italian journey. A poem, “Die Ruinen von Campo Vaccino” [The Ruins of Campo Vaccino], written on this journey, was received with hostility in court circles. In this poem, Grillparzer expressed sympathy with the fact that ancient Rome had had to yield to Christianity. Because of this, he was suspected of anticlerical sentiments by the ever-suspicious secret police of Metternich's reactionary regime. From that time on, he was beset by difficulties with the censors. In 1821, Grillparzer met Katharian Fröhlich, and a lifelong relationship outside marriage ensued. He traveled in Germany (1826 and 1847), France (1836), and visited Constantinople and Athens (1843). He knew personally many of his great contemporaries such as Goethe, Beethoven, Heine, and Hebbel. When his comedy Weh dem, der lügt [Woe to Him Who Lies], written in 1838, failed at its première, Grillparzer decided to publish no more plays. In 1856, he was retired with the rank of Court Councillor (Hofrat) and in 1861 was made a member of the Herrenhaus (House of Lords). Yet these honors came far too late to assuage Grillparzer's bitter awareness that he was not really at home in his own country: a very Austrian fate.

Grillparzer is considered by most critics to be the greatest Austrian dramatist. This claim is based on his verse plays, in which he tried to fuse elements of the Spanish and Austrian baroque and the Viennese popular theater with the classical drama of Goethe and Schiller. Grillparzer's deepest artistic sympathies were certainly with the colorful and passionate Spanish baroque dramatists, Calderón, Lope de Vega, and Tirso da Molina (many of whose plays he minutely annotated in his diaries); yet his critical mind was almost equally attracted by the rationalism of Enlightenment, which in Austria took the form of “Josephinism.” Grillparzer's dramatic figures are often caught in the tragic dilemma of being compelled to act but hesitating to do so, because all action of necessity results in some guilt. His plays on Greek themes, such as Sappho (1819), or Das goldene Vließ [The Golden Fleece] (1822), are less successful than those that deal with Austrian and Slav history—for example, Ein Bruderzwist in Habsburg [Family Strife in Hapsburg] (1873), perhaps his greatest dramatic achievement. The love story of Hero and Leander has found a poetically sensitive presentation in the play Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen [The Waves of the Sea and of Love] (1831); it reveals the dramatists's Austrian gift for creating psychologically believable, strong women characters. The English critic Ronald Peacock comments perceptively on Grillparzer's dramatic art: “In poetic power, in the creative use of language, he is inferior to the lyric poets of the great periods—Novalis, Hölderlin, George, Rilke; inferior even to a prose rhapsodist like Herder. But in his sense of reality he is unique, if we except the rather special case of Goethe. It may be that his Austrian nationality has something to do with it; for Austria, as the centre of power of the Holy Roman Empire and later the Austro-Hungarian, came nearer to political success than the modern German Reich has ever done.”2 This unique sense of reality stood Grillparzer in good stead when he wrote The Poor Fiddler.

Looking for parallels in German literature, we find a similar early rebellion against the canons of idealism and romanticism in Georg Büchner's story Lenz (written around 1835). “I demand of art,” we read, “that it be life and the possibility that it might exist—nothing else matters; we then have no need to ask whether it is beautiful or ugly. The sense that what has been created has life stands above the other two precepts and is the only criterion in art. … Idealism is the most humiliating of insults to human nature. Let them try just once to immerse themselves in the life of the humble people and then reproduce this again in all its movements, its implications, in its subtle, scarcely discernible play of expression. … ”3

Georg Büchner seemed to have the makings of a German Dostoevsky, but he died prematurely in 1837 at the age of twenty-four, and was duly discovered only much later by the naturalists and expressionists. So-called German “poetic realism,” which dominated German literature from about Büchner's death until the final decades of the past century, had little of his bite and sheer creative energy, even less of his profound social concern. Büchner remained a lonely pioneer without establishing a German “great tradition” of the realistic novel that might be placed alongside the classics of the Russian, French, and English writers of the age. The German novel and novella of the later nineteenth century basically owed more to idealism and a lingering romanticism than to realism in the sense given it by the great European novelists.

