Group Portrait with Lady

by Heinrich Boll

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Critical Evaluation

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Heinrich Böll, one of the most famous German writers of the post-World War II period, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1972, a year after the publication of Group Portrait with Lady. Described by many critics as the conscience of his nation because of his political and social views, he attempts in this novel to examine World War II and its aftermath. Böll once said that he placed the entire burden of German history from 1922 to 1970 on Leni’s shoulders. The work shows a culmination of Böll’s themes and stylistic devices. Using the story of the Gruytons, Böll presents the political and social climate in the Rhineland before, during, and after the war. He probes the relationship between government, business, and religious establishments and the individual, concentrating on the physical, emotional, and economic survival of ordinary citizens whose needs are often neglected when they conflict with the desires of the institution.

Since the focal point of the novel is World War II, the havoc that government can create for its citizens permeates the novel. However, the novel focuses not on the evil that the Nazi government unleashed but on the effects of those policies on the individual. Leni, for example, loses her family, her lovers, her mentor, and her home because of war.

For Böll, the economic establishment is as destructive as any government, since the two join together in a terrible alliance of war for profit. All of the fortunes in the novel are created through war: Hubert Gruyton built fortifications; Walter Pelzer begins his career collecting gold from corpses after World War I; the Hoysers start their empire through “Anti-Aryanization,” buying property that the Nazis stole and are now forced to sell. Erhard’s cry about dying for a noble profession is an ironic comment on the guilt of the business world. The evils of materialism are not just a product of war, however; peacetime also allows profiteers to flourish at the expense of the common people. The Hoysers represent the inhuman quality of capitalism. Leni does not wish to acquire wealth, and they condemn her for it. Although they have lived free in Leni’s house for years, they charge her rent as soon as they own it. When she sublets to people they do not approve of—foreigners and refuse workers—lowering the value of the neighborhood, Werner Hoyser calls her monstrous. He notes that the state, the Church, and even the Marxists support his view that striving after profit is the only acceptable way to live. Love, kindness, and humanity are threatened by an economic system that places a greater value on profit than on the human spirit.

The last of these institutions is the Catholic Church. Böll believed that the Church betrayed itself, first by signing a pact with Adolf Hitler and then by ignoring the plight of the poor after the war. The Church fails Leni and Rahel, both truly good individuals. Rahel is abandoned and eventually starves to death on church grounds. Church authority refuses to bless or recognize the love and humanity that fall outside its rigid guidelines; the contrast between the sanctioned marriage between Alois and Leni, where he uses his conjugal rights to rape her, and the sinful relationship between Boris and Leni, which mirrors the holy family, reveals this.

Böll frequently uses religious symbolism. Both Leni and Rahel are connected to the Virgin Mary: Rahel through Leni’s painting, “Part of the Retina of the Left Eye of the Virgin Mary alias Rahel,” and Leni in multiple circumstances. Leni sees the Madonna regularly on television. When Klementina also sees the...

(This entire section contains 956 words.)

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Madonna, she comments, “It is . . . Leni . . . appearing to herself.” Leni, Boris, and Lev are compared to the Holy Family. Leni has many saintlike qualities. Her patience, generosity, and stoicism are almost unnatural. A common criticism ofGroup Portrait with Lady is that Leni is too unrealistic. Indeed, Leni miraculously ignores the unpleasantness around her. When she tries to find a book by Franz Kafka in a library in January, 1945, she is totally unaware of the danger of requesting books by Jewish writers.

This symbolism reveals that Leni is more than an ordinary woman. She represents Böll’s vision of the ideal, of utopian behavior. The establishment, which proved itself corrupt, shallow, and avaricious, ignores the needs of the ordinary citizen. It is contrasted with the members of the Help Leni committee, a varied group of outsiders, intellectuals, and laborers, misfits of all sorts and “deliberate underachievers.” What they have in common is a willingness to sacrifice themselves to help Leni, who herself provides a model for such generous behavior. Kurt Hoyser even calls her apartment a breeding ground for utopian ideals.

The main plot revolves about Leni. However, a secondary plot line introduces the author, a professional writer who searches for Leni through extensive interviews. The novel is structured around the author’s summation of his research, which is corroborated by statements from his informants. In the beginning of the story, he attempts to remain impartial and to provide an unbiased account of Leni. Before the last chapter, he has only seen her twice very briefly. He finds himself drawn to Leni, however, and in chapter 9, he describes his dilemma: how much should he report and what should he conceal to protect her. Eventually he loses all impartiality and becomes an active member of the Help Leni committee. This involvement reinforces Böll’s vision. Once the author chooses sides, he discovers his own happiness. There is both a happy ending and no ending. Böll himself said that he stopped in mid story, but that he could have continued with Leni’s saga forever.


Critical Context