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Gerhart Hauptmann 1862–-1946

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(Full name Gerhart Johann Robert Hauptmann) German dramatist, novelist, poet, short story writer, and autobiographer.

Principally regarded for his plays of the late nineteenth century, Hauptmann is primarily recognized for initiating the naturalistic movement in German theater with his first drama, Vor Sonnenaufgang (1889; Before Dawn). Influenced by the work of Ibsen and Zola, Hauptmann become his country's most prominent exponent of dramatic techniques that sought to portray human existence with extreme verisimilitude, particularly focusing on the social problems of the lower classes. Hauptmann did not limit himself to drama, however, and produced a vast assortment of works in various genres throughout his long career. Likewise, his work ranges over a variety of styles from naturalism to romanticism to symbolic fantasy. Among his works of short fiction, Hauptmann composed a number of short stories and several novellas, including one that is widely considered his early prose masterpiece, Bahnwärter Thiel (1888; Flagman Thiel).

Biographical Information

Hauptmann was born in Silesia in 1862. He received his early education in Breslau (now Wroclaw). After a varied academic career, during which he studied agriculture, sculpture, and history—and briefly attended the University of Jena and the Royal Academy of Dresden—he eventually settled in Berlin and married in 1885. An active member of the Berlin literary community, Hauptmann began his career writing novellas with Fasching (which first appeared in the periodical Siegfried in 1887 but was little noticed until its publication in book form in 1923) and Bahnwärter Thiel. Hauptmann produced his play Vor Sonnenaufgang in 1889, and the work was immediately successful. The previous year he had traveled to Zurich and there made the acquaintance of a man who would provide inspiration for his next-published novella Der Apostel (1890). During the 1890s Hauptmann focused on drama, writing his outstanding naturalistic plays. A visit to Greece in 1907 offered the source material for his travel narrative Griechischer Frühling (1908). Additionally, his encounter with the birthplace of Western classical mythology proved a rich source of inspiration for his later works. In 1912 Hauptmann received the Nobel Prize for Literature and undertook a series of public readings to commemorate the event. Between the wars he wrote the novella Der Ketzer von Soana (1918; The Heretic of Soana) and produced an epic poem, Till Eulenspiegel (1928). Though he was an active supporter of the Weimar democracy and a critic of the Nazi regime, Hauptmann did not follow the example of many German artists who left the country during the Second World War. He consequently incurred much personal criticism for his wartime inactivity. The literary result of this period is Die Atriden Tetralogie, a reinterpretation of the classical myths surrounding the curse of Atreus. Having witnessed the bombing of Dresden and Nazi defeat by Soviet forces firsthand, Hauptmann died on 6 June 1946.

Major Works

Overall Hauptmann's short fiction is principally focused on the lower classes or individuals who live in or retreat to the margins of society. Thematically bleak, these works offer a cultural critique of life in the modern world. Hauptmann's first novella, Fasching, was based upon a newspaper story detailing a couple's accidental drowning. Its title refers to the Shrovetide carnival from which the sail maker Kielblock, his wife, and child are returning. Crossing a frozen lake at night, the family falls through the ice and all three perish. Der Apostel features a nameless narrator, a preacher whose interior monologue reveals his mental instability. Afflicted by despair and spiritual delusions, the “apostle” endeavors to reenact the life of the Christ. Der Ketzer von Soana recounts the liaison of a young Italian priest with a country girl, which culminates in a departure from his congregation so that he may become a goatherd. A blend of naturalistic and symbolic strains, Bahnwärter Thiel follows the mental decline of a working-class railroad flagman, Thiel. Covertly worshipping his dead wife, Thiel has since entered into a new marriage with a sexually-dominating woman who abuses his child, Tobias. The violent death of Tobias by a locomotive precipitates Thiel's tragic collapse. In a fit of madness he kills his wife and their infant child. Hauptmann's final novella, Mignon, relates its narrator's obsession with a young, wandering orphan girl. His short story, “Das Märchen” (1941) reveals the influence of Goethe's 1795 work by the same name. The piece also evinces Hauptmann's interest in the mystical and supernatural late in his life.

Critical Reception

One of the most celebrated German-speaking literary figures of the late nineteenth century, Hauptmann earned his notoriety primarily through his works of drama. Still, considerable critical attention has been focused on his short prose, particularly since his death. While Fasching is generally considered the work of an apprentice, Bahnwärter Thiel, written the same year, has been hailed by critics as a masterful narrative. At the time of its first publication in 1918, Der Ketzer von Soana proved to be Hauptmann's most esteemed prose work, and though it is still highly regarded, most commentators reserve their highest praise for Bahnwärter Thiel, which has become a standard on reading lists for students of German literature. Several critics have evaluated the musical qualities of Hauptmann's prose in Thiel, numbering it among the finest achievements in the German Novelle genre. Others have analyzed the complex imagery and shifting narrative perspectives of the novella, qualities that place the work beyond the confines of purely naturalistic prose and contribute to the contemporary perception of Bahnwärter Thiel as a significant transitional work of modern German literature.

Principal Works

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Fasching (novella) 1887

Bahnwärter Thiel [Flagman Thiel] (novella) 1888

Der Apostel (novella) 1890

Der Ketzer von Soana [The Heretic of Soana] (novella) 1918

Mignon (novella) 1944

Lineman Thiel and Other Tales (novella and short stories) 1989

Promethidenlos (poetry) 1885

Das bunte Buch (poetry) 1888

Vor Sonnenaufgang [Before Dawn] (drama) 1889

Das Friedenfest [The Coming of Peace] (drama) 1890

Einsame Menschen [Lonely Lives] (drama) 1891

Der Biberpelz [The Beaver Coat] (drama) 1893

Hanneles Himmelfahrt [Hannele] (drama) 1893

Die Weber [The Weavers] (drama) 1893

Florian Geyer [Florian Geyer] (drama) 1896

Die versunkene Glocke [The Sunken Bell] (drama) 1896

Führmann Henschel [Drayman Henschel ] (drama) 1898

Michael Kramer [Michael Kramer] (drama) 1900

Schluck und Jau [Schluck and Jau] (drama) 1900

Der rote Hahn [The Conflagration] (drama) 1901

Der arme Heinrich [Henry of Auë] (drama) 1902

Rose Bernd [Rose Bernd] (drama) 1903

Elga [Elga] (drama) 1905

Die Jungfrau vom Bischofsberg [Maidens of the Mount] (drama) 1907

Und Pippa tanzt! [And Pippa Dances] (drama) 1907

Griechischer Frühling (travel diary) 1908

Kaiser Karls Geisel [Charlemagne's Hostage] (drama) 1908

Griselda [Griselda] (drama) 1909

Der Narr in Christo Emanuel Quint [The Fool in Christ, Emanuel Quint] (novel) 1910

Die Ratten [The Rats] (drama) 1911

Atlantis [Atlantis] (novel) 1912

Gabriel Schillings Flucht [Gabriel Schilling's Flight] (drama) 1912

Festspiel in deutschen Reimen [Commemoration Masque] (drama) 1913

Lohengrin (novel) 1913

Der Bogen des Odysseus [The Bow of Ulysses] (drama) 1914

Parsival (novel) 1914

Winterballade [Winter Ballad] (drama) 1917

Indipohdi [Indipohdi] (drama) 1920

Der weisse Heiland [The White Savior] (drama) 1920

Anna (poetry) 1921

Peter Bauer (drama) 1921

Phantom [Phantom] (novel) 1923

Die blaue Blume (poetry) 1924

Die Insel der grossen Mutter [The Island of the Great Mother] (novel) 1925

Veland [Veland] (drama) 1925

Dorothea Angermann (drama) 1926

Till Eulenspiegel (poetry) 1928

Wanda (novel) 1928

Spuk: Die schwarze Maske (drama) 1929

Buch der Leidenschaft (novel) 1930

Vor Sonnenuntergang (drama) 1932

Die goldene Harfe (drama) 1933

Hamlet in Wittenberg (drama) 1935

Im Wirbel der Berinfung (novel) 1936

Ährenlese (poetry) 1939

Die Tochter der Kathedrale (drama) 1939

Ulrich von Lichtenstein (drama) 1939

*Iphigenie in Delphi (drama) 1941

Der grosse Traum (poetry) 1942

Magnus Garbe (drama) 1942

*Iphigenie in Aulis (drama) 1943

Neue Gedichte (poetry) 1946

*Agamemnons Tod (drama) 1947

*Elektra (drama) 1947

Die Finsternisse (drama) 1947

Herbert Engelmann [completed by Carl Zuckmayer] (drama) 1952

Five Plays (dramas) 1961

Sämtliche Werke. 11 Vols. (dramas, novels, novellas, short stories, and poetry) 1962-74

*These four plays comprise Die Atriden Tetralogie published in 1949.

Charles K. Trueblood (review date 1925)

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SOURCE: “A Pagan Chorale,” in The Dial, Vol. 79, October, 1925, pp. 339-41.

[In the following review, Trueblood favorably assesses Hauptmann's novella The Heretic of Soana.]

Hauptmann—the Ibsenist, the Zolaist, the psychologist-lover of man—is also a Nietzschean and a great lyric pagan. The two latter have joined minds, in The Heretic of Soana, to write in a great round hand what might seem to be a foot-note to Der Anti-Christ, or a tremendous hymn to Pan. It is both and neither. Hauptmann, by what may be rather provident use of a familiar narrative device, has made it simply the autobiography of the heretic's heart, and a Novelle of force and charm, which has been competently rendered by the translator.

One can hardly recollect the psychology of the Fall more ably studied in brief compass than in this tale of Francesco Vela, sometime priest, all but saint of Monte Generoso. It is a series of pictures of a man's heart, each melting imperceptibly into the other; and thus a development of that novel actualistic psychology which Hauptmann was studying in Before Dawn, The Weavers, and Rose Bernd, and for which he has been blamed as a weakener of dramatic technique. The kernel of the method lies less in the thoroughness with which it dredges up each detail—however trivial, however squalid, if only pertinent—than in the effort to reach vraisemblance by presenting the facts of a psychological situation as gradually as they would be presented by life itself. This method has been denounced as too snail-like for drama, though there seems to have been little question of its potency in The Weavers. In the present story it is velvety and inimitable. The intensification is accomplished with such skill that although Francesco Vela begins as a delicately cultivated young man, of the most genuine priestly promise, and ends as utmost anathema, each slope of his decline has a curious stealth, it so little increases the gradient of that above.

He comes upon his destiny in the noblest of business: the defeating hell of souls. It is characteristic of the stealing subtlety of the story that the young man is far gone upon the journey to a wild conclusion, before his undertaking ceases for him, to wear the fine smile of altruism, or justly to merit the blessings of holy church. Such were the arts of the then devil that, even when the young priest began to feel the sweet philtres of passion working in him, and vehemently prayed to be delivered from the fluent sorcery that set his blood-beats racing, and when he confessed the state of his feelings with literal exactness to his churchly superiors, he not only was freely absolved by these smiling, somnolent fathers, but received their command to proceed with what still seemed to them to be but the high and holy, though sorely beset, ransoming of souls. His prayers at first were for deliverance and purification, but not for long. There gradually slips into them a beseeching cry that the Holy Mother forgive, understand—approve. Once he thought of asking that his spiritual fathers send another priest, but the idea gained no ground. And imperceptibly we are made to know that had they really taken alarm from his later confessions and turned his mission over to another, the result upon his feelings would have but hurried the inevitable.

The pagan undersong which soon seizes and possesses the tale begins even before the telling. In the short prelude, before the actual story of Francesco has commenced, the author has interviews with the mountain heretic, Ludovico, and notices the expert care he takes in the procreation of his flocks, and his antique joy in the sturdiness and the fine, flashing, devilish eyes of his buck goats.

The tale has its first motion in Francesco's initial journey up the mountain to the stone hut of the wretched and iniquitous goatherds, the Scarabotas. Even before he has left the village, our attention is pointed to certain marble sarcophagi in the village square, into which a mountain stream pours, and where the village wives and girls carry their washing. These sarcophagi are but pointed out on his first journey. On the second we learn that their marble bas-reliefs display a procession of frantic maenads and contortive satyrs, and the tigers and chariot of Dionysus. Such hints would amount to nothing if the theme of passion did not promptly come to the surface to seize and be seized; to be elaborated in great eager lover phrases by the author's lyricism and his exquisite sense of beauty. We are soon impressed by the universal implications of the story; and the vast scene of it seems to become an echoing chamber for the thrill and resonance of the words. It is set among mountains, which we soon know he loves more than anything else in nature. It is set too, amid the leafy glory and ebullience of spring, which few are better able than he to render.

So, one by one, perhaps in spite of himself, he pulls out the stops upon an irresistible pagan diapason. The chords that are melted into this magnificence are without number, and are both heroic and exquisite. They range from the charm of immense landscape, of snowy peaks and battlements, and the majestic sky-circling of the fisher-hawks, to the vivid sleeping blue in the flowers of the mountain gentian. They vary from the dull thunder of the spring avalanches, and the sounding waterfalls, to the hum of bees about the shrines of the Virgin, the eloquence of birds, and the splendid soft singing of Agata, the mountain shepherd Eve, for whom the priest of God forswore his vows, and was driven with stones from his parish, and became a shepherd Adam.

One wonders if so much lover's gold does not make the tale somewhat more pagan than the author intended. However, if the song of songs come up in the throat it will be sung. So perhaps the great lover in Hauptmann—who could not see his eternal pair go down to darkness and the end, after their mountain Eden—played into the hands of the Nietzschean in him. And the latter turned the frail priest, Francesco, into that determined heretic who, in the prelude to the tale, gave his name as Ludovico; who firmly cherished his hardy and lovely Eve; who was, into the bargain, a thorough-paced Zarathustran, genuinely caring nothing for the chattering curses of his fellows.

Walter Silz (essay date 1954)

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SOURCE: “Hauptmann, Bahnwärter Thiel (1887),” in Realism and Reality: Studies in the German Novelle of Poetic Realism, University of North Carolina Press, 1954, pp. 137-52.

[In the following essay, Silz describes Bahnwärter Thiel as poised between Poetic Realism and Naturalism.]

With Gerhart Hauptmann's Novelle Bahnwärter Thiel we stand at the threshold of a new age in German literature, the period of “Naturalismus” that was to succeed “Poetischer Realismus.” The little story was written and published in 1887, the year in which Berlin saw the performances of the visiting Théâtre libre that were to lead two years later to the establishment of the “Freie Bühne” and the debut of its chief talent, the young dramatist Hauptmann who quickly came to be regarded as the leader of the new literary revolt.

Bahnwärter Thiel, however, precedes that year of committal. It is a Janus-faced work, with traits both of the era which is coming to a close and of the era which is about to open. This makes it especially meaningful and appropriate as a termination for our present series of studies. In Hauptmann's life, too, it comes out of the middle of a critical period of transition, the Erkner years (1885-1888) which Hauptmann himself in his Lebenserinnerungen entitles “Lebenswende.” It is Hauptmann's first narrative work, little regarde then or since because of the more sensational plays and longer stories that followed it; and yet it is a real masterpiece, and we can see in it already characteristic features of Hauptmann's style and of his Weltanschauung.

The young author of twenty-four, modestly conscious of being a beginner, entitled his tale a “novellistische Studie,” not a Novelle outright. But it is a genuine Novelle nevertheless, fulfilling an unusual number of the familiar requirements of this “Gattung.” It is brief (only thirty-seven pages in the standard edition) and limited in time, place, and action. It deals with only two, or at most three, adult persons. Strictly speaking, there is no evolution of character, as in the novel, but the revelation of a hitherto submerged side of character under the impact of crisis. There is a striking central event (the death of little Tobias), “eine sich ereignete, unerhörte Begebenheit” in Goethe's terms, and we are shown its effect on an already matured or “fertig” hero. There is a distinct “Wendepunkt” in the middle of the story: Thiel's first vision of his dead wife, which is the first mental objectivation of the feeling of guilt and unfaithfulness that eventuates in murder. An “Idee” summarizing the action could readily be compressed into a brief and arresting statement. There are a number of impressive “Leitmotive,” and one of these, Tobias's pathetic little brown cap, could qualify as a “Falke” in Heyse's sense. Certainly the story has the “scharfe Silhouette” stipulated by Heyse: its world, centered around a remote stretch of railroad-track and isolated by silent forest and solitude that encourage inward life, has a vivid and unique individuality. In this case, there is no “Rahmen” or frame; the author is “omniscient,” but his presence is never suggested; there is complete objectivity of report.

The nature of the Novelle … favors dramatic procedures, and in Bahnwärter Thiel also one can pick out dramatic passages, such as the scene of the accident, where the author resorts to the lively present tense, some dialogue, and virtual “stage-directions.”1 In the weirdly “acted” brief scene on the tracks (41f.) we see only Thiel excitedly speaking and gesticulating, but are made vividly aware of the unseen “other one;” here, as in Kleist's Bettelweib von Locarno, one feels the hand of the dramatist. We are “present” at this scene, whereas Thiel's earlier vision came in a dream and was merely reported to us.

Yet, despite these occasional pseudo-dramatic interludes, the technique in Bahnwärter Thiel is decidedly epic. There is very little dialogue. Speech is often quoted, as in Kleist's Novellen, indirectly, in the subjunctive; the only direct speech of any considerable length is Lene's tirade against little Tobias (21f.). There is no “build-up” to scenes, but straightforward narrative procedure. Yet the story has a strongly propulsive action and intensification; it rises steadily, with “rest-periods” of description, to a climactic, explosive ending. The descriptive passages, for their part, are never allowed to become static or ends in themselves, but are integrated with the action, physical and above all psychological.

Throughout, Hauptmann maintains an even, epic tenor of factual report. His sentences are never very long, and are admirably clear and simple in structure. In climaxes of great emotional tension, like the account of the fatal accident, the sentences become even shorter, some consisting of three words, two words, even one word:

Er ist es.

Thiel spricht nicht. Sein Gesicht nimmt eine schmutzige Blässe an. Er lächelt wie abwesend; endlich beugt er sich; er fühlt die schlaffen, toten Gliedmassen schwer in seinen Armen; die rote Fahne wickelt sich darum.

Er geht.


“Zum Bahnarzt, zum Bahnarzt,” tönt es durcheinander.

“Wir nehmen ihn gleich mit,” ruft der Packmeister und macht in seinem Wagen aus Dienströcken und Büchern ein Lager zurecht. “Nun also?”

Thiel macht keine Anstalten, den Verunglückten loszulassen. Man drängt in ihn. Vergebens. Der Packmeister lässt eine Bahre aus dem Packwagen reichen und beordert einen Mann, dem Vater beizustehen.

Die Zeit ist kostbar. Die Pfeife des Zugführers trillert. Münzen regnen aus den Fenstern.

Lene gebärdet sich wie wahnsinnig (38).

An impressive device of style, but one that is not overused (as it may be said to have been, for example, in Bretano's Novelle), is that of the leitmotif. The great unbroken expanses of forest are thought of as a sea, and we hear of “ein schwarzgrünes, wellenwerfendes Meer” (20), “das schwarzgrüne Wipfelmeer” (26), or the forest surging “wie Meeresbrandung” in the tempest (28). The “Meldeglocke” that rings in the booth to announce the oncoming trains is heard repeatedly, and Thiel responds unfailingly; thus the motif contributes both to milieu and to characterization. The brown “Plüschmützchen” is emblematic of little Tobias and the mood of his one pathetic holiday; it becomes the fetish of the insane father, and the last, telling picture focuses our attention on this eloquent object.

Allied to the leitmotif is another device that might perhaps better be called correspondence or echoing, since it involves only two correspondent points and not a series. Thus we hear, early in the story, of a “Rehbock” that was run down by a train one winter night (15f.). Near the end of the story (44f.) a fine buck is shown leading his herd safely over the tracks that have just proved fatal to Tobias. Is an irony intended in the fact that Nature's creature heeds the danger-signal to which the child of Man did not respond?2 Or are the two occurrences meant to show the same impersonal, now destructive now benevolent, operation of natural law that Abdias demonstrated? In any case, the “recall” has an artistic effect. The motif of “schwarzes Blut” on Tobias's lips (38) sets a pattern for Thiel's fell intent against Lene (41). In similar sinister fashion, the association “Eichhörnchen—der liebe Gott” (35), when it recurs, sets off a murderous reaction (43). On the way to the field, Thiel pushes the baby-carriage with an effort through the sand (33); on the sad return trip, it is Lene who does the same (45); the tragic events that the day has brought are thus tacitly signalized.

There is a striking use of sound-effects in the story; indeed, one would suspect it to be the work of a musically rather than sculpturally gifted writer. The account of the approach of the Breslau-Berlin express might be called a “Virtuosenstück” in this regard:

Durch die Geleise ging ein Vibrieren und Summen, ein rhythmisches Geklirr, ein dumpfes Getöse, das, lauter und lauter werdend, zuletzt den Hufschlägen eines heranbrausenden Reitergeschwaders nicht unähnlich war.

Ein Keuchen und Brausen schwoll stossweise fernher durch die Luft. Dann plötzlich zerriss die Stille. Ein rasendes Tosen und Toben erfüllte den Raum, die Geleise bogen sich, die Erde zitterte—ein starker Luftdruck—eine Wolke von Staub, Dampf und Qualm, und das schwarze, schnaubende Ungetüm war vorüber. So wie sie anwuchsen, starben nach und nach die Geräusche (26).

Or, again, the crescendo of the thunder, as it first awakens on the distant horizon and then draws nearer and increases, until its mighty voice fills the whole air and shakes the solid earth (29). There are passages of cacophony such as the braking and stopping of the work-train (44). On the other hand there are instances of verbal music that bear comparison with Storm's, especially in the alliteration on both vowels and consonants:

Die Kiefern bogen sich und rieben unheimlich knarrend und quietschend ihre Zweige aneinander. Einen Augenblick wurde der Mond sichtbar, wie er gleich einer blassgoldenen Schale zwischen den Wolken lag. In seinem Lichte sah man das Wühlen des Windes in den schwarzen Kronen der Kiefern. Die Blattgehänge der Birken am Bahndamm wehten und flatterten wie gespenstige Rosschweife. Darunter lagen die Linien der Geleise, welche, von Nässe glänzend, das blasse Mondlicht in einzelnen Flecken aufsogen (29).

One could call Bahnwärter Thiel the earliest Novelle of Naturalism, and adduce enough evidence from it to justify this classification. After these naturalistic elements had been extracted, however, there would be enough others left to make out a case for Bahnwärter Thiel as a work of Poetic Realism. The milieu of much of the story is typical of Naturalism. The picture of the “Arbeiterkolonie” on the Spree outside Berlin,3 and the “close-up” of Thiel's own dwelling and his home life with its daily routine and its marital “scenes,” all presented in factual, unvarnished detail, belongs to Naturalism, which preferred to emphasize the sordid and depressing aspects of lower-class life. Nothing of beauty or poetry is shown here, but a dull, unrelieved vulgarity. The hopelessness of Thiel's situation, the lack of “horizon” or mental resource, are characteristic of the atmosphere of Naturalism.

Furthermore, it may be thought indicative of the naturalistic trend in the story that, though the essential action is inward, it is set in a social matrix. We are constantly kept aware of a public, though this is, characteristically, anonymous and not even represented by typical individuals. There is a running commentary of public opinion, which is for the most part treated with light satire, as being based on very superficial evidence. “Wie die Leute meinten,” Thiel's first wife was not at all suitable for him—because of the difference in their physiques (11). “Wie die Leute versicherten,” Thiel was unaffected by her death—for were not his brass buttons as brightly polished, his red hair as sleeked, as ever (11)? “Die Leute,” again on surface evidence, approve of his second choice: Lene is thought an ideal partner for him (12). Later, to be sure, the opinion of the neighborhood becomes more critical of her. “Die Leute” also censure Thiel for devoting so much time to the dirty brats (Rotznasen) of the settlement (19). Afte the accident to Tobias, Lene, whose callousness and hostility to the boy really caused his death, gets credit with the train passengers as “die arme, arme Mutter” (38), simply because of the way she “takes on,” while the dazed and silent Thiel is comparatively unnoticed. At the end, the neighbors (“man”) discover the frightful denouement, and its effect on them is reflected to us.

All the people in the story belong to the working class. We are not yet dealing with city “Proletariat,” however; Thiel's neighbors are not factory workers, but fishermen and outdoor laborers. The author, to be sure, speaks of the collection of twenty houses (with a store in one room of one of them) as a “Dorf,” but it is little better than a suburban slum, and we are conscious of the nearby metropolis, to which Thiel is finally transported. Nature itself is effete here, without the vigor of the true countryside; we see the river in the background, flowing sluggishly, black and glassy between scantily-leaved poplars (19). We get a glimpse of the village street, with the storekeeper's mangy dog lying in the middle of it and a crow flapping overhead with raucous cries (21). We see Thiel's little cottage, with its low cracked ceilings and narrow steep stairs. As we approach it, we are likely to hear the strident voice of Lene, the former “Kuhmagd,” raised in vituperation. Coarse, burly, sensual, brutally passionate, domineering, and quarrelsome, she is a drastic contrast to Thiel's first wife, Minna, the quiet, frail, and spiritual.4

Lene climaxes a flood of vilification of her little stepson by spitting at the child (22). Her excitement in this scene brings out her voluptuous physical charms before her husband's spellbound eyes: we see “das Tier” in its full flush. We see her again spading the potato-patch, stopping only to nurse her child, with panting, sweat-dripping breast (34). Our last view is of her lying in her blood, her skull crushed, her face unrecognizable, butchered with the kitchen hatchet (47).

Of equally unsparing naturalism is the portrait of little Tobias, with his overgrown head and spindling limbs, his yellowish-red hair and chalky complexion and bloodless lips; in his bed, pestered with flies, or eating plaster out of cracks in the wall—a pitiable and at the same time repellent figure of an undernourished, abused, and almost cretinous child. Hauptmann does not spare us the details of the fatal accident: Tobias being tossed about between the wheels, the train grinding to a stop, the commotion and outcry, and finally a close-up picture of the horribly mangled and twisted little body on the stretcher.

This is “naturalistic” writing, no doubt of it. But Hauptmann was not only a Naturalist, and it may be questioned whether he was ever a very “consistent” one. “Konsequenter Naturalismus” calls for an undiscriminating and total “Wiedergabe” or reproduction of life, with no intrusion of the author's subjectivity and no factor of artistic selection. Naturalism of this “purity” is of course only theoretically possible. No real poet has ever been able to eliminate his artistic individuality from his work, and Naturalism itself could not dispense with selection; only it was resolved to select the sordid in human life, to the denial of every poetic element—and thus misrepresented the world quite as badly as did the most supernal idealists.

But there was a Poetic Realist left in Hauptmann. Indeed, one might say that in all periods of his life he betrays, like Goethe, a latent Romanticism. And one can prove both assertions by reference to Bahnwärter Thiel. The action in this story is chiefly an inner, psychological action, as it is in Ludwig's Zwischen Himmel und Erde; its “reality” is essentially that of the mind. It is significant that the most violent happening, the brutal murder of Lene and her infant, after being fully motivated psychologically, is not offered to our view as an act, but only in its results. The starkly sensual love between Thiel and Lene is strongly suggested, but not depicted, as outright Naturalism would have demanded. And the diction of all the persons in the story is kept above the low level of their actual speech.

The things of Nature, too, are not seen materially, but as they affect the mind. The forest is not a source of livelihood or timber; it has no social or economic value at all, but a personal, poetic, religious one. When the din of Man and his machine has died away, Nature resumes its ancient solitary reign: “das alte heil'ge Schweigen schlug über dem Waldwinkel zusammen” (26)—this is the language of Romanticism.

And Man's machine itself, the train, is to some extent poeticized and given symbolical value. The railroads when they first appeared seemed to late-Romanticists like Justinus Kerner an abomination, ringing the knell of all poetry in life. Here, a half-century later, they have become productive of poetic “Stimmung” and wonder. Details of this railroad world are sharply seen and recorded, even to the number of bolts in a section of rail (36) or the items of equipment in the crossing-tender's shed. The phenomena of perspective, as they appear in the patterns of the right-of-way or in the oncoming and receding of a fast train; the “lag” in the sound that follows the white steam-puff of the whistle; the various noises of wheels and brakes and crunching gravel—all these are specific and exact.

And yet the account is shot through with imaginative comparisons: the floods of fog recoil from the embankment like a surf; the rails are strands in a vast iron net or, again, fiery snakes in the sunset red; the telegraph poles give forth mysterious chords, and the wires are like the web of some gigantic spider. The “panting” of a work-train locomotive slowing to a stop is like the heavy, agonized breathing of a sick giant. One can think, for contrast, of what a later realist would have made of “the tracks” as a scene of squalor and crime. But Hauptmann frames his stage with “Wald”—the very word, with all its connotations, cannot be fully rendered by an English one—and trains and tracks and telegraph poles are still things of much mystery and poetry, set in Nature.

The importance attached in this story to “Beruf” or calling is another trait characteristic of Poetic Realism. It appears in the very name of the hero; it is a part of his personality. More important than the external trappings of uniform and cartridge pouch and red flag are the qualities of character that fit Thiel for his work: his neatness, orderliness, and punctuality, symbolized by his old-fashioned but accurate watch and by the signal-bell to which he responds even under the most trying circumstances. Thiel does not yet typify the modern employee nor a class-conscious proletariat nor organized labor. He has still something of the loyal retainer of an earlier age. He belongs with Ludwig's forester Ulrich or slater Apollonius, men whose heart is in their work, and to whom “Beruf” has much of its old, full meaning of work to which one is called.

Thiel lives in two separate worlds. His actual “Wohnung” in the river “colony” is for sleeping and eating and the gratification of sex; but his spiritual home is the little booth on the lonely stretch of track, an island of inwardness and “Erhebung” set in a vast dark-green sea of forest. Nowhere else is Hauptmann's heritage from Romanticism so evident as in his use of the “Wald,” even to the old magical word “Waldeinsamkeit” (24), which takes us straight back to Tieck and Eichendorff.

Throughout the story, the Nature-background is kept in view. There is a rich variety of “Naturstimmungen,” and these moods of Nature are related to the states of mind of the persons, especially the hero. This linking of man with his natural out-of-doors setting is a persistence of Poetic Realism, quite different from the metropolitan milieu of which Naturalism became so fond. With its glorious sunrises and sunsets, Nature draws Thiel's soul out into infinite spaces; and then again with its winter storms it shuts him in to plumb the equally infinite depths of his soul and rise to mystic heights of ecstasy and vision. A stormy night with lightning and wind-tossed trees forms a background and parallel to his inner upheaval. A radiant morning that follows, with floods of sunlight and the sleepy dripping of dew from the leaves, helps to assuage his sense of guilt and impending tragedy. After the frightful accident, Nature itself seems paralyzed with horror: “Es ist still ringsum geworden, totenstill; schwarz und heiss ruhen die Geleise auf dem blendenden Kies. Der Mittag hat die Winde erstickt, und regungslos wie aus Stein steht der Forst” (39).

For the desolate scene of the work-train returning with Tobias's body a fit stage-setting is briefly indicated: “Ein kaltes Zwielicht lag über der Gegend” (43). As the stretcher with the unconscious Thiel is carried through the woods, the reddish moon pales to a funeral lamp, giving the faces of the little company a cadaverous cast, and its pallid light is swallowed up in the dark basins of the clearings (45). Sometimes a nature-scene is interpolated as “relief” after a scene of violence. Thus, after Thiel's second vision of Minna, which ends with the compulsive idea of a savage murder, we read: “Ein sanfter Abendhauch strich leis und nachhaltig über den Forst, und rosaflammiges Wolkengelock hing über dem westlichen Himmel” (41f.). Or, just before the catastrophe, there is a delicate picture of springtime Nature that might have come out of the late-Romantic world of Storm's Immensee: “Stücke blauen Himmels schienen auf den Boden des Haines herabgesunken, so wunderbar dicht standen kleine, blaue Blüten darauf. Farbigen Wimpeln gleich flatterten und gaukelten die Schmetterlinge lautlos zwischen dem leuchtenden Weiss der Stämme, indes durch die zart grünen Blätterwolken der Birkenkronen ein sanftes Rieseln ging” (35).

To the field of modern realism, on the other hand, belong the many small details of everyday living that characterize the hero in his outward appearance and demeanor, and the psychological finesse with which his inner life is exposed. Thiel is an orderly and dutiful man, slow, given to routine and set habits—for years the various things he carries in his pockets have been laid out on his dresser in a fixed order, and go back in that order (20). He has an animal-like patience and a childlike good-nature, a big and muscular frame, and coarse-cut features that nevertheless reflect “soul.” He is a person of “mystische Neigungen,” which are fostered by the isolation of his place of work and the uneventful monotony of his outward existence. With this religious-mystical bent is linked a sensitive, if inarticulate, feeling for Nature and a musical sense: listening raptly to the mysterious harmonies that issue from the telegraph poles, he can fancy himself in church, or in Heaven (35).

Outer events appear to make little impression on Thiel; he seems to possess infinite inner compensations: “Die Aussenwelt schien ihm wenig anhaben zu können: es war, als trüge er etwas in sich, wodurch er alles Böse, was sie ihm antat, reichlich mit Gutem aufgewogen erhielt” (13). His powers of expression are extremely limited; things that do affect him, without outward sign, tend to “go down” and accumulate, and erupt later. He has something of the monumental simplicity and quietness of Brentano's Anna Margaret, and his slow, deep speech and “leiser, kühler Ton” (13) remind us of hers.

He reminds us also of another Common Man a half-century earlier, Büchner's Woyzeck, the most unheroic hero in the German drama up to his time. Both are simple, not to say simpleminded, faithful, “kinderlieb,” inarticulate, concealing profound spiritual depths beneath a usually tranquil surface; easy-going, slow to suspicion and wrath, but finally capable of murderous violence against the women who have failed them. Lene also bears some resemblance to Woyzeck's Marie: a strapping, sensual woman, but one with a conscience and a capacity for acute contrition. Büchner, like Hauptmann, regards both these humble folk with deep compassion, though this feeling is not obtruded upon the narrative itself. It is interesting to recall that Hauptmann was one of the first “discoverers” of Büchner; just a few weeks after completing Bahnwärter Thiel he lectured on Büchner to the “Durch” literary club in Berlin, and he seems to have recognized Büchner as a literary forebear.5

Thiel exemplifies Faust's “zwei Seelen:” his consciousness is the battleground of man's spiritual and sensual natures, of sacred and profane love. He is a man placed in a sort of Grillparzerian triangle between two women of opposite types: one sickly, delicate, spiritual; the other robust, coarse, sensual. The two sides of his own nature correspond and respond to these two women: his pious, mystical, compassionate spirit to Minna; his brute strength and phlegma and primitive sensuality to Lene. Minna dies in childbirth, leaving a continuation of her being in Tobias—for Thiel's relation to both is spiritual: they call forth his pity, devotion, and tenderness divorced from sex in the ordinary sense.

Thiel's other nature comes to the fore in his second marriage. He justifies this, to be sure, as a step for Tobias's benefit; this is the only reason he gives the pastor, and it seems sanctioned by Minna's dying injunction (12); but one suspects a certain amount of rationalization in all this. At any rate, Thiel falls under Lene's physical spell, at times so completely that he is utterly unnerved and callously ignores Tobias's sufferings. Troubled in conscience by this apostasy, he then “compensates” by increased attention to Tobias (which intensifies Lene's jealous dislike of the child to the pitch of hatred) and by converting his lonely gate-tender's booth into a sort of chapel consecrated to the memory of Minna. He divides his time conscientiously between the living and the dead, thus fulfilling his obligations to both women and both sides of his nature. He keeps his worlds completely separate, withholding from Lene any knowledge of the number and location of his booth and keeping her, on one pretext or another, from ever accompanying him thither (14).

This arrangement functions successfully for a long while, and Thiel achieves a satisfactory equilibrium; only at certain times, when he “comes out of” an especially deep communion with the dead in his lonely devotions, does he feel disgust at his “other” life (15). The crisis, however, comes one evening when it dawns upon his slow-working brain that, because of necessary arrangements about a potato-patch, Lene will be invading his sanctuary in the woods and destroying the precarious balance of his mental and moral existence. At this instant, a thick black curtain of self-deception seems to be rent asunder, and he sees clearly what he has committed as it were in a two years' trance (28). Under the pressure of agonized repentance, he experiences a dream-vision in which his suppressed guilt-feelings take terrifying shape, dream and reality merging so convincingly that he all but stops a speeding train to keep the apparition of Minna from being run over.

The necessities of “real” life, represented by the potatoes which are such an indispensable staple for the poor, soon compel an adjustment, to be sure, and Thiel seems to accept the inevitable with a good grace, even going so far as to let Lene eat lunch with him in the sacred booth (36). But the psychological trauma, inflicted by this desecration of the past and vitiation of his conditions for normal existence, has of course not been overcome on a deeper level, and when Lene's carelessness causes the death of Tobias, the “other” world rises in a second and more compelling vision (41f.), and at its behest Thiel wreaks vengeance with a savageness in which there is a large amount of “displaced” consciousness of his own guilt and perfidy.

The psychological sequences which Hauptmann presents are extraordinarily lifelike and convincing. As a result of a surprise return home (he had forgotten his lunch), Thiel witnesses Lene's mistreatment of Tobias, previous signs of which he had “suppressed;” but, succumbing to Lene's physical and sexual power, he retreats in silent defeat. He loses himself in his duties at the tracks, in the contemplation of a magnificent sunset and the passing of a train. This defense of distraction wears thin, however—the more so as Nature's silent solemnity has stirred the deeper religious levels of his mind—and suddenly the name “Minna” comes up from below, as yet without conscious connection, to his lips. He succeeds in dropping it, while he absently sips his coffee and reads a scrap of newspaper he had picked up along the track. He begins to feel restless, thinks it is due to the heat in the booth, takes off his coat and vest, then decides to “do something” to get relief. He starts to spade up the garden patch, and the physical exertion proves soothing. But then apropos of this patch the thought arises that now Lene can no longer be prevented from coming out here, his carefully built up compensation will be lost and his guilt-feeling revived. Now he hates the patch he was so joyful over. Hastily, as though he had been committing a sacrilege, he pulls the spade out of the ground and puts it away. He is ready to fight some “invader” of his sanctuary; his muscles tense, he utters a defiant laugh; startled by this sound, he loses his train of thought, but finds it again—or it finds him, one might say, and holds him. Now in a flash he must recognize the reality of the domestic situation he has so long evaded, above all the plight of Tobias, that legacy from his earlier, better life; and he is wrung with pity, remorse, and a deep sense of shame over his long bondage (23-28).

In Thiel, Hauptmann has given a tragically impressive picture of a man seeking (in this case with no great mental resources) to reconcile two conflicting sides of his given nature, the needs of the spirit and the needs of the flesh. The balance which Thiel has for a space achieved, in his simple way, seems so insecure that one feels, had the fatal mishap to Tobias not occurred, some other crisis would surely have developed. The frightful “justice” which he wreaks on Lene and her child does not avail to redress Thiel's balance, for it is either the result or the contributory cause of the insanity which marks the final collapse of all effort.

It may not be too fanciful to think of Thiel as a sort of “gesteigerter Spielmann.” Both are fundamentally good men, dutiful, kind, patient, trusting, utterly simple, relatively defenseless, yet distinguished by an uncommonly strong and deep inner life. Both defend this inner life, to some extent successfully, against the assaults of the outside world. But with a difference: Thiel has gone all the way along the road on which Jakob has been able to reach a stopping-place. The delusion which helps to shield Jakob from reality has reached a pathological extreme in Thiel; “Wahn” has become “Wahnsinn.” One might say that Thiel's insanity constitutes the soul's retreat, in the face of unbearable torment, into its innermost fastness, from which there is no return, but also no expulsion. Thiel demonstrates in ultimate and desperate terms the superior reality of ideas over the “facts” of life which we observed in gentler form in the case of the poor fiddler.

The problem that has not become tragic for Jakob because of his very “Untüchtigkeit” and “Selbstbescheidung,” but that becomes destructive for Thiel, is the problem of sex. The obsession with this problem, and its disillusioned, not to say cynical treatment in Bahnwärter Thiel, is a mark of Naturalism and not of Poetic Realism. The “Problematik” of sex and marriage dominates the story, and in the last analysis it is sex as affliction, as a source of guilt and destruction, as it was to be represented, a few years after this, in the plays of Frank Wedekind.

Bahnwärter Thiel could be described as a kind of bitter allegory of Man persecuted by Woman. Thiel is tyrannized and enslaved no less by the continuing spiritual influence of his first wife than by the sensuality of the second. The spirit of the first mercilessly condemns his physical sexuality and mercilessly exacts murderous atonement: “black blood” for black blood. The body of the second seems to Thiel the very incarnation of sexual vitality, overpowering, enervating, inspiring in man a mixture of lust, fear, and resentment at subjugation. Between these two opposite types of woman, Thiel is ground to pieces as between an upper and a nether millstone. He achieves no full happiness with either, but only an overwhelming sense of guilt that drives him to murder and madness.

But to the two women, who destroy Thiel, sex likewise brings destruction. Each is cut off early by anguish and death as a result of her sexual nature, and the offspring of each perishes violently. All these sufferers are viewed by the young author with that compassion which was to become so characteristic of his subsequent work that Hauptmann has been called “der Dichter des Mitleids.”

Compassion is a saving grace left to an age that has lost hope and belief in an ultimate meaning in events. For Storm, too, death meant final annihilation. Yet man's end was heroic, and his work survived him, and perpetuated his name. Here, nothing survives. There is no “Ausblick,” no vista of a better future, no uplift or ennobling effect of tragedy, but only dumb brute suffering that terminates in dull, savage destruction. Here is a pessimism that outdoes even Grillparzer's. For the poor fiddler achieved a triumph of the spirit. He rose at the end to heroism, even in the conventional sense of the word, and he was assumed into Heaven: “der musiziert jetzt mit den lieben Engeln, die auch nicht viel besser sein können, als er.”6 Thiel's course is not upward, but downward, and a not merely material but mental deterioration. Jakob becomes a hero and a benefactor, Thiel a murderer and an inmate of an asylum for the criminally insane.

Der Schimmelreiter, for all its scepticism, still looks back to the great age of Idealism, with its faith in salient individuals and indestructible spiritual values; Hauke Haien is a great man with a mission, a brother to Kohlhaas. Bahnwärter Thiel, on the other hand, despite its residual Romanticism, looks out upon a new age of materialism, mass humanity, and social “conditions;” its hero is a “kleiner Mann” of no prominence or formidableness, whose end brings a shudder of pathos rather than the sharp, tonic thrill of high tragedy.

Though Bahnwärter Thiel was actually written shortly before Der Schimmelreiter, it impresses us as a decidedly more modern work. For one thing, it deals with a contemporary situation, Der Schimmelreiter with one of the eighteenth century. Storm's theme comes out of the mists of folk tradition; Hauptmann's might have come out of the morning's newspaper. Der Schimmelreiter concludes an epoch, Bahnwärter Thiel opens an epoch. The one is the last work of a man of seventy-one, the other the first work of a man of twenty-four;7 the one ends, the other begins, a long literary lifetime. Brentano's Kasperl und Annerl appeared in the year of Storm's birth, Bahnwärter Thiel just seventy years later; within that span, one may say, lies the achievement of Poetic Realism.

But that age was now ended. Der Schimmelreiter is its last great monument in the Novelle, and Storm the last great literary exponent of its middle-class ideals: “Er steht an der Grenze und ist der Letzte der grossen deutschen bürgerlichen Literatur.”8 With the death of Gottfried Keller in 1890 the greatest of the Poetic Realists expires. Storm had died two years earlier; Meyer lived on eight years longer, but his productive powers were blighted after 1891. With the passing of these three supreme masters of its most successful embodiment—the Novelle—the great period of Poetic Realism comes to a close.

In other spheres, too, the year 1890 was a demarcation. In that year the self-confident young Emperor William II forced the retirement of the veteran statesman Bismarck, and launched Germany on the course that was to end in the disaster of two world wars. New forces were coming to the fore on the world's stage: imperialism, economic internationalism, socialism, big business, and a mechanization of life such as the writers of Poetic Realism could have had no conception of. In literature, a new era was inaugurated when in 1889 the “Neue freie Bühne” in Berlin presented Hauptmann's Vor Sonnenaufgang and Sudermann's Ehre. The “Bürgertum,” which had formed the social basis and the center of interest for Poetic Realism, was supplanted by the urban proletariat, whose misery writers sought to reproduce with photographic exactitude, in place of the artistic reflection of reality which was the ideal of Keller's generation. If the Poetic Realists seemed old-fashioned to the adherents of Naturalism, these in turn have become old-fashioned in the perspective of a half-century that has seen Neo-Romanticism, Impressionism, Neo-Classicism, Expressionism, Neue Sachlichkeit, Magischer Realismus, and other “waves of the future” recede into eddies of the past.

The achievement of Poetic Realism, for a time obscured by its successors, shone forth again with heightened lustre—not because there was any specific virtue in its poetic theory, but because of the excellence of many of its poetic productions. Great literature is made by poets, not by theorists (a poet is, etymologically, a “maker;” a theorist, a “viewer”). We divide the history of literature, for convenience, into periods and movements, and we treat it, for convenience, in such divisions, as has been done in the present book. But such procedures are only scaffolding, or fencing-off, to enable us to get close to what counts most: the individual artistic creation.

The supreme test of all poetry (“Dichtung” in the broad German sense) is its power to body forth new beings and their environing worlds, persons who were not before the inspired vision saw them and fixed them with the inexplicable magic of words, making them more real than the man who passes us in the street, for their reality is renewed, as the ordinary mortal's is not, each time those magical verbal symbols pass before the eyes of an imaginative reader or listener. If this creativity be the criterion of great literature, then the German Poetic Realists of the Novelle have added richly to its permanent store.


  1. Gerhart Hauptmann, Gesammelte Werke in acht Bänden (Berlin: Fischer, 1921), V, 37-39. All subsequent references in the text are to pages of this volume.

  2. Hauptmann uses irony elsewhere in the story, e.g., in the fact that Thiel, who has always been so scrupulous about lowering his gates (though hardly anyone ever passed over that remote crossing), must see his own child run over by a train; or that Lene, just before her death, is deeply changed for the better, yet the new woman, so to speak, is killed for the misdeeds of the old.

  3. It is a “modern” feature of Hauptmann's story that he uses actual place-names of the vicinity of Berlin instead of the invented places of older fiction.

  4. But Minna, too, is not idealized nor made especially attractive. Hauptmann gives the briefest, soberest “life” of her: she appears one Sunday with Thiel in church; another Sunday marries him, and shares his pew and hymn-book for two years, her delicate face a contrast to his; then one weekday the bell tolls for her, and the next Sunday Thiel is again alone in his pew (11).

  5. Büchner's fragmentary narrative Lenz (1836) is a marvellous study in mental deterioration, far in advance of its times. Had it been completed, it would probably have been one of the great psychological Novellen of the century.

  6. Grillparzer's Sämtliche Werke, Wien edition, Abt. I, vol. 13, p. 79.

  7. Promethidenlos (1885) does not really count, as it was recalled after publication.

  8. Georg von Lukács, Die Seele und die Formen, 165.

William H. McClain (essay date 1957)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6758

SOURCE: “The Case of Hauptmann's Fallen Priest,” in German Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 3, May, 1957, pp. 167-83.

[In the following essay, McClain considers Hauptmann's Der Ketzer von Soana as it displays a fallen priest's symbolic quest for meaning.]

Few contemporary writers have expressed more eloquently than Gerhart Hauptmann the great spiritual quest of modern man for a meaning for his life and for values by which he can live creatively. Even Hauptmann's earliest heroes might be called souls in search in the sense that most of them experience a conflict between inner self and outer reality. Thiel, Loth, Crampton, Schilling, Kramer, Heinrich the bell-founder, Florian Geyer, Emanuel Quint, are all obsessed by an inward vision which they seek ardently to realize in face of an adverse reality. Unfortunately the striving of most of these characters ends in tragic failure. Personal failure, however, is far from being the most tragic aspect of their lives. At least equally tragic is the terrible isolation in which they carry on their struggle. All of these characters lack in varying degree the ability to communicate their innermost feelings, and from this inability springs their profoundest suffering. All stand thus alone in a world where true human understanding seems not to exist, and where man's natural human longing for genuine sympathy can never be satisfied. It is this basic situation of Hauptmann's early characters which makes them seem akin spiritually to the existentialist heroes of Hesse, Kafka, and Mann, for their great loneliness is also cosmic.

Only one of Hauptmann's earlier heroes seem to find the meaning and the workable set of values which his predecessors seek so vainly. This is the priest-hero of Der Ketzer von Soana who in the most decisive moment of his life courageously defies codes and conventions and renounces both church and priestly vows in order to build a new life with the woman of his choice. Most critics have unanimously praised this rhapsodical work in which Hauptmann seems to have vanquished for the first time the grim spectre of human inadequacy and failure which obsesses him and haunts his characters in the earlier works. The lyrical style and the poetical-mystic quality of the climactic passages of Der Ketzer von Soana do indeed give the tale profound affective power; and its deeply personal tone has caused many to feel it as an account of the spiritual Durchbruch of the author himself to a bold new affirmation of life and to a radical new conception of its meaning. Most critics have for this reason interpreted this challenging book as Bekenntnisdichtung. Even the author of one of the most recent works on Hauptmann speaks of it as “a single paean to the life-engendering forces of Nature and Eros.”1 To read Der Ketzer von Soana simply as a personal confession of faith, however, is to assign to it a far too limited meaning. Let us therefore try to look at the tale not only as a deeply personal work, which it undeniably is, but also as a stirring poetic articulation of human experience, in the hope that it may, when read from this broader point of view, take on a more universal meaning.

Since the meaning of Der Ketzer von Soana is revealed through the particular experience of the heretic himself, our principal problem is to find an adequate answer to a question which seems hitherto never to have been sufficiently considered: that of the symbolic meaning of Hauptmann's priest-hero.2 We know that Hauptmann identified himself in a very personal way with this work and with its priest-hero. The setting, the tiny village of Rovio at the base of Monte Generoso, was a spot which held many pleasant memories; and the family names of both hero and heroine stem from reality.3 The most touching indication of his fondness for the work, however, was his request during the troubled last days of his life that he be buried in the brown habit of a Franciscan monk which he had acquired in 1912 at the convent of Santa Marghareta in the vicinity of Rovio.4 Legend had it for a while that Hauptmann had received this habit from the heretic of Soana himself, but according to Frau Hauptmann there is no truth to this intriguing legend.5

Spiritual roots of Der Ketzer von Soana are also discernible in numerous passages of Griechischer Frühling (1908), Hauptmann's account of his trip to Greece in 1907. This unusual travel book is an account not of visits to monuments and cities, but of Hauptmann's personal experience of the unchanging Greek countryside, which he discovered to be haunted still by all the gods and spirits of antiquity. The Greece which he evokes is not that of Winckelmann, but rather the pre-classical Greece of Nietzsche's Geburt der Tragödie. Riding over the Greek hills and meadows Hauptmann senses the living presence of the gods and spirits of old. At times he speaks of being overcome by a sort of dionysian ecstasy which enables him to transcend momentarily the limits of personality and individuality and to soar above the temporal and the ephemeral. In such moments he approximates mystical union with the primal forces of Being. In one characteristic passage he speaks of nature's opening her arms to receive his embrace, and when “with all the tenderness of Antaeus” he presses his face into the flowers covering the meadow he feels all the forces of earth rushing through his body, animating and revitalizing him.6 The pan-erotic emotions which surge through Hauptmann during this and similar moments of mystical contact with the Greek countryside clearly anticipate those of his heretic-hero later, and they lead Hauptmann also to proclaim ecstatically that all true religion must be rooted in nature (147).

