Themes and Meanings
By creating a story whose narrator and main characters are so detached from one another and, consequently, unable to express their real feelings, Bernhard presents a world of isolated, frightened, and frightening people. Aside from the doctor and his son, all the people in this novel are grotesques—gargoyles—misshapen physically and mentally. The journey symbolizes the father’s failed attempt to communicate with his son. The conclusion leaves the reader with no sense of resolution or closure, just as the two men have reached no understanding despite the horrors that they have seen and heard as they visited each patient. By visiting each of these diseased patients during the height of his suffering, the author forces the reader and the narrator to view the grotesques in passing, as if they are fixed forever in their suffering. Bernhard offers no hope that any of these people will improve or that the rift between the doctor and his son will be bridged.
Much of the novel is devoted to the ramblings of Prince Saurau in his castle at Hochgobernitz, where he reveals his paranoid delusions regarding his son, his employees, and other members of his family, all of whom seem only to be doubles for the members of the narrator’s own family. The characters in this novel are unable to relate in any meaningful way to the people who matter the most to them: Parents are estranged from children, siblings hate one another or are cut off by insanity, and townspeople hate and fear one another. All these exterior circumstances seem only to duplicate the essential fractures evident in the narrator’s own family.
The physical journey he takes with his father to the prince’s castle—deep in the mountains beyond a narrow, gloomy ravine, isolated from everyone—parallels the interior probings deeper and deeper into the relationship between the narrator and the doctor. Finally, the incipient madness in the narrator’s family is externalized in the person of Prince Saurau, who articulates problems remarkably similar to those experienced by the narrator and his family.