(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Lenz” is a fictionalized account of an episode in the life of the troubled dramatist Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792) which was recorded by Johann Friedrich Oberlin, a pastor in whose care Lenz was placed when he began showing increasing signs of mental disturbance in 1778.

The beginning of Georg Büchner’s account finds Lenz traveling on foot across the hills and valleys of the Vosges Mountains toward the village of Waldbach. As he walks, he passes in and out of a state of anxiety. He sees fantastic images in the wet, snowy landscape, in the cloud formations, and in the shifting sunlight. Like one hallucinating, he imagines that he must absorb the whole of creation, and he throws himself to the ground; “It was an ecstasy that hurt him.” At other times, he feels very much alone and pursued by some unbearable thing, “seized with a nameless terror in this nothingness: he was in the void!” Then, each time, the terrifying attack passes, and he regains his calm and continues on his way. When he finally arrives at the vicarage in Waldbach—where he is quite unexpected but is hospitably received by Oberlin and his family—the domestic serenity of the place calms Lenz and recalls to him familiar images of contentment from earlier times at home.

He is given lodging in an upstairs room of the village schoolhouse, but before he can sleep, the anxiety of being alone and in darkness returns. Lenz rushes downstairs and into the street, bruising and cutting himself on the stone walls. He leaps into the water of the fountain and soon comes to his senses. Oberlin and other villagers come to his aid, and Lenz is ashamed of his bizarre behavior. Exhausted, he is finally able to sleep.

In the days following, he accompanies Oberlin on his pastoral rounds through the valley and is comforted by the man’s acts of charity and sensible practicality, as well as by the affection that the rural people feel toward their benefactor. With nightfall Lenz’s anxiety returns, however, and he continues his nocturnal baths in the village fountain, though more quietly, so as not to alarm his hosts and the other residents.

One day, after a solitary walk in...

(The entire section is 897 words.)