Der Ketzer von Soana is a Rahmenerzählung in which the author himself appears in the role of editor-publisher.7 In the few pages of the frame (approximately twenty in all, out of a total of one hundred and sixty-five) Hauptmann, writing very soberly and objectively, presents the tale of the fallen priest as a hitherto unpublished manuscript, the authenticity of which he attempts to prove to his reader by having his narrator, the heretic, assert twice (22, 160) that it is based on actual fact. Indeed, he even describes the manuscript (23). The frame presents in brief outline, it will be remembered, the account of the friendship which developed between the heretic of Soana and the “editor-publisher” of his narrative. From the outset it is obvious that the heretic is a most unusual man. When we first see him he is tending a flock of goats. He is, however, no ordinary goatherd, for he is wearing spectacles, and his face, we are told, is that of an educated and cultured man. The first concrete visual image which we are made to associate with him is interestingly that of Donatello's John the Baptist, a comparison which at once conjures up a picture of the ascetic saint of the wilderness, the “forerunner” of Christ, who preached with such fiery intensity about the new way of life and salvation. Of the richness of his personality and the wide range of his erudition we learn only later. During this first encounter we are shown only an action: his calmly efficient, yet infinitely gentle treatment of the she-goat who has just given birth, a scene which may be cited at once as typical of the concentration and economy of the tale as a whole, since, as we see later, it is not only affective, but also quite functional from an artistic point of view in establishing the very important initial impression of the heretic-hero as a tender and compassionate man, and in sounding the note of the mystery of birth which will become one of the main leitmotifs of the work.

In the frame we also find the first exposition of the hero's unorthodox religious views. No longer does he stand with those who address their prayers to “einen Gehängten am Galgen” (19). To him a living buck or bull seems a far more fitting object. All peoples of antiquity have honored the bull, the ram, the buck, he declares, and he affirms the worship of these symbols of aggressive animal vitality: “Dazu sage ich: ja!—denn die zeugende Macht ist die höchste Macht, die zeugende Macht ist die schaffende Macht, Zeugen und Schaffen ist das Gleiche” (19). The Eros-cult which our heretic hero exalts is thus, as he says, “kein kühles Geplärr von Mönchen und Nonnen,” but an active faith requiring of each of its adherents that he lead a creative life by exercising his procreative powers.

The Erzählung des Berghirten is the step by step account of the conversion of a young priest to this Eros-cult. It begins shortly after the hero, Francesco Vela, has received his first assignment to a mountain village parish on Lake Lugano. His most ardent wish has always been that he might be assigned after his ordination to a remote parish where he could dedicate himself completely to the service of God; and since coming to Soana he seems to have realized this wish, for already his intense piety has caused his parishioners to regard him as a saint. His natural introversion and his sheltered existence at home and later as a seminarian have prepared him for this complete withdrawal. Reality has, as it were, never touched him in any vital way hitherto. In this least likely of places, however, it suddenly intrudes itself in a most unexpected manner with the visit of Scarabota, a visit which is but the first of a series of strange new experiences which will completely transform Francesco's life.

Francesco's first ascent to the mountain dwelling of the Scarabotas occurs, it will be remembered, on a beautiful spring morning shortly before Easter. Hitherto the young priest, although named for St. Francis, has been insensitive to the beauty of nature. On this morning, however, new life seems to be stirring everywhere, and all creation seems to pulse with vital energy. In his own blood, too, the young man senses this “feine Gährung des Frühlings” (39), and he rationalizes his delight in this anomalous feeling by telling himself that it must be holy since it is so wonderful! In this sublime moment, as his senses are opened for the first time, he feels both “erhaben-gross” and “winzig-klein” (39), and instinctively he expresses his awe by making the age-old sign of his faith, a sign which in this instance indicates both how profoundly he has been affected and how deeply he mistrusts and fears his emotion. This as yet ineffable rapture becomes identifiable feeling a few moments later when the young priest, who has paused to ponder the strange experiences of the morning, is suddenly engulfed by another intense wave of emotion. This time, however his feeling is articulate, revealing itself as “eine klare und ganz grosse Empfindung von Dasein” (49), and as this great feeling of the fullness of Being courses through him for the first time he is significantly so overcome that he forgets momentarily both that he is a priest and that he has come on a priestly mission. He forgets even to make the sign of the cross.

This mystical pantheistic experience of Being with its attendant awakening of all of Francesco's senses prepares the young priest for two more fateful experiences on this same morning: his encounter with Scarabota's phallic symbol, and his first meeting with Agata. It is at once apparent to Francesco that Scarabota's wooden fetish is a talisman of the ancient Priapus-cult which his church has been seeking for centuries to eradicate in Italy. The highly ambivalent feelings which he manifests toward it accordingly strike us as quite strange. For he is both fascinated and repelled at the same time. He cannot repress an urge to touch the object and to examine it at close range. As he takes it into his hands, however, his fascination suddenly turns to anger, and in a moment of blind rage he throws the image into the fire. Both Francesco's initial fascination and his subsequent violent rejection of the provocative fetish betray the fact that it has troubled him deeply. It will trouble him from this moment on both in his dreams and during his waking hours, filling his nights with orgiastic visions and causing him to see phallic shapes everywhere in nature. Francesco is again troubled when Agata's shadow first falls over the threshold of the hut. As he sees the shadow “ein Schrecken unerklärlicher Art” (63) passes over him, and he crosses himself, as though he had received a premonition of impending danger. The young priest knows that this child must be “von Grund aus verderbt” (63); yet her grace and beauty, her calm self-assurance as she moves about the hut, and her seeming lack of any feelings of guilt soon allay his mistrust; and as he watches her “verstohlen durch die Brille” (64) he begins to doubt more and more whether a child of sin could ever become a creature of such magnificent composure. Her singing, which he hears a little later over the wild haranguing of her mother, confirms this impression of her essential purity; and as he listens once again a wave of emotion sweeps over him, associated this time with “einer Bangigkeit, wie er sie nie gefühlt hatte” (65). The smoke-filled, stall-like hut seems in this moment transformed, as if by magic, into the most charming of the crystal grottos of Dante's Paradiso (65-66), and the young priest is completely enraptured. Since ecstasy such as he now feels has always been a religious emotion for him hitherto, he can now feel only as holy the tremendous emotion which overwhelms him, and thus, though unconsciously, he rationalizes and justifies it.

Confused and perplexed after this experience, Francesco pauses before beginning his descent to collect his scattered thoughts and to regain his customary inner calm. Reading his breviary, however, does not help as he had thought it would, for even prayer cannot banish in this moment the very disquieting thought that he has somehow forgotten on this day to perform some vital part of his mission. As he sits thus meditating he falls into a reverie from which he is aroused by two incidents which, though in themselves inconsequential, assume in his by now overly stimulated brain an exaggerated significance. First the right lens of his spectacles cracks suddenly under the influence of the cold mountain air; and almost in the same moment he is assailed by two begging goats. From this predicament, which he accepts good-naturedly, he is rescued by Agata, who appears just in time to save his breviary which one of the goats has begun to devour, Francesco thanks the shepherdess for “rescuing” him, and as she returns his breviary jokingly remarks how strange it is after all that he is “trotz meines Hirtenamts” so helpless against her flock (70). Hauptmann's mention of the fact that Francesco looks upon these incidents with “erheblicher Uebertreibung” is sufficient to cause the reader also to focus attention on them; and it is important that he should, if he would appreciate fully the intricate and closely-knit structure of the tale. For here apparently trivial happenings bring out very important facts, in this instance the helplessness of the young priest in a real predicament (whose symbolic overtones are obvious), and his rescue from this situation by Agata. The reader who perceives this will notice later that this scene is not merely a humorous episode, but actually a prefiguration of very important later developments, and hence an integral part in the structure of the tale. The scene also illustrates Hauptmann's use of musical techniques in the composition of the tale. When Agata returns Francesco's breviary Hauptmann compares her, we remember, to a “young Eve.” This is not only the first use of a metaphor which will recur and even become an integral part of the dominant imagery-complex of the tale later; it is also the first sounding of a musical motif, which we might call the “Adam-Eve-Paradise” theme, and which will recur again and again until it becomes at last a dominant theme in the purely symphonic passages of the climactic “Bergschlucht-Szene.”

The young priest is first associated with Adam after his first “fall,” his furtive embrace of the statue of the nude marchesina while locked in the studio of his deceased sculptor-uncle in Ligornetto (through this embrace he becomes, it will be remembered, a “fassungslos verwirrter und zerknirschter Sünder, dem nicht besser zumute war, als jenem Adam, der die Stimme des Herrn vernahm, nachdem er vom Apfel der Erkenntnis gekostet hatte” (82)). At this point Francesco's priestly moral code causes him still to look upon the tasting of the forbidden fruit as a sinful act, and hence to regard Adam as fallen man. Later, however, after he has himself tasted of the forbidden fruit, Adam will become for him the symbol of man-triumphant who dares to do that which he knows will make him like unto God. Again in this sequence we see exemplified the closely knit structure of Der Ketzer von Soana, for the fall which it describes occurs only after the way has been carefully prepared psychologically. After his first visit to the Scarabotas Francesco seeks relief from his anomalous desires, we recall, in confession. Ironically, however, the effect of disclosing these feelings is precisely the opposite of the desired one, for during confession these hitherto vague and undefined desires acquire an actual name and thus become articulate feelings. The inevitable next step is the overt act to which these newly formulated desires impel the young priest directly following his confession.

Weeks of self-flagellation follow this fall, but all suffering and anxiety are forgotten on the glorious May morning on which Francesco ascends Monte Generoso for the second time. Nature appears on this morning as the “Garden of Eden,” and the young priest feels himself “surrounded by Paradise” (87). Leaving the village he greets a group of women who are gathered about the ancient stone sarcophagus which they habitually use for their laundry because of the clear mountain water which flows through it; and as he chats amicably with them suddenly he perceives a detail of the sarcophagus which had escaped him before: the ornamental frieze on its marble sides which represents a Bacchanalian procession. A few weeks earlier the exuberant sensuality of these figures would have shocked and incensed him; now, however, to his amazement he finds it not at all strange that the ancients should have decorated the coffins of their dead with figures reminiscent of the joys and pleasures of life. He finds it good too, that the vessel of death should continue to serve a useful function for the living. In this moment of insight Francesco realizes that the wonderful message of the continuity and indestructibility of life proclaimed by the figures on the sarcophagus is also an “Evangelium” (89) which is no less wonderful than the Christian gospel of the resurrection. This insight provides a key to the understanding of the wonders which rush in upon Francesco's consciousness during the ascent. Suddenly it is clear to him that the message proclaimed by the figures on the sarcophagus may be read in all nature, in every blade of grass, in every one of the sun's rays. With this realization all nature assumes “ein gleichsam sprechendes Leben” (89). The voices which speak, however, tell not of “dem Geschaffenen,” but of “Schöpfung” (90). In the young priest's first moment of apocalyptic vision the world of nature thus reveals itself to his astonished eyes as a vitalistic world in which the driving force is the will to creative self-expression. “Wo gäbe es da irgend etwas in der Natur,” he asks, “darin nicht ein drängender Wille sich betätigte?” (90-91).

The erotic overtones of the ecstasy which Francesco feels in this moment are revealed both in his sudden dejection at not seeing Agata with the others at the chapel, and in his unnatural exuberance while celebrating mass in her presence later. In this strange ritual, which becomes a bizarre combination of a Catholic mass and a bacchanalian revel (101-102), Francesco celebrates not only the mystery of the transubstantiation, but also the mysterious transformation which is taking place simultaneously in his own inner being. At the consecration he feels the love of the Saviour inundating him like a rain of divine fire and liberating all the love pent up in his heart, which now expresses itself as pan-erotic feeling: “Mit unendlicher Liebe weitete sich sein Herz in die ganze Schöpfung hinein und ward mit allen Geschöpfen im gleichen, entzückten Pulsschlag verbunden” (100). In this mystical moment he feels himself one of the elect, one whom God has chosen to exalt above the “wimmelnde Gezücht der Kirchen und ihrer Pfaffheit” (101); and as he stands before the altar with the elevated chalice he suddenly senses the surrounding presence of listening angels, saints, and apostles. Still more wonderful than these holy images, however, is the faint sound of clashing cymbals which resounds in this same moment outside as the accompaniment for the bacchanalian figures of the sarcophagus who, clearly visible through the chapel walls and dancing wildly “in verzückter Raserei,” bear in triumphant procession the wooden fertility symbol of Luchino Scarabota.

The ambivalent emotions described symbolically here continue to trouble Francesco during the ensuing days. Even his prayers are affected, for though still fervent, they now often lack clarity and directness. At times he even wonders whether the feelings which he pours forth in them are of heavenly origin “oder aus anderen Quellen” (104). Two prayers, which occur only four pages apart in the narrative, reflect the rapidity with which the transformation begun during Francesco's second experience on the heights is accomplished in the troubled days which follow. The first is still humbly Christian in spirit: “Gib mir meine bisherige Enge und meine Sicherheit,” the young priest implores, begging God to lead him back into the circumscribed existence in which he formerly found peace and comfort (104). The second, on the other hand, is militant in tone and culminates in the demand that God bless him by initiating him into the holy wonders of creation: “Lege mir nicht eine fertige Schöpfung in den Schoss, o Gott, sondern mache mich zum Mitschöpfer. Lass mich teilnehmen an deinem nie unterbrochenen Schöpfungswerk: denn nur dadurch, und durch nichts anderes, vermag ich auch deines Paradieses teilhaft zu werden” (108).

Even in demanding that he be made a “Mitschöpfer” Francesco wishes at this point still to participate as a priest in the work of creation. The dissolution of his priestly personality has, however, already progressed by now to a point where this has become almost impossible; and in the ensuing days this process continues uninterruptedly. Gradually the confines of the young priest's existence widen still further until he feels himself at last extended mystically into “das Allgemeine” (109). Nature becomes each day more vibrantly live before his enchanted gaze, and everywhere he sees gods being born in nature where before it had seemed dead (109). The ambivalent nature of these lofty feelings is revealed once again, however, in the “Höllenpein” which consumes the young priest when Agata fails to appear at his second mass for the Scarabotas. When he descends to the village after this mass he feels that he has been triply rejected, as a servant of God, as a dispenser of the sacrament, and, most important of course, as a man. In his imagination he pictures Agata in the embrace of some shepherd whose company she has preferred to attending mass; and he is far more relieved than he should be when he unexpectedly encounters her later astride her goat and leading her tiny bacchanalian procession. As he reprimands her he becomes aware for the first time that he is no longer master of his feelings in her presence, for he cannot conceal from himself that his exaggeratedly stern tone is but the outward expression of an inner elation which he hopes in this manner to conceal.

Francesco's next confession to the crude, ill-kempt priest of his native village is a depressing experience which, far from bringing solace, only alienates him further from the church. The last climactic step in the development of his illicit passion occurs, however, only when the villagers' cruel persecution of Agata forces him as the representative of mercy to identify himself with her. As he enters this last phase of his hopeless struggle against his love for Agata a host of images surging up from the depths of his memory reminds him at this fateful juncture of all that he has been and in this moment still is. But in the same instant another vision also rises up, effacing the first, the vision of a future “both sweet and terrible,” but to which he knows that he is inevitably committed for the remainder of his earthly existence (134). In causing him to become responsible for Agata's safety, circumstances have given him, as he sees it, even “ein persönliches Anrecht auf sie” (140), and he sees no possibility of withdrawing from this commitment which coincides with what has been from the beginning his unconscious desire. Even the terrifying knowledge that he stands on the brink of mortal sin, even the apocalytic vision of the avenging angel with drawn sword are now powerless to hold him back. His conscious will, we have been told, is “gleichsam enttront” (134), and in its place another will now rules into whose power he is henceforth delivered “auf Gnade und Ungnade” (134), and which now leads him to follow his deepest desire. The word “Gnade,” which arrests our attention here, occurs again a few pages later in an even more significant context when the young priest, after a last terrible moment with his conscience, sinks helplessly to his knees before Agata, uttering a sound which is “zugleich ein wildes, lebensbrünstiges Stöhnen und Röcheln um Gnade” (140). Here again we may admire the beautiful architecture of Der Ketzer von Soana, for, as we shall see, these two references are actually prefigurations whose full implications will become apparent only in the problematical last line of the tale with its otherwise incomprehensible reference to Agata's “gnadenlose Hände.”

Up to this point the main course of the action of Der Ketzer von Soana might be described as a constant movement upward, since, as we remember, Francesco's most profound insights and his most formative experiences have come to him in the heights. The climactic final sequence, however, is laid in a deep ravine. The reasons are manifest. On the literal level Hauptmann is able to show in the descent of the lovers a willful withdrawal from the cruel world of bigotry and persecution into the protecting warmth of earth. On the symbolic level, however, he makes the scene serve a much deeper artistic purpose, that of suggesting a psychological process: Francesco's experience of the innermost depths of his own being. The young priest feels no regret at having sloughed off his old existence (which now seems like “Gewürm im Staub” (144), for before him, he knows, lies a wonderful new life in which he and his beloved will be like Adam and Eve in the first days of creation. The gates of Paradise seem to open once again to him and his beloved, and he enters with her. Within he feels complete security, even though he knows that his paradise is surrounded by a hostile world (144), for he is confident that no one can prevent his enjoyment of the transfiguring experience which now comes to him in the moment of love's fulfillment, that no one can deprive him of this momentary gift of “Gnade” (145). In this idyllic scene not only the action of the tale, but also the lyricism of its language reach their climax simultaneously. The main imagery-complexes, the plant and water images, combine now with the Adam-Eve-Paradise motif to produce a symphony of colors and sounds which doubly enhances the affective power of the sequence by adding a beautifully textured musical background and richly endowing the scene as a whole with symbolic overtones. All nature seems to become animate and to echo the lovers' abundant joy: the stars tremble with bliss; the clouds low like “schwelgerisch weidende Kühe”; exquisite purple fruits offer themselves as refreshment; and trees and flowers exhale a spicy fragrance. The water flowing endlessly about their tiny island bower suggests both their sense of satiety and abundance and, in a large metaphorical sense, the eternal streaming of all life in which both now participate creatively for the first time. The plant-images reflect their pulsating feelings and suggest their almost mystical sense of perfect integration in nature during this magic night. All of the wonders of this night are epitomized, however, in the highest wonder of all, in the Eve with whom Francesco-Adam, the “first created man” and “sole master of his Eden”, shares his paradise, the Eve whom God has placed among all these wonders as “die Frucht der Früchte”, die Würze der Würzen” (145). For to Francesco, who is overawed by the mysteries revealed to him this night, Agata, who has made this experience possible, seems the “Paradiesesfrucht”, not from the “Baum der Erkenntnis des Guten und Bösen”, but from the tree which makes one like unto God. The young priest desires no more transcendent experience than this night has brought: “Erstorben war … jeder Wunsch nach einer höheren, einer andren Glückseligkeit. Auf Erden nicht und im Himmel nicht gab es Wonnen, die mit der seinen vergleichbar waren.” (154)

During this night of love an overpowering “Zauberei” transforms Francesco into a “vollständig willenlosen und, ohne Agata, vollständig leblosen Opfer des Eros” (159), and he is henceforth no longer “Herr seines Lebens”. This reference to Eros recalls to the reader the heretic's profession of his own religious beliefs in the frame part of the tale (18) and thus identifies him at this critical moment with the hero of his narrative. In following the cult of Eros8 the heretic has experienced, significantly, not a lessening, but a quickening of religious feeling; for if as a priest he has known moments of deep fervor, these have in no way equalled the experience of the first awakening to the joys of sensual love. The perpetual state of ecstasy in which he now seems to live springs, as he explains, from his awareness that through the expression of his own procreative powers he has at last become an integral part of the dynamic life-process as a “partner-creator” (“Mitschöpfer”). If he exalts the primeval generative forces of nature, however, this does not mean that he has become a mere sensualist in his new life. On the contrary, with the deepening of his emotional life has come seemingly a corresponding increase in intellectual power. Even outside the church he continues to live as a spiritual man dedicated to higher pursuits and devoting many hours to reading and meditation. Proof of the high level of his personal culture is the learning which he reveals in his conversations and the elevated tone of his narrative, which reflects a man both well-read and rich in human insights. In still another positive way Hauptmann has made it quite evident that his heretic-hero in divesting himself of his priest's garb has still not given up the best of his former life, for he has him first appear, we remember, as the good shepherd tending his flock.

The woman who shares the fallen priest's new life appears but once in a very brief sequence at the close. But the novel ends, and significantly I think, with a vision of her as she ascends into the heights. This final scene is described by the narrator who has just left his host and is on his way back to the village. Suddenly his musings over the strange things he has just heard are interrupted by the sound of a female voice singing. It is a voice of such beauty, he tells us, that all nature seems to hold its breath to listen. At last the singer herself comes into view carrying a clay vessel on her head “like a kanephoros of old” and leading a little girl by the hand. Something almost awe-inspiring, even frightening about this proud, self-assured woman causes the narrator to feel “quite, quite small” in her presence. To those sweet, “almost scornfully curled lips” there could be no contradiction, he knows, nor would resistance be possible in face of the imperious demands of the woman's lithe and sensuous body. This superb female, who seems the incarnation of natura naturans (the narrator compares her here to the Syrian goddess, Atargartis) appears to have ascended from the depths of earth, and she is ascending still when she disappears at the close into the rays of the setting sun.

In harmony with the main course of the action of Der Ketzer von Soana this brief closing sequence is also a highly poetic vision of an ascent. As a final tableau it possesses great affective power and would certainly leave us with the loftiest of feelings, were it not for the rather disturbing last line which, if we consider its full implications, casts a troubling shadow not only over the radiance of the final scene, but over the work as a whole by pointing out forcibly at the very close of the novel that the hero's wonderful new life is actually a life of dependence to the same degree that it is a life of freedom. For if the narrative of the ex-priest is a glowing account of a courageous act of self-liberation from an existence in which he could not realize fully his potentialities as a human being, it is also undeniably the account of a lonely man who has built his life almost entirely around one individual into whose hands he has entrusted his entire personal happiness. And now, in the very last line, we are suddenly told that these hands are “gnadenlos”! The line reads: “Sie stieg aus der Tiefe der Welt empor und stieg an dem Staunenden vorbei—und sie steigt und steigt in die Ewigkeit, als die, in deren gnadenlose Hände Himmel und Hölle überantwortet sind.” Curiously, only one critic, Paul Fechter, has devoted serious consideration to this line.9 For him it expresses a “secret skepticism” which causes him to doubt whether the Eros-religion so enthusiastically proclaimed by the heretic hero could ever have supplied the final answer for Hauptmann himself. He goes so far, indeed, as to suggest in light of this line that we regard the Ketzer's profession of faith (and hence Hauptmann's, too, if we read the work as Bekenntnisdichtung) not as an actual expression of belief, but rather as an ardent desire to believe; and this reading leads him to conclude that the message of the work is essentially negative.

Fechter's sensitive explanation sheds most interesting light on this last line. Yet, if skepticism and even doubt are reflected in the adjective “gnadenlos,” as he asserts, certainly optimism is expressed as well in the verb “steigen” which occurs four times in this one line, progressing from past to present tense, and literally forcing our gaze to travel ever higher as we watch Agata's figure ascending into the sunset. If one reads Der Ketzer von Soana as a confessional work one can scarcely escape Fechter's conclusion Even from our brief discussion above, however, it emerges, I believe, that the work is not merely an account of a variety of religious experience, but, much more important, the account of a great human experience in which an individual discovers a new meaning for his life. In one important sense, of course, the hero is still a seeker at the close, for he is still uncertain about his ultimate destiny. This uncertainty, however, seems almost inconsequential when compared to the glorious certainty that he is experiencing the fullness of Being. Formerly, as a priest, he was accustomed to seek transcendence only in the Beyond. Now he finds transcendence in the immanent and in the miracle of his own existence as a being in Becoming. His life is no longer an anticipation of something better in an indefinite beyond, but an active and creative existence in which he experiences perfect integration and full rapport with all Being. Inspiration akin to his former religious ardor fills him still in his new life, for he is now impassioned with the thought that he himself is a creative being before whom lie infinite possibilities for creative activity. Read with these considerations in mind the last line loses the negative meaning assigned to it by Fechter and acquires a positive significance more in harmony with the affirmative tone of the work as a whole. We see it then as the final summary statement of the fallen priest's new situation in the world as a man committed by his own decision to the “gnadenlose Hände” not only of Eros, but also of life; and if these hands offer no sustaining grace, they can nevertheless bear him upward, as the ascending figure of Agata reminds us at the close.

Der Ketzer von Soana allows us the unique experience of witnessing a spiritual dilemma in the life of a priest, a representative of a highest human calling, a dilemma in which an ordained spiritual guide and dispenser of religious truth is forced by a series of soul-shaking experiences to re-examine the premises upon which he has based not only his own life hitherto, but also his teachings of others. As we watch the hero struggling to resolve his dilemma, however, we become ever more aware of the fact that he is not only a priest facing a great crisis of conscience, but also a man actively engaged in working out his destiny as a human being; and with this realization the human significance of the work becomes even more strikingly apparent. For the man who emerges triumphant from this dilemma is not only the exponent of a new religion, as some have claimed; he is also a heroic human being who stands at the close as the symbol of humanity as a whole in all the great moments when man has had the courage to emancipate himself from ways of life which have threatened to stifle his creative powers. As the representative of the highest human calling he stands even as the arch-representative of humanity. It is difficult to imagine how Hauptmann could have endowed his work with greater affective power and with profounder human significance than by thus choosing as the setting for his great spiritual drama the soul of a priest; for by showing us this drama in the soul of one appointed to be a spiritual leader of men he keeps ever before us the great truth that even the highest human beings are men, and that they, too, because they are men and hence fallible, can reach the light only by the sweat of their own endeavor.


  1. Hugh F. Garten, Gerhart Hauptmann, Cambridge, 1954, 42.

  2. It should be mentioned here that Hauptmann seems at first to have been more interested in his heroine than in his hero, for the original version of the tale (begun as early as 1911) was entitled Die syrische Göttin. In the final version, however, the only reference to this earlier title is an allusion to Agata as “eine syrische Göttin” at the very close of the tale (164). This and all subsequent page references are to the Fischer ed. of Der Ketzer von Soana, Berlin, 1918.

  3. The uncle of the young priest, Vincenzo Vela, was a well-known Italian sculptor from Ligornetto, near Soana, and a small museum there still houses some of his works. The name Scarabota belonged, as Hauptmann later revealed, to an Italian beauty whom he had met during a visit to Capri with his brother Carl.

  4. C. F. W. Behl, Zwiegespräche mit Gerhart Hauptmann, Munich, 1948, 288. Also Gerhart Pohl, Bin ich noch in meinem Haus? Die letzten Tage Gerhart Hauptmanns, Berlin, 1953, 98.

  5. C. F. W. Behl, Gerhart Hauptmanns Leben: Chronik und Bild, Berlin, 1942, 351.

  6. Gerhart Hauptmann, Griechischer Frühling, Berlin, 1921, 46. All subsequent page references are to this edition.

  7. As the “Herausgeber dieser Blätter,” op. cit., 15.

  8. For Hauptmann, too, Eros was one of the sublime mysteries, and his works both prior to and following Der Ketzer von Soana reflect his repeated attempts to express this mystery in poetic form.

  9. Paul Fechter, Gerhart Hauptmann, Leben und Werke, Dresden, 1922, 134.

John M. Ellis (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7721

SOURCE: “Hauptmann: Bahnwärter Thiel,” in Narration in the German Novelle: Theory and Interpretation, Cambridge University Press, 1974, pp. 169-87.

[In the following essay, Ellis probes narrative technique and patterns of imagery in Bahnwärter Thiel, linking these to the work's theme of “rigid control and its loss.”]

With Hauptmann's Bahnwärter Thiel1 we return to a narrative in which the story-teller neither figures as a character in the story nor presents himself as an identifiable man telling it, but remains as the unidentified epic narrator. His story is, in outline, a fairly simple one, but his descriptions of the settings in which it takes place are often outlandish. The forest, for example, has a strange appearance: ‘ Die Stämme der Kiefern streckten sich wie bleiches, verwestes Gebein zwischen die Wipfel hinein, die wie grauschwarze Moderschichten auf ihnen lasteten‘ (62). The moon appears as a ‘ riesige purpurglühende Kugel’ (65), and the sun on a fine Sunday morning has a weird effect on the landscape: ‘Die Sonne goß, im Aufgehen gleich einem ungeheuren, blutroten Edelstein funkelnd, wahre Lichtmaßen über den Forst …Von Wipfeln, Stämmen und Gräsern floß der Feuertau. Eine Sintflut von Licht schien über die Erde ausgegoßen’ (54). The description of the train is no less grotesque: ‘Zwei rote, runde Lichter durchdrangen wie die Glotzaugen eines riesigen Ungetüms die Dunkelheit. Ein blutiger Schein ging von ihnen her, der die Regentropfen in seinem Bereich in Blutstropfen verwandelte. Es war, als fiele ein Blutregen vom Himmel’ (53). In fact, the word ‘description’ fails to do justice to what can more accurately be thought of as the evocation of an apparition. There is clearly a pattern, running through all of these examples, of an idiosyncratic and exaggerated language, and this kind of language is the most interesting and immediately arresting feature of the narration; to consider how it functions in Bahnwärter Thiel must surely be an important part of interpreting the story. But oddly enough, critics have often described the narrative as though its most central feature did not exist. Bennett we return to a narrative in which the story-teller neither figures as a character in the story nor presents himself as an identifiable man telling it, but remains as the unidentified epic narrator. His story is, in outline, a fairly simple one, but his descriptions of the settings in which it takes place are often outlandish. The forest, for example, has a strange appearance: ‘ Die Stämme der Kiefern streckten sich wie bleiches, verwestes Gebein zwischen die Wipfel hinein, die wie grauschwarze Moderschichten auf ihnen lasteten‘ (62). The moon appears as a riesige purpurglühende Kugel’ (65), and the sun on a fine Sunday morning has a weird effect on the landscape: ‘Die Sonne goß, im Aufgehen gleich einem ungeheuren, blutroten Edelstein funkelnd, wahre Lichtmaßen über den Forst …Von Wipfeln, Stämmen und Gräsern floß der Feuertau. Eine Sintflut von Licht schien über die Erde ausgegoßen’ (54). The description of the train is no less grotesque: ‘Zwei rote, runde Lichter durchdrangen wie die Glotzaugen eines riesigen Ungetüms die Dunkelheit. Ein blutiger Schein ging von ihnen her, der die Regentropfen in seinem Bereich in Blutstropfen verwandelte. Es war, als fiele ein Blutregen vom Himmel’ (53). In fact, the word ‘description’ fails to do justice to what can more accurately be thought of as the evocation of an apparition. There is clearly a pattern, running through all of these examples, of an idiosyncratic and exaggerated language, and this kind of language is the most interesting and immediately arresting feature of the narration; to consider how it functions in Bahnwärter Thiel must surely be an important part of interpreting the story. But oddly enough, critics have often described the narrative as though its most central feature did not exist. Bennett2 said that this work exhibited ‘a detached transcription of reality … the transcription of reality is more meticulous, less artistically elaborated, than is usual with Saar’. This seems remote from Hauptmann's very unreal, and highly elaborate descriptions; yet its general direction is fairly typical. Martini, too, emphasises objective, realistic description:

Wir müßen wiederholen: dem Realismus der Aufnahme entspricht die Haltung des Erzählers. Er bewahrt die Objektivität der Distanz, er steht dem geschilderten Gegenstande gegenüber, nimmt ihn beobachtend entgegen und verhält sich empfangend zu ihm. Realistisches Erzählen benötigt diesen Abstand des Erzählers … 3

And so, too, does von Wiese: ‘Die liebevolle Beschreibung des Kleinen und Dinglichen erinnert noch an die Prosa des Realismus.’4 As for the stance of the story-teller, Martini believes that ‘Hauptmann wählt den Standpunkt des Zuschauers.’5

There is little doubt that these views of the narration in Bahnwärter Thiel derive from the literary historian's awareness that the story stands between Realism and Naturalism, rather than from its text; for the text itself will not support the judgment that the narrator is an objective and distanced spectator who transcribes passively received impressions from the outside world, or who describes simply and realistically without any artistic elaboration. To be sure, there is little direct comment by the narrator on the sequence of events, but it would be misleading to note this fact without also noting that he colours his descriptions of those events in a highly idiosyncratic way.6 Nor can the absence of direct comment be thought of as an absence of attitudes on the narrator's part;7 on the contrary, his attitudes and evaluations are conveyed very strongly by his grotesque descriptions and by his choosing to dwell on and elaborate certain aspects of the events. Selection and emphasis can be just as expressive of attitude as direct comment.

If we conclude that the narrator of Bahnwärter Thiel is by no means ‘objective’, then the next step is to consider his distinctive characteristics and concerns in the story. We have already seen that he often produces strange, exaggerated and unreal descriptions in which, for example, colour is an obtrusive feature. But before considering the place of these passages in the thematic structure of the text, it is necessary to consider in more general terms the way in which the narrator tells his story. It is true that direct comment on and interpretation of the events and characters is not common, but it is not entirely absent; his attribution of ‘brutale Leidenschaftlichkeit’ to Lene (38), for example, is interpretation and expression of attitude rather than mere description. We are offered the interpretation ex cathedra, and thus accept it as fact, but it is no less a conclusion of the narrator for that. Yet for the most part his presence is indeed felt in less direct though scarcely less forceful ways. On the contrary: he exercises control over the narrative in a very blatant way, allowing it to become very obvious that he includes in or omits from his narrative whatever he thinks fit, without regard for the expectations of the reader; and his manner of telling the story can change abruptly, too. The reader is constantly reminded of his sovereign, almost dictatorial, control over the content and manner of the narrative. Some examples will illustrate this.

At a key point in the story, the narrator changes into the present tense from the preterite which he had used hitherto. But the change occurs in mid-paragraph: ‘Thiel keuchte; er mußte sich festhalten, um nicht umzusinken wie ein gefällter Stier. Wahrhaftig, man winkt ihm—“Nein!”’ (58). The present tense continues for two more pages, then is replaced by the past once more, again in mid-paragraph: ‘Er meint sich zu erwecken; denn es wird ein Traum sein, wie der gestern, sagt er sich.—Vergebens.—Mehr taumelnd als laufend erreichte er sein Häuschen’ (60). This might seem an arbitrary use of narratorial control, and yet while in one sense the entrance and exit of the present tense are equally unexpected, not occurring at natural breaks in the narrative, in another sense there is a logic to these transitions; both occur as Thiel is struggling to grasp what is happening to him. The change of tense functions as a switch to an unreal present scene, and we thus experience the whole episode of Tobias' accident in the present tense of what is before Thiel's eyes. Thiel's wondering whether it is all real signals an end to this unreal mode of experience, and a return to the more comfortable world of the story-teller's preterite, with its air of referring to credible past events. While the narrator's moving from one tense to another is definitely a ruthless and sudden shift, it is certainly functional—a point which must be borne in mind when the other examples of his apparently arbitrary procedure are examined. Take his relating the facts of Thiel's first and second marriages, for example; the sequence in which the information is given is again idiosyncratic. We see Thiel alone in church, then together with a wife, then alone again; and only after the last pseudo-fact are we told the important real fact, which would seem to overshadow the mere fact of his being alone in church by a long way: ‘An einem der vorangegangen Wochentage hatte die Sterbeglocke geläutet; das war das Ganze’ (37). But it is not ‘das Ganze’; we still know only half the story. Only when Thiel wishes to marry again do we learn, as if by chance, what actually happened. The priest then asks Thiel why he wishes to remarry so quickly, and we are told that Thiel wants someone to look after his son. At last we find out, almost by a chance remark, that Minna died in childbirth, and the child lived (38). Now this withholding of information and subsequent introduction of it in a curiously accidental way is not indicative of a general tendency to be sparse in the provision of the detail of events; on the contrary, on the first page of the story, just as we are conspicuously not being told how Minna died, or of Thiel's child, we are instead told of his having been hit by objects thrown from the train, at a length which is disproportionate to the brevity of the account of the more important events. Again, a very arbitrary attitude to what deserves a further explanation, and what does not, seems to be shown.

Equally indicative of the narrator's blunt assertion of his prerogative is his brusque beginning of the second section of the story: ‘An einem Junimorgen gegen sieben Uhr kam Thiel aus dem Dienst’ (42). After the general and somewhat remote character of the narration up till now, this has an immediate effect, as if to announce through its determined and precise insistence on a definite time, place and occasion: now we are getting down to business! This closing in to definite events gives the impression that the narrator intends to select an important occasion from Thiel's daily life. All narration must be selective; but this narrator makes an issue of his selectivity, and draws our attention to it by his sudden switch from general comments about Thiel's household to this highly specific beginning.

Perspective can change in the same drastic way, as at the end of the story when the narrator stops seeing the whole story from the point of view of Thiel's presence. Throughout the story, for example, he gives us a view of only those actions of Lene which Thiel experiences, the others being hidden from us; now, instead of following Thiel to his murder of Lene and on the last journey through the forest, we switch to the perspective of outsiders: ‘Nach Verlauf von einigen Stunden, als die Männer mit der Kindesleiche zurückkehrten, fanden sie die haustüre weit offen’ (66). We then follow the men in their searching for Thiel and Lene, and so learn of what has happened through a radically different perspective to that chosen by the narrator hitherto.

Even in its style, the story shows the same decisive narratorial control in its alternating between terse, short sentences and long expansive ones; apparently, when the narrator wishes to expand he does, and otherwise the simplest and barest statement of a fact will suffice. The grotesque and unreal descriptions of natural objects fall into this same pattern; they are highly individual visions, in which the uniqueness of the way the narrator sees things is always uppermost.8

Taken together, all of this gives a strong impression of the narrator's being ever-present, dominating the narrative with obtrusive decisions and sudden changes in any of its aspects: how much information and of what kind, the balance of generality and detail, and the kind of perspective, style, or imagery. The narrator makes it very obvious that we experience everything through his mediation; though not obtrusively present in the classic manner of the explicitly moralising and interpreting narrator, he is in his own way just as evident, and a presence of which we cannot fail to be conscious. So much, then, for the extent of his presence; but what are the concerns shown in this presence, and how do they contribute to the meaning of the story? The best way into these questions is by means of his descriptions which link Thiel and the train, by showing Thiel in terms reminiscent of the train, and the train in terms reminiscent of Thiel. When describing either Thiel or the train the narrator often shows a sequence of events in which an initial calm is followed by the sudden onrush of a disturbance, which then gives way to a state of quiet once more. The first such description of the train is the fullest portrayal of the pattern. The feeling evoked by this sequence is important for the whole story, and I therefore cite it in full:

Ein dunkler Punkt am Horizonte, da wo die Geleise sich trafen, vergrößerte sich. Von Sekunde zu Sekunde wachsend, schien er doch auf einer Stelle zu stehen. Plötzlich bekam er Bewegung und näherte sich. Durch die Geleise ging ein Vibrieren und Summen, ein rhythmisches Geklirr, ein dumpfes Getöse, das, lauter und lauter werdend, zuletzt den Hufschlägen eines heranbrausenden Reitergeschwaders nicht unähnlich war.

Ein Keuchen und Brausen schwoll stoßweise fernher durch die Luft. Dann plötzlich zerriß die Stille. Ein rasendes Tosen und Toben erfüllte den Raum, die Geleise bogen sich, die Erde zitterte—ein starker Luftdruck—eine Wolke von Staub, Dampf und Qualm, und das schwarze, schnaubende Ungetüm war vorüber. So wie sie anwuchsen, starben nach und nach die Geräusche. Der Dunst verzog sich. Zum Punkte eingeschrumpft, schwand der Zug in der Ferne, und das alte heil'ge Schweigen schlug über dem Waldwinkel zusammen. (49-50)

The train begins as ‘Punkt’, and ends that way, but meantime has built up to a frightening climax of noise, vibration and smoke, to the point where it can not inappropriately be called a monster. Both before and after this frightening apparition there is silence. Now this climactic pattern is very characteristic of Thiel himself.9 When, for example, he arrives home to find Lene illtreating Tobias, there is the following description of the rise and fall of Thiel's emotions:

Der Wärter fühlte, wie sein Herz in schweren, unregelmäßigen Schlägen ging. Er begann leise zu zittern. Seine Blicke hingen wie abwesend am Boden fest, und die plumpe und harte Hand strich mehrmals ein Büschel naßer Haare zur Seite, das immer von neuem in die sommersproßige Stirne hineinfiel.

Einen Augenblick drohte es ihn zu überwältigen. Es war ein Krampf, der die Muskeln schwellen machte und die Finger der Hand zur Faust zusammenzog. Es liess nach, und dumpfe Mattigkeit blieb zurück. (46)

The same trembling begins the growing intensity, there is the same climax in a moment when something threatens to overwhelm him, and then the gradual disappearance of the tension. The same thing happens to him again a page later, as he looks at Tobias this time with a more explicit monster inside him which needs restraining: ‘Einen Augenblick schien es, als müße er gewaltsam etwas Furchtbares zurückhalten, was in ihm aufstieg; dann legte sich über die gespannten Mienen plötzlich das alte Phlegma, von einem verstohlnen begehrlichen Aufblitzen der Augen seltsam belebt’. (47) This link between Thiel and the train is so well developed that the interpretation of the whole story depends on it. Its details radiate out into the rest of the text; the train becomes a complex symbol of Thiel himself, and even an interpretation of him. When Tobias is hit by the train, for example, Thiel ‘reißt sich auf mit gewaltiger Anstrengung. Siene schlaffen Muskeln spannen sich … ’ (59). This is a subtle allusion to the earlier passage; the tensing of the muscles goes back to the previous occasion on which Thiel was nearly overwhelmed by something rising up within him, with its more explicit suggestion of danger, and so gently suggests the loss of control, the going berserk, which will result in his killing Lene and her child. Yet it also refers forward, for when the train starts off again it too ‘stößt weiße, zischende Dämpfe aus ihren Zylindern und streckt ihre eiserne Sehnen’ (60).

This anatomical and temperamental analogy between the two is extended into their being creatures of habit, governed by the strictest timetable. The train arrives on time, strictly according to the clock, but Thiel's life is no less ruled by time and order. Here is the point of the narrator's strangely incomplete and haphazard introduction of the events of Thiel's marriages. There is a logic to this haphazardness after all, for the whole of the first page of the story behaves as if Thiel were a mechanical thing that appeared at a certain place at a recurring time, just as his trains reach his part of the line at the same time each day. He is in church at exactly the same time, ‘allsonntäglich’ each week, like a train in a station. And just as Thiel's experience of the train is of things which he sees in the same place at the same time, irrespective of what has happened to them in the meantime, so we experience Thiel first of all in the same way; we wait for him to arrive week by week at the church, and only then learn what has happened since his last arrival there. The story's opening words refer to Thiel's appearance in church every Sunday as if reading from his timetable.10 This is followed up by constant references to the rigidity of his behaviour; a ‘peinlich gepflegte Uhr’ (60) is among his few possessions, he is described as ‘militärish gescheitelt’ (37) and as moving ‘mit langsamem, fast militärisch steifem Schritt’ (64), does things mechanically (48 and 58), and even his conversations with his little son are given much the same kind of appearance: ‘ “Was willst du werden?” fragte ihn der Vater und diese Frage war stereotyp wie die Antwort des Jungen: “Ein Bahnmeister”’ (43). His leisure time is spent in a highly regular pattern, for ‘Der ganze Ort hatte sich gewöhnt, ihm bei nur irgend erträglichem Wetter an dieser Stelle zu erblicken’ (43), while his packing up his things to go off to his post is similarly automatic: ‘Er brauchte dazu, wie zu allen seinen Verrichtungen, viel Zeit; jeder Handgriff war seit Jahren geregelt; in stets gleicher Reihenfolge wanderten die sorgsam auf der kleinen Nußbaumkommode ausgebreiteten Gegenstände: Messer, Notizbuch, Kamm, ein Pferdezahn, die alte eingekapselte Uhr, in die Taschen seiner Kleider’ (44).

Taken together, this series of motifs linking Thiel and the train add up to an interpretation of him by the narrator. Both are regular of habit, and channelled, but also intrinsically very powerful; the train is a giant and a monster, while Thiel too, with his ‘herkulische Gestalt’ (37), is also a giant of a man. In both, a great natural force is channelled and put onto narrow rails, which make it predictable and harmless. Yet in spite of this domestication the primitive power seems always dangerous and about to erupt; the train as it passes by is a frightening apparition, while the threat of Thiel's being ‘überwältigt’ is just as ominous. With both, the danger is of their leaving the rails and bursting the inhibiting bonds which hold them in check.11

It is Thiel's allegiance to two very different women, representing different forces in his life, which is at the root of the imbalance in his mind, and makes his control at times seem precarious; but at those moments when his control is threatened, a restraining force seems to operate, and this restraining force finds its expression in another of the metaphors which link Thiel and the train. After Thiel's avoidance of a confrontation with Lene over her treatment of Tobias, he returns to his post in the wood. The scene there is then made the subject of one of the narrator's grotesque descriptions:

Die schwarzen, parallellaufenden Geleise darauf glichen in ihrer Gesamtheit einer ungeheuren eisernen Netzmasche, deren schmale Strähne sich im äußersten Süden und Norden in einem Punkte des Horizontes zusammenzogen.

Der Wind hatte sich erhoben und trieb leise Wellen den Waldrand hinunter und in die Ferne hinein. Aus den Telegraphenstangen, die die Strecke begleiteten, tönten summende Akkorde. Auf den Drähten, die sich wie das Gewebe einer Riesenspinne von Stange zu Stange fortrankten, klebten in dichten Reihen Scharen zwitschernder Vögel. (49)

The scene appears as a giant spider's web. But the key to this metaphor lies in its having been used to describe Thiel's feeling of helplessness with Lene shortly before: ‘Eine Kraft schien von dem Weibe auszugehen, unbezwingbar, unentrinnbar, der Thiel sich nicht gewachsen fühlte. Leicht gleich einem feinen Spinngewebe und doch fest wie ein Netz von Eisen legte es sich um ihn, fesselnd, überwindend, erschlaffend. Er hätte in diesem Zustand überhaupt kein Wort an sie zu richten vermocht … ’ (47).12 The railway and telegraph lines form a net, a spider's web, which surrounds the train, just as there is a net around Thiel which restrains him. The way in which repression and inhibition work here is unusual in its direction, for it is Lene's sexual power and Thiel's response to it that inhibits any direct expression of allegiance to Minna and to the other side of his personality. The eventual breakdown comes from his obsession with his dead wife, his visions of her and a sense of guilt at his betrayal of her and her child. Lene's unattractive qualities are, of course, dwelt upon and there is nothing positive in the narrator's tone as he reports that Thiel ‘geriet durch die Macht roher Triebe in die Gewalt seiner zweiten Frau’ (39). Yet these forces also inhibit his madness.

It is Thiel's physical dependence on Lene which shows most clearly that susceptibility to visual impressions which is a recurring theme in the story and the source of yet another motif linking Thiel with the train. As Lene undresses, Thiel watches her: ‘Plötzlich fuhr sie herum, ohne selbst zu wissen, aus welchem Grunde, und blickte in das von Leidenschaften verzerrte, erdfarbene Gesicht ihres Mannes, der sie, halbaufgerichtet, die Hände auf der Bettkante, mit brennenden Augen anstarrte’ (55). Earlier, it was his looking at Lene which had quietened his anger over her mistreating Tobias: ‘Sekundenlang spielte sein Blick über den starken Gliedmaßen seines Weibes … ’ (47). But equally, it was his looking at Tobias that had threatened to produce an outburst: ‘Seine Blicke streiften flüchtig das heulende Tobiaschen. Einen Augenblick schien es, als müße er gewaltsam etwas Furchtbares zurückhalten … ’ (47). In both these examples, a rather studied use of ‘Blick’ with a tactile verb gives an unusual aura and an extra importance to visual impressions; and the same kind of formulation is used when Thiel is about to enter the house, and wants to avoid the issue by not looking at anything: ‘Seine Blicke hingen wie abwesend am Boden fest … ’ (46). When Thiel is said not to notice what is happening with Tobias and Lene, ‘er schien keine Augen für sie zu haben’ (42). It is after this introduction of the motif of Thiel's eyes and his ‘Blicke’ that the grotesque visual images in the text occur, and it is to this motif that these extraordinary descriptions must be related; but the description of the eyes themselves eventually becomes grotesque too. As he waits for news of his son ‘seine gläsernen Pupillen bewegten sich unaufhörlich’ (62), and Lene, after Thiel sees Tobias is dead, is afraid of ‘ein unstetes Licht in seinen Augen’ (64). As is usual with Thiel, any outstanding characteristic of his is matched by the train in dramatic fashion: ‘Zwei rote, runde Lichter durchdrangen wie die Glotzaugen eines riesigen Ungetüms die Dunkelheit. Ein blutiger Schein ging vor ihnen her, der die Regentropfen in seinem Bereich in Blutstropfen verwandelte. Es war, als fiele ein Blutregen vom Himmel’ (53). The monster engine has the same ‘Glotzaugen’ as Thiel has, the same staring and vacant eyes, which at one point (62) even give the impression of blindness. These ‘eyes’ produce the blood-red appearance of the rain, which is part of the riot of unnatural colour in the story, and of the series of highly unreal descriptions. The unreal visual images suggest in general not only something of Thiel's distorted vision, but also the extent to which he is attacked by and sensitive to visual impressions; this is the point of the impressionistic style13 in the thematic structure of the story.

