Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In a brief commentary on this novel written in 1941, Hermann Broch makes it clear that he intended the book to be an allegory reflecting the early years of Nazi Germany. Set in a traditional German fairy-tale mode and removed from the real here and now, The Spell was Broch’s way of condemning what he viewed as the frightening events of the 1930’s. The parallels are simple: Ratti is driven by the same insane impulses as Adolf Hitler;he insists that he alone knows how to restore the village to its rightful place of power. His formula involves renouncing the modern world and returning to the more pure pagan practices of the past. Yet he wants these things for the wrong reason, for power rather than to bring the villagers into closer harmony with the forces of nature. His selfishness is made clear during the riot which he starts at the Cold Stones ritual. He also incessantly persecutes the mousy Wetchy, simply because he is homely and has ugly children. These actions are meant to parallel Hitler’s persecution of the Jews and his insistence on Aryan supremacy. Like Hitler, Ratti began by bewitching the young people of the town, yet by the time of the ritual at the Cold Stones, even the narrator finds himself saluting Ratti.

Mother Gisson, the real spirit of the earth, the nurturing mother, is in direct opposition to Ratti. She, not Ratti, is a true practitioner of the old ways. Living in harmony with her world, she gathers healing plants and tends to and understands the needs of the people of the town in ways that neither Ratti nor the narrator can appreciate or duplicate. As a Mountain Bride herself, Mother Gisson makes certain that the old ways will continue after she is dead by teaching first Irmgard and then the pregnant Agatha all that she knows. In Agatha and her new child lie the real hope for the village, the healthy connection with the never-ending natural cycle. It is significant that Ratti is unable to kill Mother Gisson and that the doctor is unable to talk her out of dying. Instead, she knows when it is appropriate for her to go to the next realm, to join the murdered Irmgard. She accepts this transition willingly, as she has accepted everything that the natural world has given her in life.