Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 526

The Lime Works is a difficult work by any standard. It defies easy answers; in fact, one of its central themes is precisely that “nothing can be elucidated with any finality, ultimately.” The uninitiated reader will find the novel about as forbidding and inaccessible as the casual visitor finds the...

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The Lime Works is a difficult work by any standard. It defies easy answers; in fact, one of its central themes is precisely that “nothing can be elucidated with any finality, ultimately.” The uninitiated reader will find the novel about as forbidding and inaccessible as the casual visitor finds the lime works. The passages describing the labyrinthian structure from which the novel derives its name apply to the novel as well. Everyone seeing the lime works for the first time is immediately dumbfounded by it. Even those with exceptional alertness quickly tire and eventually succumb to deep exhaustion. They are bound to suffer immediately every kind of disappointment, because every assumption, every preconception, every actuality is likely to be erroneous, to be quite the opposite, in fact. The whole construction of the lime works, and thus of the novel, is said to aim at total deceptiveness so that one is likely to fall into a trap every time. Both the lime works and the novel leave the impression of hopeless confusion. It should come as no surprise then that the mystery of the shooting is never completely resolved; it is never clearly established whether the shooting constituted a case of impulse killing or premeditated murder, whether it was the act of a madman, an accident during the cleaning of the gun, or perhaps a case of mercy killing.

Since the first few short paragraphs contain an unusually large number of clearly marked contradictory statements, the reader notices immediately that none of the statements in the novel can be taken at face value, that they all have to be weighed and compared with one another. That process reveals very quickly that for every assertion there is sure to be a counterassertion somewhere else: The lime works is shown to be both a refuge and a prison, the best and worst place for Konrad’s work; he shows all of the characteristics of a genius and all those of a fool; he is said to be a fanatic about truth-telling, yet he tells his wife nothing but lies. All of this serves to reinforce the central premise that nothing can be stated unconditionally, that one’s very existence is probably pure self-deception.

The Lime Works is an account of a scholar’s failed attempt to explore a complex natural phenomenon (the human ear) and thus to triumph over a hostile nature; it is the tale of an artist’s maddening inability to write, to put his thoughts into words; it is also the infinitely sad story of a marriage. In a more general sense, however, the novel describes the futile and dangerous attempt of a thinking man to search for the ultimate truth, to lend some meaning to his existence—a futile and dangerous task, because “the thinking man always moves alone into an intensifying darkness.” Konrad, striving for completeness, universality, totality, and the absolute, is doomed to fail as he reaches the very limits of human knowledge and linguistic capabilities. As one critic correctly stated, in the strange ramblings of this solitary philosopher can be heard “something of the eternal hopelessness and loneliness of the human condition.”

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Characters