Critical Evaluation

(Essentials of European Literature)

THE WORLD’S ILLUSION (published in two volumes in the original) is a powerful philosophical novel that explores the decadence of the upper-middle-class European society prior to World War I. Completed in the last year of the war, the novel is a declaration of the author’s faith that mankind, through suffering and the atonement of guilt, may be redeemed from its wickedness. At the same time, the book is a jeremiad on the old order of the privileged classes, exhausting themselves through frivolous pleasures, greed, and stupidity. Indeed, like an Old Testament prophet, Jakob Wassermann excoriates the evils of a corrupt society, even as he laments its waste; from this perspective of social criticism, his novel can be appreciated in the light of the German postwar Expressionist movement in art. From a literary perspective, however, the book is clearly in the moral tradition of Fyodor Dostoevski and Leo Tolstoy. Sustained, eloquent, and at times hortatory, THE WORLD’S ILLUSION attempts, on a grand scale, to summarize the passions, ideas, and ethics of an effete civilization.

Wassermann’s hero is Christian Wahnschaffe—a wealthy, intelligent but spiritually restless searcher after self-knowledge. His search for perfect love is frustrated. Eva Sorel, who inspires in him the deepest passion, ultimately proves to be—in her own words—a sorceress who would enslave him. Nevertheless, Christian frees himself from the sorcery of submissive love; he will not serve any soul weaker than his own. Similarly, his search for perfect friendship, even with the “stainless knight” Bernard Crammon, is unfulfilling. He is bored with luxury, wearies of senseless...

(The entire section is 687 words.)