Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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 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...

(The entire section is 611 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.