Themes and Meanings
The principal theme of initiation already noted in Charles’s disillusionment with Berlin through his encounter with landlords and through his association with Otto, Tadeusz, and Hans is reinforced by his perceptions of Berliners as surly, resentful, and hostile to outsiders. The lengthy December darkness of Berlin also increases his sense of alienation: “The long nights oppressed him with unreasonable premonitions of danger. The darkness closed over the strange city like the great fist of an enemy who had survived in full strength, a voiceless monster from a prehuman, older and colder and grimmer time of the world.”
Charles’s disillusionment extends beyond Berlin to Germany itself, a country still showing the effects of defeat in World War I, evidence of which he sees in the blinded and mutilated veterans on the street. The rise of Nazis to power and the coming of World War II is suggested by Hans’s remark that Germany will win the next war. Charles, in other words, is coming to understand some important aspects of German culture in the 1930’s.
Still another dimension of Charles’s growing sensibility concerns Europe’s relationship to the United States. He comes to understand through his conversations with his fellow roomers that the nations of Europe mistrust and stereotype one another. Tadeusz, the cosmopolitan Pole, who is Charles’s mentor in these matters, tells him: “Europeans hate each other for everything and for nothing; they’ve been trying to destroy each other for two thousand years, why do you Americans expect us to like you?” Tadeusz’s question points to still another aspect of Charles’s education. Even though he is poor, he comes to realize that all consider him a rich American, regarding him with a mixture of scorn and envy.
Charles’s trip to Europe is really, then, a journey into understanding. This innocent boy from Texas, with images of Berlin as a “shimmering city” dancing in his head, comes to know something about the dispiriting darker aspects of life. This disillusionment in the context of international travel has been a favorite theme in American literature, and it reflects the clash of cultures that accompanied America’s rise to prominence as a world power in the early decades of the twentieth century.