Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 593
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Marianne, referred to as the Woman, a thirty-year-old translator of French and a suburban housewife in an unnamed West German city. She, her husband, Bruno, and their child live in a bungalow on a hill overlooking the city. Marianne is lonely, as are the other characters of the novel. In spite of that, she suggests to Bruno that he leave her after he has returned from a business trip. There appears to be no specific reason for her suggestion. Marianne translates from the French that the ideal man is someone who loves her for what she is and will become. The idea that her husband leave her comes to her as an “illumination.” Whether this separation is permanent is not known.
Bruno, a sales manager for a porcelain firm. He has brown eyes that can observe without being observed. After his return from a business trip to Finland, where he did not know the language and felt very lonely, he says to Marianne that he felt that they were bound to each other but that he could now exist without her. After spending the night in a nearby hotel where they had gone for dinner, Marianne tells him that he should go to live with Franziska. Bruno does so. After a fight with the actor at Marianne’s impromptu party, where Bruno accused the actor of wanting to be his wife’s lover, he and the actor play Ping-Pong together and are the last to leave the party. They leave together.
Stefan, referred to as the Child, Bruno and Marianne’s eight-year-old son. He writes an essay for school that seems to be a parable of the novel’s theme. It is titled “My Idea for a Better Life.” Everyone would live on islands, he would have no more than four friends, and all the people he did not know would disappear. Stefan spends much time with his friend Jürgen and occasionally goes on outings with his mother.
The Father, Marianne’s father, an unhappy elderly man who is color-blind. He lives with a female companion. He comes to visit Marianne after receiving a letter from Franziska. He recognizes a film actor in a department store and tells him that he can improve by starting to risk himself while acting.
Franziska, Stefan’s schoolteacher and Marianne’s friend. She and Bruno live together at Marianne’s suggestion. She tries unsuccessfully to get Marianne to join a women’s group.
The actor, an unemployed, flabby man. He meets Marianne and her father after they have had their picture taken. He is criticized by Marianne’s father for holding back, for trying to be a personality instead of giving of himself totally. He contrives to meet Marianne in a café.
Ernst, referred to as the publisher, a corpulent man about fifty years old. He is Marianne’s employer after Bruno leaves her. She had worked for Ernst a long time earlier. He appears with champagne at her door, then makes a pass at her. Ernst says to Marianne that she is entering a long period of loneliness, which she takes as a threat.
The chauffeur, Ernst’s driver. He attends Marianne’s party and makes a sketch of her company.
The salesgirl, a woman who sells Marianne a sweater for her husband and who attends Marianne’s party. She has a child, who is kept in a back room during working hours.
Jürgen, Stefan’s playmate and schoolmate.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660
Handke’s characters are fairly conventional but extremely abstract and oddly presented in a detached and absolutely external manner. In fact, the novelist, who had previously written two film scripts for Wim Wenders—including the script adapted from his own novel Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (1970; The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, 1972)—first imagined his story as a motion picture and went on to direct a film version.
The novel, which differs in some particulars of setting and action from the film, was written as a challenge. As Handke has explained in his notes for the film production, “I wanted to try a kind of prose in which the thinking and feeling of the individual characters would never be described—in which, instead of ‘she was afraid,’ the reader would find; ‘she left,’ ‘she walked over to the window,’ ‘she lay down next to the child’s bed.’...—And I felt this form of limitation actually acted as a liberating force on my literary work.”
The reader senses the psychology behind the characters’ motivation, in spite of the generally dramatic framework, stripped of soliloquizing or internal monologues. At first the characters are simply described by function: the woman, the boy, the schoolteacher, the publisher, the actor, and so on. The woman’s name is not mentioned in the first quarter of the narrative. The publisher’s name is not given until the last quarter.
Despite this purposeful detachment, the characters are vividly delineated. Bruno, the husband, is very traditional in his understanding of his role as husband and father. An establishment figure, his politics tend toward the right wing; his business affairs have conditioned him to intimidate other people; in dealing with frustration, his tendency is to become abusive, first toward Marianne, later toward the actor, whom he considers a rival.
The narrative is totally lacking in sentiment. Marianne’s “strange idea” of liberating herself from a domineering husband, her “illumination,” as she calls it, causes her to redefine her other relationships as well. Her friend Franziska and, later, the actor offer her companionship, but she prefers to be a loner and hold to her own notion of independence. The actor’s sentimental desire to possess her is no more appealing than her husband’s advances when he returns from Finland in the novel’s opening section.
She is not entirely antisocial, however, as shown at the party in the novel’s closing section, but she is determined that the people who gather at her home be on an equal footing. For that reason, the publisher’s chauffeur is invited as an equal. As he says to his employer at the party, “[t]omorrow you won’t speak to me anyway.” Marianne gives the man a taste of liberation.
Marianne has a talent for breaking down barriers between other people, but she will not give herself away and she will only accept people on her own terms. At the end of the novel, after her visitors have left, she articulates this point, adding, “no one will ever humiliate you again.” Before, Bruno treated her as a possession and humiliated her in public. She has now redefined her life, purposefully, choosing loneliness as a consequence of independence.
The other characters exist only to give definition to Marianne and her rebirth. The boy is cared for, but there seems to be no close sentimental attachment between mother and son. Handke offers a bleak design for living in this story, strongly suggesting that self-dependency is necessary to lead a well-balanced life in the industrial world. The novel’s title (which is never explained in the text) would seem to be ironic, attaching the stigma of social awkwardness to Marianne, who first seems to be a withdrawn, social misfit. Despite the apparent bleakness of her chosen life, however, as critic J. Hoberman wrote, the story is strangely “affirmative, without being sentimental.” There is something admirable in Marianne’s strength of character.