Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1197


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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...

(The entire section contains 1855 words.)

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Critical Essays