Georg Büchner Büchner, Georg - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Georg Büchner 1813-1837

(Full name Georg Karl Büchner) German playwright and novella writer.

The following entry presents criticism of Büchner from 1964 through 2001. For additional information on Büchner's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 26.

Büchner is known for the few works he composed during his brief life: the novella fragment Lenz (1839) and the plays Dantons Tod (1835; Danton's Death), Leonce und Lena (1838; Leonce and Lena), and Woyzeck (first published in 1879). In these works Büchner rejected the idealism of the Romantic movement, which dominated German letters in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; instead, he sought to realistically depict what he saw as the hopelessness of life in a world where isolation, monotony, and suffering prevail and are perpetuated by deterministic historical and biological forces. This pessimistic view of life, along with the innovative techniques he used to obtain a sense of realism, gives Büchner a greater affinity with authors of the modern era than with those of the nineteenth century. Additionally, his link to several later developments in drama, among them Naturalism, the Theater of the Absurd, and Expressionism, has frequently been observed by scholars.

Biographical Information

The eldest of six children, Büchner was born in Goddelau, Germany. His family moved in 1816 to nearby Darmstadt, the capital of the duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt. During Büchner's school years his father, a physician, encouraged him to study the sciences, while his mother nurtured in him a love of literature and art. He left for France in 1831 to study medicine at the university in Strasbourg. At that time Strasbourg was a refuge for German liberals seeking asylum from the widespread political repression in the German states following the Napoleonic Wars. Because of a law requiring all Hessian students to attend a native institution for at least two years in order to receive a degree, however, Büchner returned to Hesse in 1833. He continued his studies at the university in Geissing and there become involved in radical politics. Early in 1834 he and some fellow students founded an underground revolutionary group, the Gesellschaft der Menschenrechte (“Society for the Rights of Man”), whose aim was to reform the Hessian government and social structure. Shortly thereafter Büchner wrote a seditious pamphlet in collaboration with Friedrich Ludwig Weidig, an aging liberal devoted to revolutionary causes. The pamphlet, Der Hessische Landbote (1834; The Hessian Courier), was distributed secretly among Hessian peasants and workers by the society but had very little effect on them. (Indeed, many of the copies were handed over to the police.) After returning to his parents' home in Darmstadt while authorities conducted an investigation into the pamphlet's distributors, Büchner began to write his first play, Danton's Death, in the early months of 1835. Hoping the play's publication would help finance his escape from Germany before his impending arrest, Büchner sent the manuscript to Karl Gutzkow, a young German man of letters who succeeded in selling it to a publisher. Before he received payment for the play, however, Büchner was forced to flee the country. Subsequently, he renounced all revolutionary activity and resumed medical studies in Strasbourg, where, after writing a well-received dissertation, Sur le système nerveux du barbeau (“On the Nervous System of the Barbel”), he obtained his doctorate. During this time he also composed Leonce and Lena for a romantic comedy contest, wrote Lenz, and began work on Woyzeck and possibly on Pietro Aretino, a play that has since been lost. In late 1836 he moved to Switzerland, where he taught at the University of Zurich. Early the following year, Büchner became ill with typhus. He died in February 1837 at the age of twenty-four. Following Büchner's death, his family would not allow his manuscripts in their possession to be published. Moreover, Wilhelmine Jaegle, to whom Büchner was secretly engaged in Strasbourg and who initially cooperated with Gutzkow by sending him Leonce and Lena and Lenz for publication in his periodical Telegraf für Deutschland, eventually became unwilling to surrender the other writings by Büchner that she owned. She destroyed all of her copies of his writings before she died in 1880. The first significant and complete edition of Büchner's works did not appear until 1879, when Karl Emil Franzos issued Sämtliche Werke und handschriftlicher Nachlaß after years of interviewing Büchner's acquaintances and collecting his manuscripts, letters, and papers. In the 1880s the popular German playwright Gerhard Hauptmann enthusiastically praised Büchner, and in 1902 and 1913, respectively, Danton's Death and Woyzeck were given their first stage productions.

