Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher is both a psychological study and social critique. On a psychological level, the novel explores the way in which the mother-daughter relationship will determine the nature of the daughter’s relationship with men in her adult life. Erika’s mother asks her to sacrifice her own normal psychological development to rescue the family by means of her special musical gifts. Her hard-driving mother keeps her daughter in a regressed, dependent position, yet she also makes her the “man” of the house.
The power relation between the two women is a complex one. Despite her mother’s domineering ways, Erika is not simply compliant and docile; she also dissents and resists through her infuriated emotional life. Instead of gaining independence, however, she is drawn into power struggles with her mother, which she sometimes wins. Erika is able to find ways to control and manipulate her often-baffled mother. Love and hate are difficult to distinguish in the intense bond between the women. Similarly, when Erika embarks on a relationship with Walter Klemmer, she appears as the masochistic partner but remains in subtle control.
Jelinek’s depiction of romantic love is one that is largely shaped by motives of power, humiliation, and sexuality that quickly shades into violence. Both comic and tragic, the romance of Klemmer and Erika is utterly sabotaged by each partner’s unloving impulses. Erika presents herself as a victim, or as an object available for punishment and ridicule. However, as in her relationship with her mother, she is both powerless and mysteriously powerful. Erika’s masochistic desires begin to tyrannize Klemmer, whose need to keep the upper hand is subverted by Erika’s need to herself gain power and freedom from the victim status that has been so hurtful to her. Her imperious list of masochistic demands and the wound she inflicts upon herself demonstrate the way in which Erika has made herself her own victim even as she attempts to free herself from this status by exerting control over her twisted sexuality. To further complicate the situation, even as Erika triggers a streak of sadism and violence in Klemmer, her relationship to him is complicated by a deep but largely buried wish for genuine care and love; beneath her perverse sexual...
(The entire section is 948 words.)