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 zealous Austrian patriotism), self-possessed, assured, and Machiavellian, he is both conscious of the meaninglessness of superficial activities toward the betterment of humanity and able to manipulate the emotional palette of the other characters, especially women, toward his own ends. He is less successful with Ulrich, because he can find no character traits to exploit. Accustomed to getting his way through carefully constructed “friendships,” he is frustrated by Ulrich’s “impolite” indifference to his offers of companionship and social prominence. He finds a contradiction between his almost intuitive ability to make money (a practice that sometimes “gets us into situations that are not quite in good style”) and the incipient greatness of accomplishment that seems to elude him despite his business successes.
Diotima (dee-o-TIH -mah), a beautiful and rich woman in her mid-thirties. She is socially prominent and is the organizational force behind the absurd Collateral Campaign, the ultimate social fund-raising event in Vienna at the verge of the Great War. She spends her time preparing for the planning of the Collateral...
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Campaign and lying in bed trying to choose a lover among Arnheim, the financier, Count Leinsdorf, the nobleman, and Ulrich, the indifferent and therefore desirable object of conquest.
Bonadea (boh-nah-DEH-ah), a married but unfaithful woman in her mid-thirties, with a sensual and primitive core underneath a sophisticated veneer. She seduces Ulrich by taking advantage of his passivity and represents the natural, organic, sexual underlife of the glittering Vienna society. Her impassioned devices for being with Ulrich are disguised to herself as noble impulses toward good. Her involvement with the Moosbrugger case is nothing more than a way of endearing herself to Ulrich, whom she perceives as vitally interested in the criminal’s fate.
Agathe (ah-GAH-teh), Ulrich’s twin sister, separated from him at birth and reared in an entirely different environment, yet so much like him that there is a sexual bond between them. Beautiful in a crystalline, remote sense, she represents the spiritual, existential, intellectual, and emotional commitments that Ulrich avoids while being attracted to them. Her high-mindedness and almost regal bearing are undercut by a petty crime of forgery she committed at her father’s death. Appearing only in the third volume, she is an unfinished character; the author died before completing the book.
General Stumm von Bordwehr
General Stumm von Bordwehr (shtewm fon BOHRD-vehr), a man for whom regulation and rule are the essential identifiers of order on Earth, a parody of the naïve military mind stumbling through a philosophical labyrinth quite beyond its capacity. He is captivated by his discovery that libraries are set out in some organized taxonomy, a realization of almost transcendental significance to him. His goal in life is to bring order to society in all of its forms, “to get the civilian mind into proper order.”
Moosbrugger (MOHZ-brew-gehr), the “musical” murderer of a prostitute, in whose crime the characters see a poetic and philosophical metaphor. His case is raised to a cause célèbre by the attentions of high society. Clarisse goes insane trying to connect Moosbrugger to her own sense of the aesthetic. He is instinctive rather than intellectual and, as such, stands for the primitive “doer” in a world of “thinkers.” He murders the prostitute because she clings to him, demanding that he manifest some sort of personality or character. In this respect, he is the sinister Doppelgänger of Ulrich.
Count Leinsdorf (LINZ-dohrf), the highest-ranking character who actually participates in the book’s plot. Naïve about the forces of racial and regional unrest in his country, and thinking in terms of a unified Europe impossible to achieve, he represents the hierarchy of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy about to collapse from the weight of modern political realities. Ignorant of music and attaching no importance to literature, he holds his title and is referred to as “His Highness” purely from claims of primogeniture, without any notion of the obligations of nobility toward its subjects.
Soliman (SOH-lih-mahn), servants to Diotima and Arnheim, respectively. They serve as spies, messengers, and informal advisers to their employers. They reduce their high-flown rationalizations to the simple and universal workings of sexual attraction. Far from controlling their desires with social conventions, they succumb “to wild urge to commit violent escapades.” Soliman, a “blackamoor,” seduces Rachel, wearing Diotima’s cast-off lingerie, in her room while the upper society talks in the chambers below. Their flirtations and affairs are a mirror image of the ostensibly more respectable affairs of their masters. As sounding boards for their master and mistress, they allow the narrative to include the uncensored thoughts of the main characters.
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 important figure in the total construction, because she serves as a partner to Ulrich as he tries to find meaning in his life. The German idea of Doppelganger applies here: Agathe was reared apart from Ulrich, but when they meet, Ulrich is completed, in much the same way as intellect and passion form one whole person. Agathe, who forged their father’s will in a real act of criminality, is like Moosbrugger as well: quiet, undemonstrative, yet capable of serious crime. Ulrich, then, is three characters, since Moosbrugger is a manifestation of Ulrich’s possibilities, just as Agathe is Ulrich’s completing element.
Important, too, is the married couple Walter and Clarisse, both friends of Ulrich. Their marriage is no marriage at all, but rather a competition. Clarisse wants no children, but Walter does. Playing the music of Richard Wagner together seems to substitute for a real relationship, and as the novel progresses, Clarisse becomes more demonstrative in her affection for Ulrich, until she finally asks him to give her a child; at the same time, she is driven insane, gradually becoming obsessed with Wagner, Moosbrugger, and Ulrich. Walter, meanwhile, sensing the limitations of his talent as a pianist, sulks jealously, watching the unfolding of Clarisse’s madness and Ulrich’s passive acceptance of her friendship, unable to become part of it, although he, too, is Ulrich’s friend.
The other major characters are somehow involved with the formulating of the Great Idea. The official leader of the Collateral Campaign is Count Leinsdorf, the embodiment of aristocracy without purpose. The very act of combining two celebrations into one grand one is an example of the kind of high-spirited but unrealistic planning best left to titled personages. For spirituality, Leinsdorf enlists the aid of Diotima, a sort of soullike character who provides an abstract ideal to the enterprise. For practicality, the successful industrialist Arnheim is added to the team. Diotima’s platonic yet passionate affair with Arnheim completes this portrait of Europe before the world wars. Each character represents one facet of the society that awaited Hitler and, through their indifference, allowed him to demonstrate his “qualities,” however sinister.
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.