Major Works

In his early political pamphlet The Hessian Courier, Büchner and his co-author urged the lower classes to violently rise against the landed aristocracy, basing this exhortation on the grounds of radical socioeconomic reasoning for the period. The work had little tangible effect, although it has since been regarded as an original and innovative revolutionary manifesto. Büchner's first literary work, Danton's Death is frequently regarded as an expression of the author's subsequent disillusionment with radical politics. The play focuses on the last days of French Revolutionary leader Georges Jacques Danton, who, after the new regime had been established, became a proponent of peace and thus came into conflict with fellow insurrectionist Maximilien de Robespierre. Accusing Danton of trying to overthrow the government, Robespierre has him guillotined. Büchner depicts Danton as a passive hero who succumbs to the forces that oppose and torment him. These forces, ostensibly Robespierre and his adherents, are in the abstract a historical inevitability, what Büchner called in an often-quoted letter the “terrible fatalism of history.” While the dialogue of Danton's Death makes explicit Büchner's deterministic views, the themes of his later writings are more implicitly expressed. In the comedy Leonce and Lena, the title characters, the Prince of Popo and the Princess of Pepe, are unwilling victims of a mutually unsatisfying arranged marriage. They each attempt to escape their fate by running away, but they meet again, neither realizing the other's identity. Ultimately they fall in love and, when their identities are revealed, marry. Seemingly a derivative and light romantic comedy, Leonce and Lena features dark overtones of suicidal boredom, pessimism, and despair, themes that are also emphasized in Büchner's last, uncompleted play, Woyzeck. The title character of this later play is a poor young army private who, driven to madness by jealousy and his vision of a wretched and futile existence, murders his girlfriend and then commits suicide. Regarded as one of the first plays to portray a lower-class hero, Woyzeck is often perceived as a work of trenchant social criticism. The forces oppressing Woyzeck are represented by three grotesque figures from a higher social class, each deeply motivated by the repressed hopelessness and suffering that characterize the universe of Büchner's plays. These characters include the Captain, who continually berates Woyzeck; the Drum Major, who is having an affair with Woyzeck's girlfriend; and the Doctor, who uses the private as an experimental subject, feeding him nothing but peas in order to determine his minimal nutritional requirements. Büchner's only work of prose fiction, the novella fragment Lenz, is based upon an episode in the life of Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) playwright Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz. This work portrays the gradual deterioration of Lenz's mind, culminating in his total mental collapse. To achieve realism in the story, Büchner employs a complex technique of shifting viewpoints to render each subtle nuance of Lenz's situation. Within a given paragraph, Büchner will often begin by describing a scene from the viewpoint of an objective third-person narrator, then abruptly switch to Lenz's sensory and psychological perspective, a method deemed very effective by critics.

Critical Reception

Since the discovery of Büchner's works in the late nineteenth century, criticism has been for the most part positive, underscoring a shift in aesthetic sensibilities that has made his writings far more acceptable to modern literary tastes than those of Büchner's own time. While some commentators have pointed to the discursive, unrefined quality of his writings, arguing that they lack the polish achieved by more mature artists, most contend that Büchner attained a remarkable artistic and philosophical sophistication during his brief life. Woyzeck, despite its unfinished state, has generally been regarded as Büchner's masterpiece. Together with the somewhat more thematically transparent Danton's Death, this play is thought to evince Büchner's unique philosophical outlook, since recognized as a forerunner to twentieth-century Existentialism and the Theater of the Absurd. Equally noted by scholars are the aesthetic concerns and techniques displayed in these works. Büchner's forward-looking dramatic methods and theories, traced by a few commentators to the works of William Shakespeare and the Sturm und Drang playwrights, are more typically thought to anticipate techniques employed by twentieth-century playwrights, particularly Bertolt Brecht. Additionally, Büchner's novella Lenz has generally been considered a seminal piece of German prose fiction, and a work that demonstrates Büchner's break with the dominant literary aesthetics of his age. In an early part of the story, Lenz discusses his theories of art, attacking the idealism of the German Romantics. Lenz states, “I demand of art that it be life. … Let them try just once to immerse themselves in the life of humble people and then reproduce this again in all its movements, its implications, its subtle, scarcely discernible play of expression.” While some critics have argued that this statement merely summarizes Lenz's views on art, most critics accept it as also epitomizing Büchner's aesthetic precepts.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Der Hessische Landbote [The Hessian Courier] [with Friedrich Ludwig Weidig] (pamphlet) 1834

Dantons Tod [Danton's Death] (play) 1835

Leonce und Lena [Leonce and Lena] (play) 1838

Lenz (unfinished novella) 1839

Nachgelassene Schriften (plays and unfinished novella) 1850

Sämtliche Werke und handschriftlicher Nachlaß (plays and unfinished novella) 1879

*Woyzeck (unfinished play) 1879

The Plays of Georg Büchner (plays) 1927

Sämtliche Werke und Briefe. 2 vols. (pamphlet, plays, unfinished...