The variety and strangeness in its impression of colour are one of the story's most striking features. In the space of a paragraph of twenty-two lines (44-5) for example, we have ‘die Wanduhr mit dem langen Pendel und dem gelbsüchtigen Zifferblatt’, the pine forest ‘dessen Nadelmaßen einem schwarzgrünen, wellenwerfenden Meere glichen’, ‘die rostbraunen Säulen des Hochwaldes’, ‘ein bläulicher, duchsichtiger, mit allerhand Düften geschwängerter Dunst’, ‘ein schwerer milchiger Himmel’, and ‘schwarze Wasserlachen’. These colours are almost all complex, and suggestive of a very strange light in which there can be black-green, transparent bluishness, and water that can look black. The unusual features of the colours—their unlikely compounding, colours unnatural for a particular object, and above all the obsession with blackness—all occur also in the first description of the train, where in a similarly short space there are a ‘schwarzweiße Sperrstange’, and ‘der rötlichbraune kiesbestreute Bahndamm’, ‘die schwarzen parallellaufenden Geleise’, ‘das schwarzgrüne Wipfelmeer’, ‘Ströme von Purpur’, and ‘Die Geleise begannen zu glühen, feurigen Schlangen gleich … ’ (48-9). This colouring finds its eventual climax in the sight of Tobias after the accident:

Vor seinen Augen schwimmt es durcheinander, gelbe Punkte, Glühwürmchen gleich, unzählig. Er schrickt zurück—er steht. Aus dem Tanze der Glühwürmchen tritt es hervor, blaß, schlaff, blutrünstig. Eine Stirn, braun und blau geschlagen, blaue Lippen, über die schwarzes Blut tröpfelt. Er ist es. (59)

These visual impressions overload Thiel's brain and bring him to the point of madness; as he waits at his post after the little boy is taken away for medical treatment, he is obsessed with the colour of Tobias, and repeats over and over again ‘braun und blau geschlagen’ (62). Thiel's direct speech now contains the same kind of colours, which emphasises that the narrator's descriptions are to be taken as projections of his vision.

Consistent with the story's concern with grotesque and grim colour, and with the power of visual effects, is its series of images of light, and their seeming always to be destructive. The train spreads a light that looks like a rain of blood; the same unnatural redness was present in the ‘Ströme von Purpur’ of the sun during the first description of the scene at Thiel's post, and there too as the sun sets it leaves the trees ‘in kaltem Verwesungslichte’ (49). On the next morning the sun is blood-red: ‘Die Sonne goß, im Aufgehen gleich einem ungeheuren blutroten Edelstein funkelnd, wahre Lichtmaßen über den Forst … Eine Sintflut von Licht schien über die Erde ausgegoßen’ (54). Flood, devastation and fullness of light occur together again in the last of the natural descriptions: ‘Die Sonne goss ihre letzte Glut über den Forst, dann erlosch sie. Die Stämme der Kiefern streckten sich wie bleiches, verwestes Gebein … ’ (62). This sequence of connected light imagery not only suggests the coming disaster, but also stresses the literally devastating character of visual impressions.

Much the same kind of pattern can be seen in other details of the story, among which the pattern of sounds is the most developed. The sound of the train is always given prominence: ‘Ein Keuchen und Brausen schwoll stoßweise fernher durch die Luft. Dann plötzlich zerriß die Stille. Ein rasendes Tosen erfüllte den Raum … ’ (49). Contrasted with this noise is ‘das alte heil'ge Schweigen’, which returns as the train recedes into the distance. At the end, we have similar noises from the train, but a rather more personal image of it as Thiel hears: ‘Das Keuchen einer Maschine, welches wie das stoßweise gequälte Atmen eines kranken Riesen klang … ’ (63). The last phrase suggests the breathing of the sick giant Thiel after Tobias' death: ‘das schwere, aber gleichmäßige Atemholen’ (66); but even without this more direct link, the verbal motif of ‘keuchen’ once more connects the two, for when Thiel witnesses the accident, his first response is: ‘Thiel keuchte … ’ (58), just as he answers only with ‘ein Röcheln’ (59) when told there may be a chance for Tobias.

Apart from their more specific functions which I have already discussed, the light and sound imagery contribute to a much more general pattern of textual details which harp on the coming disaster and so help to create the effect of strain and impending breakdown of Thiel's world. A bird appears at the railway line early in the story: ‘Ein Specht flog lachend über Thiels Kopf weg, ohne daß er eines Blickes gewürdigt wurde’ (49). It reappears at the time of the disaster, but so does the final phrase of this sentence, in a different context; ‘Das Hämmern eines Spechts durchdrang die Stille’ (62), is followed shortly by ‘Thiel würdigte sie [this time Lene] keines Blickes’ (64). The signal bell is heard frequently throughout the early part of the story (48, 52, 58, 61), but eventually is transformed into a metaphor of the approach of madness, not the train: ‘Aus dem nahen Birkenwäldchen kam Kindergeschrei. Es war das Signal zur Raserei’ (63). Once more, the approach of the train and the approach of madness are juxtaposed. Even Thiel's madness has ironic pointers early on. First his wife is said to be ‘rein närrisch’ because of her joy over the new field (43), then Tobias is called ‘närrischer Kerl’ by Thiel himself in reply to Tobias' pointing to the squirrel and asking ‘Vater ist das der liebe Gott’ (57). Both wife and son having been lightly called ‘närrisch’, it is next Thiel's turn; but the third time is serious, and it is precisely the repetition of what Tobias had said at the sight of the squirrel that makes Thiel exclaim ‘Aber mein Gott, das ist ja Wahnsinn’ (63). The early mention of the accident involving a ‘Rehbock’ is another example: ‘In einer Winternacht hatte der Schnellzug einen Rehbock überfahren’ (41). This introduces the notion of the train's running over something living, and the figure of the ‘Rehbock’ returns to remind us of this: ‘Ein Rudel Rehe setzte seitab auf den Bahndamm. Der Bock blieb stehen mitten zwischen den Geleisen’ (64-5).14 But the animal escapes, as if to emphasise that he is not the victim this time.

And so the impressionistic descriptions and the many forward-pointing details of the text build up a kind of pressure and create the sense of an overload of experiences and impressions in Thiel's mind. But perhaps ‘overload’ is not quite the right notion here to describe precisely what happens to Thiel, for the text provides its own idea: a slow fermentation. An apparently inconsequential detail of the story is its early account of how Thiel found and then later lost a bottle of wine near the railway-line:15

An einem heissen Sommertage hatte Thiel bei seiner Streckenrevision eine verkorkte Weinflasche gefunden, die sich glühend heiß anfasste und deren Inhalt deshalb von ihm für sehr gut gehalten wurde, weil er nach Entfernung des Korkes einer Fontäne gleich herausquoll, also augenscheinlich gegoren war. Diese Flasche, von Thiel in den seichten Rand eines Waldsees gelegt, um abzukühlen, war von dort auf irgendwelche Weise abhanden gekommen, so daß er noch nach Jahren ihren Verlust bedauern mußte. (41)

Yet this passage has many echoes in the text. When, for example, Thiel overhears Tobias being illtreated by Lene, and then returns to his post, he is troubled: ‘Thiel riss die Mütze vom Kopf. Der Regen tat ihm wohl und lief vermischt mit Tränen über sein Gesicht. Es gärte in seinem Hirn’ (52). The fermentation is now in Thiel's brain and it too is cooled by water. As we might expect, Thiel's madness at the end of the story recalls this idea of fermentation: ‘Alte, erfahrene Leute hatten kalte Umschläge angeraten, und Lene befolgte ihre Weisung mit Eifer und Umsicht. Sie legte Handtücher in eiskaltes Brunnenwasser und erneuerte sie, sobald die brennende Stirn des Bewußtlosen sie durchhitzt hatte’ (66). This, then, is the story's own way of seeing the effects of Thiel on the impressions which attack him. If one image of his going mad is the sudden interruption of calm and control by a monster which overwhelms him (the train image), the other, complementary image is that of slow ferment; the impressions received by his brain react together like the ingredients of a wine, until they build up so much pressure that the container erupts and overflows ‘einer Fontäne gleich’. Within the framework of this notion of Thiel's development, some occasions seem to indicate sudden shifts, or distinct stages in the fermenting process. As Thiel begins to throttle the baby, for example, he suddenly comes to himself: ‘Da fiel etwas in sein Hirn wie Tropfen heißen Siegellacks, und es hob sich wie eine Starre von seinem Geist’ (63). This, and the shortly preceding ‘Ein Lichtschein fiel in sein Hirn’, both suggest sudden movements within Thiel's mind, its physical instability, but it is the verbal link with ‘Sein Hirn gärte’ that gives them their full meaning. A similar shift occurs immediately after the first train description: ‘Und plötzlich zerriß etwas wie ein dichter, schwarzer Vorhang in zwei Stücke, und seine umnebelten Augen gewannen einen klaren Blick’ (51). The process of ‘gären’ has moved on a stage. The other image of Thiel's madness is present here too, as the train's violence (‘plötzlich zerriß die Stille’) is suggested.

When we think of Thiel's final madness, it is easy to treat it as something caused by the experience of seeing his son's accident; but the text presents it as a process of mental ferment beginning much sooner. Very early in the story the slow reaction in Thiel's mind is hinted at in a slightly menacing way:

Wohl wahr! Im Verlauf des Tages glaubte Lene mehrmals etwas Befremdliches an ihm wahrzunehmen; so im Kirchstuhl, als er, statt ins Buch zu schauen, sie selbst von der Seite betrachtete, und dann auch um die Mittagszeit, als er, ohne ein Wort zu sagen, das Kleine, welches Tobias wie gewöhnlich auf die Straße tragen sollte, aus dessen Arm nahm und ihr auf den Schoß setzte. Sonst aber hatte er nicht das geringste Auffällige an sich. (54)

This passage already suggests that something is evolving in Thiel's mind. And although he is said not to notice how Tobias is suffering at Lene's hands (42), his forgetting his lunch and consequently returning at an unusual time, suggests that at some level of his mind he is concerned about it; for it is the breakdown of his regular routine of packing his things that allows him to experience Tobias being ill-treated, and the possible connection between this highly uncharacteristic behaviour and its result cannot be ignored. Thiel is otherwise never late and always meticulous in his preparations to go to work. The disturbance of his equilibrium is reflected in more deviations from his clockwork habits; he is late for work, then falls asleep and awakens believing that he has missed the signal-bell. Thiel's precarious balance between Lene and Minna is evidently in danger. The accident finally brings on his breakdown, but only finishes a process which began long before that,16 by providing the final ingredient in the fermentation.

One last detail of the story remains to be considered, for it introduces another wine-bottle in the first paragraph:

Im Verlaufe von zehn Jahren war er zweimal krank gewesen; das eine Mal infolge eines vom Tender einer Maschine während des Vorbeifahrens herabgefallenen Stückes Kohle, welches ihn getroffen und mit zerschmettertem Bein in den Bahngraben geschleudert hatte; das andere Mal einer Weinflasche wegen, die aus dem vorüberrasenden Schnellzuge mitten auf seine Brust geflogen war. Außer diesen beiden Unglücksfällen hatte nichts vermocht, ihn, sobald er frei war, von der Kirche fernzuhalten. (37)

This might seem a lengthy digression, especially in view of its position in the text; but its relations with the rest of the text establish its importance. The two objects are contrasted, the one a rough piece of natural stone, the other a product of civilisation and culture. The first attacks Thiel by smashing his leg, the other hits him in the chest; here there are connotations of physical, as opposed to emotional attack. The contrast seems similar to that of the two wives: one rough, coarse and making a physical appeal to Thiel, the other more refined and the object of a ‘eine mehr vergeistigte Liebe’ (39). And yet, Minna's is the more dangerous attack on Thiel. It is she who is associated with the mental ferment of the wine-bottle, and a broken leg is less dangerous than a blow ‘auf seine Brust’. In a curious way, it seems that she actually becomes synonymous with the wine-bottle; for Thiel's finding the bottle which becomes the source of the fermentation image, his hiding it in the wood, and his regretting years later his loss of it, is all suggestive of his lasting sorrow over Minna's death and his secret dedication of his woodland retreat to her. The literal story makes Tobias' death an accident but the symbolism of the story makes it seem otherwise. It is when Lene visits the place dedicated to Minna that Thiel's world breaks down. He can no longer keep the two forces in his mind in equilibrium by separating them. As we have seen, the train and Thiel are constantly juxtaposed, so that the train provides an interpretation of Thiel. But nowhere does the train seem more completely to be a symbolic expression of Thiel's mind than in this opening paragraph, for here the train throws out the emblems of the two different women, and it only destroys Tobias, on whom the harmonising of the two women in Thiel's mind depends, when that harmony is breaking down.

Bahnwärter Thiel is a more complex story than it would appear to be. It is only superficially the story of an accident told in vivid language. The impressionism of its descriptions is part of the bombardment of Thiel by experiences which he cannot digest and which must cause him more and more inner turmoil; the dominant symbols of the work, the wine-bottle and the train, bring out the slow process of fermenting of these impressions on the one hand, and the abruptness of the final eruption of violence on the other. Both images suggest a containment and inhibition of natural force. Thiel's outer calm and orderliness is a repression of the dangerous ferment of his mind, with its two opposing forces, which must be kept in strict control.17 Meanwhile the narrator both creates this thematic network with his impressionistic and symbolic descriptions, and contributes to the theme of rigid control and its loss with his conspicuous domination of every aspect of his narrative.


  1. References are to Gerhart Hauptmann: Sämtliche Werke, ed. Hans-Egon Hass (Frankfurt a. Main/Berlin, 1963), VI, 37-67. There are separate essays by M. Ordon, ‘Unconscious Contents in Bahnwärter Thiel’, Germanic Review, XXVI (1951), 223-9; P. Requadt, ‘Die Bilderwelt in Gerhart Hauptmanns Bahnwärter Thiel’, in Minotaurus. Dichtung unter den Hufen von Staat und Industrie, ed. A. Döblin (Wiesbaden, 1953), pp. 102-11; W. Silz, ‘Hauptmann: Bahnwärter Thiel’, in Realism and Reality, pp. 137-52; B. von Weise, ‘Gerhart Hauptmann: Bahnwärter Thiel’, in Die deutsche Novelle, I, 268-83; F. Martini, ‘Gerhart Hauptmann: Bahnwärter Thiel’, in Das Wagnis der Sprache, (Stuttgart, 1954), pp. 56-98; W. Zimmermann, ‘Gerhart Hauptmann: Bahnwärter Thiel’, in Deutsche Prosadichtungen unseres Jahrhunderts, Interpretationen für Lehrende und Lernende, I (Düsseldorf, 1966), 69-87, first published as Deutsche Prosadichtungen der Gegenwart, I (Düsseldorf, 1956), 39-61.

  2. Bennett, p. 238.

  3. Martini, p. 74.

  4. Von Wiese, p. 268.

  5. Martini, p. 68. Once more, author and narrator are not distinguished.

  6. E.g. von Wiese: ‘Jede reflektierende Stellungnahme des Dichters ist vermieden’ (p. 268), and Martini: ‘Bewußt wird jede subjektive Identifikation mit dem Erzählten, jede direkte oder indirekte Selbstäußerung in ihm vermieden’ (p. 65). At another point in his essay, von Wiese writes in a somewhat different vein: ‘ … es geht hier keineswegs um eine beliebige Wirklichkeitsnachahmung, der irgendwo anfängt und irgendwo aufhört, sondern um eine bestimmte Art künstlerischer Verwandlung, die sich zwar an die wirklichen Objekte hält, an die gegenständliche Umwelt oder an psychologisch erfassbare Seelenvorgänge, aber ihnen durch eine bestimmte Weise des Verknüpfens und Wiederholens eine durch das Sicht-und Meßbare weit hinausweisende Bedeutung verleiht’ (p. 271). But it is still insufficient to see in this ‘Verknüpfen und Wiederholen’ the text's only deviation from or development of realism.

  7. Silz (pp. 142-3) points to some of the theoretical inadequacies of the term ‘Naturalism’ which relate to this point.

  8. These highly individual descriptions are on occasion thought of as stylistic defects; e.g., by Martini (p. 96), and by the array of early critics cited, apparently with sympathy, by S. D. Stirk in his introduction to the Blackwell edition of Bahnwärter Thiel and Fasching (Oxford, 1952), p. xxviii. This is a natural consequence of the assumption that the story is a ‘realistic’ or ‘naturalistic’ one; all that will not fit that assumption must be viewed as inconsistency and error.

  9. Klein's (Geschichte der deutschen Novelle, p. 436) brief and undeveloped comment is certainly to the point here: ‘Die Stille und die Stürme des Forstes, die unheimlichen Eindrücke, wenn ein Zug heranbraust—all das ist zugleich Ausdruck von Thiels Seele und Erlebnisweise. Stilles Grübeln und stürmische Erregung wogen ähnlich in ihm auf und ab.’ Cf. also Martini: ‘Die Antinomie dieser Mächte ist das Symbol der Antimonie in Thiel selbst, in jenem Manne, aus dessen gelassener Ruhe und beseelter, stiller Innerlichkeit die wilde Gewalt vernichtend aufsteigen und ihn selbst zerstören wird’ (p. 88). But a systematic development of this idea would necessitate his taking, for example, the later phrase ‘spannten sich seine Muskeln’ not as the poor attempt at theatrical effect which he believes it to be, but as part of the opposition of tension and relaxation which is to do with the sudden onrush of ‘wilde Gewalt’, in the train and Thiel. Requadt (pp. 105-6) also notes the connection of Thiel and the train, but thinks of this as showing Thiel's ‘Verfallensein an das Maschinenwesen’.

  10. The word ‘allsontäglich’ occurs twice in the first two pages; but the repetition cannot be considered a stylistic flaw in view of the importance here of the notion of similar actions repeated in a similar way. Cf. Requadt, p. 104.

  11. Many critics, in talking of the forces unleashed here, are tempted to use rather generalised metaphysical and mythological language. For K. S. Guthke, the trains are ‘Dämonen, Chiffren eines Unfasslichen’, and in the outcome ‘ … bricht denn das Dämonische unaufhaltsam auf ihn [Thiel] herein’ (‘Gerhart Hauptmann’, in Einführung in die deutsche Literatur, ed. J. Gearey and W. Schumann, New York, 1964, pp. 329-30). Von Wiese also invokes ‘das Dämonische’ (p. 280), and views the death of Tobias as the symbolic expression of ‘das übermenschlich Chaotische’ (p. 273). Martini speaks of ‘überpersönliche Lebensmächte’ (p. 73), finds in the descriptions of nature ‘eine schaffend-zerstörerische Allmacht’ (p. 83), and in those of the technological objects a ‘nicht vom Menschen gelenkte und beherrschte, sondern aus sich selbst lebende Gewalt, als ein Elementares, welches das Elementare im Naturvorgang ablöst und überdonnert’ (p. 86). My own view here is that notions such as ‘das Dämonische’ or ‘das Elementare’ are admittedly weighty but not very useful; they are too vague to say anything specific about this specific text, and they tend to inhibit further analysis by their grandiose air of finality. To talk of ‘überpersonliche Mächte’ in connection with Thiel, for example, does not help us to understand what he is or what happens to him, since the source of his personal catastrophe seems to be located elsewhere.

  12. Von Wiese (p. 273) notes this parallel (following Ordon, p. 226, and Requadt, p. 105), and comments: ‘Alles Unheimliche und Unbegreifliche verdichtet sich in dem Dingsymbol … ’ But it is less helpful to call something a symbol than to say what it symbolises.

  13. Stirk (p. xxv) also thinks the style of the story impressionistic.

  14. Silz (p. 139) notes that ‘the “recall” has an artistic effect’, and he discusses possible meanings of it; von Wiese also notes the recall, but instead of interpreting it, sees ‘Dämonie’: ‘Ist nicht alle Kreatur durch die Dämonie des Eisenbahnnetzes bedroht?’ (p. 282).

  15. Ordon (p. 229) does not interpret this motif in the light of its context in the story, but derives its significance directly from Jungian psychology: ‘Mythology refers to it as the “waters of life” or the “rebirth” archetypal experience’. She concludes that the motif is not well worked out in the story, for otherwise it would mark ‘rebirths’ of Thiel's psyche.

  16. Cf. Silz's accurate comment that ‘ … things that do affect him, without outward sign, tend to“go down” and accumulate, and erupt later’ (p. 146).

  17. Garten's view, shared in essence by many commentators, that Thiel is ‘driven, by inexorable circumstances’ (in ‘Gerhart Hauptmann’, German Men of Letters, ed. A. Natan, London, 1961, p. 240) is therefore not a useful view of his motivation.

James L. Hodge (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10247

SOURCE: “The Dramaturgy of Bahnwärter Thiel,” in Mosaic, Vol. IX, No. 3, Spring, 1976, pp. 97-116.

[In the following essay, Hodge interprets Bahnwärter Thiel as “a prose drama, patterned on classical Greek tragedy and influenced by a demonic, Dionysian concept of tragedy similar to that propounded by Nietzsche.”]

The symbolism ubiquitous in Hauptmann's novelle Bahnwärter Thiel (1888) has been interpreted from various perspectives. The trains and the weather have been interpreted by Professor Benno von Wiese1 and by Professor Karl Guthke2 as the expression of demonic forces. Professor Guthke specifically designates the demonic forces in Bahnwärter Thiel as “natural and technological.” Some of the other symbols, such as the two stags and the two squirrels, have been interpreted by Marianne Ordon3 as animal symbols for Thiel and Tobias.

Further interpretations of Bahnwärter Thiel should identify and explain the demonic power which underlies the technological and meteorological terror of trains and weather, and should encompass those other symbols which, Ordon suggests, should be the object of cooperative scholarly effort: the wine-bottles, the other animals, and so forth. One interpretation of Bahnwärter Thiel which comprehends all of the symbolism hitherto recognized in the story may be stated as a thesis: that Bahnwärter Thiel is a prose drama, patterned on classical Greek tragedy and influenced by a demonic, Dionysian concept of tragedy similar to that propounded by Nietzsche; that Hauptmann's story displays the full tragic rhythm (that is, tragic flaw, conflict, recognition, reversal, passion and resolution) and also the classical tragic conventions (chorus, prologue, complication, crisis, passion, denouement, exodus, and adherence to the unities); further, that this prose tragedy is founded, as was Greek tragedy, upon a “mythological” background, but that the mythology of Bahnwärter Thiel is a mixture of classical and modern motifs. The latter interpretation is, in a sense, an expansion and specification of Professor Guthke's analysis.

Because Hauptmann himself disclaimed Nietzsche as his “Vordermann,” some justification of the above view may be in order. For example, Hauptmann had also referred to Nietzsche as one of the shapers of the modern German theater.4 Further, Professor Guthke describes a close affinity between Hauptmann's and Nietzsche's view of ancient Greece and of Greek drama:

Man spürt: Im Gegensatz zur klassischen und frühromantischen Auffassung sieht Hauptmann mit Nietzsche die Daseinsform des griechischen Menschen nicht, genauer: nur in geringerm Grade als apollonisch massvoll, heiter and abgeklärt in der lebensbezwingenden Ordnungsstiftung, sondern vielmehr als dionysisch: als Hingabe an den elementaren Lebenstrieb, der ihn schon an Schopenhauers Philosophie gefesselt hatte, an den Rausch und die Ekstase, die hinabreissen in die Tiefen und in den Schmerz der Zerstörung, zugleich aber auch hinaufführen auf die Höhen des Genusses der “unsäglichen Wollust des Daseins,” die Hauptmann auf griechischem Boden überkommt. Demeter, die Göttin der Erde …und Dionysos sind ihm entsprechend am stärksten gegenwärtig.5

A similar comparison is drawn in a discussion of Indipohdi in Hauptmann und Shakespeare by Felix A. Voigt and Walter A. Reichart: “Und wenn auch Hauptmann Nietzsche nicht als ‘Vordermann’ gelten lässt, so denkt man doch unwillkürlich an zwei Ideen dieses Philosophen: das ewig sich wiederholende Wunder des Lebenskreislaufes und den sich immer neu gestaltenden Willen zur Macht. … ”6

Whether or not Hauptmann can be considered a disciple of Nietzsche, he does place a similar interpretation upon Greek life and drama. Griechischer Frühling,7 especially that section which gives Hauptmann's impressions of Delphi—“shrine of Apollo and Dionysus” (p. 163)—is filled with reflections upon the nature and origin of drama. It is a lengthy homage to the people and the mythology whose influence he recognized even before he wrote Bahnwärter Thiel (pp. 15, 16). He speaks of myth and fantasy as the forces which created and encouraged Greek drama (p. 67), and several times ascribes the power of Greek drama to its function as a Gottesdienst (pp. 51-52, 79). He refers at least twice to the act of artistic creation as a “Dionysian act” (pp. 54, 72). He deplores the lack of such a creative force in his time (pp. 67-93) and also notes that Apollo and Dionysus still “people nature,” for those who can perceive their influence (p. 77). In commenting on the worship of Demeter, he mentions the accompanying worship of Dionysus, implying the latter's influence upon the cult of Demeter, and further comparing the cult of Dionysus to the worship of Christ. The italics following are mine, emphasizing those words which bear most significance for this consideration:

Man verehrte hier neben Demeter auch den Dionysos. Nimmt man hinzu, das der Mohn, als Sinnbild der Fruchtbarkeit, die heilige Blume der Demeter war, so bedeutet das, in zwiefacher Hinsicht, ekstatische Schmerzens- und Glücksraserei. Es bleibt ein seltsamer Umstand, dass Brot, Wein und Blut, dazu auch das Martyrium eines Gottes, sein Tod und seine Auferstehung noch heut den Inhalt eines Mysteriums bilden, das einen grossen Teil des Erdballs beherrscht.

(p. 59)

The symbolism of Bahnwärter Thiel is drawn directly from this ancient creative force which Hauptmann experienced so personally twenty years after writing his Novelle. From the depth of emotion Hauptmann reveals in Griechischer Frühling in his discussions of Greek tragedy and its mythological and religious background, it may be surmised that the network of symbolism in Bahnwärter Thiel is partly a conscious and partly an inadvertent creation. Hauptmann's preoccupation with Greek drama, with Dionysus, and with the similarities between Dionysus and Christ had already provided him with material. Many passages of Bahnwärter Thiel could have been written in the heat of inspiration, incorporating automatically the demonic symbolism outlined below.


The mythology of Bahnwärter Thiel is not a commonly known story retold from the dramatist's own point of view, as is, for instance, the material of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. Rather, it is a fund of common knowledge. The story was written just eighteen years after Nietzsche's Geburt der Tragödie; it was written during the period of Freud's first great influence, and it was written during the stress and turmoil of the Industrial Revolution. Hauptmann's predilection for social observation, for naturalistic description and for psychological characterization are encompassed here by a symbolism of contrasts. Persons and animals, natural and technical phenomena are a choric background for Thiel's thoughts and emotions. Violent sights and sounds are opposed to gentle creatures and mild weather. Night is opposed to day. In short, Dionysus is opposed to Apollo. The materials of this symbolic contrast are romanticized nature description, naturalistic social description, and pseudo- or pre-Freudian psychological description. These are the modern gods and demi-gods who lurk behind the scenes in the story, and who represent the latter-day incarnation of Pan, Dionysus, Apollo, et al.

The manifestations of this symbolism are perceived by Thiel, but they are not explained or analyzed for the reader. They are treated by the author just as the mythological material was treated by the Greek dramatist. The public is expected to recognize them—if not intellectually, then emotionally. It is their use, their placement in the story, and their frequent and seemingly unnecessary repetition which offer a clue to their deeper meaning.

At crucial moments in the story, certain creatures, objects and phenomena appear, and reflect the mood of the narration or of the main character. Night alternates with day in a significant pattern, storms occur during pivotal scenes, twilight separates one episode from another, trains rage by during violent emotional scenes, two stags are killed, two wine-bottles affect Thiel's life, a squirrel is called “der liebe Gott.” These are the symbolic expressions of the mythology behind Hauptmann's tale. They give voice, in varying ways, to the greater conflict which underlies Thiel's conflict with Lene. They express for Thiel and the reader the dark, Dionysian force of life and death and, often only by contrast or implication, the opposed Apollonian world of reason, habit, and every-day reality. They are the choric media through which Nietzsche's dynamic division of tragedy has been adapted for application to psychological processes, and narrowed to fit the life of a railroad flagman.

This cosmic and psychological division is expressed through six discernible media: 1) the personalities of the three main characters; 2) the landscape or geography of the small area in which the story takes place; 3) the wine; 4) the weather and other natural phenomena; 5) the trains; 6) the various animals. These different media refer to the underlying mythology, to each other, and to events in the story.

The first medium of expression is the characters themselves. Thiel—a reserved and taciturn man—spends his working hours at night thinking of his first wife. He has made his shack a kind of memorial chapel in which he can commune with her memory, if not her spirit. He passes constantly from ecstatic thoughts and dreams of her to real-life confrontations with his second wife, whose aggressive forcefulness and sexual magnetism make him her subject. Tobias, who was born of the first marriage, is sacrificed systematically to the interests of his younger half-brother and to the bile of his stepmother. The only tender emotions displayed throughout the story are the feelings of Tobias and Thiel for one another. Thiel is paralyzed by Lene, and Tobias is victimized by her. The outstanding characteristics of the three personalities are Tobias' nearly constant misery, Lene's forceful and sensual brutality, and Thiel's terrible division between the real and the unreal, between agony and ecstasy, and between phlegm and passion.

Most of the “events” of the story are actually trains of thought in Thiel's mind, interspersed by actual occurrences. Such a psychological study would seem at first to have little to do with the stuff of Greek tragedy, but Hauptmann himself considered that thought, not action, was the true subject of the dramatist's art,8 and that the task of modern drama was to present a “symbol of the soul.”9 In thought, he said, were all the elements of drama:

Allem Denken liegt Anschauung zugrunde. Auch ist das Denken ein Ringen: also dramatisch. Jeder Philosophy, der das System seiner logischen Konstruktionen vor uns hinstellt, hat es aus Entscheidungen errichtet, die er in den Parteistreitigkeiten der Stimmen seines Innern getroffen hat: demnach halte ich das Drama für den Ausdruck ursprünglicher Denktätigkeit, auf hoher Entwicklungsstufe, freilich ohne dass jene Entscheidungen getroffen werden, auf die es dem Philosophen ankommt.

Aus dieser Anschauungsart ergeben sich Reihen von Folgerungen, die das Gebiet des Dramas über das der herrschenden Dramaturgien nach allen Seiten hin unendlich erweitern, so dass nichts, was sich dem äusseren oder innern Sinn darbietet, von dieser Denkform, die zur Kunstform geworden ist, ausgeschlossen werden kann.10

As Hauptmann himself has noted, the period during which he wrote Bahnwärter Thiel was one in which he felt repulsed by the “barbarism” of the theater of his time. He had always felt himself drawn to the drama, had always felt the art of Shakespeare and Kleist to be his model. When he was “driven” to the Novelle and the novel as means of expression, this inclination was still strong within him, and thereafter reasserted itself emphatically.11 It is difficult to believe that his inclination toward drama and his admiration for two masters of the psychological drama did not have some effect on the prose he wrote in this period. Bahnwärter Thiel is the dramatization of a man's thoughts. The symbolism which surrounds the three main characters elevates this psychological study to the level of a prose tragedy patterned on a Greek model, illuminated by Freud and interpreted according to Nietzsche.

The second medium for symbolism is the geography or landscape of Bahnwärter Thiel. As already mentioned, Thiel has created a sort of chapel in his shack by the railroad, and he passes daily from his misery at home to his happiness here. He also passes from a world of physical, sexual fulfillment to a world of spiritual and emotional fulfillment. His shack is located in an isolated waste (Einöde) and cut off from the town by a forest and a river.

The isolation of Thiel's place of work is a geographical reinforcement of his spiritual isolation from Lene, from Tobias, and in general from the everyday world. He communes with the spirit of his first wife and quite literally forgets everything else except the forcefully intrusive and demanding trains. Outside of the brief and frantic visitations of the trains, Thiel is alone in a world of his own. When he has night duty, he spends hours with a picture of Minna, a Bible and a song-book before him on the table. Sometimes he sings the whole night through. Or perhaps he “chants” for “[er] geriet hierbei in eine Ekstase, dic sich zu Gesichten steigerte, in denen er die Tote leibhaft vor sich sah” (p. 40).12 When he thinks of Lene coming to his shack, he fears intrusion upon “sein Heiligstes” (p. 51).

The river Thiel crosses is the same river many others have crossed before him. They did not call it the Spree; they called it Styx or Lethe or some other name. It appears in many mythologies, and it functions as a barrier and a path to the “otherworld” of folk legend. To cross this river is to enter the realm of the dead, as Thiel enters the realm of Minna, his first wife. The dead were the first gods honored by men, and were still feared and honored as demi-gods within the framework of other, later religions. Thus the Spree is more than a stream to pass over on the way to work; it is the boundary between world and otherworld. As such, it always offers difficulties to those who wish to retrieve someone from the otherworld, e.g., the men who carry Thiel back home after Tobias' death: “Es kostete Mühe, ihn über die Spree zu bringen” (p. 65). That Thiel crosses the Spree at dawn and dusk is a reinforcement of this symbolism, as will be seen in the later consideration of the weather.

The forest through which Thiel passes is certainly a further separation of Thiel from reality, but it is also much more. Two elements of the description explain its symbolic purpose. The latter part of Thiel's walk to work leads through the edge of the forest, where older trees protect the seedlings planted there. Through nature, Hauptmann mirrors the relationship Thiel, like a parent of any species, should have with his offspring. Thiel passes daily through a reminder of his failure as a father.

The second element of the description is quite simple. This is a pine forest. Perhaps a pine forest is of no great botanical significance in Silesia, but it is of some symbolic significance to the interpretation of Bahnwärter Thiel. This forest, together with the wine-bottles, the weather and the trains to be mentioned below, defines the demonic forces which plague Thiel throughout the story. The thyrsus or staff carried by Dionysus and his followers was tipped by a pine-cone. The origin of certain Dionysian rites was connected with the hanging of village maidens from a pine tree.13 This forest recalls the evergreen forests which Hauptmann himself peopled with bacchic worshippers in Griechischer Frühling (pp. 68-69). It represents the re-consecration of those trees and forests of Germany whose pagan sanctity was removed by centuries of Christian prejudice against devil worship—the forests of which he is reminded in Griechischer Frühling when he senses the presence of divinity in the Grecian landscape:

Warum scheuen wir uns und erachten für trivial, unsere heimischen Gegenden, Berge, Flüsse, Täler zu besingen, ja ihre Namen nur zu erwähnen in Gebilden der Poesie? Weil alle diese Dinge, als Natur jahrtausendelang für teuflisch erklärt, nie wahrhaft wieder geheiligt worden sind. Hier, aber haben Götter und Halbgötter, mit jedem weissen Berggipfel, jedem Tal und Tälchen, jedem Baum und Bäumchen, jedem Fluss und Quell vermählt, alles geheiligt. Geheiligt war das, was über der Erde, auf ihr und in ihr ist. Und rings um sie her das Meer war geheiligt. Und so vollkommen war diese Heiligung, dass der Spätgeborene, um Jahrtausende Verspätete, dass der Barbar noch heut—und sogar in einem Bahncoupé—von ihr im tiefsten Wesen durchdrungen wird.

(pp. 44-45)

The symbolism of the pine forest is continued and expanded by the third symbolistic medium: the wine-bottles. Not only did Dionysus invent wine; he spread its use throughout the world. The Greek drama—springing from Dionysian rites as later drama grew from Christian rituals—acknowledged its ancestry even by its use of make-up. On the stage of early Greek drama walked actors whose faces had been smeared with wine dregs.14 As the Greek drama grew from one actor to two and at last to a decisive three, the primitive make-up Thespis had introduced was foregone, but the birth and development of drama were clearly due to, and influenced by, the cult of Dionysus, the god of wine.

Seen in this light, the two bottles of wine are extremely important in the symbology of Bahnwärter Thiel. The first bottle is mentioned at the very beginning of the story:

Im Verlaufe von zehn Jahren war er zweimal krank gewesen; das eine Mal infolge eines vom Tender einer Maschine während des Vorbeifahrens herabgefallenen Stückes Kohle, welches ihn getroffen und mit zerschmettertem Bein in den Bahngraben geschleudert hatte; das andere Mal einer Weinflasche wegen, die aus dem vorüberrasenden Schnellzuge mitten auf seine Brust geflogen war.

(p. 37)

The second bottle is one of the three things, outside of the above-mentioned accidents, which interrupted the regular course of Thiel's work. On a hot summer day, Thiel had found a corked wine-bottle whose contents felt glowing hot and, upon removal of the cork, “einer Fontäne gleich herausquoll, also augenscheinlich gegoren war” (p. 41).

What is the significance of one wine-bottle which brings a violent interruption to Thiel's routine of work and life, and of another which he finds, uncorks, hides away, and later cannot find? Do they represent the dark, emotional influence of Dionysus, “ …the god who is destroyed, who disappears … and then is born again?”15 Do they represent the “destructive demonic” force which Professor Guthke finds throughout Bahnwärter Thiel16—the same demonic force which Hauptmann has equated with Dionysus in Griechischer Frühling (p. 92)? Do they represent this same force bottled up in Thiel? Hauptmann has commented elsewhere on human psychology in remarkably similar terms: “Wer fühlt, fühlend denkt und erkennt, dem sind alle menschlichen Bekenntnisse und Erkenntnisse … gleich verkorkten Flaschen mit eingeschlossenen Notschreien. … ”17

The force which causes an upset in Thiel's routine, which rises like a geyser from the uncorked bottle, is passion. The dark, Dionysian force of creation and destruction which underlies the world of reason and calm is mirrored in the upsetting accident and in the gushing, fermented liquid. The image is carried on after Thiel has dreamed of Minna in Part III of the story. In a long passage interspersed by images descriptive of intoxication or envelopment, Thiel's mental state is described idiomatically in the same terms as the contents of the wine-bottle: “Es gärte in seinem Hirn” (p. 51). Thiel's passions have reached a state of explosive fermentation. The dark and passionate life-force he had once recognized, felt, and lost, now wells up in him to sweep away all thought of reason and calm. Just as the first drinkers of wine neglected to add water, became intoxicated, and went temporarily insane, so Thiel is overcome by passions which have too long been undiluted by his gentler feelings.

Thiel's emotional sickness and its accompanying visions are merely the modern vestige of an ecstatic experience which was once vital, real, and even healthy to the early worshippers of Dionysus: “Eine grosse Summe halluzinatorischer Kräfte sehen wir heute als krankhaft an, und der gesunde Mensch hat sie zum Schweigen gebracht, wenn auch nicht ausgestossen. Und doch hat es Zeiten gegeben, wo der Mensch sie voll Ehrfurcht gelten und menschlich auswirken liess” (Griechischer Frühling, p. 31).

The fourth medium of expression is weather, and weather too has something to do with Dionysus. Robert Graves notes that the Hyades, who were entrusted with the care of the young god, were variously called the “passionate ones,” the “roaring ones,” and the “raging ones,” and that their name itself means “the rain-makers.”18 Further, although Dionysus was originally the god of wine, “afterwards he became the god of vegetation and warm moisture.”19 William Fox notes also that the Bacchantes (whose relationship to Dionysus is well known) were the divinities of the winds and were conceived to be storms—wanton, wild and free.” Their rites included the rending and eating of young animals.20

The characteristics of Dionysus and the deities connected with him, the above consideration of the wine-bottles, and the following consideration of the trains—especially of the monstrous spectacle they present and of the repetitive description of steam clouds issuing from their stacks—are signs along a trail blazed by Ordon. She states that a motif of Bahnwärter Thiel is: “God is a beast.” The Bacchantes answer this description; the weather and the trains, as will be seen, also answer it. Ordon further notes the recurrence of gushing, warm liquid in descriptions of the wine-bottles, of the milk Lene pours for the baby, of the trains, and of the weather. She remarks that the recurrence of such a theme cannot be wholly accidental—although it may in part be inadvertent—and suggests that further interpretation on this point is needed. Hauptmann himself lends indirect support to these statements when, in Griechischer Frühling, he speaks of the “Gewitter der Tragödie” in the same passage which describes the diminution of the Dionysian force (“das Nachtgeborene”) in the presence of daylight (pp. 46-47).

In several passages in Bahnwärter Thiel, Hauptmann has used the elements to complement and symbolize the Dionysian passions in the flagman. Rain, hail, mist and wind, together with various stages of darkness, predict and reflect. Thiel's inner storms of emotion. Stormy weather and darkness are constantly opposed to sunlight, calm, and the natural, quiet sounds of the forest. A quick review of the meteorological phenomena in Bahnwärter Thiel will demonstrate their relationship to Thiel's moods and to the events of the story, and will further emphasize their relationship to the Dionysian forces they symbolize.

The first mention of weather or time of day is in Part II, which begins by describing the fine June morning on which Thiel is coming home from work. After his arrival, Thiel takes Tobias down to the Spree where the children of the village gather to play and to be amused and taught by “Father Thiel.” After lunch, Thiel lies down for a rest, and at 4:45 he leaves for work.

In the meantime, the day has changed markedly. A blue, transparent mist rises out of the earth and distorts Thiel's image of the landscape through which he passes. A heavy, milky sky hangs above, and black pools of water reflect “die trübe Natur noch trüber … ” Thiel notes the “furchtbares Wetter.” A moment later, “er fühlte dunkel, dass er etwas vergessen haben müsse.” Thiel's mood is premonitory as he turns back to his house to retrieve his forgotten lunch. The landscape is rendered in shades of gray and black. a gloomy picture is reflected still more gloomily, and the weather promises to be “fearful.” Darkness and dampness rise out of the earth to surround him and to predict the passion which will soon rise and be suppressed in him. Even the idiomatic use of “dunkel” in the phrase, “er fühlte dunkel,” lends a note of glumness.

When Thiel arrives home, he overhears Lene scolding and beating Tobias. Lene's words are described in terminology which is both idiomatic and meteorological: “Unmittelbar darauf entlud sich ein neues Hagelwetter von Schimpfwörtern.” When he witnesses the brutal treatment to which Tobias is subjected, Thiel suppresses an emotion which is described—in terms reminiscent of the weather in the previous passage—as “etwas Furchtbares.” Thereupon he retrieves his lunch and returns to work. When he has arrived at his shack and has completed his preparations for the work ahead, the wind is rising and rushes humming through the telegraph wires. The sun casts a receding purple glow over the scene from under a huge cloud, and then begins slowly to withdraw the last light of day. At this point, Thiel sees the train coming. When the roaring machine has passed, Thiel wakes as from a dream and whispers, “Minna.” Returning to the shack, he tries to dig a bit in the new plot of ground, but gives it up. In a few minutes he is gripped by his vision of Minna. The rising storm accompanies a rising outburst of emotion in Thiel. The meteorological and the psychological storms apparently suppressed so shortly before have only awaited the passing of sunlight and of reason, and now unleash their force on man and nature.

Thiel's vision of Minna is described by Professor von Wiese as the “novellistic middle point” of the novelle.21 At last Thiel recognizes Tobias' misery, and he dreams of Minna fleeing painfully and fearfully along the rails. The weather again confirms Thiel's dark and raging emotions. Both his mental state and the aspect of nature have changed suddenly, violently and, to all appearances, simultaneously, from disquieted rest to uninhibited turmoil. The forest roars, the wind throws hail and rain against the shack. A reproduction of Lene's “Hagelwetter” and a barometer of Thiel's progressive emotional confusion is supplied: “Erst dumpf und verhalten grollend, wälzte er (der Donner) sich näher in kurzen, brandenden Erzwellen, bis er, zu Riesenstössen anwachsend, sich endlich, die ganze Atmosphäre überflutend, dröhnend, schütternd und brausend entlud.” It is now pitch dark, the shack is shaking, nature has gone mad. Only the train is needed to complete the spectacle of raging, furious passion.

After this emotional seizure, Thiel regains his habitual composure by going on his rounds at dawn. The wind and rain have also grown quiet. As night and storm withdraw, Thiel recovers his self-control and his phlegmatic devotion to habit. At 6:00 A.M., he is relieved. One sentence, standing noticeably alone, reports: “Es war ein herrlicher Sonntagmorgen.” The following passage describes a day that is indeed glorious, and Thiel returns home in a subdued mood.

There is no better or clearer interpretation of the above phenomena than a passage from Griechischer Frühling. In folkloric terms, Hauptmann speaks of the tragic figures of ancient drama and describes their resemblance to departed souls. In so doing, he defines indirectly Minna's nocturnal appearance, Thiel's double life, and the significant alternation of night and day, fair weather and foul in Bahnwärter Thiel:

Es ist in ihnen etwas von den Qualen abgeschiedener Seelen enthalten, die durch die unwiderstehliche Macht einer Totenbeschwörung zu einer verhassten Existenz im Lichte gezwungen sind. Auf diese Weise wecken sie die Empfindung in uns, als stünden sie unter einem Fluch, der ihnen aber, solange sie noch als Menschen unter Menschen ihr Leben lebten, nicht anhaftete. Der schlichte Eindruck einer realen landschaftlichen Natur bei Tageslicht widerlegt jeden Fluch und zwingt der bis zum Zerreissen überspannten Seele den Segen natürlicher Masse auf.

(p. 100)

The curse does indeed seem to have been laid temporarily. Sunday passes without incident, excepting Lene's announced intention to go out to the plot of ground the next morning, and excepting Thiel's hungry gaze as Lene disrobes for bed. The next day is clear of clouds. Lene plants, Tobias plays, Thiel works. And then the boy is killed. He is not killed during the night or during a raging storm, for this is the first and only invasion of Thiel's otherworld by any real person. Until now, Thiel has been in the company of no one but Minna and the brief, shadow-like figure of his relief man. When the world of sunlight and reason, habit and convention, comes to Thiel and to the scene of his recent, orgiastic emotional revelation, it comes as well to the altar of Dionysus.

After the accident, it is midday, and stifling hot. When Lene and the stranger have left with Tobias' body, Thiel finds that his throat is burning and that he cannot move. He sleeps, and is awakened by the signal for the local train. He envisions Tobias' broken body. A curt sentence reports: “Dann wurde es Nacht.” And the narrative continues directly thereafter, making an unmistakable connection between Thiel's loss of consciousness and the fading of day: “Nach einer Weile erwachte er aus einer Ohnmacht.” The day has been swept away by the events of the morning, and night is coming for Thiel in more than one sense.

When he wakes, he raves to his dead wife that he will kill Lene. The weather comments again on Thiel's mental state: “Die Sonne goss ihre letzte Glut über den Forst, dann erlosch sie. Die Stämme der Kiefern streckten sich wie bleiches, verwestes Gebein zwischen die Wipfel hinein, die wie grauschwarze Moderschichten auf ihnen lasteten.” The last glow of the sun is seen briefly as it catches on a small cloud. Thiel's numbness is gone, his first unbelieving misery has passed, and he realizes fully that Tobias is dead. As the last, rose-colored cloud passes and cold, steel-blue sky remains, so Tobias passes and leaves his father empty and unforgiving. Everything is new and strange to Thiel. It becomes “keller-kalt.” Thiel almost kills the baby before he realizes his madness. A solitary sentence starkly mirrors Thiel's mental state: “Ein kaltes Zwielicht lag über der Gegend.” The previous twilight signaled the new day; this twilight is the harbinger of a night from which Thiel will not awake.

When the body is brought back, Thiel has sunk into a deep, terrible detachment: “Es wurde dunkler.” When he faints, Thiel is carried home through the forest under the light of a moon which paints the faces of those in the forest a corpse-like shade. The last mention of natural phenomena occurs when Lene falls asleep. A cloud covers the moon and, presumably in the darkness, Thiel kills Lene and the baby. From the first to the last, the changing weather has reflected the basic conflict in Thiel's life. At the end, it predicts and reflects his permanent flight from reason and sanity.

The motif of the trains—the fifth medium of symbolic expression—is closely connected with those of the wine and the weather. Wine introduces and defines the demonic, Dionysian force present in the flagman, and does so in cooperation with the trains. The first wine-bottle, in fact, flies from a passing train and strikes Thiel on the chest, just as a piece of coal flew from a passing train and threw him injured into the ditch. The demonic force symbolized by the train and the symbolic meaning of the wine are allied early in the story by these events.

The imagery of the trains spouting clouds of steam recalls Dionysus' connection with warm moisture. It reminds us as well of the second wine-bottle and its explosive contents. The Silesian express is especially reminiscent of this. The train whistles—significantly, three times—and white rays of steam “quollen kerzengerade empor.” This phenomenon is noted just before and just after Tobias' death. The train, which is the instrument of death, thus emphasizes its relationship to the wine-bottles and to the god whose province comprehends wine, warm moisture and sacrificial death.

The weather, as shown above, reflects the demonic force which rises and subsides in Thiel. During the moments of greatest passion, or in scenes which predict these moments, the trains and the weather are combined to provide a massive, roaring, rushing spectacle. Even the coins thrown by sympathetic passengers provide a connection, for they are described as a “rain of coins”; the sparks which fly from the train are portentously described as a “rain of blood.”

The first train appears shortly before Thiel's vision, and in conjunction with the first instance of bad weather, in Part IIIA—that is, in the first division of Part III. At the end of IIIA, which has been preparing gradually for the violent scene in Part IIIB, the train passes, and its description rivals that of the storm in its wildness of sights and sounds. A panting and roaring swells through the air, the quiet is ripped asunder, there is a frenzied raging, the earth trembles, a heavy wave of air passes, there is a cloud of dust, steam and smoke, and a snorting monster races by. Then, as it swelled, the sound dies away, just as Thiel's passion will swell and die away in IIIB, accompanied by the weather. Some of the words used in the description of the train are repeated twice or more in reference to the storm and to Thiel's emotions: e.g., “brausen” and “zerreissen.”

The second train appears as Thiel struggles with the revelation that he has betrayed Minna and Tobias. Its sparks flame out like drops of preternatural light sinking into the earthly atmosphere. He stumbles outside to watch it roar by. The train lights shine like the eyes of a monster and the sparks seem to be a rain of blood from heaven. In his horror, he remembers the apparition of Minna on the tracks, and acts out the scene which is later to transpire with Tobias. He wants to stop the raging train, but he is too late.

Section IIIC begins with the Silesian express as it rolls over Tobias. Later, the panting machine appears again to return Thiel's dead son to him. Thiel collapses, “ … in dem Augenblick, als der Zug sich in Bewegung setzen wollte.” The last mention of the train records Thiel's first successful attempt to bring one of the monsters to a halt. The express has to stop because Thiel is sitting in the middle of the tracks—quite insane.

While the motif of the trains reflects the passions within Thiel, the signals for the trains partition the moods of the story. They always occur in threes; three, or a multiple thereof, is a “magic number” in most European folklores. The first signal introduces the ominous, rising wind of Part IIIA. The second shakes Thiel from his dream of Minna and brings him out to the reflecting horror of the train. The third introduces the express which kills Tobias. The fourth wakes Thiel from his mad attempt to kill the baby and leads into his imagined viewing of the doctor who examines Tobias. The fifth introduces the train which returns Tobias' body.

Even Lene has a connection with the trains. She too is a destructive force, and she too represents the passions by which Thiel is ruled. After the express has halted “anxiously,” we are told that Lene is crying and anxious too. When she and the stranger carry Tobias away, they are described as “ein Zug.” At several points in the story—for instance, when she is digging in the plot—Lene, like the train, is described as “eine Maschine.”

The train motif alternately supports the imagery provided by descriptions of Lene, of the weather and of the wine. Its ultimate significance is based upon these comparisons, but is something more than their total. Whereas the wine-bottle and the pine forest announce the presence of Dionysus and the weather provides a manifestation of this presence, the trains are his earthly representative. While Lene is an agent of the destructive force, the trains are its instrument of death. As the rites of Dionysus required the sacrifice of a young boy,22 so does the ritual passing of the train. Dionysus—the horned child crowned with serpents—takes his sacrifice on the railroad tracks which at one point are compared to serpents. Tobias, who has been sacrificed spiritually to his stepmother's malice because of his father's physical desire, is sacrificed bodily to the monstrous passion which is his father's unacknowledged god.