Dostoevsky is supposed to have remarked once that “We all came out of Gogol's ‘Overcoat.’” The same could be said in relation to the Austrian novelists after Grillparzer's truly seminal story The Poor Fiddler. More often than not the protagonists of Austrian stories have been variations on the theme first played by the poor fiddler on his cracked violin. A veritable procession of complex-ridden, indecisive anti-heroes, “superfluous men” (well-known to readers of the Russian novel), failures in practical life but pure of heart, people the Austrian novel and stage to this very day. They are usually presented with warm understanding and a psychological insight such that even those works conceived well before Freud may strike one as being positively “Freudian.” To name just a few random examples of this Austrian “great tradition”: the misunderstood, miserly country parson in Adalbert Stifter's story, Kalkstein [Limestone], the first version of which was written in 1848, perhaps in competition with Grillparzer's story (which was hailed by Stifter as a masterpiece); Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach's Dorf-und Schloßgeschichten [Village and Castle Stories] (1883) contains a whole gallery of related types; Ferdinand von Saar's subtle analysis of the make-believe world of Lieutenant Burda (1889); Arthur Schnitzler's Lieutenant Gustl (1900) and his early, effective use of interior monologue to render the inner turmoil of an average fellow caught in an insoluble dilemma that involves his honor or dishonor, life or death; Robert Musil's first novel, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (Young Törless) (1906), about the psychological and physiological confusions of adolescence; Rilke's hypersensitive poet, Malte, the subject of Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge), in Paris, and Albert Ehrenstein's helpless Tubutsch in Vienna (both published in 1910); the host of frustrated and guilt-ridden bachelors in Kafka's stories and novels; Musil's paradoxical Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities) (1931-33); the pathetic Lieutenant Trotta in Joseph Roth's novel, Radetzkymarsch (1932); Heimito von Doderer's widowed civil servant turned voyeur, Julius Zihal, in Die erleuchteten Fenster [The Illuminated Windows], and his Lieutenant Melzer whose separation from reality is gradually overcome in Die Strudlhofstiege [The Strudlhof Stairs], both published in 1951; and, in conclusion, Herbert Eisenreich's long story, Der Urgroßvater [The Great-grandfather] (1964), in which the rather ordinary protagonist becomes so pre-occupied with his origins that he loses touch with reality. More than a century of a fascinatingly and closely interrelated narrative tradition!4

Obviously the Austrian Franz Grillparzer has been more fortunate than his German contemporary Georg Büchner. The Poor Fiddler did become the fountainhead of a rich prose tradition in which the “Insulted and Injured” (to use an apt formula by Dostoevsky), the surprising transformations of the poor fiddler, Jacob, have reappeared again and again. There are many reasons for this occurring in Austrian and not in German literature. The scope of this introduction permits to...

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Otto K. Liedke (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Considerations on the Structure of Grillparzer's Der arme Spielmann,” in Modern Austrian Literature, Vol. 3, No. 3, Fall, 1970, pp. 7-12.

[In the following essay, Liedke compares the structure of Der arme Spielmann to a musical composition.]

Grillparzer's Der arme Spielmann possesses the quality of all deeply poetic works to evoke responses of great variety, each one articulating the essence of the work through new insights into characters, incidents, images and language. Silz1, examining social and psychological realism in Der arme Spielmann, points to the victory of the reality of ideas over the reality of things...

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John M. Ellis (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Grillparzer's ‘Der arme Spielmann,’” in The German Quarterly, Vol. XLV, No. 4, November, 1972, pp. 662-83.

[In the following essay, Ellis investigates the function of the narrator in Der arme Spielmann.]

Grillparzer's story Der arme Spielmann1 has long been regarded as one of his best works,2 and its popularity even seems to be increasing; since 1964 no fewer than ten interpretations of the story have appeared, a remarkable number in such a short period.3 Most interpretations have been concerned almost exclusively with the figure of the Spielmann, so that an evaluation of the story has seemed to be much...

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W. E. Yates (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Artist: Der arme Spielmann, ” in Grillparzer: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 1972, pp. 76-83.

[In the following excerpt, Yates examines the portrayal of Jacob, the protagonist of Der arme Spielmann, and perceives the novella as a confessional work.]

Der arme Spielmann, the last completed work that Grillparzer published in his lifetime, is the only other of his works in which the central character is actually an artist. It is also the only one of his works that is set in the Vienna of his own times. The city as a whole, indeed, is what the text begins with: Vienna in July. From there the focus narrows, first to the...

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Robert M. Browning (essay date 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Language and the Fall from Grace in Grillparzer's Spielmann,” in Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, Vol. XII, No. 4, November, 1976, pp. 215-35.

[In the following essay, Browning explores “a constitutive (but hitherto unnoted) theme of the novella—that of language or the word—and to offer some suggestions as to its possible meaning.”]

Grillparzer's most ‘prosaic’ work is also his most poetic. It is no doubt for this reason that it has found so many exegetes: with great poetry we are never done.1 It is my primary purpose here to point out what seems to me to be a constitutive (but hitherto unnoted) theme of the...

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Martin Swales (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Grillparzer: Der arme Spielmann,” in The German Novelle,” Princeton University Press, 1977, pp. 114-32.

[In the following essay, Swales discusses the importance of narrative perspective in Der arme Spielmann, in particular, the narrator's attitude toward the protagonist, Jacob.]

Franz Grillparzer was born in Vienna on January 15, 1791. He studied law at the university, and from 1813 to 1856 he was employed as a civil servant, finally reaching the post of Archivdirektor. His was not a life rich in spectacular events; there were, admittedly, occasional visits abroad (to Italy, Germany, France, England, Greece), but on the whole,...

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W. C. Reeve (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Proportion and Disproportion in Grillparzer's Der arme Spielmann,” in The Germanic Review, Vol. LIII, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 41-9.

[In the following essay, Reeve examines the theatrical staging and spatial relationships in Der arme Spielmann.]

