Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

Arthur Schnitzler had an early career as a physician, and though he was not a psychiatrist, he was admired by Sigmund Freud for his poetic anticipation of some of the psychoanalyst’s clinical findings. A diagnostician rather than a therapist, he concerns himself more with the description of psychic structures than...

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Arthur Schnitzler had an early career as a physician, and though he was not a psychiatrist, he was admired by Sigmund Freud for his poetic anticipation of some of the psychoanalyst’s clinical findings. A diagnostician rather than a therapist, he concerns himself more with the description of psychic structures than with a search for their origins. In Hands Around, Schnitzler presents a typology of amorous relationships, exploring the dark power of sexuality, which draws all characters into its vortex, and the sway of Eros, which levels all social and economic distinctions. Depicting a cross section of Viennese society at the turn of the twentieth century, the playwright questions the moral foundations of that decaying society and lays bare a psychological and social malaise within it as he exposes the exploitation of women by men, the weaker by the more powerful, and the failures by the successful. The notorious double standard has led to a socially sanctioned differentiation between love and lust. Schnitzler excoriates a society that regards its empty, mendacious rituals as normal and inevitable. The ancient Roman adage Penis erectus non habet conscientiam applies here: A lustful man will stoop to almost any strategy of seduction.

Eschewing any plot or character development in the conventional sense, Schnitzler is less interested in the sex act as such than in what leads up to it and what transpires in its aftermath. Intercourse is not discussed; this socially conditioned taboo and the Victorian denial that women also have sexual needs and appetites produce a series of linguistic and mimetic surrogates that often appear as banter and bluster, badinage and bathos. The spectator or reader is made aware of the ultimate futility of transient relationships and empty, impersonal hedonism.

Recurring motifs in the play are the man as hunter and the woman as his quarry, concern about the lateness of the hour, the fear of light and of discovery by an intruder, and the irruption of life into a hothouse atmosphere. Franz is the only man in a hurry; all the others without enough time are women. Only Frau Emma rushes to get home after intercourse; when their initial coyness has been overcome and they have surrendered, all the other women are frustrated in their desire for continued closeness and tenderness, a deeper gratification. Sham, hypocrisy, and mendacity are shown to pervade even the most intimate of interpersonal relationships, and seeming intimacy camouflages actual alienation. Another ancient Latin insight is pertinent here: Post coitus omne animal triste est. Coitus denotes a coming together or union, but after the brief sexual encounter the partners inevitably and quickly drift apart again. Each sexual climax is followed by an anticlimax. Rapture is replaced by melancholy, sadness, and even despair, and men and women seemed doomed to live and die in loneliness. The dance of life often seems like a dance of death of the medieval variety.

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