(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Walter Faber, a Swiss engineer working for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, is on a flight from New York City to Latin America, where he is to help install turbines. In the seat next to him is a German man named Herbert Henke, who is trying to visit his brother, the supervisor of a Guatemalan plantation. All communication with the plantation has been lost. At a refueling stop in Houston, the passengers deplane. After registering his disconcerting paleness in a restroom mirror, Faber faints. Upon regaining consciousness, he is intent on not reboarding the plane. Trying to hide in the airport, he is discovered by a flight attendant and, though physically and mentally weak, is guided onto the plane.

Back in flight, the plane’s engines fail, forcing an emergency landing in a Mexican desert. Awaiting rescue, there is little for Faber to do but start filming events and play chess with Herbert. It emerges that Herbert’s brother, Joachim, had graduated with Faber from Zurich Technical University in 1936. Before graduation, Faber had a half-Jewish German lover named Hanna Landsberg. Learning that she was pregnant and foreseeing the dangers she faced in Nazi Germany, Faber offered to marry her. However, the wedding did not take place because Hanna sensed that Faber was acting only on obligation. Subsequently, she assented to Faber’s urgings that she have an abortion. Faber learns from Herbert that Hanna had instead married Joachim.

Faber and Herbert are now in a jungle village close to the plantation Joachim has been supervising. Faber, whom Hanna long ago dubbed Homo Faber, cannot help but notice the heat, the wildlife, the villagers, and the vultures feeding on carrion. The men reach the plantation after fording a river and running other obstacles, only to find that Joachim had recently hung himself, to the disinterest of the locals.

Faber is now in New York City. After separating from Ivy, his importuning lover, he decides to sail to France. Onboard he meets Elisabeth Piper, a student at an American college traveling to see her mother in Athens. Faber and Elisabeth, whom Faber dubs Sabeth, develop a close friendship. By the end of...

(The entire section is 900 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The protagonist of Frisch’s Homo Faber (literally in Latin, “man the maker”) embarks on a business trip to South America, only to be transformed by his travels, which take him back to his past and forward to his future. Walter Faber, an engineer working for UNESCO, sets out from his Manhattan apartment to check on engines being manufactured in Venezuela. On board his flight, he meets a German named Herbert, and after their plane crashes in the Sierra Madre desert in Mexico, he learns that Herbert is the brother of one of his old friends, Joachim. Walter also discovers that Joachim married Walter’s former mistress, Hanna, and that they had a child together. Telling this story as a reminiscence at a future time, Walter recalls that when he left Hanna she was pregnant with his child, which he speculates may be the child who is supposed to be Joachim’s.

After their rescue, Walter decides to accompany Herbert to Guatemala, where Joachim has been managing a tobacco plantation. During their strenuous trip to the plantation, Walter reflects on his relationship with Hanna and acquits himself of any guilt about the way he abandoned her. Upon arrival, they learn that Joachim hanged himself months before. The two men film and then bury the untouched body, and Herbert determines that he will remain on the plantation assuming Joachim’s responsibilities. Walter goes on to Venezuela, only to discover that the engines have not been assembled. Upon returning to New York, Walter tries to avoid a scene with Ivy, his married mistress, with whom he had broken off prior to his journey. He decides to sail to Paris to attend a conference rather than wait...

(The entire section is 679 words.)


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Homo Faber describes the tragic disintegration of a man who presumes that he is in control of his own life. It follows the travels of Walter Faber, a Swiss technologist working for UNESCO in aid to underdeveloped nations, as he ingenuously moves toward catastrophe.

As the novel begins, Walter is flying from New York to Caracas to supervise the delivery of turbines in Venezuela. His plans go awry, however, when the plane is forced into an emergency landing in the desert of Tamaulipas and the passengers must spend eighty-four hours isolated from civilization. After they are rescued, a fellow passenger, also Swiss, persuades Walter to postpone his business and journey with him into the Guatemalan jungle to visit his brother, Walter’s old friend Joachim Hencke. With great difficulty, the two men manage to traverse the forbidding terrain, but, when they arrive at Joachim’s plantation, they discover that he is dead, his corpse still suspended from the rope with which he has hanged himself.

Back in New York, determined to break up with his twenty-six-year-old lover, Ivy, Walter impulsively books passage on a ship leaving for France the next morning. During the sea voyage, he becomes attracted to a young woman he calls Sabeth, and, when they run into each other again in Paris, Walter and Sabeth agree to travel together through Europe. The two become lovers during an idyllic journey through Italy and along the Greek coast. Disaster strikes, however, when Sabeth is bitten by a viper and falls over an embankment. Walter rushes her to a hospital in Athens, where she dies of a fractured skull. He later learns from Hanna Piper, a former lover, whom he has not seen for twenty-one years and who now works in the Athens Archaeological Institute, that Sabeth was his own daughter.

Walter flees Greece in desperation, returning first to New York and then retracing his journey into Guatemala. After four days in Cuba, he moves on to Dusseldorf and then to Zurich before returning to Athens. At the conclusion of the novel, Walter is in an Athenian hospital, awaiting surgery on a stomach tumor.