Tobias' death is a Bacchanalian rite and the “mysterious solemnity” which hovers over the passengers is the solemnity of those who have participated in a ritual mystery. They are the “schaudernde Menge” of which Hauptmann speaks in describing the Pythian rites.23 The death of Lene and the baby are merely extensions of a ritual sacrifice which has been made to an allconsuming passion. After the murders, Thiel returns to the tracks—that is, to the sacrificial altar—where for the first time his passion is spent; and for the first time, he stops the express.

The repetitive symbolism of the trains and the wine—especially the descriptions involving blood, smoke and vapor—are reflected often in Griechischer Frühling. Similar terminology and imagery occur most noticeably in a long passage which begins by describing the Pythian rites and defining tragedy in terms of human sacrifice (italics are mine):

Wenn zu Beginn der grossen Opferhandlung, die das Schauspiel der Griechen ist, das schwarze Blut des Bocks in die Opfergefässe schoss, so wurde dadurch das spätere höhere, wenn auch nur scheinbare Menschenopfer nur vorbereitet: das Menschenopfer, das die blutige Wurzel der Tragödie ist.

(p. 79)

In the same passage (pp. 79-81), Hauptmann mentions the “bloody vapor” which rises from the stage to the bloodthirsty gods. He speaks of the springs which feed the souls of men, and especially that most important mystical source: “der springende Brunnen des Bluts.” He speaks of the vapors of these springs as “pregnant with a fearful madness.” He defines tragedy in the terms of Thiel's experience, as “Angst, Not, Gefahr, Pein, Qual, Marter …Tücke, Verbrechen, Niedertracht … Mord, Blutgier, Blutschande, Schlächterei—wobei die Blutschande nur gewaltsam in das Bereich des Grausens gesteigert ist.” Finally, in terms parallel to the night-day opposition in Bahnwärter Thiel, he imagines to himself how the smoke, vapor and fumes of Dionysus' sacrificial altars roiled upward past the nearby cliffs and darkened the sun: e.g., Apollo himself.

The most interesting parallel to Bahnwärter Thiel occurs in one of Hauptmann's apparently casual descriptions of the Geek scenery and people in Griechischer Frühling. Hauptmann finds himself surrounded by “Parnassian shepherds and shepherd dogs.” The blond heads of the men are unmistakably archaic in form. Their glance reveals a “Dionysian fire.” Just as he believes that his Parnassian dream is dreamed out, his attention is arrested by something. Thereafter follows a description which is reminiscent, both in imagery and phraseology, of many scenes in Bahnwärter Thiel. It is specifically related to the train motif, to Tobias and to the animal symbols discussed below:

… an der kleinen Haltestelle der Eisenbahn …finden wir ein gefesseltes schwarzes Lamm … Es trägt den Ausdruck hoffnungsloser Fügung im Angesicht … Schliesslich legt man das arme, unsäglich leidende, schwarze parnassische Lamm mit zusammengebundenen Füssen dicht an die Geleise, damit es leicht zu verladen ist. Ich sehe noch, wie es an seinen Fesseln reisst und verzweifelt emporzuspringen versucht, als die Maschine herandonnert und gewaltig an ihm vorüberdröhnt.

(pp. 93-94)

With this dramatic flourish, Hauptmann ends his passage on Parnassus and his extended discussion of Apollo, Dionysus, and sacrificial tragedy.

The sixth medium for symbolism in Bahnwärter Thiel is the animals, and they are really supporting symbols. Some, like the woodpecker and the birds, perform the same predicting or reflecting function fulfilled by the weather. The crows in Part II accompany the premonitory weather. The birds of Part IIIA, which are ranged silently along the telephone wires, may predict the silent spectators of Part IIIC, who are silently ranged along the windows of the passenger cars. The woodpecker of Part IIIA flies “laughing” over Thiel's head, “ohne dass er eines Blickes gewürdigt wurde.” As noted by Mrs. Ordon, the very same phrase is used later to describe Thiel's disregard of Lene when she cries hysterically after Tobias' death. The premonitory laugh is repeated just before Thiel's dream when a “short, challenging laugh” escapes his lips. As Grimm notes, the woodpecker in German mythology was a sacred bird, often associated with predicting the future.24 In Griechischer Frühling Hauptmann speaks of birds as prophets (p. 61) and as incarnations of the gods (pp. 53-54).

The more meaningful animal symbols include the first crow and the poodle. Thiel passes a shabby poodle and a hooded crow in Part II on his way back to the house. The crow screeches, spreads its wings, and floats away on the wind. Seconds later Thiel arrives home to hear Lene screeching at Tobias, who merely “whimpers” in reply. The poodle and the crow predict the scene Thiel is about to witness at home. The very shabbiness of the poodle reflects Tobias' unhappy condition. Later, after Tobias' death, Thiel refers to Lene as “Stiefmutter, Rabenmutter,” thus reinforcing the symbol of the crow and again identifying Lene's predatory relationship to Tobias.

The poodle invites consideration of a related symbol: the “poodle-cap.” This is not the only term Hauptmann could have used, as he reveals elsewhere in the story by using the name, “Plüschmützchen.” If the crow is to be Lene and the poodle Tobias, then what is the poodle-cap? It is a living thing to Thiel when he sits on the tracks fondling it at the end of the story. It is the object of a tender regard which he might have shown to Tobias himself. Just as the shabby poodle has described Tobias' sorry condition, so the cap memorializes his sacrificial death on these very tracks.

Supporting the symbolism of the poodle are the two stags. The first, as noted by Ordon, is run over by the express and thus predicts Tobias' similar death. The incident is mentioned as one of the three “events” in several years of Thiel's routine existence. The others were the passing of the special, imperial train and the discovery of the corked wine-bottle. The second stag appears after Tobias' death. Upon hearing the train whistle, it leaps from the tracks and disappears into the forest with its family. Ordon suggests that this stage represents the proper, natural father protecting his family.

Thus the first stage predicts Tobias' immolation and the second—like the older trees of the pine forest—reproaches Thiel for his unfatherly behavior. To this we may add that the stag was a sacred animal in German mythology and was considered to be a “pathfinder” or one which “showed the way.”25 We may note also that the word “Bock” could have connotations of sacrifice for Hauptmann, for it is with the same word that he describes the ritual Greek sacrifice in Griechischer Frühling (p. 79).

We must come eventually to the squirrel who is “der liebe Gott.” The animal is first seen by Tobias who stops picking flowers to ask suddenly, “Vater, ist das der liebe Gott?” Thiel replies, “Närrischer Kerl,” and the narration continues. Later, after Thiel has said he would kill Lene, after the weather has turned cold and the sky steel blue, a single, late rose-colored cloud floats by. The cloud has already been suggested as a symbol for Tobias and for the last calm and tender emotions in Thiel's life. Immediately upon the passing of this cloud, Thiel notices a squirrel scurrying across the tracks. “Der liebe Gott springt über den Weg,” he thinks. Thiel repeats his nonsense phrase several times, then realizes that he is raving. He fights to preserve his mental equilibrium, but he cannot. When he hears the baby cry, he goes temporarily mad: “Was wollte er tun? Was trieb ihn hierher? Ein wirbelnder Strom von Gefühlen und Gedanken verschlang diese Fragen.” His passions have once again taken possession of him, and he does not know why. Suddenly he remembers. “‘Der liebe Gott springt über den Weg,’jetzt wusste er, was das bedeuten wollte. ‘Tobias’— sie hatte ihn gemordet.”

Why should this phrase mean not only Tobias but Tobias' death? To Thiel the harmless squirrel may not symbolize God so much as Tobias' conception of God. In the boy's naïve world, God could perhaps be a lovable, small creature. Not in Thiel's world. When he sees the squirrel, Thiel must think of his harmless, helpless son. He must remember that Tobias too tried to “jump across the track,” and was killed in the process. He must recall both Lene's guilt and his own. Driven by this poignant reminder of Tobias' immolation, he makes his first attempt on the baby's life. Sacrifice begets sacrifice.

The “mythology” behind Bahnwärter Thiel, then, is a combination of technological and natural symbols. Most of these symbols are portentous, sinister, demonic, Dionysian. Others, such as the poodle, the squirrel and the one stag, are representative of the innocent sacrifice to these demonic forces. Built upon this psychological, technological and natural “mythology” is a prose tragedy, which interprets its “myth” through the career of its protagonist.


Granted that the above may present a case for the “mythology” of Bahnwärter Thiel, what can be said for the story's technical similarities to a Greek drama? Let us consider first the three unities. Hauptmann has not restricted the time of action to twenty-four hours, as some Neo-Classicists might have insisted he do, but he has told the essential story of Thiel's life in little more than seventy-two hours. The convention of time is hardly disturbed by this slight expansion. The action itself begins when Thiel returns home from work on Saturday morning. The scene between Tobias and Lene and Thiel's dream take place on Saturday. Thiel returns home Sunday for an eventful day. Monday Tobias is killed; on Monday night, Thiel kills Lene and the baby. On Tuesday morning, Thiel is found sitting on the tracks.

Hauptmann adheres to the convention of place with classic formality. The “scenes” all take place in or around Thiel's home or near his shack at the railroad. Because of the compression of time, the small number of characters, and the concentration on Thiel's reactions to a situation which has finally and suddenly come to a climax, the convention of unity of action is also observed.

The number of actors and their roles are significant when Bahnwärter Thiel is regarded as a prose adaptation of Greek tragedy. There are just three “actors” in the story. When Sophocles created the third actor for the Greek stage, he gave Greek tragedy its final fullness of characterization and interplay of personalities. The protagonist, or primary speaker, took the longest part and spoke most of the lines. He was complemented by the deuteragonist, or second speaker, and by the tritagonist, or third speaker. The necessary tensions, conflicts and resolutions could be found within these three characters, with the minor characters and the chorus lending occasional background information and comment. Thus the tensions and even most of the information necessary to tragic drama in Oedipus Rex are contained in the characters of Oedipus, Tiresias and Jocasta. In Bahnwärter Thiel the flagman himself is the protagonist and “speaks” most of the lines through his varying trains of thought. The deuteragonist is Lene, who provides conflict and contrast; and the tritagonist is the unfortunate Tobias.

The perfect protagonist of Greek drama was of course a nobleman whose ruin was brought about by Fate and by his hamartia, or tragic fault. Thiel is by no means a nobleman, for he lives in an age when drama has taken the common man as its hero, as in Die Weber. On the other hand, Thiel is ruined by mysterious and god-like forces similar to the Fate implied in Greek tragedy, and he does exhibit a tragic flaw. Thiel's hamartia is the same fault which destroys Shakespeare's melancholy Dane. As we are told by Frank Lucas, “Hamlet's Tragic Error is his failure to act; and this is doubtless a moral flaw, such as it is usual to suppose that the hamartia must always be.”26 Thiel, like Hamlet, does not act. His last chance to act is in Part II, when he comes upon Lene scolding Tobias. Lene could withstand nothing he might say or do at this vulnerable moment, but he suppresses his emotions and is silent. His silence allows Lene to turn the tables by scolding him for returning at this unusual time, and the issue of the story is decided. Thiel will not act. He will not act until too late when he thinks to save Minna from the train. He will not act to prevent Lene's carelessness, and he will not see Tobias until he has already been hit by the train. His life has been too routine, methodical and, in a strange way, comfortable, to allow him to act until he no longer has anything to lose. Just as Hamlet realizes the plot against his life and only then takes his revenge, so Thiel sees his son killed—and his life ruined—before he acts against Lene.

The protagonist has another, technical function to fulfill. He sings both solo and with the chorus. Thiel's thoughts are his solos, and the concert of weather, trains and other phenomena is manifestly a chorus accompaniment of certain of Thiel's “monologues.” Thus Thiel fulfills the role of protagonist by speaking most of the lines, by yielding to his hamartia, and by singing both solo and with the chorus.

The chorus consists of nearly all the objects, animals and natural phenomena which appear in Bahnwärter Thiel, and consists further of the briefly seen, shadow-like, supporting characters, such as the conductor and the passengers. From the solemnity of the passengers to the raging tumult of the trains, from the laugh of the woodpecker to the eerie light of the moon, this chorus predicts, reflects, recalls, and comments upon events and emotions in Thiel's three day tragedy. Each of these symbols has some significance for Thiel and his tragic fate. The raging appearances of the trains, for instance, predict the nature of the tragedy, just as the phrase, “The pistols of my father” recurrently predicts the outcome of Hedda Gabler, and as the chorus ominously and recurrently mentions a “net” in Agamemnon.27

Of course a prose tragedy must evince more than a few of the proper conventions. There must also be a clearly discernible tragic rhythm. An outline of such a tragic rhythm and its conventions may be as follows:

1) prologos or prologue—background material supplied by a kind of narrator;

2) parados—the entrance of the chorus;

3) epeisodia—episodes or scenes.

The episodes are divided by:

4) stasima—the various utterances of the chorus when present on stage.

The last element is:

5) exodos—the final scene and often the last utterance of the chorus.

The epeisodia or scenes are further divisible into five steps which articulate the action surrounding the protagonist. These are:

1) complication—the events which entangle the character in a situation whose only resolution is his ruin or death;

2) crisis—the moment which may bring anagnorisis (recognition) or peripateia (a drastic turn of events) or both;

3) passion—the “Scene of Suffering” and/or “Death on Stage”;

4) denouement—the inevitable unraveling of plot which completes the ruin of the protagonist;

5) exodus—the final judgment of the protagonist by himself or others.

The first dramatic division noted above—prologos—is purely expository and is not absolutely necessary to the form of the Greek tragedy. When present, it may help to inform the viewer of previous events which have led up to the concise tragedy he is about to witness. The play may then “begin in the middle” or even further along in the train of events. When the protagonist's background and character have been sketched briefly in the prologos, the necessary action on stage may be reduced to a short complication, a crisis, a swift denouement, and a conclusion or exodus.

As this is true in Oedipus Rex, so it is true in Bahnwärter Thiel. Hauptmann has divided the story into three numbered parts; Part III is further separated, by spacing, into three sub-divisions, which I have called IIIA, IIIB, and IIIC. In a way, then, Bahnwärter Thiel is a five act tragedy, and Part I is clearly a prologos.

This first division tells of Thiel's routine life as a flagman, mentions the wine-bottles and the stag run over by the express, swiftly reviews his first marriage, describes the character of his first and of his second wife, and briefly describes Tobias' unfortunate situation in his father's home. The end of Part I takes note of Thiel's attitude toward the opinion of the town: “Thiel aber, welchen die Sache doch vor allem anging, schien keine Augen für sie zu haben und wollte auch die Winke nicht verstehen, welche ihm von wohlmeinenden Nachbarsleuten gegeben wurden.” The townspeople have been mentioned before, but this is the first indication of Thiel's attitude toward them or relationship with them. As the heroes of Greek tragedy notoriously refuse to heed the advice and admonitions of the chorus, so Thiel ignores the well-meaning hints of his neighbors, and a relationship is established between the taciturn flagman and his environment. The logical end of prologos is parados.

The great bulk of the story must now be epeisodia of thought, dialogue or action interspersed by stasima (natural and technical phenomena, animals, and the like).

The first progression in the epeisodia—the complication—includes all of Part II and the first division of Part III. Thiel arrives home on Saturday, plays with the children, sleeps, starts out on the way to work, remembers his lunch, returns to witness the scene between Lene and Tobias, goes to work, notes the rising wind, hears the signal for the train, and watches the train pass. Thiel has seen evidence of Lene's maltreatment of Tobias, but has not yet reacted. The signal, the rising wind, and the train announce a new development, and Part IIIA ends.

Part IIIB begins with Thiel murmuring “Minna.” Then, after a fruitless attempt to dig in the plot, he has his vision. Benno von Wiese calls this vision the novellistic center point of the novelle. Not only is this the novellistic center point, it is the exact center of the novelle. Parts I, II, IIIA and Part IIIB up to the vision occupy exactly thirteen pages. The vision is placed centrally because it is the crisis of the novelle.

The function of Thiel's central vision is clearly that of anagnorisis, or recognition. It is only now that Thiel awakes “aus einem zweijährigen totenähnlichen Schlaf” and perceives “die Leidensgeschichte seines Ältesten, welche die Eindrücke der letzten Stunden nur noch hatten besiegeln können.” As Professor von Wiese notes of this scene: “Die Vision der wandernden ersten Frau mit dem blutigen Bündel wird zu dem entscheidenden Mittelpunkt, von dem aus das Geschehen erst seine volle Beleuchtung erhält.28

From the anagnorisis the episodes proceed to an apparent denouement. Thiel's recognition of the situation is complete. His actions, however, are the same. He cannot oppose Lene's desire to go to the plot on Monday and, as he thinks of what objections he could raise, he notices how happy Tobias has become at the prospect of this small excursion. His final decision seems to be made because he cannot bear to deny Tobias this outing. By assenting, Thiel prepares for Tobias' death, although his only motive is the boy's happiness. It is a complete reversal of fortune, which occurs, as Lucas says, “when a course of action intended to produce a result x, produces the reverse of x,29 that is, peripateia.

Tobias' death is preceded by an idyllic scene in which Thiel and his son walk the tracks, listen to the humming of the telegraph poles, and pick flowers. Later, even Lene is amused by Tobias' grimaces when the trains roar past. This all occurs in Part IIIB, which is roughly analogous to the fourth act of a play. Lewis Campbell describes such a relaxation of tension in Greek drama, and notes that the poet often inserts such a sequence in the fourth act, because he “has sufficient faith in the volume of sympathy which he has called forth to interpose a pause without fearing that emotion will subside.”30 In Bahnwärter Thiel the scene in question might be considered absolutely necessary, for the reader has just been assailed by a storm of emotions during Thiel's vision, and may well need a pause before the actual passion, or scene of suffering.

The pause ends when Thiel leaves Lene and Tobias to go on his rounds, and with the pause ends the fourth act, or Part IIIB. Part IIIC begins with another of the divisive train signals. Thiel then sees the train, sees the object bounced like a ball between the wheels, and learns that the object is, in fact, Tobias. Tobias' accident may, of course, be called a “death on stage,” but the true scene of suffering begins a very short time later. This scene records Thiel's feelings after he is sure that it is Tobias who has been hit and before he passes into unconsciousness.

Hauptmann has marked the intensive scene of suffering in an interesting manner. For the first and only time in Bahnwärter Thiel, he changes from the past to the present tense. This change of tense begins abruptly after Thiel has dimly perceived Lene's cry. It begins with the statement: “Ein Mann kommt in Eile die Strecke herauf.” This man announces the accident, Thiel runs to the scene, he sees Tobias, attempts to carry him away, the train leaves, Lene and the stranger carry Tobias away, and Thiel strikes his hand on his head in an effort to wake himself, “denn es wird ein Traum sein wie der gestern, sagt er sich.” At this point, the story reverts again to the narrative past tense. The brief use of the present has set off more vividly than would otherwise be possible the presence of horror which Thiel perceives. All other thoughts—even his dream—were only premonitory. This is real, and his perceptions of the tragedy strike like one stimulus after another upon raw, open nerves. The present tense follows him in this state until he admits the truth to himself and collapses. Then the narrative resumes in the past tense to trace the grim denouement of Thiel's history.

The chorus makes a corollary comment directly after the scene of suffering. In the third sentence after the narrative returns to the past tense, we read that, “seine peinlich gepflegte Uhr fiel aus seiner Tasche, die Kapsel sprang, das Glas zerbrach” (pp. 60-61). The comfortable routine of Thiel's life and the protection it gave him have been destroyed. He will go on now only until he has fulfilled his vengeful purpose. When he is waked by the omnipresent signal bell, he goes out to the tracks: “Thiel konnte sich erheben und seinen Dienst tun.” The chorus merges with the protagonist as the narrative reports:

Am Ende sah er nur noch den zerschlagenen Jungen mit dem blutigen Munde. Dann wurde es Nacht.

Nach einer Weile erwachte er aus einer Ohnmacht.

(p. 61)

Thiel faints, wakes, inspects his watch: “Sie war trotz des Falles nicht stehengeblieben” (p. 61). Like Thiel the watch painfully continues to function until its last work is done.

Thiel counts the seconds and imagines the scene in the doctor's office. His fearful and vengeful thoughts are traced as he forms his resolve to kill Lene and the baby. Even the weapon he chooses to accomplish the murders is a parallel of the classical instrument. In his madness, he promises Minna that he will kill Lene “mit dem Beil—Küchenbeil, ja—schwarzes Blut!” (p. 62). As Hauptmann notes himself in Griechischer Frühling, the sacrificial instrument of the Greek rite was an axe (p. 80).

The last train signal announces the return of Tobias' body, and Thiel falls again into unconsciousness. The moon is the last comment of the chorus as the small group struggles homeward. The exodus or conclusion includes the discovery of the murders (which have been committed “off-stage”) and of Thiel's permanent flight into madness. Like Oedipus, Thiel has been crushed by his guilt, has disappeared into the wings, and has re-appeared as a living dead man. The curtain falls.


  1. Benno von Wiese, Die deutsche Novelle (Düsseldorf, 1956), pp. 268-283.

  2. Karl S. Guthke, Gerhart Hauptmann (Göttingen, 1961), pp. 54-57.

  3. Marianne Ordon, “Unconscious Contents in ‘Bahnwärter Thiel,’” Germanic Review, XXVI (October, 1951), 223-229.

  4. Gerhart Hauptmann, Die Kunst des Dramas, ed. Martin Marhatzke (Berlin, 1963), p. 135.

  5. Guthke, p. 110.

  6. Felix A. Voigt and Walter A. Reichart, Hauptmann und Shakespeare (Goslar, 1947), p. 43.

  7. Gerhart Hauptmann, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Hans-Egon Hass (Frankfurt, 1962), VII, 11-119. All subsequent citations from Griechischer Frühling will be from this edition.

  8. See Kunst, pp. 175, 179, 186.

  9. See Kunst, p. 207.

  10. Gerhart Hauptmann, Ausblicke (Berlin, 1924), p. 13.

  11. See Kunst, pp. 95-96.

  12. All quotations from Bahnwärter Thiel are from: Gerhart Hauptmann, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Hans-Egon Hass (Frankfurt, 1962), VI, 37-67.

  13. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (Baltimore, 1955), I, p. 104.

  14. Gilbert Norwood, Greek Tragedy, 2nd ed. (London, 1928), p. 68.

  15. Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, ed. Felix Guirand, translated by Robert Aldington and Delano Ames (New York, 1959), p. 182.

  16. Guthke, p. 54.

  17. Ausblicke, p. 45.

  18. Graves, p. 108.

  19. Larousse, p. 178.

  20. The Mythology of All Races, I, “Greek and Roman,” ed. William S. Fox (Boston, 1916), p. 216.

  21. Wiese, p. 276.

  22. Larousse, p. 178.

  23. Griechischer Frühling, p. 79.

  24. Jakob Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie (Göttingen, 1854), pp. 1082-1085.

  25. Grimm, p. 1093.

  26. Frank L. Lucas, Tragedy in Relation to Aristotle's “Poetica” (London, 1930), p. 101.

  27. See Lucas, pp. 64-65.

  28. Wiese, p. 283.

  29. Lucas, p. 92.

  30. Lewis Campbell, Tragic Drama (New York and London, 1904), p. 93.

Larry D. Wells (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6888

SOURCE: “Words of Music: Gerhart Hauptmann's Composition Bahnwärter Thiel,” in Wege der Worte: Festschrift für Wolfgang Fleischhauer, edited by Donald C. Riechel, Böhlau Verlag, 1978, pp. 377-91.

[In the following essay, Wells discusses musical imagery and the musicality of Hauptmann's prose in Bahnwärter Thiel.]

“Mein Werk, aus Tönen ist es aufgebaut,
aus schnellen Lichtern und aus Funkenblitzen,
und mit dem Ohre wird es angeschaut.“

(Gerhart Hauptmann, Der große Traum)1

“Die Tonsprache ist
Anfang und Ende der
Wortsprache … “

(Richard Wagner, Oper und Drama)2

Much of Gerhart Hauptmann's work is characterized by rich and at times flamboyant tonality and the synaesthetic blend of visual and acoustic imagery alluded to in Der große Traum. We may marvel at melodic masterpieces of the Minnesänger or the Romantics, but Hauptmann's works resound with no less tonality and effulgence. Certainly few Hauptmann readers could disagree with at least the first of Rolf Ibscher's observations “daß gerade das innige Verhältnis zur Welt des Klanges in weitestem Sinne, dieses music in himself, als schaffenspsychologische wesentliche Grundlage seiner Begabung, mithin als gewichtigste Komponente seines Schaffens, die eigene Note seiner Darstellungsmittel bestimmend, betrachtet werden muß, und daß diese immer schon latente musikalische Anlage als der Grund seines Wesens die zum Bildnerischen und Erdhaften drängende andere Seite seiner Natur vergeistigt.”3 Though most evident in those works originating after the mid 1890's and the start of the author's involvement with the musically gifted Margarete Marschalk,4 this “music in himself” can be heard prior to this time. Already in his early dramas of Naturalism skillful use of dialect and verbal nuance bespeaks a finely tuned sense of tone and melody.5 Some of his other dramas from this period were even written with music in mind. Hannele (1893) was a joint effort in collaboration with the composer Max Marschalk. Songs in Die versunkene Glocke (1896) became hits of the day, and the play inspired Respighi's opera La Campana Sommersa. How surprising then, that the early novella Bahnwärter Thiel (1888) should have escaped the ear of a scholar such as Ibscher, for it possesses both a pervasive musical interplay of word, tone, and motif and a structure “in tune” with trends in symphonic music of that era. It also invites comparison with musical innovations in the music of Richard Wagner.

For the most part critics have alluded only in passing, if at all, to the extensive acoustic imagery and musicality of this novella.6 The one exception is Fritz Martini, whose exhaustive, almost word-for-word reading of the scene with Thiel standing in the evening sunset awaiting the train amounts to a tour de force for this type of literary analysis.7 The flagman waits wordlessly beside his hut, while the train, an uncannily quivering speck at the convergence of two iron rails on the horizon, grows and grows, until, like a rapidly swelling monster, it explodes upon the forest tranquility in a cataclysm of fury, roaring, panting and snorting. This irruption of cacophony into the sylvan stillness symbolizes, in Martini's opinion, the elemental and anonymous forces of aggression (“elementare Gewalt des Dynamisch-Vitalen, des massenhaft und anonym Aggressiven”) that beset and finally overwhelm Thiel.8 Although Martini pinpoints Hauptmann's acoustic and visual artistry in a specific context, he does not consider the acoustic phenomena per se and as they relate to the musical composition of the work.

Much in the story suggests Hauptmann shared Wagner's somewhat metaphysical fascination with tone as the essence of language. Vowels and consonants continually strike the Grundton.9 Repeatedly, assonance accentuates phrases, sentences, and entire passages. Even in the brief reference to Thiel's pocket watch falling to the floor: “seine peinlich gepflegte Uhr fiel aus seiner Tasche, die Kapsel sprang, das Glas zerbrach” (I, 253), assonating a's combined with harsh sch, sp, s, z and ch sounds produce a distinct, albeit somewhat dissonant musical measure that underlines acoustically, though not necessarily onomatopoetically, the symbolic import of the shattering timepiece.10 Assonating chords dominate in more extensive examples too: “Zwei rote, runde Lichter durchdrangen wie die Glotzaugen eines riesigen Ungetüms die Dunkelheit. Ein blutiger Schein ging vor ihnen her, der die Regentropfen in seinem Bereich in Blutstropfen verwandelte. Es war, als fiele ein Blutregen vom Himmel” (I, 243f). Dark-sounding long and short o's and u's strike an ominous chord, with long u comprising the tonic, as it were, by virtue of its emphatic threefold recurrence in the word “Blut”. Extending the musical analogy, the umlaut u in “Ungetüm” has the effect of an accidental, while assonating long and short i's and the diphthongs ie and ei furnish contrastive musical depth. Resonating m's, n's, and l's provide sustaining pedal for the chords of impending doom.

Alliteration also abounds in the story. The more than one hundred examples include practically every consonant or consonant cluster as well as the vowel a.11 In addition to these, there are numerous instances where particular consonantal sounds predominate, though not necessarily alliteratively by strict definition: Ein furchtbares Wetter, dachte Thiel, als er aus tiefem Nachdenken erwachte” (I, 233).12 Invariably such consonantal sounds provide essential complement to the vocalic tonality of the language, but even when they do not—for at times Hauptmann gets carried away by his alliterative virtuosity—, they leave a distinctly acoustic stamp on his prose. Witness, for example the insistent, varied repetition of one consonant sound:

“Auch die Geleise begannen zu glühen, feurigen Schlangen gleich” (I, 238),

or abrupt alliteration of one consonant upon another, with two consecutive letters of the alphabet no less:

“Ein Rudel Rehe setzte seitab” (I, 258).

Few sentences can surpass the following musical interplay of consonantal sounds:

Stücke blauen Himmels schienen auf den Boden des Haines herabgesunken, so wunderbar dicht standen kleine, blaue Blüten darauf” (I, 248f).

Musical in function are also the many word pairs, whether alliterative (“Tosen und Toben”), rhyming (“Brausen und Sausen”), or merely rhythmic (“Hagel und Regen”). For these Hauptmann uses a variety of grammatical forms: “knarrend und quietschend” (adverbial), “gurgelnde und pfeifende Laute” (adjectival), “Ächzen und Stöhnen” (nominal), “zu husten und schreien” (predicative). He also employs the genitive construction (“Klappen der Sohlen,” “Wühlen des Windes”) and prepositional phrases without the article (“Gewühl von Tönen“) for emphatic rhythmic effect. (The phrase “Bahre mit dem Bewußtlosen,” for example, yields a less conspicuous rhythmic measure.) Not only do such word pairs add tonality and rhythm to Hauptmann's Sprachmelodie, they also function on the conceptual level by invariably describing and/or imitating sounds as well. They sound and denote simultaneously.

In combination, these various verbal approximations of sound and rhythm yield distinctly musical prose:

“Als er noch damit beschäftigt war, diese [the gate] zu schließen, erklang die Signalglocke. Der Wind zerriß ihre Töne und warf sie nach allen Richtungen auseinander. Die Kiefern bogen sich und rieben unheimlich knarrend und quietschend ihre Zweige aneinander. Einen Augenblick wurde der Mond sichtbar, wie er gleich einer blaßgoldenen Schale zwischen den Wolken lag. In seinem Lichte sah man das Wühlen des Windes in den schwarzen Kronen der Kiefern. Die Blattgehänge der Birken am Bahndamm wehten und flatterten wie gespenstige Roßschweife. Darunter lagen die Linien der Geleise, welche, vor Nässe glänzend, das blasse Mondlicht in einzelnen Flecken aufsogen” (I, 242).

In addition to signaling an approaching train, the warning bell strikes the first note of the musical measures to follow. Numerous words allude to sounds in the nocturnal scene: “erklang,” “zerriß,” “rieben,” “knarrend,” “quietschend,” “Wühlen,” “wehten,” “flatterten,” “bogen.” Yet the music itself derives from orchestration of tones. Repeating and alliterative b's, w's, and k's sound conspicuously, while s, sp, sch, and f sounds supply the acoustics of rustling canopies of leaves (“wie gespenstige Roßschweife”). One also hears persistent undertones of sonorous l's (particularly in the fourth and seventh sentences) m's, and n's. In the fourth sentence extended alternation of a and o vowels strikes an important chord for the passage, whereas lighter “notes” such as i, ie, and ei introduce contrastive richness and musical depth. Thus, vocalic and consonantal sounds complement each other in a rich display of Tonsprache. They also attest to deliberate musical composition on Hauptmann's part. For example, the contrasting of o and i vowels is “worked out” musically, since acoustic and syntactic separation of “Mond” (third sentence) and “Licht” (fourth sentence) finds resolution in the composite “Mondlicht” of the final sentence. Moreover, the same final sentence provides further opposition of contrasting light and dark sounding vowels (“Darunter lagen die Linien der Geleise”) and harmonic variation of “blasse” and assonating a's in the first part of the sentence through “Nässe” with its ä accidental.

Word pairs influence both tone and rhythm. Like a modified refrain, “Kronen der Kiefern” echoes the rhythm of “Wühlen des Windes,” only to repeat still again in the softened alliteration and rhythmical similarity of “Linien der Geleise.” The musically attuned reader will perhaps hear in “Blattgehänge der Birken am Bahndamm” expanded repetition and variation of the same refrain, since the final two nouns of this sequence have a rhythm similar to that of the previous word pairs.

Here and in more than 140 other instances Hauptmann heightens the music of his prose with colors or contrastive light effects.13 I am reminded of Brentano's tone-and-color poem “Abendständchen,” for in this passage the blending of tones and colors results in synaesthesia and Ton-farbe in the most literal meaning of the term.14 The a/o chord mentioned above is “colored” with golden hues implied by the very words containing the a and o notes: “Mond,” “blaß-,” “-golden,” “Schale.” These golden notes are then picked up again and musically varied through the a's, o's and ä's depicting the pale reflection of the moon in the wet rails: “vor Nässe glänzend, das blasse Mondlicht in einzelnen Flecken.” Moreover, the contrastive interplay of light and dark tones accentuating the passage reflects, as it were, in the chiarascuro of golden luminescence against the inky backdrop of night. Hauptmann has superimposed color and shadow upon the tones, thereby enhancing the acoustic and visual imagery of his prose through chromatic expression.

None of this musical prose necessarily imitates or reproduces specific sounds from the story. Rhythm and contrastive sounds in the phrase “knarrend und quietschend” may evoke acoustically the swaying and rubbing of spruces. Nevertheless, the primary effect is musical, for given no context, one would certainly not hear spruce trees in this phrase, nor rustling canopies of leaves in s, sp, sch, and f sounds. One would, of course, still hear sounds. The same holds true for program music, which, apart from rare exceptions, requires knowledge of the extramusical context put to music—usually stated in the title—for adequate understanding. Upon hearing a Wagnerian motif for the first time, the listener naturally suspects its function. To understand it, he must eventually associate the motif with happenings on stage. Hauptmann's prose demands no less. Only then can the willing ear hear certain phenomena and associate them with musical moments and, as we shall see, with major themes of the story.

We must bear in mind that literature and music, though sharing some features, are fundamentally different arts. Calvin S. Brown observes that music is “sound qua sound” without attached meaning external to the composition, whereas language, and by extension, almost any literary work, consists of sounds endowed with association and meaning.15 In short, music sounds: language denotes. Music may, of course, also denote, but language rarely simply sounds. As the smallest conceptual compositional entity of language the word exists as a lexical item with meaning(s), though in contexts its meanings can change. Tones, on the other hand, possess no conceptual meaning of themselves, even though they may take on associative value in musical context. In Bahnwärter Thiel Hauptmann attempts to bridge the distinction between the two arts. By definition the novella is a work of words (Wortkunstwerk). Yet as we have seen, it is composed with tones, with pre-conceptual, phonological elements such as vowels, consonants, consonant clusters, and syllables, which together provide “word music”16 and the unique instrumentation of the story.

Creating music in German prose is nothing new. One need but recall the virtuoso performances of Wackenroder, Hoffmann, and Heine.17 New and surprising in a work foreshadowing Hauptmann's emergence as the foremost proponent of German Naturalism is the extent to which sound pervades a work without music as one of its explicit themes. In addition to tonal and rhythmic elements, there are more than two-hundred allusions to sounds in the story, ranging from rustling leaves to snorting locomotives, from derisive laughter to outbursts of vilification and insanity. Like the diverse instruments of an orchestra, these sounds can be divided into four major groups. By far the smallest group (group I) consists of harmonious and gentle strains such as the wind in the trees, Thiel singing to Minna or teaching children the alphabet, and above all, the peaceful musical interlude with father and son prior to the accident:

“Vor allem verwunderlich war ihm [Tobias] das Klingen der Telegraphenstangen … Oft blieb er, Tobiaschen an der Hand, stehen, um den wunderbaren Lauten zu lauschen, die aus dem Holze wie sonore Choräle aus dem Innern einer Kirche hervorströmten. Die Stange am Südende des Reviers hatte einen besonders vollen und schönen Akkord. Es war ein Gewühl von Tönen in ihrem Innern, die ohne Unterbrechung gleichsam in einem Atem fortklangen, und Tobias lief … um, wie er glaubte, durch eineÖffnung die Urheber des lieblichen Getöns zu entdecken. Der Wärter wurde weihevoll gestimmt, ähnlich wie in der Kirche … Er stellte sich vor, es sei ein Chor seliger Geister, in den sie Minna ja auch ihre Stimme mische … ” (I, 248).18

Invariably such “chorales” are drowned out by the higher-volume “Brausen und Sausen” (I, 241) of the world around Thiel (group II) as, for example, when trains roar by the forest “Kapelle”, intermittently interrupting Thiel's songs to his first wife: “Eine verblichene Photographie der Verstorbenen vor sich auf dem Tisch, Gesangbuch und Bibel aufgeschlagen, las und sang er abwechselnd die lange Nacht hindurch, nur von den in Zwischenräumen vorbeitobenden Bahnzügen unterbrochen … ” (I, 227). Eventually the “Toben” of the train—one should note here the acoustic similarity with “Tobias”—and other barrages of sound engulf the flagman and the world dedicated to the memory of Minna.19

Most dominant throughout the story are the many distinct noises (group III) and unpleasing human sounds (group IV). Whistling, creaking, scraping, grating, rattling, hammering, shattering, howling, clanking, and a host of other predominantly dissonant noises (group III)20 punctuate the forest tranquility, while, as an unceasing reminder of the flagman's monotonous routine, insistent signal bells sound the approach of trains.21 There also seems to be no reprieve from groaning, moaning, whining, coughing, puffing, wheezing, choking, spitting, nose-blowing, scornful laughing, and the like, which mark the presence of humans in this dreary world.22 Above all, there are frequent screams.23 Continuous orchestration of these multifarious sounds, in particular the harsh noises and piercing screams, against a background of harmony and tranquility antedates the use of dissonance in symphonic works such as Bartok's Allegro barbaro (1911), Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (1913), or Prokofiev's Scythian Suite (1916), although we find the scream already playing a role in the musical dramas of Wagner. Hauptmann most likely drew his musical inspiration from the general category of program music, of which at that time the symphonic poem was the most ambitious realization.24 Richard Strauss's “tone poems” had not yet been composed, but ever since Berlioz' Fantastic Symphony (1830) composers like Liszt, Borodin, and Saint-Saëns, not to mention Wagner, had been using extramusical ideas as the basis of orchestral composition. Hauptmann's novella is the literary approximation of a symphonic poem on the theme of tranquility shattered, in which the calm and the harmonious group I sounds of the forest and the realm it represents on the personal level (Thiel's first wife, spiritual values) and the allegorical level (a romantic, pre-industrial state) are periodically invaded and finally engulfed by the sounds of the second wife and a technological age.25

Neither in symphonic poems nor in the novella are the sounds arranged arbitrarily. Here they are in phase with plot development, for the music of Bahnwärter Thiel is programmed to the themes of the work. Thus no matter how replete with tone and rhythm, each passage is part of the greater compositional and thematic structure, just as in musical composition. Leitmotifs and underlying themes ensure compositional unity:

“In kurzer Zeit hatte er die Spree erreicht, setzte mit wenigen kräftigen Ruderschlägen über und stieg gleich darauf, am ganzen Körper schwitzend, die sanft ansteigende Dorfstraße hinauf. Der alte, schäbige Pudel des Krämers lag mitten auf der Straße. Auf dem geteerten Plankenzaune eines Kossätenhofes saß eine Nebelkrähe. Sie spreizte die Federn, schüttelte sich, nickte, stieß ein ohrenzerreißendes Krä-Krä aus und erhob sich mit pfeifendem Flügelschlag, um sich vom Winde in der Richtung des Forstes davontreiben zu lassen” (I, 233f).

The passage is word music, a rich interplay of vowels and consonants best exemplified by the sharp k sounds (thirteen times, including unvoiced g's in “stieg” and “lag”) in combination with the seven plaintive ä's. Acoustically, these tones dominate the scene and anticipate the piercing “Krä-Krä” of the crow. But like the cawing itself, they function within a greater context by intensifying both a musical phase and a theme begun moments before with crows punctuating Thiel's muted walk through the forest on his way to work: “Krähenschwärme badeten …unaufhörlich ihre knarrenden Rufe ausstoßend” (I, 233). Yet in both instances the cawing crows are part of a developing sound sequence and a mild mezzo-forte compared to the force with which Lene's “kreischende Stimme” assaults the ear as Thiel approaches the house: “Ein Schwall heftig herausgestoßener, mißtönender Laute schlug an sein Ohr … ” (I, 234). This flood of dissonance swells in wrath and volume, until it culminates in a fortissimo of anger and vilification: “Du erbärmlicher, niederträchtiger, hinterlistiger, hämischer, feiger, gemeiner Lümmel!” (I, 235). Thiel's unexpected return strikes Lene speechless as she struggles to regain composure. Not unlike the sudden musical break in symphonic poems, there is momentary silence, followed by a pianissimo of intense, half-muted anger. Hauptmann has not eliminated sound; he has reduced it by rendering Lene's renewed outburst toward Thiel in indirect discourse, where it is narrated, but does not sound directly: “und sie ermannte sich endlich so weit, ihren Mann heftig anzulassen: was es denn heißen solle … ” (I, 235f). Wordlessly the flagman grabs his lunch sack und leaves. Plot and music pause on a note of smoldering passion and oppressive tension.

Essential to both musical build-up and thematic development in this section of the story is the use of leitmotif.26 The italicized words (“ausstoßend,” “stieß … aus,” “herausgestoßener”) suggest acoustic similarity between Lene and the crows. Association with the crows becomes unavoidable when the “stoß-” effect repeats a fourth time: “Die Worte folgten einander in steigender Betonung, und die Stimme, welche sie herausstieß, schnappte zuweilen über vor Anstrengung” (I, 235). Repetition of the sound of the word itself fulfills a musical function. Through the sound it denotes, and in the contexts in which it occurs, the word also functions as a literary leitmotif, by enabling the “tuned-in” reader-listener to draw associations whenever the motif recurs. Thus he links Lene with the sound of the locomotive (“stoßweise”—I, 239), long before she is explicitly described as having the “Geschwindigkeit und Ausdauer einer Maschine” (I, 247). He hears in the “Riesenstößen” (I, 242) of thunder claps reverberating across the forest not only the echo of the train's intrusion into the forest hours before, but also Lene's imminent invasion of Thiel's “geheiligtes Land” (I, 226). Later, above the din of the fateful Silesian Express Lene's stream of abuse still echoes:

“in unzählbaren, sich überhastenden Stößen fauchte der Dampf aus dem schwarzen Maschinenschlote” (I, 250); die Maschine stößt weiße, zischende Dämpfe aus (I, 252).27

There are other motifs. Not every ear will pick up subtle variations of “Ruderschlägen” in “Schläge” (I, 235), “Schlägen” (I, 237), “Hufschlägen” (I, 239), “Glockenschläge” (I, 253), and “Umschläge” (I, 260), all but the last of which not only sound the plaintive ä but denote sound as well. No one, however, can miss the tearing (“ohrenzerreißendes”) quality of the crow's scream, nor the same shattering impact with which the train later destroys the forest tranquility: “Dann plötzlich zerriß die Stille” (I, 239). The same motif sounds again when the flagman finally realizes how Lene has tormented his son: “Und plötzlich zerriß etwas wie ein dichter, schwarzer Vorhang in zwei Stücke, und seine umnebelten Augen gewannen einen klaren Ausblick” (I, 241). It culminates with the accident and the penetrating scream, which links Lene and train together as very real manifestations of the forces that rip apart Tobias, the forest retreat, and the peaceful world dedicated to the past: “Ein Aufschrei zerreißt die Luft von der Unglücksstelle her … ” (I, 251).

The theme of tranquility shattered provides the musical and thematic structure of the novella. The story follows a series of musical phases, each programmed to phases of thematic development and each following the same sequence of relative calm—build-up—crescendo climax—break or decrescendo—calm. In each phase interludes of pianissimo are shattered by fortissimo floods of sound (groups II, III, IV) in such a way as to accompany and echo the repeating and very real acoustic and physical intrusion of destructive forces (i.e., Lene, the train) into the peaceful remembrance of the past (Minna, the forest retreat, Tobias). Thus the composition conforms to the concept of the symphonic poem, for unlike the symphony with its inherently musical structure, it derives its structure from the text being put to music. Moreover, contrastive phases of interludes and crescendos were quite common in such “tone poems” around the time of Hauptmann's novella. Through contrast, thematic highpoints of the text could be readily accentuated. And of course, if the text contained plot development and was not purely descriptive, the music followed a similar development to a final climax. Since Bahnwärter Thiel is divided into three chapters, one might better speak of it as an abbreviated symphonic suite, that is, a symphonic poem in several movements.

Already in the first chapter, which sketches Thiel's past (Minna) and present (Lene) and the daily drudgery of his existence, bells, “Gekeif” (I,225), and the juxtaposition of Thiel's chants and the roaring trains anticipate motifs and themes to follow. The actual events of the story begin with Thiel's return from work one June morning (Chapter Two), reaching a first musical and thematic highpoint in the crescendo of vilification discussed above. Thiel's muted departure after the encounter with Lene concludes that phase and chapter. It also marks the prelude to the final chapter with its new series of crescendos. At first, only spasmodic coughing (I, 237) or sounds of Thiel at work in the hut interrupt the stillness. When the bell signals the approach of a train, there follows the rather loud train scene discussed at length by Martini (see above). The sudden silence (“das alte heil'ge Schweigen”—I, 239) that sets in after this intrusion of sound provides musical contrast within the crescendo-decrescendo sequence and a momentary interlude before the next crescendo. Again, only isolated sounds, such as Thiel's spade turning soil (potato patch and the Lene motif!) and his exclamations (“Minna”—I, 239ff), “Nein, nein, das geht ja nicht”—I, 240), interrupt the stillness and indicate the internal process taking place in Thiel. Thiel falls asleep and awakens hours later to the roar of a summer storm. This new explosion of sound in thunder claps repeats the previous crescendo in build-up and volume, for the retarding structure of the sentence can easily be heard as a description of an approaching locomotive: “Erst dumpf und verhalten grollend, wälzte er [the thunder] sich näher in kurzen, brandenden Erzwellen, bis er, zu Riesenstößen anwachsend, sich endlich, die ganze Atmosphäre überflutend, dröhnend, schütternd und brausend entlud” (I, 242). In the ensuing visual and acoustic interplay of night, wind, bells, train, golden hues, blood-like reds, and Tonsprache that follows, external occurrence and internal realization fuse in the ghastly apparition of the woman with the bloodied bundle (Thiel's guilt and premonition with respect to his neglected son) before the bloody glow of the lights of the on-coming locomotive (external reality). In this highly portentous moment, thematic development and musical expression coalesce in a moment of unsurpassed symbolic intensity and foreboding. Just as at the end of the other crescendo sequences, this phase also concludes on a note of relative silence with only Thiel's soles and wrench slapping distinct notes against the tracks as he checks them the next morning. There is a musical lull, a calm before the disaster.

The next crescendo, though not unexpected, nevertheless overwhelms by its suddenness, for it is preceded by a family idyl and musical interlude with Thiel and son walking the tracks a day later. Still, for all its peacefulness the scene is unsettling. The alert listener detects in the trains roaring by to Tobias' uncomprehending amazement musical repetition of the train motif and the theme of tranquility shattered. The accident, a staccato, second-for-second juxtaposition of frantic whistle bursts, screeching brakes, and Thiel's screams, rides a momentary wave of dissonance, followed by an immediate break of deathly silence. Figures dash to the rear of the train! A beckoning gesture! Silence! Then the scream, the primal utterance welling up from the depths of Lene's soul to split asunder the world of the flagman: “Ein Aufschrei zerreißt die Luft von der Unglücksstelle her, ein Geheul folgt, wie aus der Kehle eines Tieres kommend” (I,251)! The scream is climactic, for it not only marks the disaster to which all signs and motifs have been inevitably pointing, but also unites the central musical theme of shattered tranquility with Thiel's “torn” fate.

What follows is denouement, the outcome of the accident, but still part of the musical composition. Contrastive moments of silence and screams (Thiel's frenzied vows to avenge Tobias' death) accompany the flagman's descent into madness. With Thiel's collapse, stillness sets in, punctuated only by sudden raving outbursts, then by the wails of the villagers. Again quiet prevails, followed by screams of horror: “Mord, Mord! … Er hat seine Frau ermordet, er hat seine Frau ermordet! … Heiliger Himmel!” (I, 260f). To the end the “music” sounds, concluding on a final dissonant note of human outrage (“toben”—I, 261), as the insane flagman is forceably removed from the railroad tracks the next morning. Musically, this“toben” picks up one final time the dissonant refrain of the roaring trains and their destruction of the boy named “Tobias.”

The screams, above all Lene's “Aufschrei” immediately after the catastrophe, strongly suggest Hauptmann's indebtedness to a particular composer. It was, after all, Wagner who established the scream as a vehicle of musical expression. In his Beethoven essay he cites the scream as the basis of verbal expression (“das Grundelement jeder menschlichen Kundgebung an das Gehör”)28 and thus a fundamental musical impulse. Although one may disagree with Wagner's musical metaphysics of the scream, one cannot ignore its conspicuous presence in his musical dramas. Hauptmann greatly admired Wagner. In Marginalia he confesses: “Ich bin als Jüngling in Wagners Bann gewesen, stand seiner Kunst lange fern und mußte ihrer fern stehen, um eigene Kräfte zu entwickeln” (XVII, 307). He may not have read the Beethoven essay, though I feel he must have. Indeed, he shared the composer's high regard of Beethoven, and in Abenteuer meiner Jugend he lauds the overpowering effect of the “Schrei” (XIV, 709) in the final chorale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, a work Wagner had specifically praised as that composer's greatest legacy to the development of “Vokalmusik,” or what we would call the symphonic chorale. Moreover, Wagner is one of the composers whose works Hauptmann had by this time (1888) “kennengelernt” (XIV, 708) on frequent excursions to the opera and concert halls in Berlin. Thus there is at least the strong probability that Wagner's music did inspire the use of screams in Bahnwärter Thiel.

