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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

On leaving his son alone at his new place of education, Törless’s father expresses his confidence that his son—newly acquainted with Beineberg and Reiting, two older boys from the school—will be in safe hands. For those who read the novel as a whole, this statement of confidence by the protagonist’s father rings hollow and ironic given the negative portrayal of these two boys and the corrupting influence they exercise over Törless throughout the text. While often read as a story of the protagonist’s development, or alternatively as a critique of his contemporary Austrian society, this work is just as much Robert Musil’s exploration of evil and its various manifestations.

A school is an interesting choice of setting because of its associations with youthful innocence. The effect of Musil’s choice in this arena is to demonstrate that the human capacity for evil is not learned: rather, it exists inherently within individuals as an impulse that is stronger than they are themselves. The workings of this particular school stand as a representation of institutional evil. In this military setting, only the “strong” are celebrated. Sensitivity, such as that demonstrated by Prince H. or by Basini, is actively discouraged, creating conditions wherein the individual evil of characters like Reiting can prosper.

Reiting’s evil is shocking because of its visceral, animal nature, but perhaps more horrifying is the evil of his partner in crime, Beineberg. Beineberg’s punishment of Basini stems from an ideology: a sense of his entitlement to use twisted spiritual means to bring about Basini’s correction. Beineberg’s sense of himself as entitled to use violence for the benefit of others, coupled with his hierarchical conception of himself as above other, “weaker” people, is eerily reminiscent of the fascist doctrines which would ultimately dictate the policies of Germany and Austria during World War II.

Even the protagonist himself is guilty of a form of evil. Though he maintains an intellectual distance from his friends’ torture of Basini, Törless’s evil is in his callousness. He is not above taking satisfaction in Basini’s suffering and makes thoughtless use of the other boy in order to aid his effort to discover himself. Throughout the novel, there is a dreamlike quality to Törless’s narrative, a sense of unreality in how he views other characters that suggests his detachment from them and inability to empathize with how they are feeling. His final speech, delivered to the headmaster and his colleagues, has a chilling amorality that indicates that his development has been solely intellectual—not at all moral.

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