Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 999
Liliom is a barker for Mrs. Muskat’s merry-go-round at an amusement park on the edge of Budapest. As a barker he is a great success, for he has a stock of funny jokes that keep the customers laughing, and he has a playful way with young women.
One day two young servants, Marie and Julie, come to ride the merry-go-round. To Mrs. Muskat’s indignation, Liliom follows Julie onto the carousel and puts his arm around her. Mrs. Muskat warns Julie that if she ever comes near the merry-go-round again, she will be thrown out, as Mrs. Muskat does not wish to lose her license because of questionable behavior in the park. Liliom, however, tells Julie that she is welcome to come back anytime. Although Mrs. Muskat is reluctant to let Liliom go, she cannot ignore this insolence, and she dismisses him.
Liliom, to show his independence, announces that he is going to get some beer. While he is collecting his belongings, Marie discloses to Julie that she is in love with a man in a uniform—a porter, however, not a soldier. When Liliom returns, he turns Marie away and begins to discuss love with Julie, bragging and bullying all the while. Julie shows that she is deeply in love—she has forfeited her job by staying out late with Liliom. Two policemen looking for vagrants interrupt their conversation. After asking routine questions and warning Julie that Liliom is a notorious ne’er-do-well, the policemen continue on their rounds. Although Julie protests that she does not love Liliom, it is obvious that she does.
Liliom and Julie marry and then move into a run-down photographer’s shop, operated by Mrs. Hollunder and her son, at the edge of the park. Mrs. Hollunder, Julie’s aunt, provides them not only with shelter but also with food and fuel. She grumbles all the time, but she is good-hearted beneath her gruffness. Marie, meanwhile, is falling more deeply in love with Wolf, the porter. One day, while the two young women are exchanging confidences, Mrs. Hollunder comes in and says that Julie’s other suitor, a widowed carpenter with two children and a respectable income, still wants to take her out of the poverty in which she lives. Julie tells her that she prefers to stay where she is. Mrs. Muskat comes and offers to take Liliom back, but he refuses. He and a friend named Ficsur have a scheme for getting a great deal of money, and he is no longer interested in his old job at the merry-go-round.
Ficsur is planning a robbery. Each Saturday, a cashier for a leather factory passes a nearby railway embankment carrying the money for the factory workers’ wages in a leather bag. The plan is for Liliom to accost the man and ask him what time it is while Ficsur comes up from behind and stabs the man. Ficsur encourages Liliom to steal a knife from Mrs. Hollunder’s kitchen. Julie, knowing that the two men are up to no good, begs Liliom not to go out with Ficsur, for she has arranged to have the carpenter come that evening and offer Liliom work. After Liliom has left, Mrs. Hollunder misses her knife and suspects Liliom of taking it. Julie lies for him, saying that she had gone through Liliom’s pockets and found only a pack of cards.
Liliom and Ficsur arrive at the embankment just as the six o’clock train passes. Being early, they start a game of twenty-one, and Ficsur wins from Liliom his share of the loot they hope to take from the cashier. Liliom accuses Ficsur of cheating. Then their victim appears, and Liliom accosts him. As Ficsur is about to strike, however, the cashier seizes Ficsur’s arm and points a pistol at Liliom’s chest. Ironically, he has come from the factory, where he has just finished paying off the workers; if Ficsur had killed him, the robbers would have gotten no money. As the cashier calls out to two policemen in the distance, Liliom breaks away and stabs himself with the kitchen knife. The policemen attempt to take him to a hospital, but his condition is too critical. They carry him back to the photographer’s studio, where he dies with Julie by his side, holding his hand.
As he is dying, Liliom has a vision. Two heavenly policemen come to him and tell him to follow them. They remind him that death is not the end, that he is not through with earth until his memory has also passed away. Then they lead him to the heavenly court assigned to suicide cases. There he learns that, after a period of purification by fire, suicides are sent back to earth for one day to see whether they have profited by their purification. Liliom is sentenced to sixteen years in the fires.
At the end of that time, Liliom is returned to earth, where he finds his wife and sixteen-year-old daughter, Louise, about to lunch in the garden of their dilapidated little house. They do not recognize Liliom. Julie gives him some food, and Louise tells him that her father, a handsome man, had gone to the United States before she was born and had died there. When Liliom accuses Julie’s late husband of having struck her, Julie denies that he ever mistreated her, and she dismisses Liliom as an ungrateful wretch. Liliom tries to please his daughter with card tricks and with a beautiful star that he has stolen from heaven, but Louise will have nothing more to do with him. As he leaves, he strikes her hard on the hand, but the blow feels as tender as a caress to her. Her mother tells her that there have been times when she, too, experienced that sort of reaction from a blow. Liliom leaves in the company of the two policemen, who shake their heads in profound regret at Liliom’s failure.
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