Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

The narrator

The narrator, a student home for the weekend. The narrator is surrounded by derangement (the meaning of the original German title) and death both at school, where the students suffer fits of suicidal melancholy, and at home, where his mother died an early and inexplicable death some time before and his sister frequently attempts suicide. His life is one of almost total estrangement and solitude, again both at school, where he has severed all relations with colleagues so as to progress with his scientific studies, and at home, where there is little if any communication among the narrator, his father, and his sister. The narrator has written a long letter to his father about their problematic familial relations, and he hopes to be able to discuss this letter with his father while home; however, the father, who is a doctor, receives an emergency call. The narrator accompanies his father on his rounds and is exposed to a series of increasingly insane and diseased patients, culminating in the visit to Prince Saurau. The rounds provide a type of disquieting response to the narrator’s letter. His questioning of, and even attempt to halt, the natural process of disintegration and decay through science is proven useless. Alienation, solitude, and death are revealed to be universally human conditions that even the science of medicine cannot reverse. The objectivity and distance with which the narrator initially relates the day’s events eventually are replaced by involvement and perhaps even obsession as the narrator loses himself within the prince’s monologue and narrates page after page of his disjointed ramblings.

The doctor

The doctor, the narrator’s father. Well known and dedicated, the doctor spends twenty-two-hour days seeing to the needs of his patients but heals not a single one of them. After years of working in an area marked by cases of insanity and brutality, the doctor has come to the conclusion “that everything is fundamentally sick and sad.” The early death of his wife has forced him to acknowledge death as a fact of nature. During his rounds, the doctor conveys little emotion and seems distanced from the misery around him. He lives in a solitude broken only by a weekly visit to a broker friend. His relationship to his children is weak and worsening. In particular, the doctor worries about his extremely withdrawn, fearful, and sensitive daughter. The fact that he does not worry about...

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The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The narrator is a passive observer of his father’s interactions with patients and friends, yet the scenes that he has chosen to report tell the reader much about him, his family, and his relationship with his father. The world of which he gives readers a glimpse is one filled with grotesques, dying husbands and wives both physically and psychically deformed. Like the sons of the patients and of Prince Saurau, the doctor’s son is emotionally estranged from his father. The narrator believes that his “real” life is in Leoben, where he studies mining engineering; Prince Saurau’s son studies in London and refuses to come home.

The narrator has come home to try to establish a deeper contact with his father. To that end, he has written a letter—unacknowledged by the father—concerning the family’s inability to make contact with one another and proposing reasons why this should be so. His mother has wasted away and died, his sister makes frequent suicide attempts, and his father treats the sick but seems able to heal no one. It is clear that Bernhard intends for the events of the narrator’s journey to serve as a commentary on the narrator’s family as well as on the lives of the people whom the young man meets.

The father, a detached observer of those whom he treats, is mirrored in his insane double, Prince Saurau. Both men are disappointed in their children and see no hope either for reconciliation before their death or for compassionate understanding after they die. Yet neither seems able to speak directly to their sons, to express his fears or his hopes. The journey on which the doctor and his son go and the extended narrative of Prince Saurau serve as the only means by which the doctor can communicate his thoughts to his dispassionate son.

All the other characters reflect or share the same anxieties concerning their families, and all the people whom the doctor and his son visit on their day’s excursion live lives of crazed isolation, even when other members of their families are close at hand.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Domandi, Agnes, ed. “Thomas Bernhard,” in Modern German Literature, 1972.

Gamper, H. Thomas Bernhard, 1977.

Riley, Carolyn, ed. “Thomas Bernhard,” in Contemporary Literary Criticism. III (1975), pp. 64-65.

Schwedler, Wilfried. “Thomas Bernhard,” in Handbook of Austrian Literature, 1973. Edited by Frederick Ungar.

Sorg, B. Thomas Bernhard, 1977.