Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 871
Although Tarr is concerned largely with two artists, one English and one German, involved with the same woman, Lewis is concerned more broadly with reaching generalizations about the English and German temperaments and about the perceptions of life peculiar to each society. Frederick Tarr is a British artist who, not unlike Lewis, lives in Paris during the Edwardian period. Tarr, like Lewis, has no great fondness for Germans, although he is engaged to Bertha Lunken, a German art student. His need for her is largely physical, and once that need has been satisfied, he finds it inconvenient to have her around.
Bertha is a stereotypical German—that is, a German built on Lewis’s personal, quite negative stereotype of Germans. Tarr wants to end his engagement because he finds Bertha tedious and uninteresting. His sexual attachment to her is also fading, a fact that he attributes to his devoting all of his creative energies and imagination to his art, leaving little for his sexual indulgences. Tarr clearly is plotting his break with Bertha in such a way that he will be perceived as taking the moral high road. He will sacrifice his personal relationship for the greater good: his art.
Tarr goes to Bertha’s flat, decorated with egregious kitsch that offends Tarr’s artistic and tasteful soul. He tells her as gently as he can that marriage is not in their future. Bertha makes a prototypically bourgeois retreat into heaving sobs, reinforcing the Irish author Oscar Wilde’s observation that “tears are the refuge of plain women but the ruin of pretty ones.” Tarr leaves, feeling quite the cad, but he promises to see Bertha soon again.
Meanwhile, Otto Kreisler, a German artist living on a pittance that his father doles out fitfully, returns to Paris from Italy. Kreisler four years earlier shed one of his paramours, who promptly married his father, leaving Otto’s inheritance diminished. The father, a bourgeois German businessman, disapproves of his son’s artistic pursuits and wants him to return home and do something worthwhile—to wit, go into business. Kreisler’s allowance is late, and when he arrives in Paris, he is destitute. He tries to borrow from a well-heeled friend who had helped him in the past, but this friend, Ernst Volker, has tired of him and has replaced him with Louis Soltyk, a Pole. Ernst knows from experience that Otto never repays his debts.
Otto goes to a café to eat and there meets Anastasya Vasek, to whom he is greatly attracted. He pours out his woes to her in a sequence that shows how Lewis views German sentimentality as a commingling of love and sorrow. He accepts an invitation to a dance that he knows Anastasya will attend, but before it occurs, he comes upon Anastasya and Soltyk in a cafe. He is insulting to Soltyk and through much of the rest of the book seeks Soltyk out in public so that he can insult and humiliate him, obviously setting the scene for a duel.
Meanwhile, Otto meets the spurned Bertha on the way to the dance and uses her to humiliate the other guests. He and Bertha kiss quite publicly. When this is reported to Tarr, he writes to tell Bertha that he is returning to London. The day after the dance, Otto’s overdue allowance arrives with a command from his father that he return to Germany. Otto replies that he will kill himself in exactly one month. Tarr does not actually go to England but merely moves to another part of Paris so that he can work without interruption. When he finally sees Bertha and Otto together, he befriends Otto because he thinks it is ironically appropriate that these two exemplars of German sentimentality be paired. Tarr now finds that he is attracted to Anastasya and has deep aesthetic conversations with her.
Meanwhile, Tarr observes Otto’s increasing aggressiveness toward Soltyk. Otto several times rushes up to Soltyk in public and slaps his face. A duel is inevitable. When the morning of this encounter finally comes, their seconds try to effect a compromise. Suddenly, Otto agrees to forget the duel if Soltyk will kiss him publicly. Soltyk leaps upon Otto, pummeling him, while the seconds engage in their own combat. As they seek to lead Soltyk away, he strikes out at Otto, who fires his pistol and kills him. Five days later, Otto is captured and jailed. He hangs himself in his cell, delivering on his promise of suicide.
Back in Paris, Tarr and Anastasya are having an affair as Tarr gradually ends his relationship with Bertha. When he learns, however, that Bertha is pregnant with Otto’s child, he marries her out of pity. He continues to live with Anastasya. After two years, Bertha divorces Tarr to many someone else. Tarr and Anastasya never marry, but Tarr fathers three children by another woman.
This novel, Lewis’s first, is a satire on the decadence of the Edwardian era. Tarr’s main function is to espouse Lewis’s philosophy. Otto Kreisler emerges as a more fully developed character than Frederick Tarr. Realizing this, Lewis later admitted that perhaps he should have called the novel “Kreisler” rather than Tarr.
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