Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

November 1918 has all the weaknesses and strengths of Döblin’s earlier masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz: Die Geschichte vom Franz Biberkopf (1929; Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf, 1931). As a writer, Döblin wanted to present individual characters as a metaphor of the general population. He did not believe in nineteenth century individualism or in the individual confronting society. For him, the individual was an expression of the collective. The character of Friedrich Becker fulfills this function, as did Franz Biberkopf, the protagonist of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Both characters are representations of Berlin at a particular time in history. They do not have individual fates; their fates are reflections of the fate of the collective. Becker does not have the freedom to act but is driven by external events, subconscious forces, and mystic visions. Döblin combines two characteristics of the modernist novel: the loss of the individuality of man who becomes a type or part of the masses, and the analysis of the subconsciousness of an individual who functions as a metaphor for the collective. The novel is an attempt to reflect the totality of society and follows, in this respect, the tradition of the novel of social and political criticism established by Honore de Balzac, Emile Zola, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevski, Upton Sinclair, and John Dos Passos.

In addition to these common features with Berlin Alexanderplatz, there are new departures in November 1918; among these are the function of narrative history, which supplies the chronology and realism of the novel, and the role of Christianity, which provides the metaphysical dimension to the realistic plot. To be sure, there are many religious leitmotifs in Berlin Alexanderplatz. November 1918, however, makes Christianity rather than socialism the ultimate value system, reflecting Döblin’s dramatic conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1941. Although his sympathies are on the side of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, his protagonist, Becker, follows the ideals of Christian mysticism and finds himself only by accident, not on the basis of a rational and political decision, fighting for the revolution. Döblin sides with the victims of his century. Friedrich Becker lives and dies the life of a Christian martyr of modern times.