The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

by Peter Handke
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Characters Discussed

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Joseph Bloch

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Joseph Bloch, a construction worker and former soccer goalie. Bloch is a young man when viewed from all perspectives except the game of soccer, which he used to play quite well. Unfortunately, his soccer days are behind him; this is unfortunate because he cannot accommodate himself to the far more complex and unpredictable world of an everyday reality that does not abide by the clear-cut rules of sport. Bloch’s paranoia is signaled in the novel’s opening paragraph, when he assumes that he has been fired because only the foreman looks at him when he walks into the construction shack. His murder of a theater cashier a day later is merely an extension of this first irrational thought. Throughout the rest of the novel, this formerly great goalie is, ironically, without a goal: He has no genuine destination or purpose in life. The reader follows his wanderings, witnesses his descent into ever deeper psychosis, and wonders how long it will be before his murderous impulse overtakes him again.

Gerda

Gerda, a theater cashier. Because all characters are seen through Bloch’s paranoid-psychotic eyes, it is difficult to view them as discrete, independent entities. For example, the reader is less “astonished” at the naturalness with which the cashier handles Bloch’s money than is Bloch himself, yet it is this quality (which Bloch does not possess) that attracts him to her, ultimately leading to her death. She is a product of an existential age, as is Bloch, and in a small way at least—by her foolishness and loose morals—she contributes to her own demise. She lets the peculiar-acting and strange-looking Bloch (he has just been mugged) follow her down a dark street, and when he touches her, she embraces him with a ferocity that surprises even him. She takes this disheveled stranger into her apartment and into her bed. One indication of how little human warmth is involved in this sexual encounter is the fact that she does not bother to tell Bloch her name until the next morning. Shortly afterward, he murders her.

Girl in restaurant

Girl in restaurant, whom Bloch encounters shortly before he meets Gerda. She personifies the rootlessness, heedlessness, and lack of morals of most of the characters who people Bloch’s bleak world. With hardly any effort, Bloch manages to pick her up in the restaurant, and she accompanies this total stranger as he tries to find a doorway in which they can have a sexual encounter. No doorway is available, so they ride up and down in an elevator; afterward, Bloch leaves her.

Hertha

Hertha, Bloch’s girlfriend. It is possible that Hertha exists only in Bloch’s imagination. He “remembers” that she lives in the border town to which Bloch flees after the murder, but he makes no effort to locate her. In the middle of a conversation with his landlady, however, he begins to call her “Hertha” in his mind, though never aloud. She responds to him in a friendly fashion, but she is efficient, practical, and responsible—unlike the rootless women whom Bloch encounters elsewhere—and perhaps this saves her. Nothing comes of their relationship, although Bloch talks to her more than to anyone else in the novel.

A policeman

A policeman, who in a short scene with Bloch describes the task of catching a suspect in terms strikingly similar to those used by Bloch to describe the task of a soccer goalie.

The Characters

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The figure of Joseph Bloch has several sources. The character is based, in part, on a psychiatric study of schizophrenia which Peter Handke read in 1968. This work describes a type of disturbed thought process called apophanic perception, in which the patient perceives random objects as having some secret meaning, usually of paranoid significance. The usual contexts that establish meaning in the everyday world are lost during this state of mental delusion, and the patient’s environment becomes a shifting complex of hostile and threatening dimensions. In an interview, Handke claimed that this was one of the best books he had read that year.

Bloch’s character is also intended to represent certain ideas Handke came across in his readings of structuralist and semiological thinkers and writers such as Roland Barthes and Alain Robbe-Grillet. The central notion here is that reality, or rather one’s perception of it, is deeply influenced by language. Discussing this novel in another interview, Handke claimed that Bloch’s behavior is only an exaggerated form of what is found in everyday perception, that his tendency to construct reality is essentially typical of all people.

A third source for the figure of Joseph Bloch is Handke’s own experience. According to Handke, all writers have occasional schizophreniclike states of mind, almost mystical moments of transcendence when they are transported from the regularity of the everyday world. The world of the imagination is one of “unreality” or fantasy. Such moments are often the origin for the creative energy that fuels artistic activity. Bloch, in this work, exhibits extreme versions of tendencies present in the author himself.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 60

Barry, Thomas F. “Language, Self, and the Other in Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick,” in South Atlantic Review. LI (1986), pp. 93-105.

Heintz, Gunter. Peter Handke, 1974.

Klinkowitz, Jerome, and James Knowlton. The Goalie’s Journey Home: Peter Handke and the Postmodern Transformation, 1983.

Mixner, Manfred. Peter Handke, 1977.

Schlueter, June. The Plays and Novels of Peter Handke, 1981.

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