Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 315
The primary theme of E. T. A. Hoffman's satirical novel is the central role of creativity in human life. The novel takes the form of two biographies, each concerned with a creative individual. While Hoffman specifically presents the theme of the centrality of music, he also uses the supposedly anonymous biography of Kreisler to emphasize creativity more generally. In addition, along with the relationship between creativity and humanity, he utilizes the character of the cat Kater Murr to convey a theme of the artist’s stance against social conformity: even though Murr is not actually human, he seems even more determined to live by his own rules than the musician Johannes Kreisler. Thus, through a nonhuman character, Hoffman can convey in exaggerated form his message about the importance of individualism.
Another important underlying theme, which the author uses to organize the book as much as he discusses it, is the importance of language. Hoffman experiments with a music-like structure with repeated motifs that appear in isolation or harmonize with others. He also merges two disparate narratives, those of Murr and of Kreisler, especially in highlighting contrasting character traits as counterpoints. Blocked communication through language differences—and the ability to overcome those differences—represents both individuals and classes; these are represented by feline contrasted to human as well as to canine, as when Murr learns to understand Ponto the poodle.
The musical theme that connects various layers of the work is important both as it stands for creativity and for the ways the author uses it to advance characterization along with plot. Music is important in the characters’ lives, and songs are used to mark significant events they experience. Music especially represents Kreisler: not only is he often singing, but other characters also refer to his musical compositions. Music also helps the author express the elemental desires, including sexual ones, that the characters cannot otherwise express.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 515
Music is not only a major theme of this novel but also a plot device, a motif, a meaning, a linguistic style, and practically a character. One could speak of the musical structure of the work as a whole, in which the harmony of the Murr episodes alternates with the dissonance of the Kreisler episodes—rather than assume that there is any logical connection between them. (The problem of how to tell a story is thus an implicit theme of the novel, which presents a tour de force of narrative possibilities.) The language of the novel is imbued with musical terminology. For example, Kreisler characterizes Prince Hector as “a damn [tritone] which must be resolved.” To understand the power of this vituperation, one must know that the tritone is the most dissonant interval in the twelve-note scale, often referred to as the “devil in music.” Music appears at every crucial point in the novel: Julia and Hedwiga first meet Kreisler on a walk through the park, when they perceive him singing a wild song; at a point of crisis, the two women again take a walk and hear a hymn which Kreisler had composed. They embrace and say to each other, “It was he.” In other words, Kreisler is his music, which means that his personality is indefinable.
Here, music stands for art in general. Hoffmann—who always believed that he would be remembered for his musical compositions rather than his writings—shared the Romantic perception of music as the highest art form because it was the most abstract. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer would later characterize music as an embodiment of pure will, and something of this meaning inheres in The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr: The deepest, most meaningful exchanges between characters are always musical ones, inaccessible to language. Language itself acts as a barrier between classes, between male and female, and between cat and human. Music thus expresses the dark, ineffable side of the human personality which always concerned Hoffmann and which is embodied here in several major characters: Kreisler, Meister Abraham (and his wife, the seer Chiara), and Hedwiga.
Music is also the art form best capable of resolving the conflict between mechanistic and individualistic theories of art and of personality. Though music is the most profound expression of emotions or of the will, the beauties of Western harmony are nevertheless explicable in mathematical terms. This conflict between a mechanistic, scientific, or Enlightenment view of society and the Romantic concept of desire and the unconscious as the foundation of human psychology is embodied in the two disparate narrative strands of the novel. The Bildungsroman which the Murr material parodies depends upon Enlightenment concepts of education and human perfectibility. The Kreis (circle) in Kreisler’s name, on the other hand, hints at the eternal recurrence of desire, of man’s being an incorrigible prisoner of his passions. Music, with the release that it gives from chronological time and with its transformation of individual sexual desire into general artistic passion, is perhaps the only reconciliation of these conflicting views, but it is evanescent.