Summing up, we find Hauptmann does successfully integrate musical phenomena and musical structure with central themes, symbols, and occurrences of his “composition.” It is also safe to assume that in this he was inspired by Wagner and by trends in symphonic composition of that era. Yet this novella should in no way be considered musical-literary exhibitionism on Hauptmann's part, for it issues from a deeply rooted scepticism regarding language as a means of communication. While not suffering the torments of “Sprachkrise” to the extent that Hofmannsthal did, he nevertheless laments throughout his works the inefficacy of words.29 For this reason, his works, particularly the dramas, rely heavily upon meaningful gesture, sound effects, and silence as substitutes for speech. Some of his most dramatic moments are those of human muteness,30 of the stumme Gebärde, such as when Thiel grabs his lunch and departs wordlessly, after Lene has mercilessly berated his son. Such gestures and moments of silence, like the screams, are part of the “music,” with which Hauptmann attempts to transcend the limitations of words and thereby express the ineffable. The “railroaded” flagman's silence says more than words ever could.31 So do the myriad noises all around him. Similarly, the tones, rhythms, and motifs of Hauptmann's music not only speak to us on an immediate and emotional level, they add a new dimension of communication, which infinitely expands the potential for thematic and symbolic association. This, of course, sounds very much like Wagner, and I would agree with Ibscher that much of Hauptmann's ouevre can be seen as a transposing of Wagnerian ideas on the Gesamtkunstwerk to the literary domain.32 More importantly though, Bahnwärter Thiel, like much of Hauptmann's work, attests to the validity of his oft-quoted plaint: “Warum bin ich nicht Musiker geworden, der ich doch vor allem Musiker bin.”33


  1. Das gesammelte Werk (Berlin, 1942), XVI, 398. Subsequent quotations from this edition are indicated in the body of this paper by volume and page.

  2. Gesammelte Schriften (Leipzig, 1914), XI, 199.

  3. “Vom Geiste der Musik in Gerhart Hauptmanns Werk,” DVjs., 27 (1953), 584. Ibscher cites “Klang” und “klangliche Schau” as “Urelemente” for Hauptmann. He explains Hauptmann's growing awareness of the “music in himself” and his “Wendung vom Optischen zum Akustischen,” as a transition from the Apollonian to the Dionysian that explains the ever-increasing presence of irrational elements in his life and works.

  4. For the past three-quarters of a century scholars have duly recorded Margarete's significance for Hauptmann's poetic development. Here again, Ibscher is informative, 599ff. For a somewhat more detailed discussion of Hauptmann's involvement with this woman, who in 1904 became his second wife, see Eberhard Hilscher, Gerhart Hauptmann (Berlin, 1969), pp. 191-216.

  5. Ibscher, 588. For an opposing view see Paul Böckmann, “Der Naturalismus Gerhart Hauptmanns,” in Gestaltprobleme der Dichtung: Festschrift für Günther Müller, ed. Richard Alewyn, Hans-Egon Hass, and Clemens Heselhaus (Bonn, 1975), pp. 239-258.

  6. Marianne Ordon, “Unconscious Contents in Bahnwärter Thiel,Germanic Review, 26 (1951), 223-229, does not discuss acoustic phenomena. Paul Requadt, “Die Bilderwelt in Gerhart Hauptmanns Bahnwärter Thiel,” in Minotaurus, ed. Alfred Döblin (Wiesbaden, 1953), pp. 102-111, provides a sensitive analysis of images in the story and their significance, but he does not treat acoustic images. Walter Silz remarks that sound effects would lead one to suspect the story to be the work of a musically gifted author, but he merely quotes two illustrative examples without commentary: Realism and Reality (Chapel Hill, 1954), pp. 137-152. Werner Zimmermann only touches on acoustic aspects, not mentioning them at all in connection with his structural chart of the story: Deutsche Prosadichtungen der Gegenwart: Teil I, 4th ed. (Düsseldorf, 1962), pp. 39-61. In Die deutsche Novelle (Düsseldorf, 1962), pp. 268-283, Benno von Wiese cites the presence of many visual and acoustic images but is more or less content to quote or paraphrase them while recapitulating the story. Where he does offer genuine insights into Hauptmann's symbolism, they often echo those of Fritz Martini (see next note). John Ellis' insights, in Narration in the German Novelle: Theory and Interpretation (Cambridge, 1974), pp. 169-187, are original, in fact, too original: Ellis pays lip service to his professed concern with aspects of narration and then digresses into dubious insights of the square-peg, round-hole variety. His linking of the train to Thiel is overwhelmingly refuted by the events of the story, not to mention the conspicuous acoustic, symbolic, and thematic parallels between the iron monster and Lene. His assertion that the wine bottle, cast from a passing train and striking the flagman on the chest, is one of the two “dominant symbols of the story” (187) shows flagrant disregard for central symbols discussed by Martini and others. He does not dwell an acoustic phenomena. Irene Heerdegen, “Gerhart Hauptmanns Novelle Bahnwärter Thiel,” Weimarer Beiträge, 4 (1958), 348-360, restricts herself to social implications of the story.

  7. Das Wagnis der Sprache, 4th ed. (Stuttgart, 1961), pp. 56-98.

  8. Martini, p. 86. Martini does not view these forces primarily as those of a technological age. Because of the mythical tone of Hauptmann's symbolism, he ascribes them to a greater, mythical presence: “Aber Natur wie technische Welt vereinigt, daß ihre empirische Wirklichkeit zugleich ins Visionäre überhöht und entschränkt wird, beide zur Erscheinung eines Übermenschlich-Elementaren, zum Symbol einer umfassenden, geradezu mythischen Vitalität werden” (p. 89). For Zimmermann these same forces are “es-hafte Mächte” (p. 48 ff), for von Wiese “das Irrationale” (p. 271), and “das übermenschlich Chaotische” (p. 273). I do not totally agree with these interpretations (see footnote 25).

  9. In Oper und DramaWagner comments extensively on the interrelationship of vowels and consonants as fundamental elements of musical expression. Of vowels, for instance, he writes: “Das Verständnis des Vokales begründet sich aber nicht auf seine oberflächliche Verwandtschaft mit einem gereimten anderen Wurzelvokale, sondern, da alle Vokale unter sich urverwandt sind, auf die Aufdeckung dieser Urverwandtschaft durch die volle Geltendmachung seines Gefühlsinhaltes vermöge des musikalischen Tones. Der Vokal ist selbst nichts anderes, als der verdichtete Ton”: Gesammelte Schriften, XI, 245. The italics are Wagner's.

  10. Strictly speaking, this brief passage is acoustic, though not necessarily musical in and of itself. But as should become clear as we progress, it is indeed conceived as a compositional element producing musical effect.

  11. Random examples: “Aufblitzen der Augen,” “bläulich blendend,” “Ein … durchsichtiger … mit … Düften geschwängerter Dunst,” “Die Ferse des kleinen Fußes,” “goß ihre letzte Glut,” “Ein Himmel hing tief herab,” “Kronen der Kiefern,” “lagen die Linien der Geleise,” “in den Mienen streckte der Mann seine Arme,” “purpur,” “Knarren und Quietschen,” “Rudel Rehe,” “Der Spaten schnitt knir-(sch)end,” “Thiel tas(t)e(t)e ratlos,” “vorsichtig schritt man vorwärts,” “Das Wetter und der Wechsel,” “von Zeit zu Zeit.”

  12. The italics here and in other such examples are mine.

  13. An inventory of the colors in the story indicates that, as might be expected from the themes and images, reds, whites and blacks predominate with 24, 20, and 17 occurrences respectively. There are 14 allusions to blue, 13 to brown, a total of 13 to gold and yellow, 5 to grey, 3 to silver, and two to purple. In addition, there are numerous references to shades of light and dark.

  14. “Tone color” or timbre is the “peculiar quality of a tone as sounded by a given instrument or voice.” Willi Apel and Ralph T. Daniel, The Harvard Brief Dictionary of Music (New York, 1961), p. 305. In addition to the tone itself, of course, Hauptmann supplies color association. For an interesting discussion of some limitations of musical synaesthesia see Calvin S. Brown's chapter “Synaesthesia and the Confusion of the Arts” in Tones into Words (Athens, Ga., 1953), pp. 66-81. Brown cites the dubious practice of associating instrumental tones with certain colors as arbitrary and having no basis in a correlation between the two phenomena. Hauptmann's tones, however, are colored by the specific images to which they refer.

  15. Music and Literature: A Comparison of the Arts (Athens, Ga., 1948), pp. 11 ff. Brown's book remains the most lucid treatment of the interrelationship between these two arts. Also informative is Horst Petri, Literatur und Musik: Form- und Strukturparallelen (Göttingen, 1964). For an historical, theoretical and bibliographical overview of this topic see Georg Reichert, “Literatur und Musik,” in Reallexikon der Literaturgeschichte, II, 2nd ed., ed. Joseph Merker and Wolfgang Stammler (Berlin, 1965), 143-163, and introduction and appendix to Steven Paul Scher's Verbal Music in German Literature (New Haven and London, 1968), pp. 1-12, 155-166.

  16. This term is used widely in criticism to denote literary imitation of sound and should be distinguished from “verbal music,” which Steven Paul Scher applies to any literary work using a musical composition, whether real or fictitious, as its theme. Scher, pp. 8 ff.

  17. Authors discussed by Scher.

  18. The few other “chorales” are those of the forest: “tiefrauschend” (I, 233), “Der Wald draußen rauschte” (I, 241), “Geräusch der tropfenschüttelnden Bäume” (I, 244), “ein sanftes Rieseln” (I, 249).

  19. References to such volumes of sound include: “Tosen und Toben” (I, 239), “Schneesturm …raste” (I, 227), “vorbeitobend[en]” (I, 227), “ein Vibrieren und Summen” (I, 239), “dumpfes Getöse” (I, 239),“heranbrausend” (I, 239), “grollend” (I, 242), “in kurzen brandenden Erzwellen” (I, 242), “überflutend, dröhnend, schütternd und brausend” (I, 242), “vorübertoben” (I, 249), “heranbrausen” (I, 250).

  20. Representative examples of these noises abound in the body of this paper. Particularly conspicuous are verbs such as “knarren,” “klirren,” “quietschen,” and their corresponding substantives “Knarren,” “Geklirr,” “Klirren,” and “Quietschen.”

  21. The bells comprise an acoustic motif in the story and are not limited to the railroad warning bell: “Sterbeglocke” (I, 223), “Türglocke des Krämers” (I, 230), “Glocke mit drei schrillen Schlägen” (I, 237), “die Signalglocke” (I, 242), “die Signalglocke” (I, 253), “drei Glockenschläge” (I, 253), “Signal zur Raserei” (I, 256), “Nachhall der Meldeglocke” (I, 257).

  22. Most conspicuous are aspiratory sounds, such as “ausspeien,” “husten,” “keuchen,” “schnauben,” “fauchen,” “röcheln,” and references to tortured breathing.

  23. In addition to the seven-fold occurrence of the verb “schreien,” there are allusions to “kreischend[em] Gekeif” (I, 225), “knarrend[en] Rufe” (I, 233), “kreischenden Stimme” (I, 234), “Hagelwetter von Schimpfworten” (I, 234), “Aufschrei” (I, 251), “Geheul” (I, 251), “Kindergeschrei” (I, 256), “brach …in Klagen aus” (I, 259). Acoustically penetrating are the actual screams such as Lene's startled “Thiel!” (I, 246), Thiel's frantic “Halt!” (I, 250), or the “Mord! Mord!” (I, 260), of the villagers. We will return to the scream later.

  24. The symphonic poem is a type of music in which an extramusical idea serves as the basis for the orchestral composition and developed from the efforts of composers to free their music from the formal restrictions of the symphony. The Harvard Brief Dictionary of Music, p. 290.

  25. The overriding dissonance and metallic ring of many of the invading noises suggests the forces they express are more closely linked to technology than scholars have wanted to acknowledge. Martini and Zimmermann note that Hauptmann attempts to symbolically raise empirical reality to the level of myth. Hence the “es-hafte Mächte” (See footnote 8). For all the mythical overtones, I find these forces not to be “es-haft” at all, but rather explicit manifestations of the Industrial Age. The mythicizing of forces takes a back seat to the continual rendering of man and nature in images of technology. The forest reverberates not with the sounds of rustling leaves and chirping birds, but with “Erzwellen” (I, 242) (“Erz-” can mean bronze as well as arch-), humming wires, roaring trains, signal bells, and the “Hämmern” (I, 256) of a woodpecker. At different times the sky is milky grey (“Grau der Luft”—I, 233), “stahlblau” (I, 256), and “schmutziggrau” (I, 244). The setting sun pours molten streams of purple over the forest (“goß Ströme von Purpur”—I, 238), while trees bordering the tracks glow incandescently, like newly cast rails. The rails of the tracks are an “eiserne Netzmasche” (I, 238), the wires a “Gewebe” (I, 238). Hauptmann uses the image of weight with metallic associations: Lene's physical power binds Thiel like a “Netz von Eisen” (I, 236). Later the forest is “wie aus Stein” (I, 253). Thiel feels held by an “eiserne Faust im Nacken” (I, 253), while his feet have become “bleischwer” (I, 253), and the tracks around him “wie die Speiche eines ungeheuren Rades, dessen Achse sein Kopf war” (I, 254).

  26. Wagner made the leitmotif a popular musical device. But we should bear in mind that this device of characterization and repetition can be found in the literature of antiquity and is thus not necessarily musical in origin. Hauptmann attempts to fuse the musical and literary function of the leitmotif by letting his motifs simultaneously sound and denote.

  27. The motif does not end here. It can be heard in Thiel's frenzied outbursts after the accident (“stieß er … hervor”—I, 255), in the sounds of Lene's child choking (“ausstieß”—I, 257), in the puffing of the locomotive (“wie das stoßweise gequälte Atmen eines kranken Riesen”—I, 257) bringing Tobias's body back, and, as a final grisly climax, in the sound of a neighbor bumping against the cradle of Lene's son with his throat slit (“einer stieß an die Wiege”—I, 261).

  28. Gesammelte Schriften, VIII, 153.

  29. Theodore Ziolkowski, “Gerhart Hauptmann and the Problem of Language,” Germanic Review, 38 (1963), 295-306.

  30. This insight comes from a relatively unknown gem of an essay: Oskar Seidlin, “The Shroud of Silence,” in Essays in German and Comparative Literature, University of North Carolina Studies in Comparative Literature, No. 30 (Chapel Hill, 1961), pp. 228-236.

  31. The pun is Oskar Seidlin's from a memorable classroom lecture at the Ohio State University a few years back.

  32. Ibscher, p. 598.

  33. Gerhart Hauptmann, Ausblicke (Berlin, 1924), pp. 26f.

Robin A. Clouser (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10891

SOURCE: “The Spiritual Malaise of a Modern Hercules, Hauptmann's Bahnwärter Thiel,” in Germanic Review, Vol. 55, No. 3, Summer, 1980, pp. 98-108.

[In the following essay, Clouser examines the conflict between spiritual and physical natures in Bahnwärter Thiel, equating Thiel with a failed Hercules.]

Largely neglected until the middle of this century, Bahnwärter Thiel has recently begun to receive critical praise as a master Novelle and one of Gerhart Hauptmann's best prose pieces. Although it is an early work, Bahnwärter Thiel prefigures the major phases of Hauptmann's subsequent development—from poetic realism and naturalism, through mystic neo-romanticism and psychological realism, to modernizations of Hellenic myth. Thiel's story is both timeless and contemporary: the suffering of an oppressed human spirit at the dawn of the technical age. The soul of the protagonist, a meek signalman, is severely tried, first by the death of his adored wraith-wife Minna, then by his dominating and brutal second wife Lene. The emblematic wives and the tale's technological symbolism emphasize the opposite potentials of the human psyche.1 Hauptmann's sympathetic delineation shows how a burly but gentle modern man comes to be spiritually subservient to physical forces. By subtle reference to Thiel's likeness to Hercules, Hauptmann ironically compares Thiel with a model of classical heroism. Bahnwärter Thiel is a myth of a modern strong man who fails to be a hero.

Scholars have long recognized that the conflict of the story is between man's spiritual and physical natures. Many consider the signalman's spiritual side weak and rather easily defeated by his physical appetites, low intelligence, and habit-prone ways.2 Perhaps because the spirit seems to succumb so quietly in this tale, commentators have focused elsewhere—on imagery and symbolism, the unconscious psyche, animalism and the physical realm, and more recently on the narrator. Hence Hauptmann's subtle delineation of Thiel's spiritual life has been neglected and often misunderstood. Yet an awareness of Thiel's spirituality is fundamental to our understanding of the story, for upon it depends the degree of sympathy of Hauptmann and his reader with the signalman. Is Thiel's nature simply one of superficial piety and predominant bestiality? If so, the reader would feel pessimism concerning human nature and little sympathy for the Bahnwärter—for most readers do not think of themselves, whatever they think of some literary characters, as merely bestial beings. If, however, Thiel's spiritual life seems deep and real, and if his physical violence stems from an outrageous spiritual violation, then the reader may be moved to feel for Thiel a pity and fear that are similar to what he feels for classically flawed and spiritually suffering characters. When closely examined, the lines of causality in the tale suggest that it is the latter view which Hauptmann wishes the reader to see. We sympathize with Thiel because we fear that our own spiritual nature could be restricted or crushed altogether by superior and devious physical forces. If Thiel does possess a genuine spiritual nature, then he is not ignobly defeated like a naturalistic mad dog. He is, instead, a man gone mad in a belated defense of his beleaguered spirit. That he acts too late and excessively makes him in the end a pathetic and at least partially repugnant figure. In and of itself, however, the impulse to protest a spiritual violation is an heroic trait that we must admire, even though we are repelled by the means Thiel chooses. Thiel could have been a hero who successfully defended the soul—but he failed. In Thiel, Hauptmann represents every human being who lacks the firm will necessary to oppose brutish forces and whose spirit is consequently made subservient to the physical world.

Thiel's spirituality thus lies at the heart of Hauptmann's tale. The very first sentence tells a great deal about the flagman and his nature: “Allsonntäglich saß der Bahnwärter Thiel in der Kirche zu Neu-Zittau, ausgenommen die Tage, an denen er Dienst hatte oder krank war und zu Bette lag” (37).3 Thiel is clearly dependable, even methodical, in his work and worship. Critics have consistently interpreted this opening line as a negative comment on Thiel's habit-prone ways.4 But regularity of behavior is surely not the only trait suggested here; a strong positive inclination to the spiritual realm is intimated in Thiel's attendance at church whenever he can possibly be there. Although his work schedule only occasionally interferes with Thiel's care for his soul, the job exposes him to more serious dangers, as the next sentence reveals: “Im Verlaufe von zehn Jahren war er zweimal krank gewesen; das eine Mal infolge eines vom Tender einer Maschine während des Vorbeifahrens herabgefallenen Stückes Kohle, welches ihn getroffen und mit zerschmettertem Bein in den Bahngraben geschleudert hatte; das andere Mal einer Weinflasche wegen, die aus dem vorüberrasenden Schnellzuge mitten auf seine Brust geflogen war” (37). The dependence of this sentence on the first through the word “krank” implies that Thiel was not only hurt bodily, but also deprived spiritually by these sudden physical intrusions. Already we see the theme of the tale: the gradual succumbing of Thiel's vulnerable spirit to physical forces. Reinforcing the spiritual emphasis, the structure of the paragraph at once returns the reader to the central significance of the church to Thiel, for the final sentence repeats that nothing other than these two accidents had kept him from worship: “Außer diesen beiden Unglücksfällen hatte nichts vermocht, ihn, sobald er frei war, von der Kirche fernzuhalten” (37). The phrase “sobald er frei war” suggests that this is a free choice for spiritual commitment, not a mere act of habit. That Thiel is not lumpishly unreceptive in the sanctuary is indicated by the narrator's later comment, “Der Wärter wurde weihevoll gestimmt, ähnlich wie in der Kirche” (57). The central fact established by the first paragraph is the existence of an earnest soul that is about to be tried.

For fully eight of the ten years of Thiel's life given in the narrative, his spiritual and physical natures are in balance. The first page and a half of the Novelle show these eight mostly happy years: Thiel as a bachelor and then in his first marriage. At the start of paragraph two, we are told that for five years Thiel walked to church alone from Schön-Schornstein to Neu-Zittau, a statement that implies a lonely, steadfast devotion. As a single man, Thiel is a reliable, productive, God-fearing and law-abiding member of society. After his marriage to Minna, Thiel's spiritual and physical inclinations continue to be happily harmonized, for, despite her ethereality, Minna notably bears Thiel a son. Hauptmann's protagonist is established as having been initially a spiritually aware and well-adjusted man.

Although Thiel's life with Minna has the same duration in years as his later life with Lene, the former is ostensibly told in one brief paragraph. Perhaps because the narrator says relatively little about Minna directly, critics have tended to overlook or underestimate her significance to Thiel and to the tale.5 Yet Minna is the single character who most completely symbolizes spirituality in this story. In life, she is always depicted in relation to the church, making her a perfect companion for the devout Thiel. The first time the reader sees her, she appears to be physically weak: “Eines schönen Tages war er dann in Begleitung eines schmächtigen und kränklich aussehenden Frauenzimmers erschienen. …” This sickliness suggests a relative incompatibility with the physical world. Next, there is a solemn wedding:“Und wiederum eines schönen Sonntagnachmittags reichte er dieser selben Person am Altare der Kirche feierlich die Hand zum Bunde fürs Leben” (37). Then, in one sentence, we see their life together:“Zwei Jahre nun saß das junge, zarte Weib ihm zur Seite in der Kirchenbank; zwei Jahre blickte ihr hohlwangiges, feines Gesicht neben seinem vom Wetter gebräunten in das uralte Gesangbuch. …” Seen ever in sacred contexts, Minna's relationship with Thiel takes on a correspondingly spiritual quality. The repetition of the phrase “zwei Jahre” suggests to the reader that he or she should conceive of the couple's life together almost completely in terms of the sanctuary, as if their deeply felt and shared religiosity is both the basis of their relationship and the way they regard each other.

Then Thiel is suddenly pictured alone, and Minna's death, like her life, is reported indirectly and by means of omission: “und plötzlich saß der Bahnwärter wieder allein wie zuvor. An einem der vorangegangenen Wochentage hatte die Sterbeglocke geläutet; das war das Ganze” (37). The narrator accurately records here the fact of Minna's death. But, more profoundly, he hints that Minna was, in a manner of speech, “everything” to Thiel. The reader actually learns more about Minna and her effect upon the flagman after her death than during her life. The villagers falsely assess her loss as mattering little to Thiel: “An dem Wärter hatte man, wie die Leute versicherten, kaum eine Veränderung wahrgenommen. … Es war die allgemeine Ansicht, daß ihm der Tod seiner Frau nicht sehr nahegegangen sei … ” (37).6 But to the narrator's sharper eye, the flagman is in deepest mourning. He shows “den breiten, beharrten Nacken ein wenig gesenkt” and notes that Thiel worships “eifriger” than before (37). The “mehr vergeistigte Liebe” that Thiel and Minna had shared is now deeply missed (39). But judging from what we are told later, the narrator has withheld a great deal of information about Minna and Thiel: he has not yet even told us her name. This is the cryptic early portion of the narration which the reader understands only through hindsight. But the reader should not mistake emotionally freighted understatement for meaningless detail.

The two-year period with Minna has a profound impact on Thiel's conception of the spiritual world. Although her bodily presence begins and ends in the second paragraph, Minna's spirit may be said to endure beyond her physical death. Hereafter, the signalman's spiritual life is centered as much on mystical communion with Minna as on traditional religious worship. In a later revolt against his second wife, Thiel mentally declares his stretch of railroad “geheiligtes Land” (40), creates a chapel in his guard hut devoted to Minna, and places her picture beside his hymnal and Bible, thereby elevating his dead wife to the status of sainthood. Thiel's incorporation of Minna into his private worship services represents a fusion of the flagman's personal piety with the spiritualized intimacy he experienced with Minna. Although his daytime “geistiger Verkehr” is restricted to memories, by night Thiel is “recht innig mit der Verstorbenen verbunden” as he “las und sang … abwechselnd die lange Nacht hindurch … ” (40). Only the passing trains—a reminder of the physical dangers of the first paragraph—interrupt Thiel's “Ekstase” as he envisions Minna“leibhaftig vor sich” (40). Thus it comes as no surprise when the narrator speaks of Thiel's“mystischen Neigungen” (40). During his oppressive second marriage, Thiel's mystic communications with Minna are his greatest spiritual resource and counterweight against Lene's physicality.

Minna's spiritual legacy to Thiel also takes physical form in the child Tobias. Only when Thiel is questioned by the skeptical pastor about his plan to remarry one year after Minna's death does the reader learn of the boy's existence. A second marriage, Thiel protests, is necessary because “Der Junge geht mir drauf … Mit der Toten kann ich nicht wirtschaften, Herr Prediger!” and because Tobias' present nurse has grossly neglected the boy (38). To protect his son's health, Thiel proposes to place him under the care of Lene—ironically, but unknown to Thiel, an even more abusive woman. Both father and son are daily endangered by the very means—job and nurse—that ought to assure their physical sustenance. Thiel perceives only part of the danger to his son, and his own hardly at all. Like his father, Tobias is threatened by physical forces against which he is defenseless. The abused Tobias, a spiritually precocious child who goes looking for God in nature, is an image of his father's own precarious spiritual-physical balance. Tobias' death will signal the onset of Thiel's madness.7

Like many fathers, Thiel invests his own special hopes and dreams in his son. Thiel keeps the “Sparkassenbuch des Tobias” under his pillow at night and in his pocket by day (44). When Tobias expresses an imitative desire to become “Bahnmeister,” Thiel beams “von innerer Glückseligkeit.” He devoutly hopes that “aus Tobias mit Gottes Hilfe etwas Außergewöhnliches werden sollte” (43). Like the arrows he carves for his son, Thiel's dreams for Tobias' future “verstiegen sich in der Tat in solche Höhen” (43). Indicative of their closeness are Thiel's carving of “Weidenpfeifchen” as well as other toys for the child and his singing and tapping time for Tobias' entertainment (44). Tobias is a tie to the spiritual world that later helps to tug Thiel's repressed conscience back to life from Lene's numbing influence.

In justifying his intent to remarry, Thiel also reveals for the first time a death-bed vow to Minna: “ … und ferner, weil [Thiel] der Verstorbenen in die Hand gelobt, für die Wohlfahrt des Jungen zu jeder Zeit ausgiebig Sorge zu tragen … ” (38). Thiel's concerted efforts to protect Tobias—even his contracting a second marriage—are thus undertaken not simply for the child's own sake, but, strangely, also for Minna's. In death as in life, Minna is the center of Thiel's universe. Her hand in his is a bond after death just as it had been a “Bunde fürs Leben.”

Some scholars, however, share the pastor's skeptical reaction to Thiel's reasoning, believing that Thiel's motive for remarriage is not loyalty to Minna or Tobias but attraction to Lene's sexuality. The narrator, however, in contrast to the pastor, informs us that Lene's sensuality is not something Thiel is aware of: he contracts to marry a dominating, sensual, and quarrelsome bride “ohne es zu wissen” (38). Several distinctions can be made about this narrative statement and about Thiel's motives. On a conscious level, Thiel apparently wants only to remove Tobias from danger and to keep his pledge to Minna. Since we see that Thiel deeply loves his son and obviously still loves Minna, these are credible motives. Furthermore, even if we concede that on a subconscious level Thiel is probably motivated by a desire for a sexual outlet, this motive would by no means involve any prior, participative guilt on Thiel's part in the abuse and coercion to which Lene subsequently puts her sexual attractiveness. Her vicious misuse of her sexuality for dominance is quite distinct from his innocent longing for sexual fulfillment. Thiel probably had had with Minna no experience of such sexual manipulation. This initial innocence does not, of course, excuse Thiel's subsequent passivity in allowing Lene to dominate him. Nor can he escape some responsibility for marrying without love, even if his motive is to provide for his son. But Thiel's motives for this second match—protection for Tobias and a subconscious need for sexual warmth—are ones we may defensibly call innocent. This reading accords with the narrator's insistence that Thiel “unknowingly” married a brutal, sensual woman.

When Lene enters the tale, the narrator does a strange thing. He interrupts his understated, objective manner to make a subtle but devastating revelation of his personal values. With one deft sentence, he divides his characters into the ensouled and the unsouled: “Auch war ihr Gesicht [Lenes] ganz so grob geschnitten wie das seine [Thiels], nur daß ihm im Gegensatz zu dem des Wärters die Seele abging” (38). Earlier, when the narrator compared Thiel's and Minna's faces, he mentioned only physical differences; we now infer retrospectively that Minna's face, like Thiel's, must have revealed this quality of “soul.” Many scholars have noted that the narrator here begins the “psychological” dimension of the story, shifting to a more intimate tone hereafter, but no one has previously pointed out that the narrator also adds ethical and metaphysical dimensions to his tale with this sentence.8 Up until now, the narrator's recital has been given without elucidation or any apparent narrative judgment; he has given the appearance of disinterested objectivity. But to see “soul” in one character and miss it in another is to hint that the former character possesses transcendent and more valuable traits and enjoys a greater degree of the narrator's sympathy than the latter character does. (The narrator has also with this one comment summarily removed his tale from the category of programmatic naturalism in which the soul is denied to exist.) Only by recognizing that the narrator has revealed his ethical bias—on the side of “Seele”—can the reader comprehend fully the implications of Thiel's life before and with Lene. The incalculable worth of spirit forms the basis of the narrator's viewpoint; he judges all characters and events from the touchstone of spiritual values. But scholars have recognized neither the narrator's partiality nor its implications, an oversight which has caused many a scholarly headache in explaining the narrative perspective in the tale.9

Although the narration changes in style at other points in the story, the narrator's sympathy with spirituality in general and with Thiel's spirit (though not with his deeds) does not change. Later shifts in technique occur at the beginning of section two, after the train accident, when Thiel's madness sets in, and in the last two sentences, where Thiel's fate is impassively recounted.10 Taken as a whole, the narration is symmetric in style, beginning and ending with narrative distance and concentrating intimately upon the events just prior to and after Tobias' death. This pattern creates a kind of Doppler effect in the tale's pacing, pitch, and emotional intensity, reflecting the sound of the story's central Dingsymbol, the passing trains. But the narrator never abandons his focus on the state of Thiel's soul—never sympathizing with Lene's daily point of view, for example. And the most important stylistic shift of all remains the one that takes place when Lene enters Thiel's life. Like a traumatic shock, Lene's nature elicits a strong reaction in both the narrator and Thiel, sending each back to his spiritual values.

After the telling mention of “soul,” the narrator then takes us into Thiel's inner world. We see his perceptions of his surroundings, their effects upon him, and how Thiel's previous balance between his spiritual and physical needs is gradually upset. Thus the reader is drawn closer to Thiel just as he is being alienated from Lene. We see how Thiel falls victim to a physical dominion much like that which threatens him on duty beside the passing trains. Like the roaring locomotives that momentarily blot out Thiel's mind and senses, the blustering, sensual Lene intermittently blots out his spiritual consciousness and values. As Thiel represses his awareness of the physical danger of standing close to an onrushing train, so he represses his sense of the danger of Lene's physical encroachment on his spiritual life, symbolized primarily by her abuse of Tobias. The bulk of the narration from this point on depicts Thiel's losing battle to stay spiritually alive. His insanity and sudden recourse to physical violence are his soul's death throes. The form his imbalance takes and precisely how he and Lene contribute to it are crucial, since these points are the bases from which we will later assess Thiel's guilt. But whatever his own guilt, there can be little doubt that the initiating cause of Thiel's spiritual malaise is Lene's physical intimidation and exploitation of his meekness, for before her entry into his life Thiel was spiritually at peace. In judging Thiel's character, we must also remember that this last, two-year-long struggle with Lene, though it forms the tragic principal portion of the tale, is but a short episode compared with his previous six quiet years as a bachelor and widower and his two years of intense happiness with Minna. The narrator would not have alluded so carefully to that calm, stable background had he not considered it significant to Thiel's story.

What do Lene's manipulative sensuality and lack of soul mean for someone like Thiel, who has thus far derived his life's order and meaning from spiritual values? Thiel's spirit withdraws, because his will is not strong enough to contest with Lene either his values or his right to a spiritual life. If Thiel had thought this was to be a marriage of convenience, the neighbors soon perceive that it is a disaster. They correctly conclude that Lene dominates the family; they pity Thiel (38), utter “Verwünschungen” about Lene's treatment of Tobias (42), and consider Lene a “Tier” who ought to be tamed “mit Schlägen” (39). But Thiel, to his credit, does not accept this easy solution. Instead, he struggles to control his impulses to use force against her (46-47, 51, 63) and invents a number of “außergewöhnlicher Hilfsmittel” (40) to shield his spirit. These aids include his sanctified railway hut, whose location he conceals from Lene. Because emotional scraps and physical violence are against his nature, Thiel's spiritual life goes, so to speak, underground.

Thiel and Lene relate as direct opposites. Thiel has at the beginning of his second marriage an air of uncorrupted innocence: “es war, als trüge er etwas in sich, wodurch er alles Böse, was sie ihm antat, reichlich mit Gutem aufgewogen erhielt” (39). The narrator thus explicitly associates Lene with evil (“Böse”) and Thiel with goodness (“Gutem”). Referred to as “ein gutes Schaf‘ (38-39), Thiel is at first simply untroubled by Lene's irate antics and long speeches. He is in certain ways the epitome of his religion's ideals: one who returns good for evil, who is meek, pure in heart, forgiving of others’ faults, and a peacemaker. Thiel is called “kindgut” and “nachgiebig” (39), while Lene shows “eine harte, herrschsüchtige Gemütsart, Zanksucht und brutale Leidenschaftlichkeit” (38)—traits never even implicitly attributed to Thiel. Childlike Thiel seems to exist in an entirely different world than does his second wife: “Die Außenwelt schien ihm wenig anhaben zu können” (39).

The most striking physical difference between Lene and Thiel is their opposite relation to human speech. Thiel endures “die endlosen Predigten seiner Frau,” remaining himself mostly “wortlos” (39). Hauptmann seems to have pitched their voices to incline us toward Thiel: “ … und wenn er einmal antwortete, so stand das schleppende Zeitmaß sowie der leise, kühle Ton seiner Rede in seltsamstem Gegensatz zu dem kreischenden Gekeif seiner Frau” (39). The constantly noisy Lene sounds in marked contrast not only to the often speechless Thiel (“Er hätte wohl gern ein Wort dagegen gesagt, aber er wußte nicht, womit beginnen” [55]), but also to Minna, whom we never hear speak, and to Tobias, whose speech development is very slow. Even Lene's child is referred to as a “Schreihals” (41). In itself, Thiel's quiet forbearance seems admirable, especially in contrast to the irritating Lene. It is true that part of his calm demeanor is due to a certain mental slowness. But Thiel is not vacuous. He is described as “gedankenvoll” (43) and “sinnend” (57), often emerging “aus tiefem Nachdenken” (45) and thinking as he works:“Er tat es mechanisch, während sein Geist mit dem Eindruck der letzten Stunde beschäftigt war” (48). However attractive his mildness, Thiel's inability to articulate his thoughts or express his will against voluble Lene is nevertheless a fatal factor in their relationship and ultimately contributes to their tragedy. The extended aural contrast between Thiel and Lene warns the reader not to make the same mistake the villagers made, who judged at first only on visual appearance and so thought Lene and Thiel well matched because both have large, coarse “peasant” features. In spirit and temperament, Thiel is nearly as delicate as frail, silent Minna and no match for ear-splitting Lene.11

Meanwhile, at his work, Thiel shows his courage in a seemingly more dangerous duty. Thiel's job is a kind of secular calling to a physical guardianship, and his good works necessarily expose him to harm in obvious and insidious ways. He safeguards others from physical danger, becoming in one sense the equal of the train by bravely rising to meet its force rather than shrinking in a more natural retreat (49). In faithfully standing guard over these threatening machines, in daylight or darkness, good weather or storm, Thiel faces the hazard of death to protect his fellow men, thereby making him a kind of hero among men. But this is a specifically passive, rather than active, courage. Thiel merely meets and endures the passing of danger; he does not combat it. The signalman is in some ways the servant of the train, literally waiting upon and watching over its passing. His work entails a conditioned acceptance of the train's domination as it roars by and a momentary but brutal obliteration of his mind and senses.12 The regularity of his exposure to this force tends to inure him to its danger. Ironically, Thiel's very ability to repress his fear of this danger is itself a weakness that contributes to his vulnerability to being dominated.

Thus, like other mortals and heroes, Thiel has flaws. His physical vulnerability—alongside the rails or at home with wily, seductive Lene—represents the mortal imperfection of every strong hero, just as Achilles was vulnerable at the heel and Siegfried upon his back, and just as most heroes are vulnerable to female beauty. Thiel's systematic, rather plodding quality is another flaw in his nature. But this is not, as some commentators seem to think, a flaw common only to a “lower” order of humanity; it has long been recognized by sociologists as a trait common to many human beings—literary critics included. The signalman's unusual lack of companions, relatives; or ancestors, the remoteness of his hut, and his preference for communion with the dead rather than with the living are circumstances common in stories of heroes, but they also reveal Thiel's existential aloneness and his isolation from advice and assistance. Powerful temperamental and physical forces are pitted against Thiel's spirit and his potential heroism.

Thiel has often been called “weak-willed” by scholars, and although there is justification for this accusation, finer distinctions can be made. The signalman clearly exercises his will early in the story when he productively manages his job and his free time. A year after Minna's death, Thiel forcefully defends his plans for remarriage against the pastor's objections. During the first year of his marriage to Lene, Thiel's will continues to exert itself. We hear of “Augenblicke, in denen er nicht mit sich spaßen ließ,” and of his “Anstrich von Festigkeit, dem selbst ein so unzähmbares Gemüt wie das Lenens nicht entgegenzutreten wagte” (39). But this firmness gradually becomes a “gewisser leidender Widerstand.” Although he had partially restrained Lene during the first year, an important change takes place in the second: “[Thiel] geriet durch die Macht roher Triebe in die Gewalt seiner zweiten Frau und wurde zuletzt in allem fast unbedingt von ihr abhängig” (39). The signalman has allowed his will to be almost totally subjugated to the physical desires that Lene has aroused and now manipulates. The pernicious result of this surrender appears on several occasions when Thiel chooses to ignore indirect evidence of Lene's abuse of Tobias. The inner workings of his subjugation are made clear when Thiel unexpectedly returns home to pick up a forgotten “Butterbrot.” Accidentally confronting Lene in the very act of striking Tobias, Thiel is distracted by and elects to focus upon Lene's sexual charms (46-47). Thus he himself consents to have his will and spirit made prisoner to his sexual drives. But the narrator's qualifying word “almost” (“fast”) indicates that Thiel's will yet retains some independence. His creation of secret spiritual hideaway and invention of private forms of worship testify to his greatly weakened but still surviving will. After a fearful midnight vision on his holy ground, Thiel belatedly tries to rouse his will to oppose Lene again and put a stop to Tobias' servitude at home: He brushes aside Lene's orders that Tobias attend her baby (54, 56). But Thiel's willpower is gradually sapped when pitted against Lene's, and thus Thiel must be called weak-willed in comparison with her. Still it is significant that even in contest with Lene's strong force, Thiel's independent will, deeds, and values do not entirely disappear.13

However serious Thiel's flaws, Lene's are more repulsive. She is characterized more truly by her physical bullying than by her coarse sensuality. The loose tripartite structure of the tale reflects the stages of Lene's progressive dominance over her new family. By the end of part one, Thiel's submission to Lene's nagging has become an established pattern, and her abuse of Tobias begins; she presses the child into virtual slavery to her baby, and in Thiel's absence, Tobias is “unaufhörlich geplagt” (41). Early in part two, Lene extends her rule to include the right to strike her stepson, though still in private (42), and by the end of this section, when Thiel finds his son's facial bruise, he is too intimidated to rebuke Lene even for such a blasphemy against Minna's sacred trust. In part three, Lene invades Thiel's “holy ground.” Thiel's story is thus inversely the tale of a female tyrant's progress.14

As the only person in the Novelle said to lack a “soulful” face, Lene is also the only one who regularly resembles a machine. Although several scholars mention in passing Lene's likeness to the trains, the nature of the resemblance has never been made explicit.15 Like the “masculine” image she is associated with, Lene drives Thiel's spirit out of her space and unhouses his spiritual life. She allows only his physical needs to be filled in her house, thereby engendering a fatal schism in Thiel's personality. Like the locomotives, she shatters holy silences at home and in the forest (49). Both Lene and the trains sound “schrill,” metallic, and cacophonous: “Der Ton einer [Lenes] kreischenden Stimme unterbrach die Stille so laut und schrill …Ein Schwall heftig herausgestoßner, mißtönender Laute schlug an sein Ohr … ” (45); “Ein lautes Quietschen, Schnarren, Rasseln und Klirren durchdrang weithin die Abendstille, bis der Zug unter einem einzigen, schrillen, langgedehnten Ton stillstand” (64). Lene's scolding of Tobias intensifies like an advancing locomotive “im schnellsten Tempo” and “in steigender Betonung” (46). Muscular Lene digs up the potato patch “mit der Geschwindigkeit und Ausdauer einer Maschine” (56). Intermittently she suckles her baby “mit keuchender schweißtropfender Brust” (56); both the train from Breslau and the Kiezug are also characterized by the verb keuchen (49, 63).

Lene's hypnotic, paralyzing effect on Thiel, so like the trains' freezing influence on the signalman, is summed up in metallic, mechanical terms: “Eine Kraft schien von dem Weibe auszugehen, unbezwingbar, unentrinnbar, der Thiel sich nicht gewachsen fühlte. Leicht gleich einem feinen Spinngewebe und doch fest wie ein Netz von Eisen legte es sich um ihn, fesselnd, überwindend, erschlaffend” (47). Not only does this simile lay bare the physical and psychic intimidation behind Lene's power over Thiel, it also resembles the narrator's description of the iron rails: “Die schwarzen, parallellaufenden Geleise darauf glichen in ihrer Gesamtheit einer ungeheuren, eisernen Netzmasche, deren schmale Strähne sich im äußersten Süden und Norden in einem Punkte des Horizontes zusammenzogen” (49). Like the tracks that mark the path of the train, Lene's tyrannical course is indicated by the “Netz von Eisen” that she casts about her.16

Though oppressed in spirit, Thiel is intermittently aware of and conscience-stricken over the impropriety of his condition. Even after his initial resistance to Lene's dominance has faded, Thiel occasionally understands his relationship to her “im Lichte der Wahrheit” and feels “Ekel” and “Gewissensbisse” (40). One night he awakes as if “aus einem zweijährigen totenähnlichen Schlaf,” sees “mit ungläubigem Kopfschütteln all das Haarsträubende,” and watches with horror as “[d] ie Leidensgeschichte seines Ältesten …trat deutlich vor seine Seele.” He is seized with “Mitleid und Reue” and feels “eine tiefe Scham” about his failure to protect Tobias. Even his patience with Lene he perceives as “schmachvoll” (51). To his credit, Thiel focuses on his own sins rather than hers. Only a deeply sensitive and self-critical person would rouse himself to confront his past and present mistakes. The fact that Thiel still experiences these passing moments of clarity, spiritual acuteness, and shame is another indication that his spirit is not yet dead, nor his will altogether effaced.

On this confessional night, Thiel is overcome by “den selbstquälerischen Vorstellungen all seiner Unterlassungssünden” (51) and transfers his life's dilemma into the world of dream. A storm outside his hut becomes in his nightmare both an oncoming train and an uncanny analogue of Lene, whose physical and aural intimidation he recalls from a noisy encounter that afternoon. After he rouses himself to watch for the express train due, the storm's weird lighting perpetuates groggy Thiel's dream in a waking vision (51-53).17 The dream-Minna's rags and haggard appearance embody the neglect Thiel has shown her through Tobias. She stumbles afraid and exhausted down the railroad tracks, fleeing from some unidentified pursuer; in her arms Thiel sees “etwas Schlaffes, Blutiges, Bleiches”—the brutalized Tobias. Minna's facial expressions reflect her foe's ferocity: “diese Blicke voll Herzensangst nach rückwärts gesandt. … O diese entsetzlichen Blicke!” Minna's unassisted attempt to prevent further injury to her bundle underscores Thiel's broken promise to care for her son. This betrayal results in Minna's disregard for Thiel in the dream-vision: “Sie war an Thiels Häuschen vorübergekommen, ohne sich darnach umzuschauen. … [Es] trat ihm klar vor die Seele: sie hatte sich von ihm losgesagt, ihn nicht beachtet. … Minna, the very image to Thiel of saintly spirituality, the grail and love-reward of his spiritual life, has abandoned as faithless the champion who promised to defend her.

Thiel's mind has presciently dramatized his life's crisis in a real setting of danger. By envisioning Minna and Tobias caught in the path of an actual approaching train, Thiel projects the climax of his conflict and foresees what literally will happen to Tobias on the following day. The symbol of the train has been especially intensified for this occasion, taking on the features of a carnivorous monster, an “Ungetüm” with bloody “Glotzaugen” (53). By making the train into a predator, Hauptmann symbolically frees the machine from its cage—the rails—and replaces the rational concept “train, servant of man” with a rampaging beast that will mutilate men.18 This train-beast and Thiel's reaction to it in his vision are disguised phantoms of Lene and of his own guilty conscience. Thiel sees the monster-train as Minna's and Tobias' persecutor and himself as a shamefully passive, guilty bystander. But Lene is the true “soulless” beast who is hunting down Minna and Tobias. The real express train seems less dangerous to Thiel than Lene does, as his repression of her guilt indicates. For the train's arrival is announced by a bell, and it is still actually controlled in its direction by the tracks. Fierce Lene, however, attacks without warning and selects her victims unpredictably. Although the train usually passes away harmlessly, Lene encroaches more and more dangerously. Surely one of Thiel's greatest handicaps as a potential champion-hero is that the monster he is called upon to combat is female. The Greeks prepared their heroes for the psychic duress of duelling with malignant, destructive females. But what Christian knight was prepared to encounter Gorgon where he expected to find Minna?

Even before this weird night is over, Thiel is moved to act on the message of his vision. Feeling separated from his elder son “durch Jahre,” the signalman is tempted to desert his post in order to go to Tobias. But after he does arrive home, he gradually seems to forget “die Bilder der Nacht” (54). The net effect of his nocturnal experience is an increased sense of distance from Lene, “etwas Befremdliches” in his manner toward her. He behaves especially strangely toward Lene in church, peering sideways at her instead of at the prayerbook (54). But Thiel's attempt to alter the course of things at home, handing the baby back to Lene and taking Tobias for a walk, is pathetically meager. It demonstrates how little Thiel has grasped of the serious ramifications of his domestic impasse.19 Thiel is one of those people who seem to function only at two speeds: underreacting or overreacting.

To restore his world to balance, Thiel should have acted more firmly on his vision. Thiel's tragic flaw is his inability to put his spiritual values into action. Because he is unable to integrate his nighttime spiritual insights with Minna into his daytime life with Lene, unable even to express his spiritual values to Lene or do other than mutely mime them, as in his feeble attempt to free Tobias, the signalman's actions and emotions remain wholly disjunctive. The gift of forceful articulation might here have been his saving grace. Without it, Thiel's spiritual paralysis and schizophrenia of will—caused both by Lene's bullying and by his own temperamental meekness—will lead to insanity.20 The unnaturally sundered and antagonized parts of Thiel's psyche—his spiritual and physical needs, his guilt and his obligations—must now either be rejoined or collide. His bloody vision foretells not only Tobias' fate but also the consequence of any failure to restore his own world to harmony: an impending mental breakdown and an eruption of retributive violence

Now Lene's advance is aimed more directly at Thiel himself: she plans to start a garden on his sacred stretch of railroad. Thiel “zuckte zusammen” when he hears she is coming to his post, feels “Mißbehagen” at her preparations the next morning, and walks in “Unruhe” with his family through the woods to work (55). Thiel senses deeply the danger of these developments but is too divided within himself to oppose Lene. Thus he allows the stage to be set for the reenactment of his disastrous dream.

Surprisingly, the highpoint of Thiel's relationship with Tobias comes during their walk that day along the tracks. In this scene, objects of modern technology take on, contrary to their previous ominousness in the tale, a spiritual aura. Thiel and Tobias hear “das Klingen der Telegraphenstangen … die aus dem Holze wie sonore Choräle aus dem Innern einer Kirche hervorströmten” (56). Though he has heard the sounds before, these secular tones now seem sanctified to Thiel by Tobias' companionship. For a few minutes with his son, Thiel feels as if his stretch of track were truly holy ground and is momentarily restored to happiness. The “Akkord” of the wires symbolized his long desired reunion with the boy and also the forgiveness of Minna, whose voice he believes he hears in a “Chor seliger Geister” (57). Nature and technology perform a heavenly pastorale for this imaginary family reunion. Little Tobias—revived and uplifted by his surroundings, his father's love, and his freedom from Lene—mirrors his father's spiritual experience when he thinks he sees God in a small brown squirrel: “Vater, ist das der liebe Gott?” (57). But the child's image of God, like his father's later grief-maddened recollection of it, pathetically reveals that to them God seems less powerful than Lene or the train. Their own feelings of helplessness and frustration are projected in their image for the being who should be their source of spiritual comfort and aid. To the reader, the image suggests the effective absence of a Divine Providence that might intervene to prevent the coming tragedy.21 Though God may continue to exist in the cosmos, His power to affect events has been radically reduced in the eyes of modern man.

The train's collision with Tobias is the turning point for Thiel's sanity and thus for the entire Novelle.22 The image of Tobias bounced between the rails as if he were a rubber ball is the story's most naturalistic image, a fulfillment of his earlier nurse's dropping him as if “gekugelt” onto the floor (38). The accident marks at once the apex of Lene's abuse, here in the form of neglecting to watch over her stepson after Thiel has gone to stand guard, and also the complete destruction of Thiel's last tangible bond to Minna. Tobias' death therefore shatters the link that could have reunified Thiel's life and triggers his quick mental breakdown. The train's mangling of Tobias' body symbolizes the psychic, physical, and emotional damage that Lene has done to the boy and to Thiel.

Thiel's insanity, Lene's surprising change of character, and the signalman's revenge constitute the final quarter of the tale. Thiel is transformed from a gentle father into a family-murderer. Only now does Hauptmann employ the vocabulary, syntax, and imagery that he used throughout the the text for Lene and the trains to describe the insane Thiel. Resemblance to the train indeed implies heartless brutality; but scholars have not pointed out that for Lene this is a way of life, while for Thiel it is a unique reaction in insanity and in “hot blood” to the loss of Tobias.23 Only now does Thiel become the source of sharp, penetrating sounds: “‘Ha-alt!’ schrie der Wärter aus Leibeskräften” (58), and he cries out over his son's body “mit einer Stimme, als müsse der enge Raum davon zerbersten: ‘Er muß, muß leben, ich sage dir, er muß, muß leben’” (61). Only now is Thiel associated with the verb keuchen, used earlier for Lene and the trains (58). Only now, when Thiel finally decides that Lene has murdered Tobias, does Hauptmann describe him in words that recall the demonic train of the vision: “Ein roter Nebel umwölkte seine Sinne, zwei Kinderaugen durchdrangen ihn” (63). The presence in both passages of redness, eyes, and the past tense verb durchdrangen identifies Thiel with the killer train, and it is as if the train-monster has been reborn, this time to crush Lene and her child, as the Lene-train had borne down on Minna and Tobias. Thiel at last reacts to Lene's long oppression of his spirit. Under the combined and unbearable stress of inner spiritual guilt, emotional outrage, and grief, Thiel physically and mentally explodes.

