Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

Like the tragic Theban Oedipus, who finds his fate in fleeing it, Walter Faber falls, in Greece, through an arrogant disregard of the pattern of circumstances that are impelling him toward destruction. Until it is too late, he refuses to recognize the chain of events culminating in the death of his daughter as anything but isolated coincidences. Walter would like to believe that it was mere happenstance that put him on the same transatlantic ship as his daughter and on the same defective airplane as Joachim Hencke’s brother. The intricate plot of Homo Faber is a refutation of its own narrator’s rejection of providence in favor of belief in his own free will. An elaborate structure of flashbacks, crosscuts, and other jumps in time implicates every detail in everything else. As in Greek tragedy, the denouement is apparent in the exposition. From the beginning, there is no question that, for all of his technological prowess, Walter Faber is enmeshed in a mechanism from which he is powerless to escape.

Appropriate to the style of a professional rationalist, Homo Faber is subtitled “A Report,” but Walter, who dislikes novels and is uncomfortable with “literary” flourishes, is as unsuccessful in the role of verbal engineer as he is in designing his own life. The narrative is presented in two parts: The first, written in Caracas, where Walter has gone after the death of Sabeth, recounts the events from April through June, while the second, written in the Athens hospital while he awaits surgery, begins on July 19. Each section is a sort of diary, written almost concurrently with the events it details and thus emphasizing the fact that its narrator does not have sufficient distance from the experiences to understand them.

Nevertheless, there is a dramatic difference in style and tone between the two parts. The first part, composed of complete sentences and carefully organized paragraphs, projects the illusion of a rational author still in command of his material and of himself. The second part, however, recorded in feverish all-night sessions, consists of highly metaphorical sentence fragments linked through ostensibly random associations of ideas. By the time Walter, who is probably dying, comes to write the second part of his narrative, he has relinquished his position with UNESCO—and his confidence in the rational powers of man. Like Joachim Hencke, who ended up hanging himself in the primeval wilderness that he discovered he could not dominate, Walter has abandoned the pretenses of Aristotelian logic and linear chronology, acknowledging his implication in archetypal realities beyond his comprehension or control. The very form of the text documents the collapse of Homo faber.

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