A Sorrow Beyond Dreams

by Peter Handke

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Themes and Meanings

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A Sorrow Beyond Dreams can be classified as “metaliterature,” literature which explores the process of making literature and which, self-reflectively, asks the reader to think about what literature is and does. The fact that the novel begins not with the mother’s life story but with the narrator’s discussion of his reasons for writing that story makes the reader acutely aware that the narrator’s account is his version of events. There is no pretense of mere disinterested objectivity; from the beginning, the narrator hopes for some sort of personal salvation through telling the story.

Nevertheless, he worries that the very conventions of storytelling will discredit his story: “‘it began with...’; if I started like this, it would all seem to be made up.” When, in the following sentence, the narrator writes, “Well then, it began with...,” he seems to suggest that all stories are made up, even true ones. Throughout the novel, the reader sees the narrator’s process of making up the story, which he presents as a series of fragments separated by asterisks (or other marks) and interrupted by explanations of his method.

The themes the narrator explores in his mother’s story appear simple enough: the oppression of women, the deprivation produced by lack of education, and the need for individual self-fulfillment. The narrator presents his mother as a bright but uneducated woman who never had a chance to make something more of herself than a slave to duty and who killed herself as a result.

This neat, tidy analysis of the mother’s suicide is undercut by the narrator’s recurring horror and sense of futility. He, after all, has gone to a university, has read the right books, and has become a sophisticated writer.He has had opportunities his mother never had, opportunities for achievement, self-fulfillment, and individual expression. Yet he, too, is tortured by existence. Pity and fear for his mother become pity and fear for himself, as he struggles both to interpret her life and to understand his own. Finally, the horror that haunts him is not merely the consequence of a particular set of circumstances—those of his mother’s life; it is an inescapable part of self-conscious human existence. Artistic activity can neither explain away the horror nor allow the narrator to forget about it for long; if anything, writing about the fear keeps it constantly before him. Still, the writing appears to be a defense against the horror in that it keeps the writer alive and gives him readers, with whom he can share his fear. He is less isolated than his mother even if he is just as afraid. The life story is his rather than hers.

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