A Sorrow Beyond Dreams

by Peter Handke

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Characters Discussed

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The narrator

The narrator, a young Austrian writer whose mother has recently committed suicide. He is in his early thirties. His mother’s death comes as a shock, and he deals with his grief by attempting to write a memoir, a chronicle of her life. He struggles with the problems of writing this difficult book, that is, with both his own painful feelings and the inherent tendency of all language to fictionalize—and therefore distort—its subject. He is committed to trying to write the most honest and authentic account of her life and death that he can. He reflects on the various strategies that he might pursue in composing this work; finally, he decides to look at the kind of language used to describe a woman’s life—a typical woman’s biography—and to see the ways in which his mother’s life is both similar to and different from that of the prototypical woman. He composes a sensitive and touching portrait of his mother but is unable, in the end, to overcome the horror of her death. He is left with his guilt and anxiety.

The narrator’s mother

The narrator’s mother, an Austrian woman born in the early 1920’s. She is an intelligent and good-looking woman with a winning smile. Her existence is, in certain crucial ways, dictated by the traditional expectations and limitations imposed on a female’s life by the rural and conservative society into which she is born. Although she does well in school, she is not supposed to continue her education because a woman’s “place” is to get married and have children. Her grandfather finally allows her to study cooking, because this is useful for a “girl.” When the Nazis annex Austria in 1938, she, like many others, embraces the festive spirit engendered by the propaganda machine of the Germans. She falls in love with a married German soldier and gives birth to an illegitimate child, the narrator. To fulfill her duty as a “mother,” she marries another German, who does not really love her. He eventually becomes an abusive alcoholic and repeatedly beats her. Their marriage becomes a prolonged war of silence, and the mother’s friendly smile is slowly—and literally—beaten out of her. Her life becomes more solitary and desperate, and she becomes chronically depressed. Despite the narrator’s efforts to renew her interest in life through literature, she grows worse, and one night, she takes an overdose of sleeping pills.

The Characters

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What the narrator chooses not to say about his mother is almost as revealing as what he does say. He does not record her name because, among family members, she was nearly always called “Mother.” He does describe the “swollen scar on her index finger,” to which he “held on” as a child. It is as if the woman did not exist for herself as an individual; she existed only in the prescribed roles she played: wife, mother, and caretaker. According to the critic Jerry Varsava, the power of language to keep women in their traditional roles is a major theme in the novel. Indeed, Handke’s mother was no different from all the other women in the village, women whose progress through life could be reduced to the formula: “Tired/Exhausted/Sick/ Dying/Dead.” Formulas seemed to exist to describe every occasion, encouraging little deviation into individuality: Husbands “got FRESH” and wives “had to be SEVERE,” and so on.

If Handke’s mother never fully emerged into individuality, it was not for the lack of desire to do so. As a child, she sought knowledge in order to feel “something...

(This entire section contains 611 words.)

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of herself.” Later, in adulthood, when labor-saving appliances gave her a respite from housework, she read “books with stories she could compare with her own life.” Literature, however, merely showed her “everything she had missed” rather than what she still might do. It is no coincidence that the days in which “she was gradually becoming an individual” were quickly followed by blinding headaches, debilitating guilt about her duty toward family members, and a nervous breakdown.

Woman’s role, as it was conceived in her village, did not permit individuality. (One might add that the men seemed scarcely more fortunate.) Recovery from the breakdown could only bring a return to a meaningless existence. The suicide was an act of individual assertion by a woman who could not imagine any release from her suffering much less a positive course of action that would allow her to create a motive for continuing to live.

In searching for the significance of his mother’s story and in creating that significance, the narrator pursues his own quest for meaning. Just as “telling about it was a need with her,” telling about it is a compulsion with her son. Whether the writing helps him in the sense of soothing him or allowing him to believe he has explained the tragedy is beside the point. He claims it does not help. Nevertheless, writing is his characteristic activity; he worries over it, writes about it, and discusses the composing process with the reader. The narrator fears losing control of the process and finds in it no salvation. He is his mother’s son in thinking that there should be something more, something he has not yet discovered. Yet unlike her, he has not given up the attempt to make meaning out of recalcitrant materials. The promise, or threat, to “write about all this in greater detail” sounds like a joke, following, as it does, the detailed account the reader has just perused. It may also be a recognition that writing—like life—is an unfinished process until death ends it, and the narrator is still engaged in both those processes, busily creating a world of words even if it does not allow him to escape the feeling that he is “rotting away from second to second.” “He not busy being born is busy dying,” reads an epigraph, quoted from a Bob Dylan song, to the novel. Critics Jerome Klinkowitz and James Knowlton would argue that Handke, in creating this “Life Story,” re-creates himself. He is busy being born.


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

Mixner, Manfred. Peter Handke, 1977.

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

Varsava, Jerry A. “Auto-Bio-Graphy as Metafiction: Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams,” in CLIO. XXIV (1985), pp. 119-135.

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




Critical Essays