Young Törless Summary
The German title, translated more literally as “the confusions of the schoolboy Törless,” both situates the story in a school setting and introduces the novel’s main theme. The school is a military boarding school, similar to those of Musil’s own experience; however, rather than realistically described, the novel’s setting and atmosphere reflect the confusions of young Törless’s adolescent growing pains.
The surface plot focuses on a small group of four students. As money is stolen from Beineberg and other students, the student Reiting figures out that only Basini, one of their fellow students, could be the thief. Reiting and Beineberg take it upon themselves to punish Basini during secret and sadistic nighttime meetings. Törless is drawn into these meetings but tries to keep his distance. His dual attraction to and repulsion from the sadism, as well as homosexual acts in which Basini engages separately with his punishers, show Törless struggling with his confusions.
Over just a few weeks, Törless matures and learns to form his own opinion and stand up for it. As Reiting and Beineberg increase their mental torture by planning to expose Basini in front of the school, Törless convinces Basini to turn himself in to the headmaster. The school officials attempt to keep the ensuing scandal as small as possible; however, although Törless succeeds in obscuring the full extent of his involvement, he is implicated in the events and, at the close of the investigation, is told to leave the school—a decision that is imposed on him but, at the same time, reflects his inner growth: He is ready to leave this school.
This novel—Musil’s only great success during his lifetime—touches upon several major themes. First, the sadistic and sexual elements take on a symbolic function representing power and its abuse in general. Because the school’s rigid structure reproduces the rigid structure of Austrian society at the end of the nineteenth century, the school metonymically stands for that society. The group dynamic among the students not only copies social structures but also warns of the dangers of unchecked power as Reiting’s and Beineberg’s sadism ignores Basini’s humanity. Later critics have praised this aspect as Musil’s astute prediction of what rigid social structures may lead to: political sadism in the form of Nazism and its crimes against humanity.
Second, the psychological confusions are embedded in a profound crisis that defined modernism itself: understanding the world anew as a fusion of the rational and the irrational. Musil presents this artistic struggle in terms of Törless’s adolescent experiences, when Törless perceives another level of reality behind normal reality. This other level seems irrational and unfathomable. Although Törless cannot fully express his insight into the duality of the world, his emotional maturity is evident in his intuition that this insight will remain part of his life.
Third, Young Törless is a perceptive and subtle study of the psychological struggles of adolescents. Törless has learned to tell right from wrong; therefore, he stands up against his schoolmates’ sadism. He has learned to accept the duality of the world; therefore, he stands up for his insight when he tries to explain it during the investigation, although he expects that the investigation board will not understand. The novel ends with Törless’s adult sexual gaze, with which he is now also able to see his mother when she arrives at the school to take him home. This final metaphor emphasizes his successful individuation. The acceptance of life’s contradictions is a sign of maturity; as a result, Törless was confused by challenging experiences, but in the end he proved to be strong enough to learn from them and to mature.
One afternoon, young Torless, a boarding school student, and some friends accompany Hofrat and Frau Torless to the railway station. The Torlesses are returning home after a visit to...
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