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Herbert Lindenberger (essay date 1964)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lindenberger, Herbert. “Forebears, Descendants, and Contemporary Kin: Büchner and Literary Tradition.” In Georg Büchner, pp. 115-44. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964.

[In the following essay, Lindenberger seeks to establish Büchner's position between neoclassical and modern European literature.]

Büchner's revolt against a classicism gone stale was by no means the first such revolt in German drama. The Storm-and-Stress writers of the 1770's, in the name of spontaneity and truthfulness to nature, and with Lessing's criticism and Shakespeare's example to back them, had succeeded in clearing the German stage of its dreary, “correct”...

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Henry J. Schmidt (essay date 1970)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schmidt, Henry J. “Georg Büchner's Satiric Tendencies.” Satire, Caricature and Perspectivism in the Works of Georg Büchner, pp. 104-14. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1970, 119 p.

[In the following essay, Schmidt assesses the satirical and ironic nature of Büchner's literary temperament.]

Ever since literary critics have been writing about Büchner, they have encountered unusual difficulty and frustration in defining his unique philosophy, aesthetics, and dramatic style. Definitions and labels proffered by one critic are quickly demolished by the next, who in re-examining the material, determines that designations such as “nihilist”, “atheist”,...

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Maurice B. Benn (essay date 1976)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Benn, Maurice B. “Leonce und Luna” and “Lenz.” In The Drama of Revolt: A Critical Study of Georg Büchner, pp. 157-63; 186-93. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

[In the following excerpts, Benn considers the tragic aesthetic of two works by Büchner, Leonce and Lena and Lenz.]


Leonce und Lena is exceptional among Büchner's works. Firstly because it is a comedy. Secondly because, more clearly than any of his other productions, it was prompted by an external occasion. On 3 February 1836 the publisher Cotta announced a prize for the best German comedy, and it was this...

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Nancy Lukens (essay date 1977)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lukens, Nancy. “Introduction” and “Conclusion.” In Büchner's Valerio and the Theatrical Fool Tradition, pp. 1-29; 192-95. Stuttgart, Germany: Akademischer Verlag Hans-Dieter Heinz, 1977, 221 p.

[In the following excerpts, Lukens discusses the ironic function of Valerio in Büchner's Leonce and Lena, relating this character to the stage-fool tradition in European drama.]

The first act of Georg Büchner's comedy Leonce und Lena (1836) is introduced by a motto from Shakespeare's As You Like It (II.vii.43-44):

                              O wär ich doch ein Narr!
Mein Ehrgeiz geht auf eine bunte Jacke.(1)

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Reinhold Grimm (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Grimm, Reinhold. “‘Cœur’ and ‘Carreau’: Love in the Life and Works of Büchner.” In Love, Lust, and Rebellion: New Approaches to Georg Büchner, pp. 79-100. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, Grimm comments on themes of love and eroticism in Büchner's dramas, particularly Danton's Death.]

What [Büchner's] texts contain is clear—and clearly the critics, virtually without exception, have chosen to avert their eyes. Let us begin by simply listing what the reader encounters.

Two women commit suicide out of love for their men: one while in the grip of madness, the other through a conscious...

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James Martin Harding (essay date March 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Harding, James Martin. “Integrating Atomization: Adorno Reading Berg Reading Büchner.” Theatre Journal 44, no. 1 (March 1992): 1-13.

[In the following essay, Harding presents a complex analysis of the aesthetic and social categories associated with materialist criticism of Büchner's Woyzeck, arguing that the drama resists a teleological interpretation of class conflict and is instead concerned with atomization and social fractionalization.]

Roughly a year before his death in 1969, Theodor W. Adorno published a short work entitled Alban Berg: Der Meister des Kleinsten Übergangs.1 The text could be considered marginal were it not...

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Helga Stipa Madland (essay date winter 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Madland, Helga Stipa. “Madness and Lenz: Two Hundred Years Later.” German Quarterly 66, no. 1 (winter 1993): 34-42.

