The Man Without Qualities Characters

Robert Musil

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Ulrich (EWL-reekh), the man without qualities, a handsome and unattached thirty-year-old. He has taken a vacation from life, letting the events of the external world move him without motivation in any direction. An “officer” without military commission, through the intercession (or intervention) of his domineering father, he drifts into a leadership role in the planning of the Collateral Campaign, a celebration of two anniversaries important to the Austro-Hungarian political profile. Ulrich is the ultimate “observer” character who becomes the receptacle for the longings and projects of those around him. His only action is passive reaction, a novelistic device that allows the author to paint the portraits of the other characters by how they are reflected in Ulrich. He refuses to treat life as a series of opportunities and choices, as the other characters do, but rather allows the strivings and struggles of others to affect his actions in whatever way they will. Simultaneously “not open to wooing” and eminently obtainable by everyone, he constitutes the narrative perspective without speaking in the first person.


Walter (VAHL-tehr), Ulrich’s friend, a second-rate musical talent. He is suspicious, paranoiac, small-minded, and territorial, especially in his marriage. Middle-aged and lacking the fire and talent of his hero, Richard Wagner, he wants to give his wife, Clarisse, a child, but she refuses, on the grounds that he is imperfect and undeserving of passing on his mediocrity to offspring. By weighing his own achievements against the great Wagner, Walter diminishes his own accomplishments and guarantees his unhappiness. He watches helplessly as his wife deteriorates into madness.


Clarisse (klah-RIH-seh), Walter’s wife and fellow musician. Overwhelmed with the “musicality” of a recent murder and the accused murderer, she gradually loses her sanity in the vise of her obsessions, which include a disgust for her own husband and a strong desire to have a child by Ulrich. The fierceness underneath her cultured and well-bred exterior is reflected in the social turmoil around her, disguised in ballets, operas, symphonies, and other “cultural” pursuits. A female embodiment of the Wagnerian principles of perfection and greatness, she fails to reconcile the facts of her own life with her ambitions, paralleling a comparison of herself and her ideal to the aesthetic dialectic between the ideal of music and its actual physical manifestation.

Herr Dr. Paul Arnheim

Herr Dr. Paul Arnheim (AHRN-him), a handsome man in his early forties, a man of business and finance “coming to power,” with a “capacious memory.” Upright and military in posture (partly a product of a...

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The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Ulrich may be the most difficult character to define, since the essence of his character is the avoidance of all qualities, all properties, all definable features. He leaves himself open to the social structure, without prejudgment, without a plan, without a narrative order in his life. Ulrich has tried several careers—as military man, as engineer, and as a mathematician. Each attempt has ended in his dissatisfaction with the limitations of any career, any series of choices, in the light of what he calls the “possibilities.” In Ulrich’s mind, the concept of possibilities is an actual philosophy, in which the unlimited nature of man’s potential actually disables the choice-making facility, defusing the cause-and-effect relationships of choice-making and obfuscating the directions one might take, as though all paths lead everywhere and therefore none can be chosen. Thus his character is passive, more a receiver of events than a seeker of events. In this configuration, Ulrich is European man himself, faced with a future of mechanistic high technology with unlimited potential and thereby frozen into inaction. Events take over the choice-making process, a process which requires qualities. Ulrich’s father has such qualities and can make decisions, even for Ulrich. It is Ulrich’s fate, however, simply to allow events to occur.

Although she does not appear until the third volume of this massive unfinished work, Ulrich’s twin sister, Agathe, is an...

(The entire section is 591 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Hickman, Hannah. Robert Musil and the Culture of Vienna, 1984.

Luft, David S. Robert Musil and the Crisis of European Culture, 1880-1942, 1980.

Morton, Frederic. Review in Saturday Review. XXXVII (December 11, 1954), p. 52.

The New Yorker. Review. XXX (December 11, 1954), p. 202.

Peters, Frederick G. Robert Musil, Master of the Hovering Life: A Study of the Major Fiction, 1978.

Pike, Burton. Robert Musil: An Introduction to His Work, 1961.

Time. Review. LXIV (November 15, 1954), p. 64.