Short Letter, Long Farewell

by Peter Handke

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Characters Discussed

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The narrator

The narrator, an Austrian writer almost thirty years old. As the novel begins, he has just arrived in the United States (in New England). His journey across America makes up the external plot of the novel. The narrator is a strange and introspective figure, often overcome by mood swings that range from pure horror almost to euphoria. He believes that he has a very exaggerated sense of time. He is not very tolerant of other people and does not like to look at them up close. When people tell the narrator stories, the narrator is annoyed because he thinks that “one look at me must have told them I wouldn’t like it.” He also thinks that people can see at a glance that he is the kind of person who will put up with anything. Throughout the novel, the narrator reads works of American and German literature and reflects on his past and his anxieties about death.

Judith

Judith, the narrator’s estranged wife. Although little is said of her, she seems obsessed with taking revenge on her former husband.

Claire Madison

Claire Madison, an American instructor of German and friend of the narrator, with whom she had an affair on one of his previous trips to the United States. She is a single parent and travels with the narrator to St. Louis. Claire is genuinely concerned about the narrator and, in the course of various conversations, helps him to clarify his feelings.

Delta Benedictine

Delta Benedictine, the two-year-old daughter of the narrator’s friend Claire. She is obsessed with having things in order and becomes extremely upset when objects are misplaced. The child seems out of touch with nature and the environment and is interested only in the artificial products and imitations that make up much of modern American life.

John Ford

John Ford, a seventy-six-year-old American film director. He lives in his Bel Air estate and is visited by the narrator and his wife at the end of the novel. The romantic and optimistic images of nature and America found in the director’s films (such as Young Mr. Lincoln) have been highly significant for the narrator in his coming to terms both with modern America and with his own life.

The Characters

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The only character who is fully drawn in this novel is the narrator. His Austrian citizenship and his work as a playwright suggest some connection to Handke, and his anonymity implies the elusiveness that will trouble both him and his reader. Turning thirty during the course of his cross-country travels, he appears at once experienced and naive and, therefore, ill-prepared for the strangeness of American reality. He is a careful observer of his immediate surroundings, of others he meets, and of himself, yet he is fearful and suspicious as well. Highly self-critical, he finds that his criticism results only in making him more uncertain about himself; he fears that his identity may be “dissolving.” As a result, he desires to detach himself from others in order to preserve his own tenuous identity, yet he alternately feels completely cut off from life and longs for engagement with others, a longing that travel both satisifies and frustrates. Chiefly, he desires to be other than he is, for his failed marriage serves as the constant reminder of his own helplessness. Fearful of making himself still more vulnerable, he withdraws into the very self he finds “superfluous.”

Whether it is self-loathing or self-awareness that best characterizes him, the depth of the narrator’s isolation and loneliness is evidenced by his overwhelming need to tell his story and, in this...

(This entire section contains 615 words.)

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way, to authenticate or at least to certify his existence. This need appears all the more desperate as he places the words he speaks or thinks to himself within quotation marks. His narrative trick transforms monologue into dialogue but only at the cost of further alienating the narrator from himself, splitting him in two; he becomes both speaker and listener, writer and audience. A similar detachment marks his every action. His desire not “to be alone anymore” is certainly understandable, but his remedy—to write “a woman in Phoenixville, a small town west of Philadelphia, to say that I might go and see her”—sounds at best indifferent and at worst inhuman.

Claire Madison is the “woman” with whom he hopes to experience something of a phoenixlike rebirth, following the breakup of his marriage to Judith. The narrator remembers, “It was only when I met Judith, and for the first time really experienced something, that I began to see the world with something more than a malignant first glance.” By the end of their marriage, however, husband and wife are only able to see malignantly, and the return to this same malignant point of view, coupled with his cold detachment, suggests that the narrator’s rebirth in Phoenixville will come to nothing more permanent than his relationship with Judith.

It is significant that Judith’s “love of whatever can be used up or exchanged” (including husbands) and her tendency “to make a magical idol out of every trifle” make her seem quite like the narrator, to whom she writes her short letter: “I am in New York. Please don’t look for me. It would not be nice for you to find me.” Nevertheless, she follows his every move or lures him into following her. (Their roles are in a sense interchangeable.)

Claire provides him with an alternative but a rather ambiguous one, for while she represents for him all that America promises (a fresh start, a haven for the homeless, and so on), the fact that she is a few years older and has an odd and oddly named daughter, Delta Benedictine, suggests that Claire may not be a new beginning at all but instead, in her capacity as an instructor of German at a nearby college, a reminder of the past that the narrator hopes to leave behind.

Bibliography

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Kaufman, Stanley. “It All Happened,” in The New Republic. CLXXI (September 28, 1974), pp. 29-30.

Klinkowitz, Jerome, and James Knowlton. Peter Handke and the Postmodern Transformation, 1983.

Lavers, Norman. “With Peter Handke (in Spirit) in Eastern Austria,” in The American Poetry Review. XIII (September/October, 1984), pp. 15-16.

Schlueter, June. The Plays and Novels of Peter Handke, 1981.

Wilkie, Brian, and James Hurt. “Peter Handke,” in Literature of the Western World. II (1984), pp. 2241-2243.

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