[In the following excerpt, Madland approaches Büchner's novella Lenz as a generalized literary depiction of madness, rather than as a quasi-medical account of the insanity of the historical Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz.]

Lenz(1) lenzelt noch bei mir.(2)

The authoritative document on which literary history has based its perception of Lenz's madness is neither a report by a contemporary observer of the sick Lenz, nor Lenz's own description of his experience with mental illness, nor an assessment of it by medical...

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John Reddick (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Reddick, John. “The Desperate Mosaic.” In Georg Büchner: The Shattered Whole, pp. 3-28. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, Reddick studies the fundamental tension between Büchner's scientific and literary perceptions of the world.]

[Büchner] died at 23 (an age at which Goethe had not even produced Werther); he left the barest handful of texts; and he impinged little on the consciousness of the century in which he so briefly lived. Not for him the succession of definitive editions, the Eckermanns eager to immortalize each crumb of wisdom from his mouth. His œuvre, already slender enough, was further decimated by the...

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Margaret T. Peischl (essay date spring 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Peischl, Margaret T. “Büchner's Lenz: A Study of Madness.” Germanic Notes and Reviews 27, no. 1 (spring 1996): 13-19.

[In the following essay, Peischl summarizes the subject, action, style, and central conflicts of Lenz.]

The reader who doesn't know in advance that Georg Büchner's novella Lenz deals with the mental decline of the Sturm und Drang writer, J. M. R. Lenz, is at least introduced immediately on the first page to a very tense and uncanny scene precluding healthy normality. The protagonist is portrayed from the start as an individual plagued by rapidly changing moods and with a strange manner of thinking: »Nur war es ihm...

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Kathryn R. Edmunds (essay date summer 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Edmunds, Kathryn R. “Lenz and Werther: Büchner's Strategic Response to Goethe.” Monatshefte für deutschen Unterricht, deutsche Sprache und Literatur 88, no. 2 (summer 1996): 176-96.

[In the following essay, Edmunds contrasts the narrative structure and effects of Lenz with those of Goethe's novel Werther, asserting Büchner's tacit rejection of Goethe's literary worldview in his novella.]

In Dichtung und Wahrheit (Book XIV, published 1814) Goethe explicitly diagnoses Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz's anti-social self-absorption as a result of his Werther-like suffering: “[er] litt … im allgemeinen von der Zeitgesinnung,...

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Curt Wendell Nickisch (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Nickisch, Curt Wendell. “Georg Büchner's Philosophy of Science: Totality in Lenz and Woyzeck.Selecta 18 (1997): 37-45.

[In the following essay, Nickisch outlines Büchner's thematic conceptualization of totality—the integration of all elements of human existence and all aspects of the natural world—as exemplified in Lenz and Woyzeck.]

Karl Georg Büchner, a seminal and anachronistic dramatist, wrote only three plays, one of which remains unfinished, and a prose piece. A brilliant scientist, Büchner completed a dissertation on ichthian neurology and joined the University of Zurich faculty as a Reader in Comparative Anatomy. He...

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David G. Richards (essay date 2001)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Richards, David G. “Recent Criticism: 1980-1999.” In Georg Büchner's ‘Woyzeck’: A History of Its Criticism, pp. 111-42. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, Richards surveys criticism of Woyzeck published in English and German during the last two decades of the twentieth century.]

Two events mark the beginning of a new period in Büchner scholarship: the founding of the Georg Büchner Gesellschaft in May 1979 and Gerhard Schmid's publication of a facsimile edition of Woyzeck in 1981. Also in 1981, in a second special volume of Text und Kritik devoted to Georg Büchner, Thomas Michael Mayer, a founder of...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Bamforth, Iain. “Writing with a Scalpel: Georg Büchner.” PN Review 26, no. 16 (July-August 2000): 17-26.

Includes a partial English translation of Büchner's Lenz preceded by a brief biographical introduction to the novella.

Bohm, Arnd. “Büchner's Lucile and the Situation of Celan's ‘Der Meridian.’” Michigan Germanic Studies 17, no. 2 (fall 1991): 119-27.

Traces similarities of theme in Paul Celan's “Der Meridian” and Danton's Death.

Constabile, Carol Anne. “Christa Wolf's Büchner Prize Acceptance Speech: An Exercise in Sprach- and...

(The entire section is 478 words.)