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Last Updated September 5, 2023.


Something of a blank slate at the beginning of the novel, Törless’s journey toward development features moments of despair and euphoria that conclude in a stable skepticism which for the work’s author constitutes maturity. Early in the text, he is shown to have a certain respect for the codes and structures of his society, as implied by his presumption that Beineberg and Reiting will turn Basini into the school’s authorities rather than punish him themselves. However, he is not an altogether sympathetic character, given his complicity in Basini’s torture and his later use of Basini as a vehicle for his own gratification. For Törless, people like Basini and the cadet with whom Törless strikes up a friendship on first arriving at the school are simply stepping stones to aid him in his quest for self-realization. He is never satisfied to take things as they are, constantly endeavoring to probe more deeply into the mysteries of life—mysteries of morality, primarily, but also of geometry and metaphysics.


Beineberg considers himself an Übermensch, and his troubling attitude toward those like Basini, whom he takes to be weaker than him, is nearly fascist. Skeptical and smug by nature, this aristocrat demonstrates a snobbish disregard for all those below him and seeks to influence Törless, at one point by open intimidation, into sharing his worldview. His fondness for spiritualism, which he portrays in elevating and glorifying terms, is ultimately shown to be meaningless, given his failure to hypnotize Basini.


Less complex as a character than Beineberg, his partner in crime, Reiting is little more than a brute. He is less concerned with intellectual torture than with physical forms of cruelty.


Basini’s weakness is physical, as highlighted by his sexual exploitation by a number of the other boys, and social, as demonstrated by his isolation from his classmates after he is caught as a thief. Nonetheless, he does appear to have an intellectual understanding of his own situation, which leads him to seek Törless’s patronage. His humanity is perhaps more pronounced than that of Törless, given how his plight evokes sympathy in a reader. Readers are allowed to forget his having stolen money from his classmates in the first place and often view him as the true victim of the story.

The Headmaster

The headmaster of the school looms over the interactions of the characters without exercising the restraints on the sadistic impulses that his society taught him to exercise. In this way he is symbolic of the authoritative Austrian regime, which sought to control the behavior of its subjects by strict ethics and laws—and yet could do little to tame their lower human instincts.

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