The problem of guilt in this tale is one critics have preferred to avoid, perhaps because Thiel and Lene both seem to be so unaware of the consequences of their personalities and so unable to change until placed under extreme duress. At first it may seem that Hauptmann covertly suggests that if Lene has no soul and thus is not quite human, then perhaps Thiel is not quite guilty of murder in her case. Yet Lene changes dramatically after the accident. Feeling apparently for the first time some pangs of conscience, she fears her husband: “Thiel würdigte sie keines Blickes; sie aber erschrak beim Anblick ihres Mannes” (64). Crying and sobbing, Lene follows the men who later carry the unconscious Thiel home. With “Eifer und Umsicht” she carries out her neighbors' medical advice and keeps close watch over his breathing. The narrator leaves no doubt of her change: “Sie war überhaupt eine andre geworden. Nirgend eine Spur des früheren Trotzes” (66). Lene's personality change shows that Hauptmann believes even an otherwise wholly sensual individual is capable, although here too late, of conscience and compassion. The reversal also makes her, in the reader's eyes, a more credible and rounded character. In fact, Hauptmann inverts his characters' traits after the accident: Lene is transformed from an entirely negative, destructive personality into a tender, solicitous nurse, while Thiel changes by the same catalyst from meekness to violence. As Lene loses personal force, the insane Thiel now dominates the forces he could not manage in his right mind: even asleep he is said to rule Lene, and later he successfully brings an express train to a halt. As Lene gains a degree of the reader's sympathy, Thiel elicits shock from the reader with his mad vengeance. The ill-matched pair's guilt and pathos rise and fall inversely, although the reader never sympathizes with Lene as much as with Thiel.

In combination Thiel and Lene create their own horrible fate. Both contribute to the tragedy and thus both are guilty. On the whole, however, Lene incurs the greater guilt, for the narrator depicts her as a heartless bully who habitually—and without the excuse of insanity—practices physical and mental brutality upon the defenseless, harmless persons about her. She introduced violence to her gentle husband and eventually inspires it in him. Nor does Lene have for her violence any shred of spiritual justification or motive as the reader feels Thiel does. The initiating actor must be held more responsible than the long-restrained counter-actor.24

Nevertheless, the true villain of Hauptmann's tale is not Lene or Thiel but brute force—a trait he depicts in men, machines, and nature. The train is a man-made labor saving miracle, but it also inherits its creator's capacity for brutality. The train is the Dingsymbol of brute force, but human beings cause themselves the greatest suffering. Hauptmann depicts Lene's and Thiel's brutality as stemming, respectively, from a lack of “soul” or spiritual inclination and from an inability to implement spiritual values. Only an active spiritual nature, Hauptmann implies, can safeguard man from being a brute in his relations with his fellow beings. Far from announcing man's lack of a soul, Hauptmann's Novelle emphasizes why man must struggle to keep his soul alive.

Another way of summarizing Thiel's simultaneous victimization and mad guilt is to compare him with the mythic hero Hercules. Although it may well be coincidental, Hauptmann seems to invite a comparison of the two men when at the outset he describes Thiel as having an “herkulisch[e] Gestalt” (37). Besides their imposing physiques, these men also share an emotional religiosity, self-slaughtered families, and an ambivalent reaction to women. Hercules and Thiel both live and judge by the heart, although the Greek hero, unlike lethargic Thiel, was always quick to act on his feelings. They have in common, too, a certain slow-wittedness in thinking an idea through. Both men are characterized by “greatness of soul.”25 W. H. Roscher, for example, attributes the demigod's heroic feats to his religious commitment: “Herakles aber, zu dessen religiösem Wesen die Überwindung böser feindlicher in Tiergestalten symbolisierter Dämonen gehört, bekämpft den Löwen. … ”26 It is Thiel's modern fate not to sense any divine assistance as he confronts his domestic “demon.” Perhaps Thiel doubts that God should help a man with such a mundane foe. But Thiel is also the victim of a rational age in which God was not thought to show himself to help his devotees, as the Greeks believed Jupiter and his fellow gods could be relied upon to do.

Hauptmann may have recalled other details of the Hercules legends.27 Xenophon's allegory of Hercules bears a curious resemblance to Hauptmann's depiction of the females in Thiel's life:

Two women came toward [Hercules], both tall and uncommon in appearance: one, clad in white, majestic, and surrounded, as it were, with a halo of purity and holiness; the other, rounder and fuller in form, clothed in gauzy garments, mincing in gait and obviously inviting admiration.

The latter ran quickly to Hercules and commenced to spread before his inexperienced judgment all the allurements which physical delights can offer. …

“And by what name must I call thee, Lady?” asked Hercules. “My friends call me ‘Happiness,’” was the reply; “but those who hate me call me ‘Vice!’” …

Then the other, whose name was “Virtue” …gave her description of a hero's duty, and the picture which she drew was so alluring to the soul of Hercules that he drove “Vice” from him and chose the long and narrow way, finding it true, as “Virtue” had promised. … 28

Although Thiel does not meet simultaneously the two women in his life, they exist for him side by side, in spirit and flesh, for the greater part of the tale. But Thiel does not exercise Hercules' wisdom and will in his conduct toward the sensual woman. Although Hercules was later known for his sexual exploits, he never lost his self-command over a woman's attractiveness. Once Minna has been taken away, Thiel's weaker will allows Lene's sensuality to lead him into submission and to dissipate his spiritual strength.

The plot of Hauptmann's story reveals interesting parallels with Euripides' Herakles, wherein the Greek hero, in a fit of madness imposed on him by the jealous Hera, slays his wife and three sons.29 In events early in the play, Herakles neglects his dependents, just as Thiel neglects Tobias. Thiel's and Herakles' insanities are described in similar length and details. The murders of both families take place in their own homes and are reported by a messenger. Herakles knows not that he is killing his own family, but Thiel seems conscious even in his madness that he is taking revenge upon Lene for Tobias. Both Herakles and Thiel think of God in their distress. The Greek hero blames Hera for his fate; Thiel “mußte an den lieben Gott denken, ohne zu wissen, warum” (63). Herakles blames a malicious deity for his violent spiritual disorder. Thiel also looks to God in his spiritual derangement but finds no divine answer. The ancient hero had a divine scapegoat on whom to shift the guilt, but the modern Thiel has no one to blame but himself. If he blames God for His inaction, all the more must he blame his own. This is the modern man's burden: to rouse his own lonely strength as a spiritual, ethical being to combat brute force.

Both men contemplate suicide as a way of escaping the pain of their violence. Herakles wonders aloud (in the German version), “was stoss' ich nicht ein schwert in meinen busen / als richter und als rächer meiner kinder?” Thiel lies down on the tracks where Tobias was killed even though an express train is due. Theseus comes to talk Herakles out of suicide, persuading him to return to Athens and his expiatory twelve labors. Several employees of the railroad plead with Thiel to leave the tracks, but he is removed only by force, to be taken to an asylum from which he never emerges. Perhaps since Herakles' guilt was shared by Hera, he could shoulder a reduced and expiable burden of remorse. But Thiel is crushed by the unshared burden of his deeds and shame, for he has destroyed Lene, the only partner in his guilt. In both men, the inclination to suicide is an expression of their sense of guilt for lacking spiritual insight.

Even if Hauptmann did not intentionally juxtapose Thiel and Hercules, the contrast of their faiths, cultures, fates, and concepts of heroism is instructive. Thiel's differences from Hercules do not mean that he is not a tragic figure, for the modes of tragedy vary with the age. The two men represent extremes in the spectrum of tragic characters: the kindly demigod belongs to the high tragedy of dying but self-assured gods in the “Dionysiac” style of tragedy, while the mortal Thiel embodies tragic pathos in the low mimetic, “domestic” mode.30 The typical eiron or humble hero of low mimetic tragedy is isolated, inarticulate, and self-deprecating, a predestined victim whose violent fate seems out of keeping with his mildness. He is an individual of vulnerable virtue who is dominated by a less scrupulous antagonist. He is not a socially elevated figure, yet he has experienced a great happiness that is now lost. The hero of domestic tragedy arouses not the admiring identification that an audience feels for King Oedipus or brave Hercules but rather an intense personal pity and terror, for the eiron appears—as the audience may often feel—powerless to control or influence his destiny. Like other low mimetic protagonists, Thiel seems “in a state of lower freedom than the audience.” So when readers perceive that Thiel's realistic flaws are similar to their own, his chilling demise strikes home. Ultimately Thiel is a tragic figure—not just a just a pitiable one—because he consciously and spiritually suffers his fate and knows how he contributed to it.

Thiel's tragedy may have an even stronger impact on the reader than Hercules' death agony. For Hercules dies only to live happily and guilt-free in heaven, while Thiel experiences neither catharsis for his guilt nor remission from his grief and madness. The reader also is left with an unpurged feeling of helplessness and waste. But because of the narrator's spiritual values, Hauptmann's reader can hope for men in general if not for Thiel. If Thiel's tragic flaws were his failures to exert soul and will, then other men may find ways of bringing those faculties more effectively to bear on the forces of spiritual and physical oppression.

In Thiel, Hauptmann imagines how a contemporary Herculean man might fare. Thiel's most admirable traits are his compassion, his piety, and his gentleness toward others. His interest in the little children of the village—teaching them how to spell and play new games, listening to their lessons, and helping them to learn verses from the Bible and hymnal—earns him the title “Vater Thiel” and makes him a hero to the children (43). But it seems impossible for modern man to demonstrate heroism by feats of sheer physical strength. Thiel can never match the power of the locomotive, and sheer bludgeoning force is misapplied as a solution to his domestic problems. In the modern world, “herculean stature” and the old virtues of muscle no longer compose a hero. The well-spoken word can be as heroic as the powerful deed. The simple, tongue-tied, gentle, strong man is not properly equipped for the modern condition or for the burden that a withdrawn inactive God places on lonely human beings. The modern “herculean” man is destined to be a failed hero, a pathetic hulk huddled on the railroad tracks, insane and longing for death. Only strength of spiritual will, not physical prowess, could have made Thiel an admirable and successful modern Hercules.


  1. For Hauptmann's stylistic development, see Walter A. Reichert, “Grundbegriffe im dramatischen Schaffen Gerhart Hauptmanns,” PMLA 82 (1967): 142-51. The suffering of the human spirit is one of Hauptmann's main themes; see Thomas Mann, Altes und Neues. Kleine Prosa aus fünf Jahrzehnten (Frankfurt a. Main: Fischer, 1953), p. 450. Hugo F. Garten, “Formen des Eros im Werk Gerhart Hauptmanns,” Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie 90 (1971): 249, describes the man caught between two women as another of Hauptmann's favorite themes; and C. F. W. Behl, “Die Magie des Elementaren,” Gerhart Hauptmann Jahrbuch 1 (1936): 51, discusses Hauptmann's interest in primitive psychic forces.

  2. For formulations of the story's theme as a conflict between spirit and body, see F. B. Wahr, “The Art of Hauptmann's Shorter Stories,” GR 24 (1949): 56; Marianne Ordon, “Unconscious Contents in ‘Bahnwärter Thiel,’” GR 26 (1951): 225; Josef Kunz, “Geschichte der deutschen Novelle,” Deutsche Philologie im Aufriss, ed. Wolfgang Stammler (Berlin: Schmidt, 1952), 2: 1830; Paul Requadt, “Die Bilderwelt in Gerhart Hauptmanns ‘Bahnwärter Thiel,’” in Minotaurus: Dichtung unter den Hufen von Staat und Industrie, ed. A. Döblin (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1953), p. 109; Werner Zimmermann, “Bahnwärter Thiel,” in Deutsche Prosadichtungen unseres Jahrhunderts: Interpretationen für Lehrende und Lernende (Düsseldorf: Schwann, 1966), 1: 71; and Fritz Martini, “Bahnwärter Thiel,” in Das Wagnis der Sprache: Interpretationen deutscher Prosa von Nietzsche bis Benn, 5th ed. (Stuttgart: Klett, 1964), p. 88. Many critics berate Thiel as a bestial sub-human with whose physical drives and mental weaknesses they could not possibly have anything in common. Berthold Schultze, for example, speaks of Thiel's “zu derbe Natur,” in “Die Eisenbahnstrecke in Gerhart Hauptmanns ‘Bahnwärter Thiel,’” Monatsschrift für höhere Schulen 19 (1920): 299; Requadt claims that Thiel's “schwersinniges Wesen” sinks “in ein Zeitalter zurück, wo der Mensch in seiner Triebhaftigkeit dem Rationalen unzugänglich … war,” p. 103; Martini believes Thiel exists in “dumpfer Primitivität,” p. 91; John Ellis, Narration in the German Novelle: Theory and Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 169-87, sees Thiel only in terms of his mechanical nature and his eventual madness and loss of self-control; and Manfred Schunicht calls Thiel's level of consciousness “pathologisch deformiert,” in “Die zweite Realität. Zu den Erzählungen Gerhart Hauptmanns,” in Untersuchungen zur Literatur als Geschichte: Festschrift für Benno von Wiese, ed. Vincent J. Günther et al, (Berlin: Schmidt, 1973), p. 442. For the most balanced appraisal of Thiel's strong and weak points, see Walter Silz, Realism and Reality: Studies in the German Novelle of Poetic Realism (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1954), pp. 144-47, 149.

  3. Gerhart Hauptmann, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Hans-Egon Hass (Frankfurt a. Main/Berlin: Propyläen, 1963), 6: 37. All subsequent references are to this edition; page numbers will be indicated parenthetically in the text.

  4. Although most critics note that Thiel has a spiritual side, only one has recognized that the theme of spirituality is introduced in the first sentence. Requadt reads the first line in this way: “Die Einförmigkeit dieses Lebens ist schon im ersten Worte der Erzählung erkennbar … ” p. 104; Ellis believes that the “story's opening words refer to Thiel's appearance in church every Sunday as if reading from his timetable,” p. 177. Only Gottfried Mende notices the implications for Thiel's spirit: “Daß diese Seele sich nach oben sehnte, soll dadurch ausgedrückt werden, daß Thiel nie in der Kirche fehlte,” in Religiöse Betrachtungen über Werke Gerhart Hauptmanns (Leipzig: Dieterich'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1906), p. 19.

  5. A surprising number of scholars speak negatively of Minna. Joseph Gregor describes her relationship to Thiel as “nicht viel mehr als Freundschaft,” in Gerhart Hauptmann: Das Werk und unsere Zeit (Vienna: Diana, 1951), p. 79; Silz believes that the “spirit of the first [wife] mercilessly condemns [Thiel's] physical sexuality and mercilessly exacts murderous atonement,” and concludes that Minna is one of the “two women, who destroy Thiel,” pp. 149-50, 165; Benno von Wiese discusses “den Zugriff seiner [Thiels] ersten Frau,” in Die deutsche Novelle von Goethe bis Kafka (Düsseldorf: Bagel, 1956), 1: 279; Zimmermann claims that Thiel's decline began with his marriage to Minna and argues that both wives are moved by “den gleichen Kräften des Triebhaft-Unbewußten,” pp. 69, 85 (see also p. 77); and Ellis maintains that “Minna's is the more dangerous attack on Thiel,” p. 186. In Minna's defense, Kunz notes her “Frömmigkeit,” p. 1830; Silz regards Minna as “quiet, frail, and spiritual,” p. 142; Gottfried Fischer perceives Thiel's “Innerestes” as “die Erinnerung an seine verstorbene Frau,” in Erzählformen in den Werken Gerhart Hauptmanns (Bonn: Bouvier, 1957), p. 295; and Martini notices that Thiel looks to the departed Minna as to “der Rettenden,” pp. 97-98.

  6. Village and public opinions are throughout the tale randomly correct and incorrect. Each opinion must be evaluated in its context.

  7. Wahr sees Tobias as “almost a symbol of [Thiel's] guilty conscience,” p. 56. Silz believes the boy's cap “could qualify as a ‘Falke’ in Heyse's sense,” p. 138.

  8. Scholarly discussions of the narrator have not addressed the question of his values. Martini (p. 65) and Ellis (p. 171) maintain that the narrator evaluates as he tells the story, but they do not explain precisely what the narrator holds dear and what he deprecates. To date, commentators have focused instead upon the narrator's objectivity, omniscience, and techniques of narration. See Requadt, p. 103; Silz, pp. 138ff.; von Wiese, p. 268; Martini, pp. 65, 67, 72; and Ellis, pp. 171-74.

  9. Like others before him, Ellis perceives shifts in the narrator's style, but does not unravel the ethical and emotional logic behind this particular shift. Instead, Ellis argues that the narrator is at times wrong, incomplete, or haphazard (pp. 172-73, 176). Ellis is correct in his insistence that the narrator in the early portion of the story does not tell everything he knows, but Ellis mistakes the techniques of selective narration and understatement for those of a mendacious or unreliable narrator.

  10. Critics who note narrative changes in technique over the course of the story include Zimmermann, p. 72, and Ellis, pp. 172-74.

  11. Silz (p. 146) and Zimmermann (p. 70) point out that Minna and Lene are diametric opposites. Not only their traits, but also their connotative names reinforce this opposition. “Minna” is the archaic word for poetic “love” and “remembrance,” while “Lene” is a diminutive for both Helen(a) and Magdalena, mythical and Biblical women known for their physical and sensual qualities. For a general discussion of Hauptmann's “sensitivity to” names, see Warren R. Maurer, “Gerhart Hauptmann's Character Names,” GQ, 52 (1979), 457-71; Maurer points out that Tobias' “Biblical namesake healed his father's blindness,” p. 460.

  12. Martini describes the effect of the passing trains on Thiel as “ein sprachloses Überwältigt-Werden,” p. 87.

  13. In Die deutsche Novelle im 20. Jahrhundert (Berlin: Schmidt, 1977), p. 25, Josef Kunz argues that Thiel, like other figures in Hauptmann's works, is without a will: “Eine solche Entscheidungsfreiheit in dem Werk Gerhart Hauptmanns zu suchen, wäre müßig. Der Mensch ist im Grunde willenlos in das Gegeneinander—noch nicht einmal in den Konflikt—von göttlichen und dämonischen Mächten, in das Gegeneinander von Gnade und Besessenheit hineingegeben.” This seems to me an exaggerated charge, at least in Thiel's case. Hauptmann has taken pains to portray the struggle of Thiel's will against Lene's, and surely to be weak-willed is not to be without a will altogether. If Thiel had no will and made no struggle, the tale would be deprived of its tension.

  14. 14. For other explanations of the function of Hauptmann's threefold division of this tale, see Wahr, p. 56; Requadt, p. 103; von Wiese p. 273; Zimmermann, p. 79; Ellis, p. 173; and James L. Hodge, “The Dramaturgy of Bahnwärter Thiel,Mosaic 9 (1976): 114-15.

  15. Scholars who mention Lene's similarity to the trains include Requadt, p. 106; Zimmermann, p. 77; Beverly Driver and Walter K. Francke, “The Symbolism of Deer and Squirrel in Hauptmann's ‘Bahnwärter Thiel,’” South Atlantic Bulletin 37 (1972): 48; and Hodge, p. 108.

  16. Scholars who interpret this simile in other ways include Requadt, p. 105; Ordon, p. 226; von Wiese, p. 273; Karl S. Guthke, Gerhart Hauptmann: Weltbild im Werk (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1961), pp. 54-55; Martini, p. 80; and Ellis, p. 179.

  17. For commentary on the role of nature in this work, see Günter Taube, Die Rolle der Natur in Gerhart Hauptmanns Gegenwartswerken (Berlin: Ebering, 1936), pp. 20-21; Wahr, pp. 54, 56; Silz, pp. 142-45; von Wiese, pp. 276, 279-80, 283; and Requadt, p. 107.

  18. For interpretations of Thiel's vision, see Kurt Sternberg, Gerhart Hauptmann: Der Entwicklungsgang seiner Dichtung (Berlin: Borngräber, 1910), p. 35; Gregor, p. 81; Silz, p. 147; von Wiese, p. 277; J. D. Stirk, “Introduction,” Gerhart Hauptmann: Bahnwärter Thiel and Fasching, Blackwell's German Texts (Oxford: Blackwell, 1961), p. xxv; Guthke, p. 55; and Martini, pp. 66, 98. For the train as a symbol, see Requadt, p. 106; Silz, p. 143; Martini, p. 70; Driver and Francke, p. 48; and Ellis, pp. 176, 186-87. For a wide-ranging examination of the impact of technology, particularly trains, on the human imagination in the nineteenth century, see Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967).

  19. Ellis traces Thiel's “process of mental ferment” to this passage (p. 185), but does not recognize that this is Thiel's attempt to put the lesson of his vision into practice.

  20. Thiel's imbalance is thus the result of his and Lene's personalities and psychological make-up, not the result of an economic system; see Martini, p. 71. For a dissenting opinion on this point see Irene Heerdegen, “Gerhart Hauptmanns Novelle ‘Bahnwärter Thiel,’” Weimarer Beiträge 4 (1958): 358. Heerdegen's conclusion that [Thiel's madness] represents “zumeist …eine Flucht aus dem unerträglich gewordenen gesellschaftlichen Verhältnissen des Kapitalismus” (p. 358), misses entirely, it seems to me, the pervasive personal tone of the story.

  21. Interpreting the squirrel incident in quite different veins are Requadt, p. 111; Schultze, p. 301; Ordon, pp. 226, 228; Driver and Francke, p. 50; Guthke, p. 56; and Hodge, p. 111.

  22. Silz (p. 137) and Martini (p. 68) find other turning points. For a discussion of this story as a Novelle, see Silz, pp. 137-38.

  23. See Requadt, p. 111; Ellis, pp. 174ff.; and Hodge, pp. 108-09. All three of these commentators neglect to notice that Thiel's resemblance to the train occurs only after the death of Tobias and is caused by it. In direct contrast, Lene has been depicted as the brutally mechanical equal of the train from the first time we saw her.

  24. Assessments of guilt have differed. Silz believes that Thiel “callously ignores Tobias' sufferings,” p. 147. Gregor blames Lene for the catastrophe: “Tobiaschen stirbt durch (unbewußt gewollte) Unachtsamkeit der Stiefmutter,” pp. 81-82. Zimmermann defends Thiel's guiltlessness: “Thiel trifft keine Schuld an dieser Tat, er ist vielmehr selbst das Opfer,” p. 86. Von Wiese (p. 270) and Martini (pp. 71-72) believe that Hauptmann makes no judgment of guilt whatsoever. Only Ordon suggests (p. 227) that Thiel did not want to save Tobias and thus may be directly culpable of his death.

  25. Edith Hamilton, Mythology (New York: New American Library, 1942), pp. 160-61.

  26. Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, ed. W. H. Roscher (Leipzig: Teubner, 1916-24), 1:2:2195.

  27. Hauptmann's extensive knowledge of Greek myth is documented by Felix A. Voigt in Antike und antikes Lebensgefühl im Werke Gerhart Hauptmanns (Breslau: Maruschke und Berendt, 1935), and in Gerhart Hauptmann und die Antike (Berlin: Schmidt, 1965); see especially Voigt's account of Hauptmann's education in the classics (Lebensgefühl, pp. 14ff.), and Voigt's comparison of Hauptmann and Euripides (Lebensgefühl, p. 69). See Hodge for a discussion of Thiel in relation to “Pan, Dionysus, Apollo, et al”—but not Hercules—pp. 100-11. Requadt takes the allusion to Hercules as a general heroic designation rather than a specific comparison, p. 106.

  28. As rendered by Thomas Bulfinch, Myths and Legends: The Golden Age, ed. George H. Godfrey (Boston: Nickerson, n.d.), pp. 184-85.

  29. See Euripides Herakles, trans. into German by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (Berlin: Weidmann, 1879), an edition that young Hauptmann may himself have read.

  30. For a wide-ranging discussion of the modes of tragedy, see Northrup Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 33-43. My analysis of the tragic aspects of Bahnwärter Thiel utilizes Frey's distinctions and terminology. Kunz's exclusion of this story from the genre of tragedy (Novelle im 20. Jahrhundert, p. 25) is based on his belief that Thiel does not possess freedom of will (see my discussion of this problem in note 13).

Warren R. Maurer (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4696

SOURCE: “Early Prose,” in Gerhart Hauptmann, Twayne Publishers, 1982, pp. 13-24.

[In the following essay, Maurer surveys Hauptmann's novellas Fasching and Bahnwärter Thiel.]


In 1887, upon submitting Fasching for publication, Hauptmann requested that his first name be spelled Gerhart (rather than Gerhard), an orthography he retained for the rest of his life.1 This minor change coincides with a much more significant change of aesthetic signature which was soon to lead to his most popular and enduring contribution: those many works that reflect an intimate amalgamation of personal experience, a vibrant sense of landscape, and warm portrayal of ordinary people confronted by forces and events too overwhelming to comprehend.

Due to the general disrepute of contemporary theater, combined with his attraction to Turgenev, Tolstoy, Zola, and Daudet,2 Hauptmann turned to prose fiction and his first successful efforts in his new style were the novellas Fasching [Carnival] and Bahnwärter Thiel [Flagman Thiel]. While the former still bears traces of literary apprenticeship, the latter is an undisputed small masterpiece. Together they transcend Naturalism even before it reached its apogee and provide a more balanced insight into the future author than the more decidedly Naturalistic play Vor Sonnenaufgang which established his wider reputation in 1889.

Based on an actual event, the drowning of a shipbuilder named Zieb, his wife, and child, when they broke through the ice during a nocturnal crossing of the Flaken lake near Erkner on February 13, 1887, this story was long neglected, even after its rediscovery in 1922.3 Using the event as a receptacle for his imagination and his emotions about the lake and the people around it, Hauptmann composed a somewhat contrived, melodramatic tale of hubris and death.

The plot is little more than an elaboration of the ironic title. After a dizzying round of celebrations, a man sets out for home, late at night, across a frozen lake. Skating on dangerous ice while pushing his wife and infant son before him on a hand sled, he loses his sense of direction when a dark cloud obscures the full moon and he is simultaneously deprived of the beacon of light from a lamp in his house upon which he had depended for orientation. Suddenly he finds himself plunged from a warmly animalistic enjoyment of life into the cold, dark waters of death in the one small portion of the large lake which had failed to freeze over completely. The next day all three bodies are fished from the lake and returned home, there to join in death the fourth member of the household, an old grandmother who, coincidentally, at about the same time, had died a natural death related to that of the others by the fateful lamp which had burned low because she could no longer attend to it.

Aside from the elemental depiction of the precariousness of human existence inherent in the central image of skating on thin ice, the story owes its effectiveness to the expressive characterization of its four principal characters, a demonization and estrangement of the natural surroundings, and a growing suspense maintained by an insistent foreshadowing of doom and an abundance of leitmotifs and effective visual and auditory imagery. The Zieb character, renamed Kielblock by Hauptmann in appropriate deference to his trade of sailmaker,4 neglects his customers for the pleasures of carousing while, at the same time, speculating upon the death of his old mother whose strongbox full of savings—the result of a miserly lifetime—he hopes soon to acquire. His young wife Mariechen, instead of serving as a counterbalance to his excesses, is all too easily drawn into them herself. Her name, a diminutive form, suggests a lack of maturity which finds further expression in a favorite Hauptmann motif: child neglect and abuse. Far from considering him a blessing, the Kielblocks consider Gustavchen, their little son, a stroke of bad luck and a handicap to their preferred lifestyle. In Hauptmann's typology of characters Mariechen is also an early relative of those physically robust and erotically destructive women to whom he returned again and again.

Almost from the outset a mood of impending doom is evoked. It takes too many forms to be recounted in full here, but ranges from the very early description of Gustavchen's “death-like” sleep (6:16) to an incident in which Kielblock laughs off a fisherman's threat that he will have to fish him out of the lake in his net when he breaks through the ice (6:17); to his ridicule and parody of the cries of help of a boy who had almost drowned in the lake at the fateful spot in broad daylight (6:27)—cries later repeated almost verbatim in his own drowning (6:32). Especially evocative is Kielblock's behavior at a Fasching ball. Vaguely aware that a consciousness of death enhances the pleasure of living, he disguises himself as a corpse (whereas his wife, coquettishly attired in a red gardener's costume, represents life) and spends a few exuberant hours “teaching people the willies” (6:21).

As in Bahnwärter Thiel. albeit with less virtuosity, Hauptmann lavishes attention on the natural setting of his human drama. Nature goes its own way, hard and indifferent at best, malevolent and destructive at worst. The sun, a mere “piece of glowing metal” (6:24), and the moon a “silver knob” (6:28) observe with equal indifference the animal vitality and the death throes of the tiny human figures. As Kielblock struggles against drowning he is mocked by a flock of wild geese swimming effortlessly through the vast dome of stars and across the face of the full moon (6:32-33). More subjectively, the low “Tuba-call” of the cracking ice reminds him of standing upon “an enormous cage, in which hordes of bloodthirsty beasts are imprisoned, roaring from hunger and rage, and grinding their claws and teeth into the walls of their prison” (6:30). This is hardly the substance or language of “consistent Naturalism.” Man is a fated being, an impression Hauptmann reinforces even in such subtle touches as the use of the same color (green) for the death-sled and the coveted strongbox. And, in spite of Naturalistic tendencies such as the accumulation of detail, the profuse use of dialogue (but sporadic and inconsistent use of dialect), and the Sekundenstil in which the moment of dying is recorded (6:33), the style is closer to magic realism—appropriate to the aura magica that the work exudes.


Reminiscent of Fasching in style and certain motifs (e.g., child neglect) is Bahnwärter Thiel, written in 1887 and published the following year in the Naturalist periodical Die Gesellschaft. With this work Hauptmann “entered the world as a writer” (7:1044) and gave German Naturalism one of its most accomplished and enduring works. Praised extravagantly by its first readers,5 it has enjoyed long popularity in German schools and in its motivation, psychological nuances, and form remains as fascinating today as on the day it appeared.

Again a product of life in Erkner, the character of Thiel seems to have been inspired by a railroad crossing guard who worked in that area.6 The novella, of course, has more deeply personal roots as well. These undoubtedly include memories of railroad life acquired in Hauptmann's parents' railway restaurant; an early fascination with trains as an embodiment of the mixed blessings of technology (expressed also in the poems “Im Nachtzug” and “Der Wächter” [“In the Night Train” and “The Guard” (4:54-58)]; his attraction for Georg Büchner (7:1061); and an intense interest in psychology stimulated by Forel. For Hauptmann these elements began to coalesce after his “flight” to a new life in the “Waldeinsamkeit” (“forest solitude”) of Erkner (7:1093): “I had never been so close to nature as then,” he was to recall. “Through the mystery of birth [of a son] it was as though the earth too had opened itself up to me. The forests, lakes, meadows, and fields breathed within the same mystery” (7:1033).

Written in the early “hours before dawn,”7 the novella relates the story of a large, seemingly phlegmatic and simple-minded crossing guard, Thiel, who is subjugated by two women: his first wife Minna, a delicate, ethereal creature who died in childbirth, leaving him to care for an equally vulnerable son Tobias; and an earthy, animalistic creature named Lene, whom he ostensibly marries to provide Tobias with a mother, whereas he actually does so for compulsive sexual reasons. Guilt-ridden by what he feels to be his betrayal of Minna, the stolid, punctilious anti-hero attempts to compartmentalize his life to accommodate two forms of love: accepting Lene's sexual domination during his off-duty hours at home but, simultaneously, transforming his little railway implement shack in the forest into a “chapel” where, with the help of quasi-religious relics of his dead wife, he achieves visionary states of communication with her. Thiel's attempts to keep the two areas of his life separated, however, are doomed to failure on account of little Tobias. Sickly, retarded, and undernourished though Tobias is, Thiel loves him as his link to Minna, thereby incurring the wrath of Lene who—veritable archetype of an evil stepmother—abuses the child at every opportunity and forces him to forgo the pleasures of childhood by burdening him with the responsibility of caring for her (and Thiel's) own infant son. Even though he accidentally witnesses a brutal beating of Tobias by Lene, Thiel's sexual bondage to her is so strong that he represses his rage and reverts to his usual torpor.

The crisis arrives in the aftermath of a mundane event. Given a small strip of land near his railroad shack for his private use, Thiel informs Lene of the fact without considering the consequences, i.e., the inevitable merging of the two realms he has so painstakingly kept apart. Having been told of the little field, Lene cannot be restrained from the urge to plant potatoes in it (a necessity, she claims, for the impoverished family) and one beautiful sunny morning finds the family heading for the fateful spot. At first the family's activity is a picture of idyllic harmony, impaired only by Lene's refusal to allow Tobias to accompany his father on his inspection round; she insists that he remain with her to care for his infant brother while she prepares the desolate little field for planting. As usual, her forcefulness prevails and suddenly tragedy strikes. Diverted by her work, Lene neglects to keep an eye on Tobias, as her husband had urged her to do, and the boy is brutally struck down by a raging locomotive. Efforts to save him by bringing him to the railway doctor prove futile. Thiel himself lapses into unconsciousness and then into a state of paranoia in which he promises revenge on Lene to his dead wife and catches himself in the act of strangling Lene's child. When the body of little Tobias is returned to the Thiel household a few hours later, Lene and her child are found dead; she with a shattered skull, the baby with a slashed throat. At first, Thiel, the murderer, cannot be located, but he is discovered the next day seated on the railway tracks at the scene of the accident, caressing the little brown cap of Tobias. An express train is made to halt while he is forcibly removed from the tracks. Taken to Berlin, he is eventually placed in an insane asylum.

Much of the original impact of this story must have resulted from its Naturalistic overtones. These include the depiction of a passive central character from a lower-class background in a specific milieu; problems of heredity (Tobias has his father's red hair but his mother's frailty and the mystical proclivities of both parents); emphasis on sexuality; the rather clinical description of mental derangement; a minutely detailed narrative style limited largely to a precise description of the few characters and their immediate environment; a preoccupation with the destructive forces of technology; the use of real place names, and the depiction of crass, almost sensational, reality (Lene's beating of Tobias, Thiel's attempted strangulation of the infant, and the discovery of the mutilated bodies.)8 And yet, despite this impressive catalogue of attributes, even a first reading of the work reveals how inadequate the Naturalist label is. Compared to the “consistent” Naturalism of Holz and Schlaf, Hauptmann's novella is at once more traditional and more progressive, pointing to the past and to the future. An almost classical example of the novella genre as it flourished during the period of Poetic Realism, it also shares with that era a proclivity for describing in some detail the rudiments of a particular trade or occupation (here that of a railway flagman) without, however, placing it within the political context of a class-conscious proletariat.

Romantic elements also abound. Dreams become reality; natural surroundings are described subjectively so as to enhance the mystical experiences of the main character and to reflect his inner turmoil, while the language itself (e.g., in the use of the Romantic “code” word Waldeinsamkeit [6:47]) is, on occasion, almost indistinguishable from that of a Ludwig Tieck or Joseph von Eichendorff. Nor is this surprising in light of Hauptmann's lifelong latent Romanticism, detectable in even his most Naturalistic work. Indeed, it is largely these Romantic qualities that also tend to project the work into the future. Hauptmann's lack of faith in mere words as adequate vehicles of expression, his reliance on gesture, silence, symbolism, color imagery, the meaningful repetition of words and events, and an artistic control and fastidiousness second perhaps only to that of Thomas Mann, already point toward Neoromanticism.9

An important clue for locating Thiel more precisely in German literary history is provided by Hauptmann's admiration for Georg Büchner. Although Büchner had been almost a cult figure for him, and a few other Naturalists had instinctively recognized his relevance to their movement, his real discovery did not come until about 1911—just prior to the advent of Expressionism.10 Although Büchner had died fifty years before Thiel was written, his work was still too progressive to be widely understood or appreciated. His drama Woyzeck and the novella Lenz, in particular, strike one as direct precursors of Hauptmann's work. Written in a similar style (a mixture of realism and symbolism), they represent two of the most sensitive analyses of mental aberration in German literature. The parallels between the hounded and abused soldier Woyzeck and Thiel are especially striking. As Silz has summed them up, “both are simple, not to say simple-minded, faithful, ‘kinderlieb,’ inarticulate, concealing profound spiritual depths beneath a usually tranquil surface; easy-going, slow to suspicion and wrath, but finally capable of murderous violence against the women who have failed them.”11 There are other similarities as well. Both men have a special relationship to nature and are subject to hallucinations; both are the victims of despotic, dehumanizing, materialistic “progress,” both are obsessively attracted to women of robust sensuality, and, finally, both are spared the moral condemnation of their authors on the basis of a very similar outlook: that there are too many (and too obscure) determining forces acting upon human behavior to permit easy judgments.

In both Woyzeck and Thiel compassion for a poor, harassed individual from the lower classes far outweighs condemnation, and it is not surprising that both works have been the subject of Marxist-oriented criticism. Indeed, there are traces of a j'accuse tendency in Thiel, mostly in reference to little Tobias. For example, Hauptmann casually hints at his undernourishment in an episode in which the boy is described as using his finger to eat the lime from a hole in the wall (6:43). On the other hand, since Lene's own child is the picture of health, it would seem that this is more of a personal, family problem than a social one. More significant are some of the circumstances surrounding the accident. Inhumanely reduced to an object, “thrown to and fro like a rubber ball” (6:58) beneath the wheels of the train, Tobias's body is hurriedly wrapped up (in a red flag!) in the presence of the curious passengers: “Time is valuable. The whistle of the trainmaster trills. Coins rain from the windows. …‘The poor, poor, woman,’ one hears in the compartments, ‘the poor, poor mother’” (6:58). This confrontation of tragic loss with money, suffering with genteel banality, does seem to constitute a social statement—as does also the return of the boy's body in a gravel car (6:64). To try to impose the usual Marxist pattern upon the novella, however, to reduce Thiel's suffering to a catastrophe which “in the final analysis derives from the social problems of the hero,” and to equate his religiosity with an “opiate of the people”12 is, at best, an oversimplification. Even Irene Heerdegen, who broaches these views, seems aware of their limitation. On the one hand, she must regret that the work lacks a positive example for the proletariat and, on the other, admits that its basic orientation is more psychological than social.13

Psychological criticism of Thiel tends to fall into two categories: either features of the work itself are used to explore the psyche of the author, or the characters of the story are examined for psychological verisimilitude. An example of the former is Hauptmann's attraction to the theme of mariage à trois—typically a man between two women with contrasting natures and personalities. Whether or not one agrees with Jean Jofen that the third person in the triangle inevitably represents Marie Hauptmann, the author's mother (the name Minna is a diminutive form of her name), and therefore signifies oedipal complications, the theme is one that does occur again and again.14 Similarly, the figure of Lene has been interpreted as a projection of Hauptmann's fear of sexually aggressive women during an era of pronounced feminine activism, and Tobias has been identified with the author's own childhood suffering.15

Less debatable is Hauptmann's skill in portraying the psychic life of his characters, especially of Thiel himself. Here we have a classic portrayal of repression avenged; of a man who bottles up both his sense of guilt and a growing rage beneath a pedantic orderliness. When, through the violent loss of his son, he is suddenly deprived of even the solace of hope for the future, it is more than he can endure. He loses his already tenuous hold on reality and his unconscious psyche wreaks vengeance on the world in a paroxysm of savagery that transcends mere revenge—reflecting instead a generous portion of self-loathing and “‘displaced’ consciousness of his own guilt and perfidy.”16

Bahnwärter Thiel is, of course, more than a sociological case history or the study of an interesting psychopath. Hauptmann takes pains to universalize his hero's fate; to make of him an Everyman trapped between the spiritual and the temporal realms. That Hauptmann's artistic vision cannot be completely divorced from either the zeitgeist or his own outlook should, however, be obvious. In his loneliness Thiel embodies both the growing alienation which was the by-product of an increasingly materialistic late-nineteenth century culture and the desperate longing for spiritual solace which was its concomitant reaction. In addition, he reflects the author's own, somewhat eclectic, philosophical notions. For example, Hauptmann once compared tragedy “cum grano salis, with a breakthrough of subterranean forces” (7:101).

Whether or not these transcendental forces are benevolent or malicious, for Hauptmann, as for the ancient Greeks, they are a reality which reflects upon individual human destiny. Furthermore, like some Romantic thinkers he subscribes to the view that access to the transcendental realm is not only possible but that it is facilitated for certain individuals and under certain circumstances. In this regard, simple, primitive people living close to the soil are at an advantage, as the mysteries of existence, both divine and demonic, reveal themselves to them more directly than to their more highly civilized, excessively “rationalized” brethren. Especially in dreams, states of unconsciousness, and madness (frequently the result of great suffering) they acquire a foretaste of true being and, paradoxically, achieve their greatest clarity.17

Seen from this perspective, Thiel's life is “determined” not only in the scientific sense so dear to the Naturalist movement, but also in a metaphysical sense. His eventual madness, the result of profound suffering, represents the “breakthrough of subterranean forces,” not merely an acute case of psychological repression. As in the case of Büchner's Woyzeck. Thiel has been “struck a mortal blow, but in such a manner, that the genuine human values still shine brightly in destruction.”18 After the destructive paroxysm has run its course, he lapses into a new humaneness, expressed by his stroking of Tobias's cap. Indeed, even Lene, the “animal” (6:39), is humanized by the mystery of Thiel's suffering. Her sudden softening and reversal of character just before her death is more than the result of fear and remorse; and, although it would be presumptuous to equate it with the kind of “epiphany” Michael Kramer will later experience in the presence of his dead son, there is a tendency in that direction.

More important than content for imbuing the reader with the sense of irrational reality upon which the success of the work depends is the form in which it is presented. Paralleling the admixture of sharp Naturalistic detail and mystical obscurity in the plot is the intermingling of realistic and irrational elements in style and language. The dominant tone of the story, rather pedantically divided into three chapters (atypical for the novella), is that of an objective report interspersed with lyrical passages—the most effective of which depicts Thiel in his forest retreat in communion with his surroundings and Minna on the eve of the accident (6:48-51). Again, as in Fasching, the catastrophe itself is brought into relief in an excited, staccato Sekundenstil (6:58) but the subsequent events (with the minor exception of the discovery of the murders) are portrayed in cool, calm tones which tend to neutralize sentimentality. The narrator himself is anonymous but trustworthy. Occasionally he reveals a trace of irony, as when he describes Thiel's ambitions for Tobias who, as his father earnestly hopes, will someday achieve the exalted position of trainmaster (6:43), but Hauptmann avoids outright condescension. On the other hand, he allows the reader to experience the things Thiel experiences; to hear, see, and feel the things that affect him. Empathy with the hero is also facilitated for the educated reader by the lack of dialect, minimal dialogue (for a Naturalistic work), and by Hauptmann's tendency to ascribe to Thiel a sensitivity not normally associated with a character of his social class.

The growing sense of irrationality which precedes the catastrophe and makes it plausible is achieved in various ways; most effectively by a synthesis of two forces usually thought of as opposites: nature and technology. Hauptmann merges the two by describing each in terms of its apparent counterpart, and by imbuing both with the same mystical vitalism that also motivates the characters. Thus, a row of trees is “illuminated as though from within and glows like iron” (6:49); a locomotive stretches its “sinews” (6:60); the moon is described as a “signal lamp” (6:65); the singing telegraph lines become the threatening “web of a giant spider” (6:49); and Lene digs her field “with the speed and endurance of a machine” (6:56). Especially the locomotive, the most impressive representation of the raw power of technology available in 1887, is transformed into a demon of potential destruction. Appearing out of infinity like fate, a dark point on the horizon, suddenly growing into an enormous “black, snorting Ungetüm” (i.e., “violence personified” [6:50]), it disappears into unearthly stillness as suddenly and mysteriously as it came—paralleling in its inscrutable origins, sudden destructive force, and equally sudden lapse into deathly calm, Thiel's own fate.

In spite of its Naturalistic exterior a sense of fate pervades the atmosphere of the story. It is enhanced by some of the same techniques Hauptmann had experimented with in Fasching. The tragedy is foreshadowed almost from the beginning; ordinary events have symbolic value and their repetition fosters a feeling of inevitability; gesture, silence, and sound are manipulated for maximum effect, as is the virtuoso use of color.

We learn in the very first paragraph, for example, that during the past ten years only two events—both accidents caused by trains—have affected Thiel sufficiently to disrupt his routine and his religious worship. Once he suffered a broken leg when he was struck by a lump of coal falling from a tender, and another time he was struck on the chest by a wine bottle thrown out of an express train racing by him. A few pages later another wine bottle is mentioned, together with a further example of destruction. This time a roebuck has been killed by the Kaiser's special luxury train, and the event is immediately associated with a wine bottle Thiel had found. When he opened it some of the wine gushed forth and he placed it on the shallow edge of a lake only “to lose it somehow or other, so that even years later he still regretted its loss” (6:41).

Both the animal imagery and the symbolic “gushing” appear in meaningful context later. After the death of Tobias another roebuck standing on the fated tracks is spared at the last moment—as though the cravings of a monstrous deity for sacrifice had, for the time being, been satisfied. Likewise, in one of the most vivid scenes of the story—Lene has just been caught abusing Tobias, and Thiel feels an uncontrollable rage—a bottle of milk gushes over and Thiel is suddenly overcome by the sensuality of his wife's swelling breasts and powerful hips. Later Thiel's intuition of the impending accident is aroused by three vertical “milk-white” (6:58) jets of steam which presage the delayed sound of the futile emergency whistle-blasts.

The depiction and juxtaposition of these and similar events is neither coincidental nor gratuitous. They indicate a finely woven fabric of symbolic representation which recapitulates a central theme of the story: the mysterious interrelationship of death and Dionysian vitality.

A similar claim can be made for Hauptmann's use of colors. Sometimes the treatment is so subtle that one can only speculate on its intentionality. Thus, the neutral color brown, which occurs infrequently, links the deer on the tracks with a brown squirrel which Tobias confuses with God,19 and with Tobias himself through the emblematic brown Pudelmützchen (“little poodle cap”) which Thiel fondles in the asylum at the end of the story. Usually the color symbolism is more blatant, not to say melodramatic. Dominant by far are shades of red (representing blood, vitality, etc.) and those associated with death and decomposition (black, white, etc.). By careful manipulation of the choice of colors, the frequency of their occurrence and even their intensity (blood-red vs. rose, for example) Hauptmann is able to foreshadow events, enhance their emotional value, and contribute to the lyrical unity which has always been the hallmark of the very best Novellen.


  1. Daiber, G. H., p. 38.

  2. Hilscher, G. H., p. 97.

  3. Cf. Hoefert, G. H., p. 13.

  4. For an interpretation of the name Kielblock see Ida H. Washington, “The Symbolism of Contrast in Gerhart Hauptmann's ‘Fasching,’” German Quarterly 52 (1979): 248. For the autobiographical basis of the remaining names see Warren R. Maurer, “Gerhart Hauptmann's Character Names,” German Quarterly 52 (1979):461-62.

  5. See, for example, Michael Georg Conrad, Von Emile Zola his Gerhart Hauptmann (Leipzig: Friedrich, 1902), p. 78.

  6. Cf. Behl and Voigt, Chronik, p. 24.

  7. Zeller, Leben, p. 356.

  8. Cf. also Hilscher, G. H., pp. 99-100, and Walter Silz, Realism and Reality …(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1954), pp. 141, 165.

  9. See Silz, Realism, pp. 137, 143-44; Roy C. Cowen, Der Naturalismus … (Munich, 1973), pp. 145-46; and Fritz Martini, Das Wagnis der Sprache … (Stuttgart, 1954), p. 77.

  10. Maurer, Naturalist Image, pp. 226-28.

  11. Silz, Realism, p. 146. Cf. Hilscher, G. H., p. 98. For a detailed comparison of Büchner's Lenz and Woyzeck with Thiel see Heinz Fischer, Georg Büchner: Untersuchungen und Marginalien (Bonn: Bouvier, 1972), pp. 41-61.

  12. Irene Heerdegen, “Gerhart Hauptmanns Novelle ‘Bahnwärter Thiel,’” Weimarer Beiträge 3 (1958): 353, 359.

  13. Ibid., 359-60.

  14. Jean Jofen, Das letzte Geheimnis … (Berne, 1972), p. 51.

  15. Ibid., p. 237, and Dieter Bänsch, “Naturalismus und Frauenbewegung,” in Naturalismus … ed. Helmut Scheuer (Stuttgart/Berlin/Cologne/Mainz, 1974), pp. 142-43.

  16. Silz, Realism, p. 148.

  17. See Martini, Wagnis, pp. 66-69, 91; Benno von Wiese, “Gerhart Hauptmann,” in Deutsche Dichter der Moderne … ed. Benno von Wiese (Berlin, 1965), p. 29; Karl S. Guthke, Gerhart Hauptmann … (Göttingen, 1961), p. 54.

  18. Erwin T. Rosenthal, “Aspekte der dramatischen Struktur der beiden Tragödien Büchners,” German Quarterly 38 (1965): 284.

  19. Cf. Guthke, G. H., p. 56.

Robin A. Clouser (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6882

SOURCE: “The Pilgrim of Consciousness: Hauptmann's Syncretistic Fairy Tale,” in Hauptmann Research. New Directions, Peter Lang, 1986, pp. 303-22.

[In the following essay, Clouser analyzes the syncretistic symbolism of Hauptmann's “Das Märchen,” seeing that tale as one of a journey after death in the realm of another consciousness.]

Der Märchenerzähler gewöhnt die Leute an das Ungewöhnliche, und daß dies geschehe, ist von großer Wichtigkeit, denn im Gewöhnlichen erstickt der Mensch.

Gerhart Hauptmann, Einsichten und Ausblicke(1)

When a writer undertakes to speak of unfamiliar things, he runs a great risk of not being comprehended. Such was the early fate of Gerhart Hauptmann's “Das Märchen,” written in 1941 at age 79 after his decision not to join other German authors in self-exile from National Socialism. Early commentators were disappointed in the work, partly because they felt it was embarrassingly inferior to Goethe's “Märchen,” upon which the tale is initially patterned. The main resemblance between the two works is their symbolic complexity, which, in the case of Goethe's tale, had already given critics more than a century of headaches. Goethe's fairy tale has the advantage of an obviously optimistic and tranformational ending. By comparison, Hauptmann's seemed to early readers opaque, goalless, and unrelievedly bleak.(2)

The opacity is due in part to the tale's thickly encrusted symbolism. It is not at all clear on a first reading what world view, mythology, or religious perspective provides the key to unlock these mysteries. Uwe Maßberg shows that Hauptmann drew on Christian alchemist-mystics, especially Paracelsus and Jakob Boehme, for concepts in his “Märchen,” he even gave his protagonist Paracelsus's first name, Theophrastus. Maßberg admits, however, that Christian mysticism does not lay bare the tale's secrets, and suggests that the inner motive of the work will not be found in the explication of external referents.(3) The present essay attempts to locate the internal motive of Hauptmann's “Märchen” and to discover the reason for its extraordinarily wide-ranging syncretistic symbolism.

In 1957 Hans Mayer took the first step in getting beyond debilitating comparisons with Goethe's work when he remarked in passing that Hauptmann's fairy-tale “weit eher einen Vorgang der Selbstbefreiung darstellt als den einer Goethe-Imitation”.(4) Although Hauptmann does use Goethean and other symbologies, he makes clear early in the “Märchen” his belief that any depiction of the Other World (“jenseits des Stromes,” 475) is idiosyncratic.

