Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As noted above, the principal basis for the story was the account that Pastor Oberlin gave in his journal entries from January 20 to February 8, 1778. Büchner’s version does not correspond strictly to Oberlin’s inclusions and emphases by any means, although there are sections in which the pastor’s careful observations are clearly reflected in the language of Büchner’s text. Private journals and creative narrative are two different things, however, and the modernity of “Lenz” lies in its emergence from personal observations into a psychological portrait conceived as literature. In the twentieth century (which saw the first appreciation of Büchner), such psychological realism would not be considered unusual, but in 1839 it surely was.

The persuasiveness of Büchner’s realism in “Lenz” owes much to his combination of narrative points of view, especially the alternation between the third-person narrative, in which Lenz’s visible actions and audible words are recorded, and the indirect interior monologue, through which his states of mind are conveyed (a style of narration rarely exploited in German literature for another half-century). The latter mode especially does what no journal entry could, and it has a frightening power that marks “Lenz” as a revolutionary work. The hallucinatory visions of this tormented man are gigantic and violent, even cosmic in their size and force. Thus too, through the drastic imagery, language, and gesture for which the literature of Sturm und Drang was known in the 1770’s, Büchner has re-created the mind of one of its chief exponents.