Robert Musil’s novella displays many features of the Bildungsroman (novel of self-development), Germany’s greatest contribution to world literature. An American counterpart of this late eighteenth or early nineteenth century literary form can be found in the works of Mark Twain, several of which deal with the process of maturity and integration of the individual into society. Generally, the protagonist makes the transition from child to young adult as he wanders along a path of adventure and misadventure, which finally brings out his best qualities. He is on his way toward fulfillment of his calling or potential within society, although first he rebels against it in order to gain a sense of his inner mission.
That society is a stable and controllable entity is a discovery that Torless will eventually make. By the close of the novel, Torless is on the threshold of a new life. Having gained confidence in his innate abilities, he is now free to grow, like a plant unfolding. Overall, there is optimism stemming from the belief in the inherent ability of man to better himself and improve his world.
In Young Torless, two events prove to be critical to Torless’ development: the separation from his parents and his sexual adventures with Basini (an unusual choice of episode, putting Musil ahead of his time as a writer). Torless’ growth is triggered by the one and completed as a result of the other. His rebellion is less an act of defiance than a disassociation from Reiting and Beineberg and from the school. As his confidence builds to the point at which he can talk above the heads of his teachers, he also achieves a certain type of independence; while he will return to his family, he is self-reliant in the sense that his experience—problem and solution—is his own rather than anything borrowed. On the way home, he sees things differently. He recalls his former bewildered self in contrast to his new attitude of quiet contemplation, secure in the knowledge that he has taken a step forward in his personhood. There is a hint of promise as he prepares to enter the adult world.