Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 913
Peter Handke tells the story of a woman determined to break with her husband and her past and to form a new life for herself. Marianne, a mother and hausfrau in her thirtieth year, begins to examine her life keeping house in the suburbs of a large industrial city in West Germany. Her husband, Bruno, who works as sales manager for a porcelain company, is due to return from an extended business trip to Scandinavia. Her eight-year-old son, Stefan, is a student who is working on an essay entitled “My Idea of a Better Life.” The theme of his essay apparently becomes the theme of the novel. Since the story is told from a detached, objective, dramatic point of view, however, this possible connection is left for the reader to make.
Mother and son drive to the airport to meet the returning father. The story opens in winter, at an unspecified time after Christmas. Returning from Helsinki, the father is exhausted but happy to be back in Germany with his family. He explains that he was “afraid of going mad with loneliness” in Finland, where he did not understand the language.
Bruno’s key statement introduces the contradictory logic that dominates the story. After telling his wife that he loves her and feels bound to her, he adds, “I now feel I could exist without you.” The statement has more meaning for his wife than he might guess. There is a slight suggestion that Bruno might have been intimate with his German-speaking interpreter in Finland, “a woman with a child and no husband.”
After sending their son to bed, Bruno takes his wife to a hotel for a festive dinner, then gets a room for the night. The next morning, the woman tells her husband about “a strange idea” she had, a discovery, an “illumination.” The idea is that they should separate, that her husband should leave her. Surprised, Bruno agrees to a separation, thinking it may be only temporary.
The rest of the novel concerns the woman’s attempt to adjust to her life as a single parent. She discusses her new status with her friend Franziska, who is also Stefan’s schoolteacher. Marianne once worked as a translator at a publishing house and knows that she can earn money translating books. Franziska invites her to join a women’s group, but when she approaches the group, she apparently is not interested. She is an enigmatic and private person. When Bruno comes to take his belongings, he begins to show resentment about his wife’s decision. The child seems to be absolutely neutral concerning the separation.
Some days later, Bruno confronts his wife on the street as she, seeking employment, goes to mail a letter. He treats her roughly, shoving her into a telephone booth. He accuses her of being mentally ill, burns her photograph in protest, then offers her money. Back home, she rearranges her furniture, an attempt, presumably, to put her new life in order. Eventually, the publisher Ernst, a weary man of fifty for whom Marianne once worked, brings her the autobiography of a young Frenchwoman to translate at home.
Marianne and Stefan visit Bruno at his office, and Bruno shows his son how he intimidates people who come into his office. The husband’s frustration is shown by the fact that “he hammer[s] his face with his fist” after they leave. Some time later Bruno visits Marianne at home and threatens to break down the door. He insults her in his anger, saying “I’ve never known a woman to make a lasting change in her life.” Apparently he feels out of control and defeated by her resolve.
The everyday details of Marianne’s new life alone are described meticulously: the long hours spent at her typewriter, the long walks she takes. She seems to be determined to master her loneliness on her own terms. Although Franziska urges her to attend one of the meetings of her women’s support group, Marianne prefers to be alone. At times she is even irritated by the presence of her son and his fat friend Jurgen.
Marianne’s father comes to visit. He was once a successful writer. They have their pictures taken and meet a man whom the father recognizes as an actor. He criticizes the unemployed actor for holding back and not taking risks, which may denote approval of his daughter’s behavior. Some time after the father returns to his home, the woman again meets the actor, by chance, at a cafe. The actor is fascinated by Marianne and has been following her. He confides in her, perhaps following her father’s advice about not holding back. He confesses that he desires her, then runs from the cafe in embarrassment.
Bruno telephones one night to invite himself to Marianne’s house with Franziska. Ernst also comes to call and is invited in with his chauffeur. Then a salesgirl from whom Marianne has purchased a sweater for Bruno, arrives. The actor is also invited. A fight breaks out between the jealous Bruno and the actor, who is sitting in Bruno’s chair. Later on, they reconcile, play Ping-Pong, then leave together.
The party ends, the guests leave, and Marianne reflects to herself: “You haven’t given yourself away. And no one will ever humiliate you again.” The novel ends with an epilogue from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, stating that “one goes on living as though nothing were wrong.”