Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Through the course of the novel, Törless tries to find a fulfilling role among his classmates at his country’s most elite boarding school. He first makes friends and then has a falling out with a wealthy young man, Prince H., who subsequently leaves the school. Törless then falls in with a group of three other boys who are quite different from him. He is drawn to them in part by their physicality or “rude health and heartiness,” as they like sports. Törless, however, is a bookish, sentimental writer. Both reading and writing play important roles in his life—as, Musil tells us, they do in adolescent life in general. For this young man, however, the effects remain superficial.
Borrowed emotions or associations assimilated from external sources help a young person to find his way through the psychological quicksand of this time of life, when he longs to be someone but is not yet ready to take that step. . . .
Every so often, . . . influenced by books he had read, he would try his hand at writing a short story or a Romantic epic. Aroused by his heroes’ unhappy love affairs, his cheeks would blush scarlet, his pulse would race, and his eyes would glaze over.
The moment he put the pen down, however, it was over . . . [H]e never took it seriously. It did not seem to him a worthy occupation. His personality contributed nothing to it, nor did it contribute anything to his personality.
Törless’s reflexive nature makes him prone to analyzing his friends, and he is sometimes shocked to realize that he is dwelling on their physical attributes. This preoccupation combines fascination, as he is both attracted to and repulsed by the other boys, and sexual desire. One afternoon when the boys are killing time in a café in town, he indulges in such ruminations about Beineberg while the other boy sits rolling a cigarette. He is startled to realize he is picturing him naked.
Once again he felt the odd sense of revulsion for his friend that sometimes seized hold of him. The slender, dark-skinned hands that were slipping the tobacco into the paper so smoothly and carefully were actually quite beautiful. The slim fingers, the attractive domed nails had a certain distinction. As did the dark-brown eyes, and the lean, lissome body. . . . [H]e was seeing him partly in the flesh and partly in his mind’s eye . . . If he tried to picture this body without clothes it was impossible to retain the image of unruffled slenderness, and instead saw restless, writhing movements, distorted limbs and crooked spines like those found in depictions of martyrs or the grotesque parades of fairground performers. . . .
He also couldn’t help finding something obscene in the disjointed movements that this body made. . . . He found this notion astonishing and rather frightening. It was the second time that day that something to do with sex had . . . found its way into his thoughts.
His sexual desires are more often directed toward women, but he feels deeply conflicted in that regard as well. When he leaves campus and goes into town, he visits a young, lower-class woman named Božena, who earns her living as a barmaid and occasional prostitute. Although he understands his desire for her as normal, he also feels profound shame at visiting her in a “fetid little room,” which he experiences as a kind of betrayal of his class position. She speaks freely of sexual matters, which he understands as “innuendo” and “humiliating remarks.”...
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He compares the room to the finely-appointed chambers in his family’s home. Even worse, he cannot separate her female essence from that of his mother.
With every detail he remembered, along with the shame came a collection of base thoughts. . . . [H]e had been unable to stop himself thinking of his own mother, and with this thought now had such a hold that he could not shake it off. . . . “How can it be that this Božena creature is able to make a connection between her unsavoury existence and that of my mother? . . . Why isn’t it clear from what she’s saying that there’s nothing in common between them? . . . How can this be? For me this woman is just a mass of sexual desires, while up till now my mother has floated far above my head like a heavenly body beyond all earthly longings . . .”