The Leaning Tower Summary
by Katherine Anne Porter

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The Leaning Tower Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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This lengthy story opens in Berlin in late December of 1931 as Charles Upton, a young, poor art student, the son of a farming family in Texas, is seeking new quarters because his hotel is unpleasant, oppressive, and expensive. On Christmas Eve his thoughts turn to Kuno Hallentafel, a childhood friend from Texas and the son of a prosperous merchant. Kuno, whose family came from Germany and later returned for visits, spoke so glowingly of the beauty and grandeur of Berlin that Charles decided to study art there. Charles “in his imagination saw it as a great shimmering city of castles towering in misty light.”

Much of the rest of the plot is devoted to showing how Charles’s early romantic perceptions of Berlin are contradicted by the reality of his life there. In this sense, it is an initiation story common in American literature, in which the protagonist, usually a young person, is disabused of earlier beliefs, or loses his innocence, as he comes to a sobering new awareness or understanding brought about by his travels or encounters with different types of people. Charles’s disillusionment with Berlin comes most dramatically at the hands of the hotel owners and landlords he encounters, in general a base, grasping, and ill-tempered group who have little sympathy for the people who need to rent their ghastly and uncomfortable furnished rooms. When Charles tries to move earlier than expected, one landlady even summons a police officer, who treats him with disdain as she cheats him of some of his meager resources. The most important landlady is Rosa Reichl, a once-wealthy, affected, overbearing, and intrusive woman. During their first meeting Charles accidentally breaks a small plaster replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a treasured memento of her honeymoon in Italy. In Rosa’s furnished rooms, Charles comes to know three other young men who also are instrumental in his initiation.

The first of these young men is Otto Bussen, a very poor German mathematics student from Dalmatia. Bussen speaks Low German, an indication of his inferior social status. Under the guise of trying to improve him, Rosa continuously criticizes his manners and behavior. At one point he appears to try to commit suicide by poison, but he is saved by the efforts of Charles and the other boarders. The second boarder is Tadeusz Mey, a Polish student of music, also harassed by Rosa, who brings to Charles the perspective of an intelligent non-German who understands the larger cultural contexts of European history....

(The entire section is 641 words.)