Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887
The unnamed narrator of “The Seventh Trunk” is a writer who hopes to find or to create the perfect work of fiction. Early in his career, he thought that this goal had been achieved. He read in the Bockelmunden Parish News the first installment of what was supposed to be a two-part story by an author named Jakob Maria Hermes. Unfortunately, however, the publication went out of business, so the conclusion of Hermes’s story never appeared.
The narrator gives only the briefest account of its plot: A nine-year-old girl is lured into joining a religious order that attends mass not once, but twice each Sunday. Although the narrator is unable to present the story exactly as he read it years earlier, he insists that it was the most nearly perfect work of fiction that he has ever read. Only one sentence struck him as flawed. On seeing the young girl, a nun of the order is said to be aware of her own “senselessness” (Sinnlosigkeit). The narrator says that the word seems ridiculous in its context and must have been a printer’s error for “sensuality” (Sinnlichkeit). He draws this conclusion because, shortly before this, the same nun notices a spot of chocolate appearing on the young girl’s blue dress. This image, the narrator concludes, must evoke feelings that the nun is powerless to suppress.
Curious as to how the story turned out, the narrator searches for information about the author in everything from writers’ indexes to the Bockelmunden parish register. At last, he is forced to conclude that the name “Jakob Maria Hermes” must have been a pseudonym. He then begins to seek out Ferdinand Schmitz, a retired schoolmaster who was the last editor of the Bockelmunden Parish News. By a remarkable coincidence, Schmitz dies only a day or two before the narrator arrives in town. At the old man’s funeral, the narrator is told by relatives that the entire archives of the Bockelmunden Parish News—perhaps half a dozen boxes of correspondence, records, and unpublished manuscripts—were burned during the final days of World War II. Left with no means of recovering the story’s original ending, the narrator resolves to complete the story himself.
This task proves to be quite difficult. After thirty-two years of false starts, the narrator is still unable to come up with an ending that satisfies him. The reason, he concludes, is that for this story he is unable to open the “seventh trunk,” which he regards as the secret to all successful fiction. This phrase is not his own; he has borrowed it from an obscure pamphlet, entitled “The Secret of the Seventh Trunk, or How to Write Short Fiction,” that he acquired years earlier in Cologne. Although only a few pages long, “The Secret of the Seventh Trunk” is, the narrator says, the most important guide to writing that he has ever seen. Its author, Heinrich Knecht, compares the writing of a story to the opening of nested trunks, each of which contains something more compact but more valuable than the last.
Like Jakob Maria Hermes, Heinrich Knecht proves to be a mysterious individual. The cover of the pamphlet states that the work was printed at the corner of Teutoburg and Maternus streets in Cologne. When the narrator begins to look for this address, he discovers that Teutoburg and Maternus streets never actually meet. By extending their lengths on a map, he finds that the address listed on the pamphlet would have been in the middle of the Rhine River. Because the publisher’s name is listed as “Ulrich Nellessen” and the meal at Ferdinand Schmitz’s funeral had been catered by “Nellessen’s Inn,” the narrator speculates that “Hermes” and “Knecht” were both pseudonyms that Schmitz himself used in his various writings. Perhaps these two mysteries actually lead in the same direction.
The narrator then explains the image of writing fiction as opening a series of seven trunks. In the early stages of one’s art, description tends to be excessive. Lavish details are provided so that readers may visualize every aspect of an object, such as a train station, a school, or a block of tenements. As artists become more skillful, they learn how little detail is really necessary. In other words, they have opened a smaller trunk. By paring the story down to its barest essentials, one finally arrives at the seventh trunk, the core of fiction in its highest and purest form.
Knecht’s tract describes the sudden opening of the seventh trunk as being like a mouse leaping from a box. This image reminds the narrator of one of his great-grandmother’s superstitions. She believed that if crusts of stale bread were bound together in a box, they would be transformed into a mouse. The narrator comments that this process of spontaneous generation is precisely what an author is seeking in the seventh trunk: By condensing a plot to its most vital elements, the perfect story should write itself, independent of the author’s will. The narrator concludes with some despair that, even after thirty-two years, the bits of Hermes’s story have not yet come to life in his imagination. For this reason, the ending to the story of the young girl in the blue dress cannot be told.