Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 888
From its very first sentence (“In Munich are many men who look like weasels”), “The Schreuderspitze” is pervaded by a sense of strangeness and mystery. As the story opens, one of these weasel-like men, a commercial photographer named Franzen, is rejoicing at the disappearance of Wallich, a rival photographer. Franzen regards Wallich with a mixture of respect and scorn: Although Wallich is capable of taking beautiful pictures, he lacks the drive that would make him successful. He probably fled to South America or jumped off a bridge, Franzen suggests, because he was too weak to face himself and understand “what sacrifices are required to survive and prosper. It is only in fairy tales that [the weak] rise to triumph.” If that is so, “The Schreuderspitze” is itself a fairy tale. Franzen disappears from the story; Wallich, the protagonist, emerges triumphant, though not in a way that his earthbound rival would be able to understand.
Wallich has disappeared to try to adjust to the death of his wife and son in an automobile accident. Only once before has he left Bavaria, on a weeklong honeymoon in Paris, and even then he was homesick. Now he seeks a place where he can be alone, yet where he will “have to undergo no savage adjustments.” He finds it in the Alpine village of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, close to the German border, which he is afraid to cross. By the end of the story, a fable of mystical transformation, he will cross a border more profound than any national boundary.
Wallich goes in October, and, in response to the railroad agent’s warning about snow, claims on the spur of the moment that he is a mountain climber. In fact, he has always been poor at sports and “would close his eyes in fear when looking through Swiss calendars.” However, one may ask “why was he going to Garmisch-Partenkirchen anyway, if not for an ordeal through which to right himself?” That ordeal, mad as it seems for one with neither talent nor experience, will be to attempt a five-day ascent of the nearly vertical west face of the Schreuderspitze, the most imposing peak in the area.
In the village he feels too awkward to eat in restaurants and so almost haphazardly begins to starve himself. He begins to exercise; at length the noise he makes gets him evicted from his hotel room, and he moves up the valley to the even smaller village of Altenburg-St. Peter—another significant stage in his journey. By the end of February, five months after his arrival, he is doing 250 push-ups four times a day, 150 of them on his fingertips; he runs for four hours every night, “sometimes in snow which had accumulated up to his knees.” Meanwhile, he has been reading mountaineering manuals—determined to press on despite their graphic warnings against climbing without proper training—and ordering the finest equipment.
So far, his movement has been exclusively upward and outward, away from humanity. Now, in May, he sees his reflection in a shop window and finds that his face has grown hard and lean, lacking gentleness. He buys a radio and listens to music by Ludwig van Beethoven to bring himself back into balance, knowing that “unmitigated extremes are a great cause of failure.” At the railway station, awaiting the arrival of a rope he has ordered, he encounters an attractive family—father, mother, two small daughters—which appeals to him greatly. At this point, just over halfway through the story, he begins to dream. The remainder of “The Schreuderspitze” consists largely of detailed depictions of his mysterious dreams.
At first, inspired apparently by the encounter at the station, the dreams unfold “like the chapters in a brilliant nineteenth century history.” It is “as if the mountains and valleys were filled with loving families of which he was part.” He dreams then of his wife, who embraces him and then parts from him. Then begin the dreams of climbing. He feels light and strong, “as if he had quickly evolved into a new kind of animal suited for breathtaking travel in the steep heights.” In his dreams as in his waking life, he is becoming a new man.
Earlier, in a high meadow, he had fugitive glimpses of a boy whom he comes to believe is his dead son. He finds that in certain conditions of light he can see and sense miraculous things, hints of the world beyond. Again he dreams of climbing in the pure world of ice and reaches the summit of the Schreuderspitze. Meanwhile, down below, he has packed up his gear, readying himself to return to Munich without having attempted a physical ascent.
In a final dream Wallich finds himself again at the summit in a mighty storm. He sees that the mountain is far higher than he thought: “The Alps were to it not even foothills.” He has a mystic vision of the world, with Munich at its center, “shining and pulsing like a living thing.” He longs for the city now, and he returns to it ready to resume his work, having “found freedom from grief in the great and heart-swelling sight he had seen from the summit” of the Schreuderspitze. He realizes that soon enough he will be reunited with his wife and son in the world of light.
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