In his psychologically oriented Franz Grillparzer oder das abgründige Biedermeier, Heinz Politzer noted with reference to the position of the violin and the cross in the final scene of Der arme Spielmann: “Der Abstand, der sich zwischen der Welt des Glaubens und dem Reich der Kunst aufgetan hat, wird im Raum offenbar. Die ganze Breite des Zimmers trennt die eine von dem...

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Peter B. Waldeck (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Franz Grillparzer: ‘Der arme Spielmann’ and Die Jüdin von Toledo,” in The Split Self from Goethe to Broch, Bucknell University Press, 1979, pp. 103-21.

[In the following essay, Waldeck underscores the similar themes of Der arme Spielmann and Grillparzer's play Die Jüdin von Toledo, maintaining that the play “is the public, dramatic counterpart to the more private genre of the short story.”]


The split self has been widely acknowledged in Grillparzer's short story, Der arme Spielmann. The work has also been interpreted in unusual detail, particularly in the analyses of Richard Brinkmann and...

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Ursula Mahlendorf (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Franz Grillparzer's The Poor Fiddler: The Terror of Rejection,” in American Imago, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 118-46.

[In the following essay, Mahlendorf investigates autobiographical elements in Der arme Spielmann, particularly the theme of rejection.]


Grillparzer's story The Poor Fiddler (written from 1831–1842) portrays two artists, Jacob the fiddler, who is a total failure, and the narrator of the story, a dramatist in search of dramatic material, who lives and works in a manner entirely different from the fiddler. Narrator and fiddler are two different aspects of the author's own...

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Ian F. Roe (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Der arme Spielmann’ and the Role of Compromise in Grillparzer's Work,” in The Germanic Review, Vol. LVI, No. 4, Fall, 1981, pp. 134-39.

[In the following essay, Roe likens the character of Jacob with similar protagonists in Grillparzer's mature plays.]

Grillparzer's Der arme Spielmann has in recent years attracted considerable critical attention, and the debate concerning Jakob's negative or positive qualities shows no sign of ending. Nevertheless, as the titles of the two most recent full studies of Grillparzer's work indicate,1 there is still a tendency to treat his one major prose-work in isolation from the dramas or, at best, to...

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James Porter (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Reading Representation in Franz Grillparzer's Der arme Spielmann,” in Deutsche Vierteljahrs Schrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, July 2, 1981, pp. 293-322.

[In the following essay, Porter provides a literal, figurative, and formal reading of Der arme Spielmann, exploring how these readings give different perspectives on and insights into the novella. A corrected reprint of this essay appears in Grillparzer's “Der arme Spielmann”: New Directions in Criticism, edited by Clifford Albrecht Bernd, Camden House, 1988, pp. 177–205.]

Es geht eben mit der Betrachtung von Kunstwerken wie mit der...

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Roger F. Cook (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Relocating the Author: A New Perspective on the Narrator in Der arme Spielmann,” in Grillparzer's Der arme Spielmann: New Directions in Criticism, edited by Clifford Albrecht Bernd, Camden House, 1988, pp. 322-36.

[In the following essay, Cook reassesses the function of the narrator in Der arme Spielmann, arguing that it provides insight into the relationship between author and text.]

Begun in 1831, but not completed until 1842 (published only in 1847), Der arme Spielmann was written during a period of transition for both German literature and the socio-political climate of the German-speaking regions. The development of a more...

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Roy C. Cowen (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The History of a Neglected Masterpiece: Der arme Spielmann,” in Grillparzer's Der arme Spielmann: New Directions in Criticism, edited by Clifford Albrecht Bernd, Camden House, 1988, pp. 9-25.

[In the following essay, Cowen places the critical reaction to Der arme Spielmann within a social, literary, and political context.]

From the time of its first publication in Iris: Deutscher Almanach für 1848 until today, the literary quality of Grillparzer's Der arme Spielmann has scarcely ever been directly questioned and has, in fact, been reaffirmed by some of the most established and influential literary figures from then to...

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Sima Kappeler (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Exchange and Dispossession: Grillparzer's ‘Der arme Spielmann’,” in First Encounters in French and German Prose Fiction: 1830-1883, Peter Lang, 1996, pp. 91-117.

[In the following essay, Kappeler explores stylistic aspects of Der arme Spielmann, in particular the effect of the frame story on the novella.]

Le «sujet», c'est pour nous (depuis le Christianisme?) celui qui souffre: là où il y a blessure, il y a sujet: die Wunde! die Wunde! dit Parsifal, en devenant par là «lui-mème»;

Roland Barthes1

Critical attention to Franz Grillparzer's narrative Der arme...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Thompson, Bruce. Franz Grillparzer. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981, 165 p.

Critical biography.

Yates, Douglas. Franz Grillparzer: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Basil, Blackwell & Mott, 1946, 188 p.

A biographical and critical study of Grillparzer's work.


Bennett, E. K. “The Novelle of Poetic Realism.” A History of the German Novelle. London: Cambridge University Press, 1934, pp. 124-92.

Contends that Der arme Spielmann “is certainly one of the most exquisite Novellen in German literature, and without...

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