Patterns of Childhood

by Christa Wolf

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

Patterns of Childhood is a fictional autobiography. When the narrator of Patterns of Childhood relates her childhood in the third person rather than the traditional first-person voice of an autobiography, she reproduces Wolf’s own gesture of displacing her childhood memories into fiction. The novel therefore reflects not only Wolf’s life but also the process of her writing.

The narrator has difficulty confronting her childhood participation in the Nazi era. She was not directly involved in military combat or in operating the death camps; however, she led a typically ill-informed, middle-class life in which she believed in her country and tried to fit into Nazi society. She understands the speed with which East Germany forgot World War II after it was over since, according to East German propaganda, the war was the fault of the capitalist, imperialist West. The narrator knows that the mentality that produced the Holocaust is not limited to West Germany or to the period of World War II. Her reflections recall the past of an entire generation of Germans, East and West, who grew up during the war years. Not old enough to be directly responsible for the war, those born in the mid-to-late 1920’s nevertheless shoulder the burden of memory and self-examination after Adolf Hitler’s fall.

One of the first writers from the GDR to confront personal involvement in World War II, Wolf breaks the taboo against acknowledging the widespread fascist sentiment among many of her peers and elders. She undermines the image of socialist heroes bravely resisting the Nazis and depicts many who supported Nazi rule, were indifferent to it, or were cowed into conformity.

The trauma associated with growing up during the Hitler era makes it impossible for the narrator to connect her current self, living in the GDR of the early 1970’s, with the child that was molded during the Nazi period. The narrated self thus becomes the third-person voice of Nelly Jordan, while the narrator meditates on current events in the second person. The rupture of consciousness implicit in this splitting of the self into the second and third person forms the underlying tension of the text. The plot of Patterns of Childhood is the reintegration of the narrator’s self. The narrator realizes that her story will come to a successful end only when she can unify the community of selves she has created in writing the text, only when she can reconstruct herself as a whole being. This unification is symbolized by the convergence of the third-person passages about the young Nelly and the second-person passages of the narrator’s self-address into the unified first-person voice of the final page of the book.

Wolf’s closing page is characteristically multivalent. She does, finally, succeed in using the first-person voice in her text, but it is a first person who must admit uncertainty. The admission of ambivalence from a reintegrated community of selves signals a positive redefinition of the concept of the female subject (rather than object) and the way in which she defines herself.

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