In the very first sentence, Hauptmann makes a subtle change as he invokes the setting of Goethe's “Märchen”. “Das Märchen des wundervollen Weimaraners berichtet zunächst von einem übergetretenen Flusse—ich sage lieber Strome— … ” (469). This slight but conspicuous substitution conjures up not just a physical river, or even the Styx, but the Bewußtseinsstrom, the “Strom des Erinnerns,” as Hauptmann later calls it, that must have “banks” and “bulwarks” lest we be “deluged” (478). On the other side of this stream, the protagonist finds himself at first the only source of light, “eine Art Dämmerlicht,” and the partial creator of his own surroundings: “er könne an der um ihn sich breitenden Schöpfung allenthalben mitwirken” (471). As the product of this pilgrim's unique consciousness, Hauptmann's Other World will naturally diverge from Goethe's, and Hauptmann prepares us to see his tale as the inner landscape of a single soul.

During his lifetime Hauptmann was fascinated by the idea that another realm of consciousness surrounded the living, and that it was possible to perceive this alternative state. “Das Märchen” portrays a journey into the Other World of consciousness by one soul, not in life but in the realm of death. This theme structures the work and organizes its welter of mythological and religious allusions. In his travels through the Other World of the fairy tale, the pilgrim Theophrast represents all those mortals striving for answers not just to the mysteries of life, death, and afterlife, but to the mysteries of the self. “Selbstbefreiung,” as Mayer calls it, becomes possible when one clearly comprehends the elements of the self.

Maßberg interprets Hauptmann's “Das Märchen” as a dream in which the pilgrim-protagonist-author journeys through a “Traumland”. Although I agree with Maßberg that the non-sequitur logic of dreams is important to the story, this interpretation does not account for the tale's pervasive death and rebirth imagery. Maßberg's argument—that it must be a dream because the pilgrim enters the strange land “alive” and returns to the world at the end—assumes that Hauptmann wrote from a strictly Western, even Christian point of view, according to which a soul has but one life.(5) Recent discoveries in the Hauptmann archives by Peter Sprengel and Philip Mellen, however, have shown that Hauptmann had extensive knowledge of comparative mythologies and eastern religions.(6) In that context, the pilgrim's words—“[Es] ist mir nicht einmal klar, … ob ich sie [die Überfahrt] das erstemal oder schon zum tausendsten Male gemacht habe” (478)—make reincarnation rather than waking the more plausible reason for his return to life at the end of the tale.

Such a reading also makes sense in light of the density of death references in the work. The Charon imagery with which the tale opens; the ferryman's question whether the pilgrim is “traurig” (470) about making this crossing (one is not usually sad about having a dream); the pilgrim's discussion with a companion about how they died (477) and whether they knew each other “in der Körperlichkeit” (475); and the cryptic comment that some souls come alive, some dead into this “Mittelreich” (478)—all these clues combine to prepare the reader to experience Hauptmann's fairy-tale journey as a vision of consciousness not in a dream, but after death.

Hauptmann suggests that travelers to the Mittelreich create their own post-life existence according to what they believe. It is explained to the pilgrim that souls enter this “Delta” between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in different states according to the direction from which they come. Those crossing from the west enter it dead, while those from the east enter alive: “Du bist vom Osten lebendig hereingekommen, der Tigris wird im Westen von Toten durchquert” (475). In this deceptively simple image Hauptmann depicts the belief of those to the west of the Tigris-Euphrates valley (Jews and Christians) that the soul is accorded but one life on earth and will not be reborn, while those to the east of the valley (Buddhists and Hindus) affirm the reincarnation of the soul in multiple lives, and thus enter the eerie realm “alive” and may return to earthly existence. But the image implies more. Hauptmann's pilgrim Theophrast was an historical Western personage; yet he enters the Mittelreich alive, which suggests that by altering beliefs one could change one's post-life reality.(7)

Not only the state of the soul, but the character of the Mittelreich itself is partly dependent on the individual consciousness. The land changes during the pilgrim's stay in it, depending on his mood. Sometimes Theophrast thinks it “eine liebliche Landschaft … man muß an den Garten Eden denken. … Vielleicht … bin ich im Paradiese” (471). At other times the realm is called “Hades” and reflects the pilgrim's “Schmerz und Sehnsucht” (482-83). By crossing to the Mittelreich, Theophrast had hoped to escape “das eiserne Zeitalter …Maschinen auf Geleisen … Brummen der Flugzeuge”; but the boatman warns him, “Das Alte lebt drüben in neuen Formen” (470). Another character later confirms the ferryman's view: “Es ist hier im Grunde dasselbe Ding wie am östlichen Flußufer. Die Dinge sehen genauso wie drüben aus, sind jedoch losgelöst von der Materie” (476). The pilgrim brings with him the problems of his own consciousness and of his earthly life into the personal“Mikrokosmos” (479) that he helps create.(8)

The power of consciousness to alter reality is but one of Hauptmann's theses in the “Märchen.” The pilgrim can also try to change himself. A soul can retreat from its identity, or from certain aspects of its personality or consciousness. During most of the tale, Hauptmann's pilgrim does not know his own name or identity. The narrator informs us that he will call the pilgrim Theophrast (470), but the pilgrim himself does not know who he is: “Wer war nun eigentlich Theophrast? Nicht einmal er selber vermochte darauf zu antworten” (472). The pilgrim and a companion discuss “ein gewisser Arzt, namens Theophrastus” as if they were speaking of a third person (475). Only at the end of the work, after the pilgrim has undergone, as we shall see, a certain transformation, does he recognize that he was “once called Theophrastus” (485).

Into this psychic landscape Theophrastus projects a psychic population made from parts of himself. First he creates a lion merely by thinking of it (“Kaum hatte er nämlich an einen Löwen gedacht, so schritt der gelbbemähnte König der Tiere neben ihm,” 471). Later he wishes for a person like himself to talk to: “gibt es hier herum keinen Mann meiner Art, mit dem ich ein wenig plaudern könnte?” (475); and his former famulus, Johannes Operin, appears. Like the lion, whose hunger is sated simply by watching the pilgrim eat (473), Operin is dependent on Theophrast: “es schien, als ob er von sich aus Lebenskraft nicht besäße und die des Pilgers notwendig habe” (476). Lion and famulus are thus projections of two aspects of the pilgrim's personality.

Other parts of Theophrast's nature appear, though in less obvious dependence. A snake manifests itself by touching the pilgrim's head and says she is an old friend. Later some saucy, arrogant will-o'-the-wisps claim to be related to him (“Bilde dir nur nicht ein, daßß du selber kein Irrlicht bist: du bist und bleibst vom gleichen Geschlecht,” 474). Each psychic character has both positive and negative sides, often illustrated by mythological or symbolic associations. The reader cannot take any single symbolic connection as definitive, but must weigh the character's total Gestalt.

The amnesia of the “nameless one, the poor one, the ignorant one, the barefoot one” (“der Namenlose, der Arme, der Unwissende, der Barfüßler,” 475) could be interpreted simply as a sign that Hauptmann believes the soul operates subconsciously in the afterworld. But it also signifies, as the pilgrim's change at the end implies, that he is questioning during this sojourn in death whether to continue his personality as it was previously constituted or to discard certain traits as he confronts himself in the identity-relaxing Mittelreich. As one part of his consciousness, Johannes Operin, says to the pilgrim: “Was indessen den Geist betrifft, so ist der deine mit meinem verschlungen und. … lange gemeinsam gewandert. Aus dieser Zweiheit ist manche Einheit hervorgegangen … [U]nsere Begegnungen sind ja doch irgendwie gesetzmäßig in Gegenwart und Vergangenheit—ob in Zukunft, das müßte sich erste noch herausstellen” (475-76). Hauptmann's pilgrim confronts himself internally and form that inner dissection and discovery derives a few hints for the improvement of human society. The characters in Goethe's “Märchen,” on the other hand, confront a communal crisis, the rescue of a ruined culture, and only as a by-product resolve their personal weaknesses. Hauptmann's emphasis is on the reconstitution of the pilgrim's cacophonously divided soul.

The king of beasts, eternal companion of the pilgrim (“warst du nicht immer unsichtbar neben mir?” 472), represents his physical consciousness: awareness of hunger, movement, sickness or health, sensuality, mortality. Theophrast feels ambivalent about his physical self (“die Nachbarschaft eines Leuen war ihm zweideutig,” 471). Sometimes the lion is described as “das Raubtier” (471), as “grimmig” (472), capable of “Wut” and of a “grausamen Tat” (474). At other times, it is called “zutunlich” (476) and “scheinbar demütig” (477). The pilgrim confesses, “er genießt deine Anhänglichkeit und Liebe” (472; cf. 471), and the lion often “schmiegte sich an ihn an” (479, 484; cf. 476). Theophrast muses: “Man müßte dich lieben, weil du so furchtbar gewaltig und dem Pilger dabei so nützlich bist …doch vielleicht: du willst ihn streicheln, und der Schlag deiner Pranke tötet ihn! So wären wir durch die Jahrzehnte gewandert, unzertrennlich, jedoch in Angstliebe” (472).

Theophrastus had long been very nearly at war with his physical self. In a previous life he undertook to change the lion's nature and make it less threatening. Famulus Operin explains:

Um seiner Launen Herr zu werden, hat er Himmel und Erde nach Mitteln durchforscht. … Um dieses Tier zu zähmen, vor Krankheiten zu bewahren, in seinen Raubinstinkten unschädlich zu machen und ihm, das er doch auf Schritt und Tritt gefürchtet hat, ein wenig Leben zu vermitteln. … Er hat es chloroformiert und viviseziert. Aber es ist daran nicht gestorben. Und da es nicht umzubringen war, ist er darauf spazierengeritten (476-477).

Theophrast learned that his physical side is not in its essence alterable, and when in the end he couldn't kill it, he learned to accept it.

Later in the fairy tale, the pilgrim expresses a new appreciation of his physical consciousness, even though it makes him vulnerable to suffering: “ich habe es selbst erfahren, wie die grimmigsten Launen des Löwen mitunter ein weitaus höheres Dasein vermitteln als das trügerische Bewußtsein träger und fauler Sicherheit” (477). Too much physical security inhibits the development of higher sensibilities, a belief Theophrast shares with Goethe's Faust. Another character suggests that the lion keeps the intellectual pilgrim in touch with Everyman, with the average man's experience: “Was diesen sehr zu schätzenden kleinen Löwen anbelangt, so ist er ein Sohn des Allerweltslöwen. Er spielt mit dem Menschen, wie dieser mit ihm. Und ohne das wäre das Dasein langweilig” (477). In the end, the Lion simply makes existence possible: “Ohne den Löwen geht es nicht” (478).

Thus the pilgrim comes to an accommodation with his physical self, having discovered that he can neither change nor do without it. He takes comfort in the thought that immaterial beings are deprived not only of the sufferings of physical existence but also of its joys. When the ferryman asks the pilgrim if he is sad to cross the river, he answers: “Ja und nein, … du weißt ja, daß selbst ein Gott, der das Leiden nicht kennt, auch auf das Glück verzichten muß” (470). Later it is said that another divinity became flesh to overcome that limitation: “Ans Kreuz genagelt hängt ein Gott, der sich selber aus unsäglichem Durst nach Leiden hat daran nageln lassen. Denn ihr müßt ja wissen, daß ohne Leid keine Freude ist” (477). Hauptmann's comment puts Christ's sacrifice in a different light: Was it done for mankind or for himself?

Although Theophrast recurringly fears that the lion is about to kill him—indeed, “der unvermeidliche Tatzenschlag dieser unberechenbar-tückischen Bestie” is what made an end of him in an earlier life (477)—nevertheless on this journey the fear proves groundless. The basically tame image of the lion in the Mittelreich (“Wo anders als dort könnte auch wohl ein so zahmer und menschenlieber Löwe zu finden sein,” 471) may derive from the symbolic accommodation of man and beast at the close of Goethe's Novelle. Unlike Gottfried Benn, who earlier in the twentieth century ridiculed Goethe's complaisant lion, Hauptmann like Goethe accepts the physical side of man as basically benign. Not there do the most ugly of human vices originate, in the view of these two writers. As the pilgrim wends his way back to the river again, he takes the lion with him.

When the pilgrim's head is touched by the head of a huge snake hanging from a tree (471), that symbolic introduction alone will assure many readers that the snake represents the pilgrim's mental powers. Theophrastus and the snake need not speak to be heard by one another (472), but of the thousands of things she whispers, he retains only a few, like the fleeting germs of ideas that percolate up from the subconscious (“Der Pilger hörte sie zischeln und flüstern. Tausenderlei, wovon er nur wenig im Gedächtnis behalten konnte,” 472). The snake's opalescent body sends off waves of flashing, sparkling light in every direction like waves of ideas, even when she is at rest (472-73). Appropriately, it is the snake, representing the intellect and imagination, who explains how a soul's beliefs affect its posthumous destiny and whether it enters the Delta alive or dead (475).

The snake recognizes that physical existence is prior to all other forms of consciousness (“Ohne den Löwen geht es nicht,” 478), but claims to be the next closest influence on the soul of the pilgrim: “Aber auch ich bin, als er noch ein Kind war, bereits bei ihm gewesen” (478); “Ich kenne deinen Herrn … weit besser als du, guter Operin. Wir waren zeit seines Lebens die besten Freunde” (477). The snake, like the pilgrim, has reconciled herself to the lion's positive and negative impact (“Ohne Leid keine Freude,” 477).

The decidedly un-biblical snake of Goethe's fairy tale was an eastern reptile who repeated the images of renewal and sacrifice associated with it in eastern symbologies. In contrast, Hauptmann's snake is initially identified as the Judeo-Christian serpent who misled Adam: “Bist du die Schlange des Paradieses, die Eva verführt und Adam ins Unglück gestoßen hat?” asks the pilgrim. “Du hast es erraten, sprach sie” (472). The snake admits to having seduced Adam and his sons for millennia (“Der Apfel … war weniger für sie [Eva] als für Adam bestimmt. Bald hab' ich denn mit ihm gebuhlt und seinen Söhnen, durch die Jahrtausende,” 474). By making the archetypal temptation an intellectual seduction, Hauptmann lays the responsibility for sin not on Eve or the purely physical self (the lion), but on the corrupting intellect, man's ability to imagine all things and thus tempt himself.

Through his intellect and imagination, the pilgrim has come to resemble God himself. After the snake joined him in his childhood, Theophrast wanted to create his own worlds, “als ob die ihn umgehende wirkliche Welt des Alten vom Berge nicht vorhanden sei und er eine solche erst schaffen müßte” (478). To this end he blew “Seifenblasen, …unendlich regenbogenfarbige … wie kleine Weltkugeln” (478). At first others laughed at his creations. “Nach und nach lernte er besser malen, und nun fand er, eigentlich erstaunlicherweise, Toren genug, die seine Wolkenkuckucksheime schön fanden und sich in ihnen tatsächlich einnisteten” (479). Theophrast thus lured others to prefer his creations—novels? utopias? scientific or philosophical systems?—to God's. The snake specifically compares the pilgrim to Hauptmann's divine creator figure, the Old Man of the Mountain: “Wir haben indessen hier …in dem Pilger … eine Kreatur, die ihm [dem Alten vom Berg] nicht unähnlich ist” (478); she later calls him a “klein[es] Göttlein” (479). The inventive, satanic snake has helped Theophrast in all his God-like creations and experiments, filling gaps in God-given human wisdom with her perhaps too clever ingenuity: “Ihr unterschätzt den guten Bombast … den Gott selbst mit hoher menschlicher Weisheit erleuchtet hat … Und ich habe im übrigen nachgeholfen, wo dieser [Gott], wie oft, ein wenig knauserig gewesen ist” (477).

Thus through the exercise of his intellect and imagination Theophrast becomes a kind of god in his own right—at least in his own mind. But human participation in creation implies a partial responsibility for one's own destiny. Hauptmann's association of creativity with the satanic snake suggests that the Old Man of the Mountain is a jealous god who does not entirely approve of human creativity and punishes creative people for the sin of imitating his creation.(9)

The progeny of the snake from the men she seduces are the next characters in Theophrast's psychodrama Die Irrlichter. Already in crossing the river, Theophrast was accompanied by two unruly and charming will-o‘-the-wisps (469), but he does not learn their connection to him and his intellect until they call the snake “Mütterchen,” themselves her “Söhne” (473), and Theophrastus (perhaps euphemistically) their “Oheim” (474; cf. “meine Kinder,” 475). In Goethe's “Märchen,” the Irrlichter offered other characters the opportunity to gain enlightenment or knowledge; Goethe's wisdom-seeking snake derived light from the will-o’-the-wisps' showers of gold. Hauptmann's “foolish fires” (Latin, ignes fatui) are similarly associated with a quest for knowledge: “Wir wissen, was gut und böse ist, wir haben vom Baum des Lebens gegessen,” they say proudly; “wir haben …einen Tempel der höchsten Erkenntnis errichtet” (473). But Hauptmann mistrusts the reliability of human knowledge. In contrast to the will-o‘-the-wisps’ blithe certitude, Theophrast, the seeker par excellence, evinces modesty. He says he undertook this journey“um etwas Neues zu sehen, mehr noch zu erleben, was meine sogenannte Erkenntnis bereichern kann” (481)—thus expressing doubt about the possibility of absolute knowledge.

The danger of believing that humans can achieve supreme knowledge and unerringly distinguish good from evil is made clear by the swamp lights' chilling assertion that they have a program for doing away forever with human folly. Unlike the temple of wise government established at the close of Goethe's “Märchen,” the temple of Hauptmann's Irrlichter contains, they announce, “ein Krematorium. Von tausend Irrlichtern wird es bedient. Sie … brennen menschliche Torheit zu Asche: bald werden sie und wir beide sein wie Gott!” (473). The narrator immediately calls this assertion “Unsinn” (473). The lion, as if it felt personally attacked by their nonsense, strikes out at them, but succeeds only in doubling their number and making them more “arrogant” (473-74). The lion's act demonstrates both the foolishness of their program and of his attack; as the snake comments,“Ihnen nach dem Leben zu trachten heißt nichts weiter als sie vermehren” (474). To try to eliminate folly is only to commit another foolishness.

Instead of the black-and-white morality of the Irrlichter, Hauptmann adopts in his fairy-tale the Taoist philosophy that life is a series of alternating, morally neutral opposites. The yin-yang pairs—female and male, dark and light, moon and sun, winter and summer, cold and warm—are complementary, not one-sidedly positive or negative. Hauptmann composes his own series of opposites: “Ohne Leid keine Freude, keine Gesundheit ohne Krankheit, ohne Gefahr keine Sicherheit” (477).(10) Overhearing this, the Irrlichter chime in, “kein Licht ohne Irrlichter!” (478). Famulus Operin sneers at their pronouncement, yet it expresses the danger as well as reward in the human quest for knowledge. In one of the many uses of light and darkness imagery in the tale, Hauptmann has the Old Man of the Mountain momentarily extinguish all light, and with it all false lights: “Dies war er! … Wenn er das tut, erlöschen mit eins in der Welt alle Irrlichter. Doch schon glimmen sie wieder ein wening auf” (479). One cannot have the possibility of knowledge without the chance also for misinformation.

In his syncretistic combination of biblical and oriental wisdom, Hauptmann suggests that an ultimate truth does exist (in the form of the Old Man of the Mountain, who may be Brahma as well as Jehovah) within or behind life's yin-yang alternations, but that humans inevitably stray after false lights, especially when they arrogantly assume they can apprehend ultimate truth at their earthly level of consciousness. The very syncretism of Hauptmann's Other World makes it an admonitory revelation to those with narrowly limited cultural views who would seek, like the Irrlichter, to impose their “knowledge” of reality on others.

Over the course of his journey, Theophrast becomes resigned to limited knowledge and the undying foolishness of humanity. He recalls his own prior folly with Operin: “vergangene, gemeinsam verübte Torheiten in jener Welt” (480). Repeating the Edenic temptation, the Irrlichter offer the pilgrim another forbidden fruit of knowledge, this time “einen Apfel der Hesperiden”—golden apples that were sacred to Hera and Zeus in the Garden of the Gods and that provided Herakles entrance into Hades. But Theophrast refuses: “Er habe deren genug gegessen und im Augenblick keinen Appetit darauf” (485). Calling human folly “kein Leichnam, sondern ein unsterbliches Leben” (485), Theophrast refuses at the close of the tale to join the Irrlichter at their temple. He confesses to already having made the error of founding an earthly institution like the swamp lights' crematorium: “es gäbe dergleichen Zermalmungsmühlen auch auf dem Acker der Kartoffen …ja, er, einst Theophrastus geheißen, habe den Irrtum begangen, sich an ihrer Gründung hervorragend zu beteiligen” (485). The pilgrim “ließ …die Irrlichter stehen” as he turns to go back across the river (485). While no one can foreswear folly altogether, the pilgrim will at least have nothing to do with the will'o‘-the-wisps’ arrogant certitude and disastrous projects.

The fourth major psychic character, Johannes Operin, represents both the pilgrim's working self (Latin, operari, to work) and his scientific empirical skepticism. Of all the psychic cast, Famulus Operin is most closely tied to the pilgrim's prior historical identity as “Theophrastus Paracelsus Bombast von Hohenheim” (475), a Swiss physician, mystic, and alchemist (1493-1541) who supposedly made the first homunculus in his laboratory. Perhaps because the pilgrim has temporarily separated himself from that identity and the work he did, he shows great resistance to recognizing his former assistant (475). Operin is the only character to express uncertainty whether he and the pilgrim will continue to collaborate together in any future life (476).

Although he relies on Operin's informed guidance in the Mittelreich (475, 481), Theophrast also finds the famulus a burden (“Weiter sinnend, gestand er sich ein, daß Johann Operins Dasein seinen Zustand in einem belastenden Sinne veränderte. …Wenn ich, so dachte er, diese Belastung nur aushalte,” 476). As one pinches oneself to keep from falling asleep with a boring companion, Theophrast jabs the yawning lion to keep it (himself) awake in Operin's presence (476). Later he halts the famulus's skeptical philosophizing by saying, “Ich bin eigentlich nicht hierher verschlagen worden, um lange Reden anzuhören und solche zu halten” (481). By comparison, the pilgrim seems to enjoy the snake's “langen Sermon” (477).

One reason for the pilgrim's distance from Operin may be their different reactions to divinity. When the Old Man of the Mountain sends darkness upon them, Operin's reaction is to sneer at the snake's explanation of the event, while the pilgrim is awed: “Theophrastus hatte die Hände gefaltet” (479). Later the companions come to a lovely lake that, in its shadows and sparklings, embodies the varying seasons of the year and moods of the pilgrim; as in Plato's cave, the viewer of the lake sees only reflections (“Spiegelungen”) and shadows (“Umbraten”), not the original causes or “the painter” (“Der Maler an sich ist unsichtbar,” (480).(11) Operin ‘asserts that God is only one of the shadows, not the painter (“daß selbst der Alte vom Berge eine solche Umbrate ist”) and scorns prayer to such a shadow as begging born of helplessness’(481). This cynicism evokes Theophrast's impatience with Operin's “lange Reden,” and he voices in contrast his own wonder: “Und so wollen wir jetzt ein wenig aufmerken!—Kein Wunder, daß der Pilger diesen Entschluß faßte, denn der weite und wundersame See bot dafür von Augenblick zu Augenblick mehr Gelegenheit” (481). Operin is useful to the pilgrim as an excellent stater of facts and conditions, and as a factotum in carrying out experiments (e.g., upon the lion [476-477]). But the pilgrim's current reverence and Operin's empirical skepticism clash.

Both snake and famulus were accessory to Theophrast's earlier God-challenging writings and experiments, and contributed to his Faustian reputation. But the snake does not join Operin in doubting the power of the deity: “Ich bestreite die Macht des Alten vom Berge nicht. Ich würde mich sonst einer größeren Sünde als der mit dem Apfel … schuldig machen” (478). This is her response after Operin has applied his skeptical mockery not only to God but to Theophrast:“Mir scheint, der Alte vom Berge läßt seine Puppen tanzen, und du bist eine Puppe, so wie ich! bemerkte mit plötzlicher Schroffheit Operin” (478). The pilgrim admits he once wanted to shame the angel who turned mankind out of paradise and make the cherub think earth were heaven, paradise a hell (480). But Theophrast meekly and obediently accepts the sudden darkness as a sign that he should not try to call up old friends into his microcosm, but continue his introspective wanderings: “Soeben habe ich den Befehl erhalten, einige Meilen weiterzugehen” (479). If the pilgrim is the soul around which all the other forms of consciousness are draped, that soul is apparently now humble and reverent rather than skeptic—whatever it may have been in the past.

The final piece of psychic landscape that Theophrastus encounters is the wonderful lake, a marvel of syncretistic otherwordly symbolism and a barometer of the state of the soul. The snake calls it “das Nichts im Nichts” because it is “farblos, tonlos, geruchlos,” etc.; but the pilgrim insists “daß es ein Allerhöchstes umschließt, was uns Menschen gegeben ist” (479). This description fits not only the ultimate locus of Being sought by Christian mystics, but also the Hindu and Buddhist Nirvana, that state of perfect satisfaction and union with creation in which the individual self is extinguished and freed from the cycle of reincarnation. For a time—hours or years, he isn't sure—the pilgrim floats in a Nirvana-like bliss upon the lake, where he and other fishermen “immer das Nichts aus dem Wasser herausfischten,” under the impression that they are bringing up sun, moon, seagulls, azure, gold, stars, even the Milky Way in their nets—“höchstbefriedigt” (482-83).(12) At the same time, however, Hauptmann associates Hades imagery with the lake.(13) When Theophrast approaches it, he hears, like Aeneas, the fearful bark of a dog: “Man hörte plötzlich Hundegebell. Die mächtige Stimme, die tiefen Tons aus der Erde zu kommen schien, erregte dem Pilgrim ein leises Grausen” (481). This is Cerebus, the fierce three-headed dog who guards the Greek underworld. The fishers pull their nets “aus dem schwarzen Meer des Hades” (183); yet as long as the men and their boats stay on the surface, the lake seems no hell but Nirvana. Only when the fishermen eerily submerge do they seem to have found the “Eingänge zum Hades”—of which, Hauptmann says, “ihrer sei Legion” (482), another mingling of classical and biblical allusions (Mark 5:9). Those who sink into the waters of hellish madnesses do not stay under forever, but later surreally reemerge (482), Hauptmann's Other World is as mutable as the soul's moods.

What makes Theophrast start to sink is sorrow over old friends and how quickly they vanished out of his life (483). No sooner do his thoughts turn in this direction than a glassy-eyed sleepy nodding comes over the fishery (483), a sign in the Aeneid of proximity to Hades. Instead of the shining cosmos, the pilgrim now sees old familiar faces in the reflecting lake. “Schmerz und Sehnsucht im Anblick der hier spukenden einst Gewesenen nahm bei ihm überhand”; he sees “die großen Zauberer; herrliche Musikanten des Alten vom Berge” (483). Whether these creative geniuses have been consigned to hell by a jealous God, or whether they are present only as reflections of the pilgrim's nostalgia is unclear. But like Aeneas and Odysseus, Theophrast finds the most wrenching part of the underworld the confrontation with old friends, in his case, his fellow creative “magicians.” His soul no longer floats in Nirvana; he begins to sink slowly into the dark waters of hell.

But Theophrast is not yet destined to descend into Hades. At this point a group of rebirth images, also associated with Hades, comes onto play. As they first stood on the lakeshore, Operin had entertained the pilgrim with a tale from the Greek historian Pausanias about Persephone and Pindar the famed poet; typically, Operin had ridiculed the fable that Pindar wrote an ode to the neglected goddess of the underworld and had an old woman sing it at Delphi after his death (482).(14) Theophrast seizes upon the positive suggestions in the tale. Persephone spends half the year in the upper world and half with Hades, god of death, who stole her away to his kingdom in his chariot with the golden reins; hence she represents a cyclical rebirth motif in the Greek tradition, and Hades stands in this case for a death that holds sway over the soul only intermittently. Like Pindar, Theophrast decides to write about a deity of the underworld. “Wenn ich jemals aus diesem Bezirke wieder herauskomme …so werde ich darangehen, über diese goldenen Zügel des Todesgottes ein Werk zu schreiben. …dann würde es mir zugute kommen, daß ich kühnlich über den Fluß setzte und hier, wenn auch vorübergehend, heimisch gewesen bin” (482). For the first time the pilgrim anticipates his return to the living; writing a new book gives him a reason to want to live again, and also makes him feel “at home” with death and its cycles. He says that perhaps “ein goldenes Nichts besser als ein bleiernes Etwas ist” (482); in an “eisern[en] Zeitalter” (470) perhaps a golden fairy-tale about Hades and Nirvana is better than one more realistic novel about a leaden age.

The very nostalgia that made the pilgrim start to sink into the lake is another motive to be reborn. “Sollte ich je den Fluß nach rückwärts überqueren, … so werde ich feststellen, wem ich hier wiederbegegnet bin” (483), he says of his fellow fishermen. The Old Man of the Mountain had vetoed the pilgrim's impulse to call up old friends into his microcosm (479), so he must return to earthly life to satisfy his longing for friendship.

The snake becomes the final link in the pilgrim's chain of impulses toward rebirth. At the close of the tale, she sheds her western image of satanic tempter and takes on the eastern symbolism of Goethe's serpent. The sinking pilgrim suddenly spies “unzählige silberngeschuppte Schlangenhäute” upon the lakeshore and sees the snake, now called “a green, crowned viper,” swimming to his aid (484). This is the only time the word “viper” (Latin, vivipara, to produce live young) is used in the tale, and the phrase symbolizes her new role: renewed intellectual innocence (new green skin) and the rescue of the pilgrim from his hell of sadness to set him back on the path to rebirth. Just as Goethe's snake encircled the Prince to preserve him until he could be revived by magic rites, the snake forms a circle with her buoyant body around the pilgrim's sinking boat. In both fairy tales, the snake is associated with magic words: Goethe's “Es ist an der Zeit” becomes Hauptmann's “Es ist höchste Zeit” (484), whispered by the snake to Theophrast as they return to shore. The intellect and its magic ability to articulate can redeem as well as corrupt. Like the lion, the snake accompanies the pilgrim back to the river to be reincarnated (484).

The pilgrim's snake-intellect is purified by shedding its skin. His raging lion-body finds, like Goethe's Faust, “den rechten Weg” as soons as it is reunited with the pilgrim on the lakeshore (484). But famulus Operin “wollte das Ufer des Sees nicht verlassen, ja, er verlor nach und nach seine Körperlichkeit” (484). The pilgrim leaves behind his skepticism, his commitment to scientific empiricism, at the lake of Hades-Nirvana. Perhaps Hauptmann had lost his faith in progress through science; he surely seemed disillusioned with the military ends to which mechanistic inventions were being put in that iron age.

But Theophrast does not abandon his creativity, the other major facet of his God-challenging Faustian persona. In his urge to be reborn to write again, Hauptmann's pilgrim affirms that “die großen Zauberer” transformed unsanctified flesh into something spiritual, god-like: “Diese seltsamen Nahrungsverschlinger nahmen zwar auch, ohne danach zu fragen, geschlachtete Tiere als Nahrung an, aber alles an ihnen setzte sich zuletzt in Geist, will heißen ins Göttliche um” (483-84). The pilgrim will write his book (or fairy tale) on Hades' golden reins, on the self-enlightenment that comes with self-distance in death, and on the humility that comes from the recognition of the limits of human knowledge.

Both Hauptmann and Goethe depict man's journey through the cosmos as cyclical in nature, but Hauptmann has far less hope that the cycle spirals upward. He knows “daß die Torheit kein Leichnam, sondern ein unsterbliches Leben ist” (485), and that Irrlichter are constantly being reborn. But the octogenarian Hauptmann looked into death and into his own soul in a horrific age and could still affirm his chosen profession as something worth living for, worth being reborn.


  1. This comment on fairy tales comes from the “Kunst und Literatur” section in Hauptmann's Einsichten und Ausblicke. All quotations are from Gerhart Hauptmann: Sämtliche Werke, Centenar edition, ed. Hans-Egon Hass (Frankfurt on Main: Propyläen, 1963), VI, 1026. “Das Märchen” is found on pp. 469-485 of the same volume.

  2. Typical of early criticism is Hermann Schreiber's comment that “Das Märchen”“vermittelt schon bei der ersten Lektüre den Eindruck geringer Selbständigkeit im Werke des Dichters,” Gerhart Hauptmann und das Irrationale (Aichkirchen: Schönleitner, 1946), p.105. F.B. Wahr wrote that Hauptmann's “Märchen”“is reminiscent of Goethe's enigmatic effort of the same name and is likewise bafflingly allegorical and inconclusive in its attempt to suggest an interpretation of life,” “The Art of Hauptmann's Shorter Stories,” Germanic Review 24 (1949), 53. Recently Hans Daiber summarized early reaction: “Seine Verächter fanden den Vergleich und gar Wettbewerb mit Goethe lächerlich, Hauptmanns Verehrer fanden ihn peinlich, sie stellten ihn in Abrede, schon gar leugneten sie, daß Hauptmann diesen Vergleich begünstigte oder gar herausforderte,”Gerhart Hauptmann oder der letzte Klassiker (Vienna: Molden, (1971), p.224. Hence, comparative commentary has been sparse. Hans Mayer captured the pieces' divergent tones: “Goethe beschließt seine Erzählung in einer Diesseitigkeit, in Bejahung der Außenwelt und ihre Realität, im Bild einer harmonisch gegliederten Gesellschaft, einer glücklichen Menschheit. Hauptmann verkündet ein Weltbild, worin sich erkenntnistheoretischer Idealismus mit kulturphilosophischem Pessimismus vereinigt. …Goethes ‘Märchen’ endete im Bild sozialer Harmonie, Hauptmanns gleichnamige Dichtung lebt aus dem Gefühl tiefster und bitterster Einsamkeit,” (“Das ‘Märchen’: Goethe und Gerhart Hauptmann,” in Gestaltung Umgestaltung: Festschrift zum 75. Geburtstag von Hermann August Korff, ed. Joachim Müller [Leipzig: Koehler and Amelang, 1957], p.105; rpt. in Mayer, Von Lessing bis Thomas Mann: Wandlungen der bürgerlichen Literatur in Deutschland [Pfullingen: Neske, 1959], pp.356-82). For further comparative comment, see Josef Gregor, Gerhart Hauptmann: Das Werk und unsere Zeit (Vienna: Diana, 1944), pp.611, 622-25; John Jacob Weisert, The Dream in Gerhart Hauptmann (Morningside Heights, New York: King's Crown Press, 1949), pp.83-85; and Daiber, pp.224, 276.

  3. Uwe Maßberg, “Gerhart Hauptmanns Märchen in neuer Sicht,” Germanisch-Romanisch Monatsschrift 52 (1971), 71: “Der Versuch, von den geistesgeschichtlichen Quellen her Licht in die Symbolik des Märchens zu bringen, muß naturgemäß wesentliche andere Aspekte des kleinen Werkes vernachlässigen. Dem Märchen als Dichtung könnte erst eine Interpretation gerecht werden, die die Funktion der einzelnen Motive innerhalb des sprachlichen Kunstwerks herausarbeiten würde.”

  4. Mayer, p.106.

  5. Maßberg, pp.57-58. Other Hauptmann scholars who proceed from similar assumptions include Karl S. Guthke, “Die Zwischenreich-Vorstellung im Spätwerk Gerhart Hauptmanns, Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen 198 (1961), 253; Weisert, p.85; Schreiber, p.105.

  6. Peter Sprengel, Die Wirklichkeit der Mythen: Untersuchungen zum Werk Gerhart Hauptmanns aufgrund des handschriftlichen Nachlasses (Berlin: Schmidt, 1982); and Philip Mellen, Gerhart Hauptmann: Religious Syncretism and Eastern Religions. (Bern: Lang, 1984).

  7. Frederick Alvin Klemm sums up Hauptmann's conception of death: “Death provides an entrance into a new existence, the form of which varies according to the development and beliefs of the individual character. The poet does not attempt to answer the question of life after death in the light of a definite and consistent philosophy or religion. He rather reveals an approach from different standpoints together with a relativism which shifts the final responsibility onto the individual concerned,” The Death Problem in the Life and Works of Gerhart Hauptmann (Philadelphia; n. p., 1939), p.96.

  8. For interpretations of Hauptmann's Other World, see Guthke, pp.245-59; Felix A. Voigt, Gerhart Hauptmann und die Antike (Berlin Schmidt, 1965), p.134; Maßberg, p.58; and Manfred Schunicht, “Die ‘zweite Realität’: Zu den Erzählungen Gerhart Hauptmanns,” in Untersuchungen zur Literatur als Geschichte: Festschrift für Benno von Wiese (Berlin: Schmidt, 1973), pp. 431-44.

  9. Theophrastus resembles other artist figures in Hauptmann's works. See Karl S. Guthke, “Die Gestalt des Künstlers in Gerhart Hauptmanns Dramen,” in Neophilologus 39 (1955), 23-40; rpt. in Gerhart Hauptmann, ed. Hans Joachim Schrimpf (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1976), 194-216. See also Voigt, p.49; and Mellen, pp.187-89, 237-38.

  10. For Hauptmann's philosophical views on joy and suffering, see Mellen, pp.86-87, 111-14, 188-89; see pp.144-48 for Hauptmann's knowledge of Taoism.

  11. Hauptmann's concept of Umbraten resembles Plato's metaphor of the cave; see Voigt, pp.133-34. Mellen, p.241, concludes in his discussion of Der neue Christophorus that “Umbraten denotes the somewhat deceptive images that are cast from the next world into ours … symbols of a higher reality”; see also Maßberg, p.67. Guthke (Archiv), p.255, and Mellen, pp.178, 186, 203, both link Hauptmann's use of the concept of Umbraten to Paracelsus. For additional commentary on Hauptmann's Other World in reference to Plato, see Guthke, Archiv, p.255, and Maßberg, p.58.

  12. For Hauptmann's interest in philosophical concepts of nothingness, see Maßberg, p.65; and Mellen, pp.27, 57, 60. In a strange way the fishermen with their empty nets recall the disciples of Christ as they vainly attempted to draw fish from the Sea of Galilee. Christ instructed them to have faith, whereupon their nets were overburdened with a huge catch. To Hauptmann, belief creates reality, at least in the Other World.

  13. For bodies of water associated with the underworld, see W.H. Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie (Leipzig: Teubner, 1884-1937), VI, 42, 49.

  14. Roscher explains that this hymn tells “vom Raube der Demetertochter, welche der Gott auf seinem mit vier schwarzen, unsterblichen Rossen bespannten, goldenen Wagen in die Tiefen seines Reiches gewaltsam entführte. … Es … bezieht sich auf die goldgeschmückten Zügel, mit denen Hades beim Raube sein Gespann lenkte,” I/ii, 1784-85.

David G. Rock (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5539

SOURCE: “Interior Landscapes: Narrative Perspective in Hauptmann's Bahnwärter Thiel,” in Modern Languages, Vol. 70, No. 4, December, 1989, pp. 211-19.

[In the following essay, Rock evaluates the narrative technique of Bahnwärter Thiel, viewing it as “Expressionistic” and “modern” in its abruptly shifting perspectives.]

One aspect of the text Bahnwärter Thiel which has always presented problems for A-level candidates is the description of nature. Most candidates have used the old Blackwell edition (1), and they have not been entirely well served by the introduction, since the editor, S. D. Stirk, is misleading in his reading of certain aspects of the work, and this is most noticeable in his comments on some of the descriptive passages. For instance, on page xxv he notes: “Hauptmann gives a wonderful description of the setting sun. The moon rises, and for the last time the effects of light on the trees are described with the skill of a master-painter. The only word for this kaleidoscopic and flowing treatment of the line—its ever-changing aspects and moods—is Impressionism”. Stirk is using the term Impressionism here clearly in the sense in which it is applied to the French painters of the 1860s and 1870s. Their work was characteristed by a concern with the fleeting effects of light and a disregard for precise outlines, and by a general aura of delicate and mundane lightness of feeling. It will be shown in this article that the adjective Impressionistic is occasionally applicable to the style of Bahnwärter Thiel, but not in the sense in which Stirk uses it, when he clearly has in mind the delicate, pretty compositions of the French painters.

Stirk also uses the adjective “realistic” in his discussion of one of the descriptive passages, and critics of the descriptive passages, and critics in general have tended to fit Bahnwärter Thiel into a literary-historical category somewhere between Realism and Naturalism (2). Indeed, Stirk cites an array of critics who regard many of the descriptive passages as stylistic defects, and Stirk himself clearly endorses their views, quoting (p. xxviii), for instance, R. M. Meyer's comment that it is “märchenhafte Übertreibung” to assert that the two red lights on the train turned the raindrops into drops of blood! In Realism and Reality. Silz comments: “throughout Hauptmann maintained an even epic tenor of factual report” (3). Bennet argues that the work exhibits “a detached transcription of reality” (4). Martini stresses the realistic, objective depiction, the “Realismus der Aufnahme”, and the narrator's stance as observer.” Hauptmann wählt den Standpunkt des Zuschauers”, whereby he constantly maintains his distance from his subject: “Der Erzähler hält sich in der Distanz, er steht dem von ihm erzähltem Schicksal gegenüber und berichtet es aus dem Abstand der scheinbar unbeteiligten Objektivität. Bewußt wird jede subjektive Identifikation mit dem Erzählten … vermieden” (5).

The type of narrative voice which we have in Bahnwärter Thiel is the anonymous, unobtrusive third-person narrator, a conventional fictional intelligence. The story narrated to us is relatively straightforward in outline, and for the most part, the narrator relates the general situation and the events in a direct, almost matter-of-fact tone. Many aspects of the narration are consistent with the notion of Naturalistic “Zustandsschilderung” or “Detailmalerei”, the objective analysis and detached depiction of the details of a situation in order to point to the “laws” which determine human behaviour, be they psychological or sociological—in this case the complicated factors which lead a man to murder his wife and child. Also consistent with the objectivity of the Naturalistic “stance” is the absence of any moral condemnation of the murderer by the narrator. For the Naturalists, the writer is objective analyst, not moral judge, because he portrays a world where men are ultimately not responsible for their actions since they are passive victims of circumstances over which they have no control. Categories like cause and effect replace those of guilt and expiation.

The story opens with a factual presentation of the general situation surrounding Thiel. The first statement is a matter-of-fact reference both to Thiel's piety and his mechanical regularity (6): “Allsonntäglich saß der Bahnwärter Thiel in der Kirche zu Neu-Zittau, ausgenommen die Tage, an denen er Dienst hatte oder krank war und zu Bette lag” (p.1). In this opening section, the information which we are given refers to a considerable expanse of time and is presented in the form of factual, indisputable details compressed into a relatively short space. We learn of his marriage to a rather delicate, sickly-looking woman, such a contrast to his own Herculean build, and her death after two years. However, the next statement introduces a note of uncertainty: “An dem Wärter hatte man, wie die Leute versicherten, kaum eine Veränderung wahrgenommen” (p.1). The narrative perspective has the effect here of restricting the reader's knowledge to what appearances seem to imply, what people who know Thiel think to be the case: “Es war die allgemeine Ansicht, daß ihm der Tod seiner Frau nicht sehr nahe gegangen sei” (p.2). With the benefit of hindsight, the reader later realises that these impressions are false. Moreover, the sequence in which the facts are given is misleading, since more important details are initially withheld and only revealed later—the fact that his first wife died in childbirth and that the child survived; that he has made a vow to his first wife to care for the child “zu jeder Zeit” (p. 2); that his second wife seems in physique “für den Wärter wir geschaffen” (p. 2), and yet lacks Thiel's spiritual side (of which no mention has been made up to now)—her gace lacks “im Gegensatz zu dem des Wärters die Seele” (p.2).

Thus, despite the detached, factual tone of this opening section, the reader's view of things is restricted at crucial points by the narrative perspective, the angle from which he is allowed to view things, and it would seem that the narrator, rather than being “objective” and detached, is highly selective in the way that he presents this sequence of facts, which seems intended to increase the readers's uncertainty. As a result of this technique, the reader actually “discovers” gradually that Thiel is a man with an inner life of depth and complexity which belies his outward appearance, a fact underlined by the first direct comment made by the narrator: ‘Die Außenwelt schien ihm wenig anhaben zu können’ (p. 3). It emerges, then, that the depth of Thiel's inner life is not appreciated by those around him, and the narrator uses his control over the sequence of what he narrates in order to enable the reader to actually experience this truth in the process of reading the story. The narrator then intervenes at crucial moments in his capacity as Naturalistic ‘analytical psychologist’ in order to interpret Thiel's inner life and attitudes. For instance, earlier on we are led to believe that Thiel has remarried for the sake of Tobias (the narrator actually inserts the direct conversation between the Pastor and Thiel on this subject on p. 2); but two pages later we read: ‘Er, der mit seinem ersten Weibe durch eine mehr vergeistigte Liebe verbunden gewesen war, geriet durch die Macht roher Triebe in die Macht seiner zweiten Frau und wurde zuletzt in allem fast unbedingt von ihr abhängig’ (p. 4). We are forced to reassess his motives, for now it would appear, in the light of the narrator's interpretation, that the real reason for his second marriage may be the irresistible sexual drive of a physically powerfully-built man.

Gradually, then, in this opening section, the reader is skilfully confrontedwith Thiel's problem on a general level: This is the case of a man split into two sides, the spiritual and the sensual, and the two opposite poles of his own nature are embodied in the two women who represent the two different but equally dominant forces in his life. The conflict between the two results in his feelings of guilt— the blatant sensuality of his second marriage is tantamount to sacrilege, a defilement of the memory of his first wife. Thiel is thus tyrannised by both the women in his life and can only appease his conscience by keeping the two sides clearly divided, so he transforms his lonely hut into ‘geheiligtes Land’, devoted to the memory of his first wife. This is underlined by the narrator in a clear statement: ‘Dadurch, dass er die ihm zugebote stehende Zeit somit gewissenhaft zwischen die Lebende und die Tote zu teilen vermochte, beruhigte Thiel sein Gewissen in der Tat’ (p.4). It should be noted that Thiel's problem is at first somewhat understated and is merely explained in terms of occasional pangs of conscience: ‘Zuzeiten empfand er Gewissensbisse über diesen Umschwung der Dinge’ (p. 4). A few lines on, however, we learn of the repulsion he feels for himself and the state of religious ecstasy he experiences in his lonely ‘Wärterhäuschen’ as he sees visions of his dead wife before him. Already we are given hints that his inner turmoil is so great that a complete imbalance of his mind threatens, but at this stage in the story the narrator seems to be at pains to play this down and interpret it in terms of environment (‘Abgelegenheit’) interacting with Thiel's ‘mystischen Neigungen’. Moreover, the narrator subtly anticipates the crisis which dominates the last two sections of the story as early as the fourth page: ‘Mit Hilfe von allerhand Vorwänden war es ihm in der Tat gelungen, seine Frau davon abzuhalten, ihn dahin zu begleiten’. In this indirect way, the narrator prepares the reader for the specific events which follow—the last detail which we are given in this section refers to Lene's ill-treatment of Tobias: ‘Thiel aber, welchen die Sache vor allem anging, schien (my italics) keine Augen für sie zu haben und wollte auch die Winke nicht verstehen, welche ihm von wohlmeinenden Nachbarsleuten gegeben wurden’ (p. 6). The reader is already prepared to regard surface appearances with a degree of scepticism.

The narrative technique in this opening section thus draws the reader into direct involvement with the issues in the story on a general level, and the careful reader is already aware that this technique is realistic in the rather special sense of allowing the reader to actually experience the uncertainty of real life.

With the beginning of section 2, there is a sudden shift from these general comments about Thiel's life, and the narrator sharpens his focus onto a specific time and place: ‘An einem Junimorgen gegen sieben Uhr kam Thiel aus dem Dienst’ (p. 6). This is a clear indication by the narrator that from this point onward we will have a detailed sequence of specific events which form the main body of the story, and in contrast to the opening section, where a considerable expanse of time was compressed into a short space, a short period of time is presented in great detail. It is in this second section that the reader encounters the first of several descriptions of the natural setting. These descriptions stand out from the main body of the text because of their peculiarly expressive use of language and their weird unreal imagery, and also because not only the tone of the language but also the narrative perspective changes. Gone is the narrator reporting dispassionately and objectively (‘Naturalistically’).

The first description of nature precedes the first extraordinary episode in this narrower sequence of events—the break in the clockwork regularity of Thiel's everyday life, as he forgets his ‘Butterbrot’ and returns home at a time when Lene is not expecting him, and witnesses the beating of Tobias. The description of Thiel's daily journey through the forest to his hut appears at first to be ‘objective’ observation, and yet gradually a distinct mood of foreboding and oppressiveness is built up:

“Er fand seinen Weg ohne aufzublicken, hier durch die rostbraunen Säulen des Hochwaldes, dort weiterhin durch dichtverschlungenes Jungholz, noch weiter über ausgedehnte Schonungen, die von einzelnen hohen und schlanken Kirfern überschattet wurden, welche man zum Schutze für den Nachwuchs aufbehalten hatte. Ein bläulicher, durchsichtiger, mit allerhand Düften geschwängerter Dunst stieg aus der Erde auf ließ die Formen der Bäume verwaschen erscheinen. Ein schwerer, milchiger Himmel hing tief herab über die Baumwipfel. Krähenschwärme badeten gleichsam im Grau der Luft, unaufhörlich ihre knarrenden Rufe ausstoßend. Schwarze Wasserlachen füllten die Vertiefungen des Weges und spiegelten die trübe Natur noch trüber wider.

Ein furchtbares Wetter, dachte Thiel, als er aus tiefem Nachdenken erwachte und aufschaute.

Plötzlich jedoch bekamen seine Gedanken eine andere Richtung. Er fühlte dunkel, daß er etwas daheim vergessen haben müsse.” (p. 9. My italics.)

In these latter two short paragraphs, the conventional omniscient narrator gives us a direct insight into Thiel's mind, pinpointing his thoughts and presentiments, but the description of the landscape which precedes this powerfully evokes Thiel's own subconscious state. What we have here is both an exterior natural landscape, but also an interior landscape, where Thiel's own mood of foreboding and his inner, as yet unarticulated concern for Tobias (he feels deep down that something is wrong at home) is expressed in an indirect but powerful way: There is a direct correspondence here between the adjectives used to describe outer nature and Thiel's inner, mental activity (“schwer”, “tief”, “schwarz”, “trüb”, “dunkel”), and he goes home to hear Lene's “kreischenden Stimme” (p. 10), recalling the image of the ominous “krähenschwärme” and their “knarrenden” Rufe”. (This association is actually repeated by Thiel later (p. 28) at the moment when his mind is going and he thinks that Lene has murdered Tobias: “Rabenmutter”.) Then we read:

Unschlüssig blieb er einen Weile stehen, wandte sich dann aber plötzlich und eilte in der Richtung des Dorfes zurück.

