The Ride Across Lake Constance

by Peter Handke

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443

It is difficult to summarize effectively the events of The Ride Across Lake Constance, since Peter Handke intentionally shuns plot and causality as structures for the play. The title of the play does, however, suggest a story and a related moral. Michael Roloff’s version of the story, which introduces the English translation, is as follows:It’s a winter night. A man rides across Lake Constance without sparing his horse. When he arrives on the other side, his friends congratulate him profusely, saying: “What a surprise! How did you ever make it! The ice is no more than an inch thick!” The rider hesitates briefly, then drops off his horse. He is instantly dead.

The characters in the play expose themselves to dangers much like those of the man who has made the impossible ride across the lake. Handke’s metaphoric Lake Constance is the interpretation of language and gesture; the perils of riding across Lake Constance become the unforeseen dangers of ordinary communication. In both the story and the play, a true knowledge of the fragility of the “lake,” or the connection between language and meaning, leads to fear, self-consciousness, and subsequent disorientation. Like the man who rides across Lake Constance, the characters are suddenly aware of their danger and subsequently experience various crises of inarticulateness. The events of the play enact these crises for the audience and lead the audience to question their own presuppositions about what words and gestures mean.

The play comments on several important aspects of language: its ability to define realities, to create relationships, and to define power. The standard forms and rules of language obsess the characters; they examine the relationship between language and the reality it is supposed to represent, especially the assumptions inherent in ordinary language, such as the cliché “born loser.” Their dialogues draw attention to the verbal and gestural exchanges which take place between people in certain situations: formal introductions, economic transactions, sexual encounters. Handke is preoccupied with the power implicit in linguistic structures and interactions, defined through ordinary social roles.

The learning of the rules of language, as it is demonstrated in several instances in the play, is a dangerous process. The characters learn to use language through following certain models of speech and behavior, models which may ultimately enslave them. Language, Handke suggests, imposes its own ideas upon the unthinking speaker, defining a specific hierarchy of power and ultimately governing all modes of thought. The characters are enslaved by their own means of socialization: the language that they themselves have created and to which they have bound themselves. Awakened to this knowledge, they find themselves increasingly paralyzed with fear.

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