Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 359
Walter Faber, a Swiss engineer working for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He is a fifty-year-old man who sees life only in terms of human rationality and technology and what is predictable by the laws of logical deduction. He discounts fate and chance as well as the imaginative and artistic sides of the personality. Faber has had lifelong difficulties in committing himself to emotional relationships with women. The novel is narrated by him in retrospect as he lies in the hospital, about to undergo an operation for a serious stomach ailment, perhaps cancer. His stomach problems grow worse throughout his chronicle, and the prognosis for the success of his operation at the novel’s conclusion is not good.
Ivy, Faber’s twenty-six-year-old lover in New York. As her name suggests, she is “clinging” and desires a more permanent commitment from the engineer; however, he seeks to break off their relationship.
Hanna Piper, a Swiss archaeologist whom Faber abandoned twenty years earlier. He got her pregnant and, fearing any attachment, urged her to get an abortion. Without his knowledge, she gave birth to the child and married Faber’s friend. The child, Faber’s daughter, is the young woman he falls in love with on the ocean voyage. Hanna’s confrontation with Faber at the end of the novel becomes a revelation of his personal failures in life.
Elisabeth (Sabeth), a twenty-year-old student and Faber’s lover as well as his illegitimate daughter. She is a very impulsive and artistic individual. In her love affair with Faber, she brings out the emotional and intuitive sides of his personality.
Joachim Hencke, the Swiss owner of a plantation in Guatemala. He is Faber’s former friend who married the pregnant Hanna when Faber abandoned her twenty years earlier. He commits suicide, and Faber finds his body near the beginning of the novel.
Herbert Hencke, a fellow airplane passenger with Faber at the beginning of the novel; he turns out to be Joachim’s brother. He persuades Faber to travel to the Guatemalan jungle in search of Joachim.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 361
The narrator and protagonist of Homo Faber, Walter, is indeed representative of man the maker, arrogantly confident of his abilities to shape his own life. Proud of modern civilization’s triumph over nature, he proclaims: “We live technologically, with man as the master of nature, man as the engineer, and let anyone who raises his voice against it stop using bridges not built by nature.” At the outset of the narrative, Walter, secure in his rational human faculties, refuses to recognize any forces beyond his control. “I don’t believe in providence and fate, as a technologist I am used to reckoning with the formulas of probability,” he proclaims. “What has providence to do with it?”
An engine failure in the Yucatan begins to demonstrate the inadequacy of Walter’s view. Though he obsessively shaves himself, even in the desert, there are primitive natural forces over which even Walter Faber, the representative of modern cosmopolitan enlightenment, has no control. Walter, who hates perspiration, has, except for measles, never been sick a day in his life, but he concludes his narrative in a sickbed, his imperious will powerless against the organic processes that have taken charge of his body.
For Walter, “the profession of technologist, a man who masters matter, is a masculine profession, if not the only masculine profession there is.” Intent on affirming his masculine sovereignty, Walter associates nature and femininity; both are elements to be subdued. “As far as I am concerned, every woman is clinging ivy,” he insists, and he does his best to disengage himself from Ivy, his aptly named lover in New York. Because everyone is seen from Walter’s perspective, the female characters are presented reductively, as untidy creatures of debilitating emotion.
With a doctorate in archaeology, Hanna is an eminently capable professional, but Walter knew her as a pregnant Jewish refugee from Nazi tyranny, and he abandoned her in order to pursue his engineering career. The feminine forces he has spent most of his life trying to repress now assert themselves in the reappearance of Hanna, who is more successful at handling things than Walter, and in the undeniable reality of their daughter, Sabeth.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 45
Bradley, Brigitte. “Max Frisch’s Homo Faber: Theme and Structural Devices,” in The Germanic Review. XLI (1966), pp. 279-290.
Butler, Michael. The Novels of Max Frisch, 1976.
Petersen, Carol. Max Frisch, 1972.
Probst, Gerhard F., and Jay F. Bodine, eds. Perspectives on Max Frisch, 1982.
Weisstein, Ulrich. Max Frisch, 1967.