In kurzer Zeit hatte er die Spree erreicht, setzte mit wenigen kräftigen Ruderschlägen über und stieg gleich darauf, am ganzen Körper schwitzend, die sanft ansteigende Dorfstraße hinauf.” (p. 9. My italics.)

In this indirect way, by suggesting Thiel's inner state, the narrator causes the reader to wonder whether it is not so much the forgetting of his sandwiches which troubles him but what he fears at home.

The second description of the natural setting comes after Thiel witnesses the beating of Tobias and when he has arrived at his work place. For the first time in the story strikingly bold imagery is used, here to describe the railway track and the telegraph wires. The passage is dominated by the two related similes of a montrous iron mesh and a giant spider's web:

“Die schwarzen, parallellaufenden Geleise glichen in ihrer Gesamtheit einer ungeheureren, eisernen Netzmasche, deren schmale Strähnen sich im äußersten Süden und Norden in einem Punkte des Horizontes zusammenzogen.

Der wind hatte sich erhoben und trieb leise Wellen den Waldrand hinunter und in die Ferne hinein. Aus den Telegraphenstangen, die die Strecke begleiteten, tönten summende Akkorde. Auf den Drähten, die sich wie das Gewebe einer Riesenspinne von Stange zu Stange fortrankten, klebten in dichten Reihen Scharen zwitschernder Vögel. Ein Specht flog lachend über Thiels Kopf weg, ohne daß er eines Blickes gewürdigt wurde.” (p.13. My italics.)

The emphasis here is not on an “objective” description of nature—significantly Thiel does not take any notice of the actual woodpecker flying over his head: The predominance of unrealistic, fantastic yet clearly visual images suggests the distortion of Thiel's own vision of the world which is taking place during the course of the story. There is unmistakable “internal” evidence in the text which substantiates this view, because several of the grotesque metaphors used in the descriptions of nature are anticipated in some way beforehand. For instance, the two similies of the spider's web and the net of iron have already been anticipated in the previous scene with Lene. As he witnesses his second wife beating Tobias, Thiel feels helpless in the face of Lene's inescapable sexual power as he sees her half-naked breasts and her broad hips:

“Eine Kraft schien von dem Weibe auszugehen, unbezwingbar, unentrinnbar, der Thiel sich nicht gewachsen fühlze.

Leicht gleich einem feinen Spinngewebe und doch fest wie ein Netz von Eisen legte es sich um ihn, fesselnd, überwindend, erschlaffend.” (p.11. My italics.)

The description of the natural setting which follows shortly after this scene is thus dominated by the contours of Thiel's own inner life: His feeling of being helplessly ensnared in the web of his wife's sexual dominance is having a disturbing effect on his mind, distorting his vision of the world. The passage continues with the description of the train, which culminates in a terrifying metaphor: the train starts as “ein dunkler Punkt am Horizont” (p.14), and the sound of its wheels on the tracks builds up to a terrible apocalyptic climax resembling “den Hufschlägen eines heranbrausenden Reitergeschwaders”. (7), and as the noise and smoke increase, the train actually becomes “das schwarze schnaubende Ungetüm”. Again, the intensity which builds up in this passage is prefigured in the preceding incident as Thiel catches sight of his son's tears:

“Einen Augenblick schien es, als müsse er gewaltsam etwas Furchtbares zurückhalten, was in ihm aufstieg; dann legte sich über die gespannten Mienen plötzlich das alte Phlegma, von einem verstohlenen begehrlichen Aufblitzen der Augen seltsam belebt.” (p.11.)

Just as this terrible thing inside him subsides and gives way to “das alte Phlegma”, so too in the later description, as the train disappears, “das alte heil'ge Schweigen” returns to the forest. This scene then echoes in its powerful imagery the growing intensity of the uncontrollable feelings building up in Thiel himself, which threatens his mental equilibrium—significantly, as the train passes, Thiel is in a trance: “Minna”, flüsterte der Wärter wie aus einem Traum erwacht” (p.14). Through the nightmarish image of the train, the narrator powerfully conveys to the reader the terrifying nature of Thiel's own inner experiences.

The narrator then informs us that Thiel is gradually overcome by a strange feeling of disquiet and that he suddenly realises that his second wife will now be coming out to visit the allotment on frequent occasions: The “holy” sanctuary dedicated to the memory of Minna is about to be desecrated by the profane, sensual Lene. The delicate balance which he has established by physically separating the two forces in his life (the spiritual and the sensual) is about to be shattered. The reader now senses that the story is approaching its climax, because the narrator makes it clear both directly and indirectly through his comments and through the descriptive passages, that a sense of all-consuming crisis inside Thiel himself is culminating, for he is now almost demented by feelings of guilt as he suddenly realises with horror that he has betrayed his dead wife and neglected his son for two whole years. The narrator now employs his omniscience to explain clearly how Thiel is losing control over his own mind:

“Es kam ihm vor, als habe er etwas Wertes zu verteidigen, als versuchte jemand, sein Heiligstes anzutasten, und unwillkürlich spannten sich seine Muskeln in gelindem Krampfe, während ein kurzes, herausforderndes Lachen seinen Lippen entfuhr. Vom Widerhall dieses Lachens erschreckt, blickte er auf und verlor dabei den Faden seiner Betrachtungen. Als er ihn widergefunden, wühlte er sich gleichsam in den alten Gegenstand.

Und plötzlich zerriß etwas ein dichter, schwarzer Vorhang in zwei Stücke, und seine umnebelten Augen gewannen einen klaren Ausblick. Es war ihm auf einmal zumute, als erwache er aus einem zweijährigen totenähnlichen Schlaf.” (p.15) (8)

Overcome with fatigue as a result of his self-torment, he falls asleep:

“Ein Brausen und Sausen füllte sein Ohr, wie von unermeßlichen Wassermassen; es wurde dunkel um ihn, er riß die Augen auf und erwachte. Seine Glieder flogen, der Angstschweiß drang ihm aus allen Poren, sein Puls ging unregelmäßig, sein Gesicht war naß von Tränen.” (p.16. My italics.)

The impact of this passage rests in the fact that although a storm would appear to be brewing outside, the reader is at first unable to determine from the given narrative perspective whether the sounds are real or merely the product of Thiel's tormented imagination—again Thiel's experience his own uncertainty, is expressed directly and effectively. He then staggers out into the storm, and the sound made by the trees is compared to “Meeresbrandung”, a simile which has recurred several times, but now the link between the description of external nature and Thiel's perspective is established unambiguously: “Einen Augenblick kam er sich vor wie ein Ertrinkender” (p.16). The narrator again looks into Thiel's mind (“Es gärte in seinem Hirn”, p.17), and indicates that Thiel now seems unable to separate dream and reality, for it now appears to him that the beating of Tobias was part of his dream (p.17, line 9 ff.); what he does recall clearly is the terrifying, guiltridden, prophetic image of his dead first wife walking along the railway track, carrying “etwas Schlaffes, Blutiges, Bleiches” (p.17). The reader is allowed to look directly into Thiel's troubled thoughts, but is then suddenly confronted with an apparition:

“Zwei rote, runde Lichter durchdrangen wie die Glotzaugen eines riesigen Ungetüms die Dunkelheit. Ein blutiger Schein ging vor ihnen her, der die Regentropfen in seinem Bereich in Blutstropfen verwandelte. Es war, als fiele ein Blutregen vom Himmel.

Thiel fühlte ein Grauen, und je näher der Zug kam, eine um so größere Angst. Traum und Wirklichkeit verschmolzen ihm in eins. Noch immer sah er das wandernde Weib auf den Schienen, und seine Hand irrte nach der Patronentasche, als habe er die Absicht, den rasenden Zug zum Stehen zu bringen. Zum Glück war es zu spät, denn schon flirrte es vor Thiels Augen von Lichtern, und der Zug raste vorüber.” (p.18) (9).

This nightmarish description is typical of those effective moments in the story where the perspective shifts suddenly and dramatically, One moment we are looking into Thiel's thoughts, then without any warning we either see the outside world through the distorted mind of Thiel himself or the outside world actually takes on the contours of Thiel's inner world. Now dream and reality are no longer distinguishable for Thiel, as the raindrops are transformed in the lights of the train into the drops of blood which Thiel saw in his dream of Minna as she carried ‘etwas Schlaffes, Blutiges’. The narrative technique actually allows the reader first to experience the terrible truth about Thiel, to which the narrator then points.

The fatal accident is preceded by a period of calm, as Thiel escorts Tobias around his ‘Revier’, but it is Thiel's mental state which determines the mood of religious solemnity as he takes his son through this hallowed, consecrated domain (pp. 21-22), and as Thiel hears voices of the dead in the telegraph wires and is moved to tears by the thought that his first wife's voice is among them, we realise that this is the calm before the storm. The portrayal of the accident itself is remarkable in the way that the narrator, although inconspicuous, dominates every aspect of the events. The incident itself is described with brutal Naturalistic objectivity and from the standpoint of an outsider:

‘Eine dunkle Masse war unter den Zug geraten und wurde zwischen den Rädern wie ein Gummiball hin und her geworfen. Noch einige Augenblicke, und man hörte das Knarren und Quietschen der Bremsen. Der Zug stand.’ (p. 23)

But from this point on (p. 23 line 21 - p. 24 line 16), the narrative technique is designed to convey to the reader the shocked, stunned and confused reaction of Thiel, leading only slowly and gradually to his realisation of the full horror of what has happened. The passage is remarkable for its economy: For instance, the narrator's description of Thiel is registered without comment, but there is sufficient evidence for the reader to draw his own conclusion about Thiel's state of mind—his sense of shock and horror are clearly deducible from the description of his hair seeming to stand on end and his turning pale. As D. Horrocks points out:‘ Nor does the narrator explicitly state that the beginnings of Thiel's eventual derangement are detectable in his reactions here, though it can obviously be inferred from the strange movement of his eyes, the imbecilic expression on his face and the incongruity of his absent-minded smile.’(10) Again, the dominant feature of the passage is the technique of portraying the situation largely from the perspective of Thiel himself, but the emphasis constantly shifts to the reactions of Lene, the railway officials and passengers, and then back to Thiel himself, producing an impression of confusion. The details of Thiel's utterances, movements and physical appearance are all reported to us, whether directly by the narrator or from the perspective of other figures. This is not the case, however, when it comes to Thiel's thoughts. Nowhere in this key passage does the narrator have recourse to conventional reported speech or thought. Instead he allows us occasionally to enter into the character's consciousness, to share his reactions, without interposing himself as reporter. In two instances he does so directly, presenting Thiel's thoughts immediately and in exactly the form that they occur to him: ‘Wer war das?! Lene?! Es war nicht ihre Stimme, und doch … ’ (p. 23) and ‘Er ist es.’ (p. 24) Elsewhere the approach is the less direct technique of erlebte Rede, ‘free indirect speech’, as with the striking phrase ‘Wahrhaftig, man winkt ihm’, where the reaction conveyed in the first word and the realisation that people are waving to him are Thiel's, not comments from the narrator. The immediacy of the entire passage is reinforced by the narrator's abrupt switch to the dramatic present, which continues for two more pages. It emphasises that Thiel is struggling to make sense of what is going on, but it also forces the reader to experience the dreadful episode in the present tense, as is going on before Thiel's eyes:

‘—sein Ohr füllt das Geheul Lenens. Vor seinen Augen schwimmt es durcheinander, gelbe Punkte, Glühwürmchen gleich, unzählig. Er schrickt zurück—er steht. Aus dem Tanze der Glühwürmchen tritt es hervor, blaß, schlaff, blutrünstig. Eine Stirn, braun und blau geschlagen, blaue Lippen, über die schwarzes Blut tröpfelt. Er ist es.’ (p. 24)

These lines convey directly Thiel's gradual guilt-ridden realisation of the full horror of what has happened, with the adjectives ‘blaß, schlaff, blutrünstig’ deliverately echoing the ‘etwas Schlaffes, Blutiges, Bleiches’ which Thiel, in his nightmarish vision of the previous Saturday night, had seen Minna carrying along the tracks. By this point, of course, we the readers are already well aware that the victim of the accident must be Tobias, but the narrative technique forces us to live through the experience of recognition with Thiel, and this adoption of Thiel's point of view serves the purpose of enlisting the reader's sympathy for the figure and his tragic loss.

The complex mixture of guilt and hatred in Thiel in the aftermath of the accident leads to his complete mental breakdown, and on the verge of madness, he follows an apparition down the track, muttering promises of revenge to his dead wife. Thiel's actions are reported to use from the standpoint of an outsider trying to interpret his gestures and words:

‘Während er, rückwärts schreitend, vor etwas zu weichen schien …

‘Er schien, als ob etwas an ihm vorüberwandle … ’ (p. 26)

‘Er tastete in die Luft, wie um etwas festzuhalten … ’ (p. 27)

But as Thiel turns to walk back, the reader is given another description of nature:

Die Sonne goß ihre letzte Glut über den Forst, dann erlosch sie, Die Stämme der Kiefern streckten sich wie bleiches, verwestes Gebein zwischen die Wipfel hinein, die wie grauschwarze Moderschichten auf ihnen lasteten. Das Hämmern eines Spechts durchdrang die Stille. Durch den kalten, stahlblauen Himmelsraum ging eine einziges, verspätetes Rosengewölk. Der Windhauch wurde kellerkalt, so daß es den Wärter fröstelte. Alles war ihr neu, alles fremd. (p. 27)

Again the perspective shifts abruptly, and we have a description of an eerie, alien natural landscape with powerful images of death and decay which expresses Thiel's own mental state—his torment over Tobias' probable death has turned his world into a living death. The narrator then allows the reader to look again into Thiel's mind at the terrible moment when he suddenly becomes aware of his own impending madness. In a moment of full consciousness, he realises that he is losing control of his own mind and can no longer organise his thoughts: ‘Er unterbrach sich, ein Lichtschein fiel in sein Hirn: Aber mein Gott, das ist ja Wahnsinn’.(p. 27)

After he has almost strangled the baby whose screams were ‘das Signal zur Raserei’, Tobias' body is brought back, and with this final confirmation of the death of his son, Thiel collapses and loses all consciousness (p. 29, line 37). Now that Thiel has clearly gone mad, we no longer see things from his perspective. We are briefly allowed to see things from Lene's perspective (p. 30, line 35 - p. 31, line 15), for the purpose of encouraging us to sympathise with her in her plight, but we witness the final events of the story from the standpoint of outsiders, as the bodies of Lene and the child are discovered by the men who bring back the body of Tobias. In marked contrast to many Naturalistic works with their emphasis on the detailed portrayal of gory details, the description of the bloody murder itself is avoided. The final two pages return to the tone of a factual report, and the reader is left with the image of the pathetic figure of Thiel holding his son's little brown hat in his hands in the madhouse.

The narrative perspective and in particular the descriptions of nature are thus crucial to any interpretation of the story, as we realise that Thiel's final madness is not something suddenly triggered off by his son's terrible death in the accident, but something which has been building up throughout the story, anticipated both in the descriptions and in the sudden, unannounced shifts to Thiel's perspective, which allow the reader to experience at first hand Thiel's gradual breakdown and the pressure building up through the moods and mental states which the descriptive passages evoke. By reference to them, we can chart out Thiel's own inner ‘landscapes’ and trace the development of his disorientation and final madness.

It is clearly misleading to simply label the work ‘Naturalistic’. The empathy with which Thiel is portrayed goes far beyond the clinical observation of Naturalism. Moreover, the label ‘Impressionistic’ is also ultimately inadequate in so far as it only suggests the extent to which the descriptive passages reflect the ways in which the effects of light and sound affect a person's perception of reality. Indeed, with many of the passages where Thiel's inarticulated feelings are projected onto the natural world itself which is distorted by grotesque images and weird colours, the term ‘Expressionistic’ is arguably the most applicable, and Hauptmann can be seen to have anticipated, to a certain extent, the techniques of Expressionist painting, where subjective vision was expressed through distortion of colour and outline. Perhaps, however, the narrative technique is best simply termed ‘modern’, precisely because of the demands it makes on the reader, shifting its perspective abruptly, often unexpectedly, and yet precisely at those moments when the author's intentions demand it, leading the reader to empathise with the pathetic figure of Thiel himself.


  1. A new Blackwell edition appeared in late 1988.

  2. Two notable exceptions are John M. Ellis. Narration in the German Novelle, Cambridge, 1974. pp. 169-211, and Peter Sprengel, Gerhart Hauptmann. Epoche - Werk - Wirkung, Munich, 1984.

  3. W. Silz, Realism and Reality: Studies in the German Novelle of Poetic Realism, Chapel Hill, 1954.

  4. E. K. Bennet, A History of the German Novelle, Cambridge, 1961, p. 238.

  5. F. Martini, Das Wagnis der Sprache, Stuttgart, 1954, p. 65.

  6. The page numbers refer to the old Blackwell edition of the text, edited by S. D. Stirk, Oxford, 1961.

  7. Martini sees this simile as a defect, cf. loc. cit., pp. 86-7: ‘Was der Mensch um 1887 im Schauspiel des kavalleristischen Manövers als die stärkste Ballung von übermächtiger und todbringender Gewalt noch konkret sehen und erleben konnte, ist heute zur nur militärgeschichtlichen Reminiszenz, damit mittelbar und abstrakt Ö geworden und längst durch größere Gewaltkonzentrationen im Technischen übertroffen. In dieser historischen Bindung des Bildes liegt eine Schwächung seiner Ausdruckskraft.’ The apocalytic overtones of this image are surely consistent with Thiel's feelings of guilt—he suffers from what might almost be called a religious persecution mania.

  8. This is close to the moment of anagnorisis in ancient tragedy, the moment of terrible recognition from which there is no escape.

  9. Here the red lights are real enough—the lights of the train—and the effects they produce in the rain are just about plausible, but their personification as the googling eyes of a monster tells us more about Thiel's tormented mental state.

  10. cf. David Horrocks' excellent and useful article. How to tackle a commentary question in the German A-level literature paper (2), in Treffpunkt, Vol. 19 No. 1, March 1987, pp. 10-15.

Warren R. Maurer (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5637

SOURCE: “Symphony in Prose,” in Understanding Gerhart Hauptmann, University of South Carolina Press, 1992, pp. 127-39.

[In the following essay, Maurer explores the models and sources of Bahnwärter Thiel, discussing its relation to the German Novelle and analyzing its symbolism.]


In Hauptmann's development as a dramatist, a distinct progression in the mastery of his craft is discernible from 1889 (Before Sunrise) to about 1911 (The Rats). In contrast to this pattern, Bahnwärter Thiel (1888) (Flagman Thiel) is a highly acclaimed masterpiece of prose fiction created at the beginning of his literary career and never quite equaled afterwards.1 Written in Erkner during the early morning hours around the period of the birth of his second son and published in the Munich Naturalist periodical Die Gesellschaft (Society), this remarkable German novella marked Hauptmann's debut as an author of great potential. Although considerably milder than that occasioned by such dramas as Before Sunrise, The Weavers, or Hannele, this work also provoked its share of controversy. While some early readers welcomed in it primarily a Zolaesque Naturalism applied to the portrayal of distinctly German characters and circumstances, conservatives and Marxists alike decried its seemingly bleak and pessimistic depiction of the human condition.2 Unconvincing Marxist interpretations to the contrary, the causes of the Thiel family tragedy derive more directly from universal human circumstances than from socioeconomic problems.3 And while the novella has been widely read in German schools since around the end of the First World War as a classic example of Naturalism, it has also long been recognized by critics and scholars that such a rigid classification is much too narrow. Flagman Thiel features an early (but as we know from Rose Bernd, The Rats, and Magnus Garbe, recurrent) thematic complex of marriage, birth, and death, presented in a literary form skillfully amalgamated from naturalistic, symbolic, and mystical elements. In many respects it is paradigmatic for much of Hauptmann's future oeuvre; and, as a work with an established place in German literary history, it represents a transitional landmark reflecting past, contemporary, and future periods such as Poetic Realism, Naturalism, and Neoromanticism.

Because the story's salient characteristics are more powerfully atmospheric, lyrical, and musical than narrative (it has been convincingly described as a “symphonic poem”),4 the plot of Flagman Thiel can be summarized in a few words. It examines the life, conflicts, and eventual destruction of a simple, almost child-like railroad-crossing guard and his family, whose situation is similar in many respects to the situation in Drayman Henschel. Like Henschel, Thiel is a widower who, ostensibly to provide a mother for Tobias, the son he has had with his deceased wife Minna, marries and becomes the guilt-ridden victim of a brutally sensual woman, Lene, who dominates him through the overwhelming power of her sexuality while simultaneously neglecting the child she had been expected to nurture. The climactic event is an accident in which the boy is struck and killed by a racing express train. Although neglectful of his safety, Lene can hardly be accused of consciously causing Tobias's death. Thiel, however, in an explosion of long-repressed and unarticulated rage, slaughters her and the child she has in the meantime borne him. The destructive paroxysm having run its course, Thiel lapses into a state of benign, lethargic insanity and is last seen in a charity hospital ward for the insane, guarding in his hands Tobias's little brown cap “with jealous care and tenderness” (6:67).

In spite of considerable effort expended on finding a real-life counterpart to the plot of Flagman Thiel (of the kind available for The Rats, for example), such searches have remained unproductive. When asked about a model for Thiel, Hauptmann was able to recall later only that he had spoken a great deal with a crossing guard in his little railroad shack located near the village of Fangschleuse.5 The “humus” from which this particular narrative grew must, therefore, be sought elsewhere: in more general personal experiences of its author, in literary sources, and in the zeitgeist.

From the perspectives of personal experience two periods in Hauptmann's life seem especially promising here: the years immediately after 1877 and those following his move to Erkner with Marie in 1885. When Robert Hauptmann lost his hotel to creditors in 1877 and was reduced to the socially inferior status of running a mere railroad restaurant in Sorgau, the move was humiliating for the sensitive adolescent Gerhart, but it also steeped him in the railroad atmosphere that so thoroughly permeates Flagman Thiel. Difficult as it may be for someone in an age of hydrogen bombs and rockets to the moon to imagine, the steam engine was for young Hauptmann the embodiment of an awe-inspiring, quasi-diabolical technology. The noise and speed of “these iron colossi of locomotives” and their “inescapable, powerful rhythm” (7:724) stood in strong contrast to the idyllic natural surroundings of his boyhood. That he was both fascinated and repelled by these monstrous intrusions into the landscape is clear from two early poems, “Der Nachtzug”(The Night Train) and “Der Wärter” (The Crossing Guard). The former plainly anticipates the admixture of romanticism, mysticism, and technology of Thiel, while the latter is more strongly oriented towards social criticism; it depicts the sufferings of a poor, deathly ill railway employee with a wife and child desperately in need of his support who collapses and dies beside the tracks.

While the Sorgau experience acquainted Hauptmann with the technology of the railroad (and with a variety of people employed in its demanding service), a second important aspect of the novella, the atmosphere and natural beauty of its setting, derives largely from the author's life in Erkner. “I had never been so close to nature as then,” he was to recall later. “Through the mystery of birth [of a son] it was as though the earth too had opened itself up to me. The forests, lakes, meadows, and fields exhaled the same mystery. There was contained within it a somehow disconsolate magnificence, a grandeur through which one was placed before the gate (closed, to be sure) of ultimate comprehension” (7:1033).

In a search for literary models for Thiel it soon becomes obvious that, more than for any other of Hauptmann's works, Büchner is of central importance. Hauptmann confessed that “Georg Büchner's works, about which I had given a lecture before the Durch society [in 1887], had made an enormous impression on me. The incomparable monument that he had left behind after only twenty-three years of life, the novella Lenz, the Woyzeck fragment, had for me the significance of great discoveries” (7:1061). The importance of this Büchner “cult” (7:1061) has long been recognized and thoroughly explored in relation to Thiel.6 Attention has been focused on similarities between the two authors' weltanschauung, formal attributes of their prose, and characters. Both Büchner and Hauptmann are strongly fatalistic, and because the lives of their characters are determined by forces over which they have little or no control, their creators refuse to subject them to moral censure, preferring instead to reply to their failings and transgressions with compassion. Both authors are skillful at depicting stages of mental deterioration resulting in madness (see Lenz), and both employ a combination of realism and symbolism to achieve their desired results. Comparing Büchner's Franz Woyzeck with Hauptmann's Franz Thiel, Silz has pointed out that “both are simple, not to say simple-minded, faithful, ‘kinderlieb,’ inarticulate, concealing profound spiritual depths beneath a usually tranquil surface; easy-going, slow to suspicion and wrath, but finally capable of murderous violence against the women who have failed them.”7 Although neither of these antiheroes can escape completely the consequences of their low social status, it is their irrepressible and universal human qualities that shine forth in the end. Both are victims of a “progress” that has, outwardly at least, reduced them to a mechanical existence. For Woyzeck the dehumanizing force is embodied in the sadistic experiments of the medical doctor who sees in him only a human guinea pig; for Thiel it is a pedantic punctuality engendered by the demands of his railroad employment. Whereas Woyzeck has order imposed upon him by his superiors (and finds it difficult to subjugate his nature to their demands), Thiel seems to have adopted order as a defense mechanism. It is expressed not only in the mechanical precision with which he exercises his occupational obligations, in his regular church attendance, in the pedantic treatment of his few personal possessions, and in the monotonous rhythm of his daily existence, but, especially, in his effort to compartmentalize the central conflict of his life: his enthrallment by two women of totally opposite natures. Unable to resist the animalistic, physical blandishments of Lene (and feeling guilt for succumbing to them), he has established a shrine to his ethereal, spiritual, dead wife Minna in his lonely railroad shack, where he communes with her nightly. By keeping the physical and spiritual halves of his life scrupulously separated in this way, by imposing on them the same mechanical order he observes in his daily activities, he hopes to control them. However, as we know from Hauptmann's concept of the Urdrama, life is too chaotic to be managed so easily. A momentary lapse of caution, during which Thiel reveals that he has received a small strip of land near the tracks for his own use, becomes a fateful turning point when it leads to a merging of the two realms. Having once heard about it, Lene cannot be restrained from the urge to plant potatoes in the little plot—a necessity, she claims, for the poor family. As usual her forcefulness prevails, and tragedy is the result. Diverted by her work, she neglects to keep an eye on Tobias; he is killed, and Thiel's repressed emotions explode in fury.

Hauptmann has been aptly described as a “seismograph of his time.”8 Literarily this description seems especially apt for his early successes and can be illustrated by a closer look at the female characters depicted in Flagman Thiel. While Thiel is reasonably well-rounded and individualized, both Minna and Lene come close to representing melodramatic types who would have been at home in much of the popular literature of the day and who embody naturalistic stereotypes of women in general. At a time when women were struggling to achieve an enhancement of their status in society (equality with men remained a wistful dream), male writers and intellectuals found it both expedient and consoling to reduce them to two contradictory types: the idealized, pure—not to say immaculate—mother, and the sexually destructive whore, usually from the lower classes. Minna and Lene reflect these stereotypes. Minna (whose name associates readily with the medieval concept of Minne, a sublimated, spiritualized form of eros) is described as “a slender, sickly looking woman … who hadn't suited well Thiel's Herculean stature” (6:37) but who had been bound to him by “a more spiritualized love” (6:39). Outwardly Lene appears the more suitable spouse for Thiel. In strong contrast to her predecessor, “the former cowherd appeared as though made for the flagman. She was barely half a head shorter than he and surpassed him in fullness of limb. Also her face was carved quite as crudely as his, only that, in contrast to that of the flagman, it lacked soul” (6:38).

Although scornful of Strindberg's simplistic depictions of the battle of the sexes, Hauptmann, apparently unknowingly, shares a good deal of the Swede's misogyny. Not only is he partial to what he sees as an obsessive Strindbergian theme—the man trapped between and destroyed by two women9 (compare Henschel and Schilling)—but he too seems to revel in the depiction of vulnerable males threatened by an all-powerful female sexuality. Surprised by Thiel as she is beating Tobias, Lene escapes her husband's wrath by paralyzing his ability to react: “Her full, half-naked breasts swelled from excitement and threatened to burst her bodice, and her gathered skirts made her broad hips appear even broader. An invincible, inescapable power, which Thiel felt unable to control, emanated from the woman” (6:47). Only the death of his son and the depths of suffering caused by it break the spell, and Thiel acts with devastating physical violence to escape and get revenge for the bondage he has been powerless to resist.

Perhaps because Lene's domination of Thiel is so blatant, Minna's role in his destruction tends to be overlooked. His love for his first wife is just as compulsive, irrational, and abnormal as his sensual enslavement by Lene. From a psychological perspective, Thiel (and some would claim his creator) fears both women. The good, spiritualized woman is banned to the realm of the dead; the evil, sensual one is beaten and butchered.10 As Jofen has pointed out, the theme of mariage à trois tends to assume a special variation in Hauptmann's work, with the third person, a dead mother, continuing to dominate the unfortunate father from the grave.11 (Compare not only Thiel and Henschel but also such later dramas as Winterballade [1917] [Winter Ballad] and Veland [1925]). Personally familiar to Hauptmann since the death of his cousin Georg and the death cult practiced on his behalf by his aunt in Lederose, such infatuation with the dead can exert a powerful influence on the daily lives of the living. By continuing to cede to Minna a controlling force over his inner life, Thiel, of course, exacerbates his anguish over Tobias.

It has been frequently noted that what separates Hauptmann's Thiel character from those of his Poetic Realist predecessors is a modern mood of isolation, an existential loneliness and sense of ultimate futility, and that his characteristic taciturnity and inarticulateness mirror a feeling of “external and inner abandonment.”12 This sense of abandonment is of a kind expressed by the famous “fairy tale” related by the character of the grandmother in Büchner's Woyzeck13 and is manifested most poignantly in little Tobias, a sickly, abused child deprived of the warmth and emotional security of a loving, caring mother. As Klaus D. Post has convincingly shown, such a quintessential motherless state assumed for Hauptmann the force of a potent, recurring metaphor through which to express the inhumane coldness of modern existence.14 Again it derives from a congruence of personal and zeitgeist elements. Although Hauptmann was strongly attached to his own mother, during his earliest formative years, as has been noted, her duties in helping run the hotel often deprived him of her coveted attention and left him to fend for himself or, worse still, in the dubious care of a brutal nursemaid. Even years later he vividly recalled a cosmic dream, reminiscent of the Büchner scene mentioned above, that epitomized his feelings of abandonment from that time: “There were dimensions of the most monstrous kind which were made graphic to me. I saw nothing less than the earth rolling along in space. I myself, however, was stuck to it, hopelessly, like a dizzying, minimal speck of life, doomed to death, in danger at every moment of plunging off into endless expanses” (7:489).

Leaving aside the autobiographical dimension, the Tobias character must have been of particular interest to Hauptmann's contemporaries. In no previous epoch had so much attention been focused on the study (social, political, pedagogical, or scientific) of childhood as during the Naturalist era. Given the appalling conditions in which children were often forced to work and live (see The Weavers), such attention was long overdue. The economic conditions which made it necessary for mothers to spend long hours each day away from home frequently resulted in their virtual abandonment of their offspring. A typical contemporary exposé provides a context within which readers of Hauptmann's novella could appreciate the emotional state of “motherless” children like Tobias. It reads in part, “A most horrible fact: Infants in their cradle, without care, day after day, without nursing, without motherly attention. Not a breath of love can warm them, no tender hand caress them, no mouth kiss them. No one to rock them to sleep, no one to sing songs to them, to laugh with them, to bathe them, to arrange their pillow, to enliven and refresh their little souls with games and dallying. The flat is empty and locked. No human being breathes in it, except the small, helpless mite of a child. The mother slaves in a factory. … ”15 Although Tobias's situation is somewhat different, the sense of motherless isolation it engenders is equally pervasive. His biological mother died when he was born, bequeathing him only her own delicate constitution and none of the benefits of genuine motherhood, and Lene actively abuses him both physically and psychologically—the latter in the time-honored manner of wicked stepmothers by letting him know how worthless he is.

More important than plot or characterization for an estimation of Hauptmann's narrative talent at this early stage of his career are some of the more formal aspects of his story. Although he was careful to label it a “study” (6:36)—thereby implying a more modest, tentative, and experimental approach—Flagman Thiel shares many of the attributes of the Novelle genre that flourished in Germany and Switzerland especially during the late nineteenth century. Silz includes among these its brevity; at least a relative limitation as to time and place; few adult characters; no real evaluation of character but, instead, the revelation of a hitherto submerged aspect of character under the stress of crisis; a striking central event (the death of Tobias); a turning point (Thiel's first vision of his dead wife); a straightforward plot easily summarized in a few sentences; a sharply profiled “silhouette”; and even, perhaps, Paul Heyse's notorious “falcon”—a physical object which plays a memorable role in the story (Tobias's little brown cap).16

Yet, in spite of such familiar traits, contemporaries must have been struck by Hauptmann's radical adaptation of the Novelle genre to a changed, modern zeitgeist. Flagman Thiel ends in chaos and disorder instead of the harmony more typical of Poetic Realism, and the shock of a brutal multiple murder (at a time when such crimes were still extremely rare) was not something readers of Gottfried Keller or Theodor Storm would have been prepared for. Indeed, it was such naturalistic elements that served most clearly to distance the work from more conventional literature of the day. These elements include the depiction of a passive central character from a lower-class background in a specific milieu; attention to details of heredity (Tobias has his father's red hair and his mother's frailty); an undisguised emphasis on sexuality; the rather clinical description of progressive mental derangement; a minutely detailed narrative style that, at times, comes close to Arno Holz's Sekundenstil; a preoccupation with technology; the use of actual place names; and the depiction of ugly, crass reality (Lene's abuse of Tobias, Thiel's aborted strangulation of Lene's infant, and the final discovery of the mutilated bodies).

Nonetheless, such an impressive catalogue of naturalist traits notwithstanding, to simply consign Hauptmann's novella to the Naturalist movement is much too restrictive. Particularly in the character of Franz Thiel, for example, there is still a strong residue of Romantic ideology (for example, the belief that simple, down-to-earth, uneducated human beings have easier access to numinous levels of existence than their more sophisticated brethren). At the opposite extreme, there is considerable anticipation of future literary developments such as fin de siècle symbolism. The complex, virtuoso manipulation and control of every aspect of composition (symbols, leitmotifs, nature descriptions, and the like) is of such a higher order that it bears favorable comparison with Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (1912). (Like such rare masterpieces it must be absorbed whole through multiple readings, yields different secrets to individual readers of varied background, and will always retain elements of an ineffable, residual obscurity.)

Some sense of Hauptmann's “irrational realism”17 can be conveyed by a closer inspection of a few symbols that provide for much of the compositional unity of the work. Superficially (and with the caveat that neatly separating them is contrary to the author's obvious intention) they can be categorized, for our purpose, as relating to technology and nature. Of the former, the railroad and its tracks, steam locomotive, telegraph wires, crossing-guard shack, and other accounterments figure most prominently.

Because of its omnipresence and the vitalistic terms in which it is depicted, it would not be too farfetched to consider the railroad as an important character in the story. It is a governing force of Thiel's external life as well as the locus of his inner existence. During ten years of servitude in its behalf, the reader learns in the first paragraph, he has suffered only two lapses of duty—both occasioned by the dangerous railroad itself: one as the result of a lump of coal that had fallen from the tender of a passing locomotive and “had struck him and flung him with a smashed leg into the ditch beside the track; the other time on account of a wine bottle which had flown out of an express train racing by, and had struck him in the middle of his chest” (6:37). At the end of the story, after the murders and the retreat into insanity, Thiel is found sitting between the rails at the precise spot where Tobias was killed. Briefly, for the first and only time, he is able to prevail over the train by forcing it to stop, but he is soon overpowered, bound hand and foot, and dispatched to the Charité hospital in Berlin. Throughout the novella the railroad is depicted in anthropomorphic terms as an all-powerful, demonic beast of destruction before which mere human beings are as helpless as before a natural cataclysm. “Panting” (6:63) or “stretching its sinews” (6:60), by night with “two red, round lights penetrating the darkness like the goggle-eyes of a gigantic monster” (6:53), it appears in daylight out of infinity, a dark point on the horizon, suddenly expanding into an enormous, black presence before disappearing into unearthly stillness as mysteriously as it arrived—paralleling Thiel's own fate in its inscrutable origin, sudden destructive force, and equally sudden lapse into deathly calm. It is almost as though this piece of cold technology were capable of mocking its human victims. After Tobias has been reduced to a lifeless object, “thrown to and fro between the wheels like a rubber ball,” (6:58) a herd of deer watched over by a stag is seen standing on the tracks but gracefully escapes the oncoming locomotive.

Whereas the locomotive assumes vital, malicious overtones, Lene tends to be described in terms of a soulless machine. Depersonalized at one point with the inappropriate neuter definite article as “das Mensch” (6:38) (instead of der Mensch = human being), she beats Tobias “as though pieces of clothing were being dusted out” (6:46) and tills her little plot of land “with the speed and endurance of a machine” (6:56). Gradually and subtly Hauptmann establishes a parallel between Lene and the train so that when the catastrophe occurs they both seem culpable victimizers.

It is not only the train, however, but also the tracks which deserve attention. It may be stretching things to ascribe phallic significance to them as Jean Jofen does (she refers to the contention of Stekel, a disciple of Freud, that tracks—referred to at one point as resembling “firey snakes”—signify “path to woman”),18 but it does seem clear that Hauptmann too has weighted them with symbolic value. Spatially, and as an irresistible “track of fate,” they seem to run right through the middle of the narrative; and, running parallel to each other, like Thiel's attempt to keep the two halves of his life parallel but separate, they nevertheless converge in a “dark point” (6:49).

Thiel's mystical inclinations flourish especially in the railroad shack, which at night becomes a chapel for Minna. “A faded photograph of the dead woman before him on the table, open song book and Bible, he read and sang alternately throughout the long night, only interrupted at intervals by trains raging by, and, in so doing, fell into an ecstasy which intensified into visions in which he saw the departed bodily before him” (6:40). Reflections of his sexual bondage to Lene and of his guilt over his failure to protect Tobias from her abuse, these visions help push Thiel to the edge of insanity and make the subsequent catastrophe, if not inevitable, at least highly plausible.

Hauptmann's skill at saturating mundane, technological locales and artifacts with atmospheric significance is also shown by his recurring reference to the telegraph wires strung along the railroad embankment. The wind passing over them contributes to the subtle acoustical effects that complement so well the striking visual images of the narrative. Walking along the track with his son shortly before the accident, Thiel shares with him the pleasure of the mysterious music they produce.

Holding little Tobias by the hand he often stopped to listen to the wonderful sounds that streamed forth out of the wood [of the telegraph poles] like sonorous chorales from the interior of a church. The pole at the south end of his section had an especially full and beautiful harmony. There was a turmoil of tones in its interior which continued to resound, without interruption as though from a single breath, and Tobias ran around the weathered wood in order, as he believed, to discover the originator of the lovely sound through an opening. The flagman fell into a solemn mood, as though in church. Additionally, with time, he identified a voice which reminded him of his dead wife. He imagined it was a chorus of blessed spirits, into which she also mingled her voice, and this notion awakened a longing in him, a longing close to tears. (6:56-57)

This passage, which freely mixes technology, nature, religion, and psychology in a kind of magic realism, by no means exhausts the telegraph wire symbolism. While it successfully illustrates his dead wife's spiritual hold on Thiel, at a crucial point in the story the author is also able to expand the same imagery to include the threatening sexuality of Lene. Her strong identification with machines and technology, mentioned earlier, is further enhanced by association with the recurrent image of an iron net, based on both the iron rails of the railroad and the wires of the telegraph. “The black, parallel tracks …resemble … an enormous iron mesh net … and. … On the wires, which crept from pole to pole like the web of a giant spider, flocks of twittering birds were stuck in dense rows. A woodpecker flew away laughing over Thiel's head … ” (emphasis added [6:49]). Two pages earlier Lene's feeling of dominance over Thiel had been suggested in similar terms. “Easily, like a fine spider web, and yet as tightly as a web of iron, it wrapped itself around him, binding, overpowering, and enervating him (emphasis added [6:47]). As original as such imagery may seem to us today, it too derives from that stock arsenal of symbols frequently invoked by contemporary authors and graphic artists at the turn of the century to epitomize lethal femininity—woman as black widow intent upon enticing, paralyzing, and devouring her mate.19 Unlike the laughing bird, but very much like so many of Hauptmann's heroes and heroines still waiting in the wings, Thiel is unable to escape his own fateful “web of iron” without paying a heavy price—in this case his loss of sanity.

Among the most unnaturalistic aspects of Flagman Thiel are its nature descriptions and use of animal and color imagery. Although close to the author's own experiences—long walks in the forest solitude (Waldeinsamkeit [6:47]) of the pine woods near Erkner—nature is used to enhance the sense of a transparent reality behind which fateful, mysterious forces are constantly lurking. For Hauptmann “religious feeling has its deepest roots in nature,”20 and in his novella nature descriptions are finely attuned to the requirements of plot, character, and atmosphere. As Martini has shown, the author, by his generous use of verbs of motion in describing nature, insures that it is rarely static.21 In addition, he makes nature an integral part of his fictional cosmos by merging images appropriate to disparate aspects of Thiel's environment: tree trunks glow “like iron” (6:49); rain drops suffused by the red of a locomotive headlight are changed into “drops of blood” (6:53); the noise of a train is described in terms of a charging “cavalry squadron” (6:49); steel railroad tracks “suck up the pale moonlight” (6:52); and the moon itself becomes a “pale golden bowl” (6:52) or a “signal lamp” (6:65). Not surprisingly, Hauptmann also orchestrates nature freely to reflect Thiel's changing emotions and moods (fear, loneliness, calm, inner turmoil) or as a dramatic setting for enhancing the power of his visions. After Tobias's accident nature even seems to share his grief: “A gentle breath of evening air moved softly, steadily over the forest, and pink-flamed curls of clouds hovered over the western heavens” (6:62), and the moon shining on them “paints the faces of the men [carrying Tobias's body] in corpse-like tones” (6:65).

Animals also play a significant role in the artistic economy of Flagman Thiel, although those mentioned (including birds, squirrels, deer, and a poodle) do not belong to the “fang and claw” species so frequently identified with Naturalism. Instead, and appropriate for a hero who communes with the dead, they tend to be associated with a variety of superstitions, sometimes local ones. From time immemorial birds have been seen as messengers between the worlds of the living and the dead, and the crows and woodpecker mentioned in the story are considered to have special demonic attributes. (In Hauptmann's Silesia crows are messengers of death. According to local folklore their call is “Grab! Grab!” [grave]).22 The squirrel Tobias encounters with his father just before the accident is likewise thought to possess oracular powers. Tobias's question on seeing it (“Father, is that … God?”) has caused considerable puzzlement among interpreters; but, given the mystical tenor of Hauptmann's story, it is doubtful that much would be gained by a definitive, explicit explanation. (For what it is worth—or to add yet another element of ironic ambiguity—the superstitious of Silesia were accused of readiness to believe that the devil is a squirrel.)23

Color symbolism (often in synesthetic combination with sounds) adds another strong element of originality to Flagman Thiel. And while it would require a separate essay to do justice to this topic, it seems safe to say that no German writer before Hauptmann had so thoroughly saturated such a short prose work with such a profusion of meaningful colors, and that even the later Expressionists failed to surpass him in this regard. Not only do certain colors such as the polarity of black and white (the colors of the demonic locomotive and the pallor of death), red (sunsets, blood, vitality of life), and brown (Tobias's cap, a deer killed on the tracks, the squirrel mentioned above) suggest a metalanguage of symbolic gesture, but, as Krämer has pointed out, even the sequence in which colors are introduced appears to recapitulate the cycle of events depicted in the novella.24

“Everything that belongs only to the present dies along with the present.”25 This remark by Mikhail Bakhtin, Russia's greatest twentieth-century literary theorist and critic, would certainly have appealed to Hauptmann, who rejected fanatical, time-bound dogmatism in literature and politics alike. What he aspired to in his best work was permanence, and this could best be achieved by concentrating his talent on the depiction of eternally human qualities that can never lose their topicality and are a staple of great world literature (for example, the Bible; classical literature of Greece and Rome, and Grimms' Fairy Tales). As noted before, in recent years attempts have been made to link even Hauptmann's early work to models of such mythic stature. And, while the role of coincidence cannot be entirely discounted—erotic entanglements, child neglect, and murder are not unique in the annals of world literature—Clouser has shown a considerable number of detailed and interesting correspondences between Hauptmann's novella and the Hellenic myth of Hercules. These include but are by no means limited to physical traits (Thiel's “Herculean physique” [6:37]), “an emotional religiosity, self-slaughtered families, and an ambivalent reaction to women.”26


  1. See also, however, the short narrative Carnival (Fasching, 1887), 6:13-34, discussed in Warren R. Maurer, Gerhart Hauptmann (Boston: Twayne, 1982), pp. 13-15.

  2. Cf. Klaus D. Post, Gerhart Hauptmann, Bahnwärter Thiel: Text, Materialien, Kommentar (Munich, Vienna: Hanser, 1979), pp. 47-50.

  3. See, for example, Irene Heerdegen, “Gerhart Hauptmanns Novelle ‘Bahnwärter Thiel,’” Weimarer Beiträge 3 (1958): esp. 353 and 359-60.

  4. See Larry Wells, “Words of Music: Gerhart Hauptmann's Composition Bahnwärter Thiel, in Wege der Worte: Festschrift für Wolfgang Fleischhauer (Cologne, Vienna: Böhlau, 1978), p. 385.

  5. See Eberhard Hilscher, Gerhart Hauptmann. Leben und Werk (Frankfurt/M.: Athenäum, 1988), p. 90.

  6. For a summary discussion and secondary literature relating to this topic see Post, 100-108.

  7. See Walter Silz, Realism and Reality: Studies in the German Novelle of Poetic Realism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954), p. 146.

  8. See Ralph Fiedler, Die späten Dramen Gerhart Hauptmanns: Versuch einer Deutung (Munich: Bergstadt, 1954), p. 135.

  9. Cf. Peter Sprengel, Die Wirklichkeit der Mythen: Untersuchungen zum Werk Gerhart Hauptmanns (Berlin: E. Schmidt, 1982), p. 182.

  10. See Herbert Krämer, Gerhart Hauptmann: Bahnwärter Thiel (Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1980), 18.

  11. Jean Jofen, Das letzte Geheimnis: Eine psychologische Studie über die Brüder Gerhart und Carl Hauptmann (Bern: Francke, 1972), p. 51.

  12. See Fritz Martini, Das Wagnis der Sprache: Interpretationen deutscher Prosa von Nietzsche bis Benn (Stuttgart: Klett, 1954), p. 63. Cf. also Post, 55.

  13. See Georg Büchner, Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, ed. Werner R. Lehmann (Munich: Hanser, 1978) 1:427.

  14. See Post, 55-64.

  15. Quoted by Post, 138.

  16. Cf. Silz, 137.

  17. Martini, 60.

  18. Jofen, 206.

  19. For an especially drastic example of this attitude expressed in a work of art, see Alfred Kubin's 1902 drawing “The Spider” (Die Spinne) in Wieland Schmied, Alfred Kubin (New York: Ferdinand A. Praeger, 1969), plate 38.

  20. Quoted by Martini, 60.

  21. See Martini, 79.

  22. See Krämer, 23.

  23. See Krämer, 37 n. 75.

  24. See Krämer, 33-35.

  25. Quoted by Gary Saul Morson, “Bakhtin and the Present Moment,” The American Scholar 60 (1991): 220.

  26. Robin A. Clouser, “The Spiritual Malaise of a Modern Hercules, Hauptmann's Bahnwärter Thiel,The Germanic Review 50 (1980): 105.

Further Reading

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Baumgaertel, Gerhard. “Gerhart Hauptmann's Theme of Engagement Manqué in the Critical Treatment of His Early Characters.” Revue des langues vivantes / Tijdscrift voor Levende Talen, No. 4 (Summer 1964): 307-35.

Discussion of seekers of truth in Hauptmann's works, including his novella Der Apostel.

Carr, G. J. “Gerhart Hauptmann's Fasching: The Grandmother.” New German Studies V, No. 1 (Spring 1977): 59-62.

Analyzes the emblematic function of the grandmother in Hauptmann's novella Fasching.

Driver, Beverly and Walker K. Francke. “The Symbolism of Deer and Squirrel in Hauptmann's Bahnwärter Thiel. ” South Atlantic Bulletin XXXVII, No. 2 (May 1972): 47-51.

Regards symbolism contrasting Thiel's metaphorical imprisonment and the freedom of animals in Bahnwärter Thiel.

Dussère, Carolyn Thomas. The Image of the Primitive Giant in the Works of Gerhart Hauptmann. Stuttgart: Akademischer Verlag Hans-Dieter Heinz, 1979, 182 p.

Studies the giant figure as representative of irrational and vengeful forces in Hauptmann's works, such as Bahnwärter Thiel and Der Ketzer von Soana.

Hammer, A. E. “A Note on the Dénouement of Gerhart Hauptmann's Fasching.” New German Studies IV, No. 2 (Summer 1976): 87-89.

Notes weaknesses and inconsistencies in the ending of Fasching.

Klemm, Frederick A. “A Return to Soana: Hauptmann's Diary and the Ketzer.” In Views and Reviews of Modern German Literature: Festschrift for Adolf D. Klarmann, edited by Karl S. Weimer, pp. 61-69. Munich: Delp Verlag, 1974.

Observes autobiographical elements in Der Ketzer von Soana.

McLean, Sammy. “Wife as Mother and Double: The Origin and Importance of Bipolar Personality and Erotic Ambivalence in the Work of Gerhart Hauptmann.” In Fearful Symmetry: Doubles and Doubling in Literature and Film, edited by Eugene J. Crook, pp. 84-99. Tallahassee: University Presses of Florida, 1981.

Considers psychological themes related to Thiel and his two wives in Bahnwärter Thiel.

Mellen, Philip. “Gerhart Hauptmann, Ingeborg Bachmann: Squirrels.” Germanic Notes and Reviews 28, No. 1 (Spring 1997): 16-22.

Sees the squirrel in Bahnwärter Thiel as a symbol of discord and miscommunication from German myth.

Turner, David. “Setting the Record Straight on Hauptmann's Fasching.” New German Studies IV, No. 3 (Autumn 1976): 157-59.

Examines inconsistencies in Faschingarising from the novella's status as both a work of literary naturalism and an old-fashioned morality tale.

Ulfers, Friedrich. “The Language of Reality and Symbol in Gerhart Hauptmann's Bahnwärter Thiel.” Teaching Language Through Literature XVI, No. 2 (April 1977): 26-32.

Studies overlapping naturalistic and symbolist elements in Bahnwärter Thiel.

Washington, Ida H. “The Symbolism of Contrast in Gerhart Hauptmann's Fasching.” German Quarterly 52, No. 2 (March 1979): 248-52.

Discusses Hauptmann's use of the symbolic oppositions of light/life and darkness/death in Fasching.

Additional coverage of Hauptmann's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 153; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 66, 118; DISCovering Authors: Dramatists Module; and Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 4.

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