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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 their son’s boarding school. The prestigious reputation of the school has been the determining factor in sending Torless there, in spite of the considerable distance involved. Indeed, Torless readily adapts to his new surroundings: An early case of what seems to be homesickness soon disappears, and he finds friends such as Prince H., a sensitive and delicate boy, and, later, the more rough and masculine Reiting and Beineberg. Acknowledging the other boys’ superiority of size and age, Hofrat Torless commends his son to their vigilance before he boards the train with his wife.

On the way back to school, Torless and Beineberg, the only two of the group who have permission to stay out longer, stop off at a cake shop and then visit Bozena, a prostitute at a tavern of ill repute. When they arrive at school, Reiting calls a meeting of himself, Torless, and Beineberg; he has discovered who has been stealing from the lockers. In their secret lair in the attic, they learn the details from Reiting: Basini, another classmate, is in debt to everyone and claims to have only borrowed the money. He must be punished. Torless, who believes the thief should be reported, is taken aback at Reiting’s suggestion that he not be. The boys finally agree simply to keep Basini under close surveillance, at least for the present. Torless is further confused by his parents’ response to the situation; not only do they not express shock and surprise but they also recommend giving Basini a chance to reform. He does not understand and tears up their letter in despair.

One night very late, Beineberg wakes Torless from his sleep and leads him to the attic to talk. Previously, Beineberg had observed Reiting and Basini having sex and explains that now he holds Basini in the palm of his hand, a power he fully intends to use: He will torment Basini in the name of spiritual training. On one hand, Torless does not fully comprehend Beineberg’s meaning. On the other hand, he senses that Basini is destined to play an important part in his own life, and he feels a need to make sure that Basini stays for a while.

The next day, Reiting and Beineberg approach Torless. They have been conspiring and have fixed the time and place of Basini’s moment of reckoning: eleven o’clock that night in the attic. They meet at the appointed time and, as the other two beat the naked, groaning Basini, Torless observes his own reactions. He is dizzy with excitement which turns sexual, making him feel disconcerted and ashamed. They hold an interrogation during which Basini is forced to agree to comply with all of their terms and orders from that point forward.

During the mathematics period the following day, Torless decides that since the subject matter of this class forms part of his so-called preparation for life, it might yield some answers to the strange riddle which has been vexing him ever since entering the school. He makes an appointment with the mathematics master, but to his dissatisfaction, he is discouraged by the master, who determines that the answers to Torless’ questions would be beyond his ability to comprehend. Later, Beineberg confirms the ineptitude of the masters to deal with anything outside the systems that they have studied (although Beineberg himself relies on Eastern models to perceive existence). Some strange dreams about Immanuel Kant conjure Torless’ childhood memories...

(This entire section contains 1164 words.)

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of wanting to be a little girl, and he takes solace in his sensuality, which sets him apart from such clever persons as Kant. Yet the link with Basini (who had referred to himself as a sensualist in a conversation with the prostitute) is reinforced.

There is a four-day holiday from classes, and while most of the other boys visit family or friends, Torless and a few others, including Basini, remain. Almost at once, Torless is possessed by the thought of being alone with Basini. The lust which has been awakened in him grows until it consumes him, and when Basini comes to his bed in the middle of the night, Torless allows himself to be seduced. He enters into a new relationship with Basini, feeling sympathy for this despicable creature and even jealousy toward Reiting and Beineberg. Nevertheless, this tenderness soon develops into disgust as Torless’ former desire seems increasingly senseless and repulsive to him. While Reiting and Beineberg plan more punishment for Basini, Torless becomes altogether indifferent.

Several days after the boys return from their holiday, the three friends convene in the attic. Reiting and Beineberg contrive how they might best humiliate Basini and force him to knuckle under completely. Reiting envisions handing him over to the class, instigating a mass movement that will tear him to pieces. Beineberg plans to carry out a spiritual experiment: He will hypnotize Basini in an effort to reestablish lost contact with the soul. (The experiment ends with the furious lashing of Basini, who has tricked the other into believing he has been under hypnosis all along.) Conditions become intolerable for Basini, and, when the first opportunity arises, he approaches Torless, pleading for his protection. Torless refuses. Just at that moment, Reiting finds them together talking, and he tries to intimidate Tor-less (who has insulted him in front of Basini) but to no avail: Torless has with-drawn from the entire affair. Even when Reiting and Beineberg both threaten to expose him as Basini’s accomplice, Torless remains uncooperative.

Now Reiting’s plot regarding Basini is set in motion as he and Beineberg start spreading rumors among the other boys at school. Torless had left a note warning Basini that he was to be handed over to the class but apparently not in time to spare him from a preliminary, brutal bullying by a crowd of boys. Basini then turns himself in to the headmaster, and a very strict investigation ensues. Panic-stricken by the thought of having to explain himself to his teachers, Torless runs away from school, only to be picked up shortly thereafter in the next town. He is still in a state of agitation and near exhaustion when he is called before the masters and the chaplain. In one critical instant, Torless is suddenly able to see the solution to the riddle and can articulate it to the menacing assembly of masters. He tells them that things are just things, but sometimes they are seen with the eyes of reason and sometimes with the eyes of the soul.

Basini is expelled, and Torless decides to leave the school. Silence and skepticism have replaced his feelings of despair, and his mother is slightly surprised to find a composed, not overwrought, son waiting for her to take him home. Torless is now able to understand the life that his parents lead.