Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 580

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Handke’s intention in The Weight of the World is best understood in terms of his overall theories concerning language and the role of fiction. For Handke, language, especially concepts and abstraction of experience, can distort the perception of reality. Conceptual signs or forms as well as language that has become automatized can come to generate their own level of “reality” that is distinct from the world as it really is. It is then easy to confuse these semiological “fictions” with the empirical facts of existence. The individual who takes these signs for truth eventually becomes alienated from his experience and becomes, in existential terms, inauthentic.

Handke gives a good example of this idea in what is perhaps his best-known and most compelling work, Wunschloses Ungluck (1972; A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, 1974), a narrative text he wrote as a tribute to his mother, who committed suicide in late 1971. In it, he examines the forms of language that shaped and circumscribed his mother’s life and death. With this intention, he explores the larger theme that concerns much of his early writings, that is, the distortion of experience through language and sign. He looks, for example, at the word “woman,” a sign which has the denotative meaning of a human female. The connotations of this word, however, involve many levels of personal and societal meaning, implicit social-psychological roles and behavioral expectations that are often subtly conveyed by friends, family, and society.

Having grown up in rural, conservative, and Catholic Austria, Handke’s mother came to know the word “woman” as a repressive and confining sign that unconsciously guided her perceptions of herself and others. Since it is a “woman’s destiny” to get married and rear a family, her grandfather forbade her to go on in school even though she was an outstanding student. In her early twenties, she came to define herself in terms of the images of “woman” found in the slick fashion magazines and advertisements of the big city. When she later had an affair with a married German solider and became pregnant, she was told that it was her “woman’s duty” to be married so that her child would have a legitimate father. She wed someone whom she did not love, and this man became an abusive alcoholic. Her existence as a “woman” became a tale of misery, and she finally took her own life at the age of fifty-one. This seemingly simple word came to fashion its own system of meanings, a level of linguistic reality that circumscribed the actual reality of her life.

In The Weight of the World, Handke attempts to use words in a way that is (relatively) free from such restrictive ideological systems, to generate an existentially authentic use of language. At the time Handke was writing the journal, he also began work on a novel, Die linkshandige Frau (1976; The Left-Handed Woman, 1978), and this latter text shows the influence of the diary in both its narrative style and the main character’s search for an authentic identity outside her roles as wife and mother. The critically acclaimed film Engel uber Berlin (1987; Wings of Desire) is a collaboration between German director Wim Wenders and Handke, and its dialogue is greatly influenced by the fragmentary diary style of The Weight of the World. Handke has since published two additional journals— Die Geschichte des Bleistifts (1982; the story of the pencil) and Phantasien der Wiederholung (1983; fantasies)—which continue the thematic and stylistic intent of this earlier work.