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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In Musil’s novel The Confusions of Young Törless (1906), the protagonist is a student of a boarding school preparing the boys for future military service. This is a restricted-access institution with troubled relations including bullying and abuse. The plot delineates, broadly, Törless’s coming of age. The central focus of the narration is Törless’s relations with Basini, a boy who is caught stealing money. Törless’s other two friends, Reiting and Beineberg, find this out, but they decide not to turn him over to the authorities. Rather, they punish him, degrading him by turning him into a sort of an animal.

The Effects of Isolation

On the one hand, Törless does not understand those around him. On the other, the world where he lives is itself irrational. Throughout the plot, Törless is both a participant in events and an estranged observer, mirroring two facets of his personality. Though The Confusions of Young Törless is a bildungsroman (a novel showing the moral growth of a young protagonist), the classical features of this genre are absent from it. The first love is replaced with a relationship with a prostitute. Instead of the close friendships typical of this genre, we find in the novel a story of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. The school makes a puppet of Törless, and he wants to evade the rules and dash into another world. This is the motive that brings him to Basini’s tormentors. Though he is himself a part of this company, Törless grows more and more alienated from his friends as the novel progresses.

Various Motives for Cruelty

The adolescents in the novel resort to violence against Basini for no true motive; they desire to amuse themselves amid the boredom of school life. At the same time, the violence is their way to tackle real problems that adult life is rife with. The violence is expressed through Beineberg’s brute force (he is physically the strongest) and Reiting’s mercilessness (he is clever and wants to be the authority). Beineberg simply wants to punish Basini for the theft. Reiting, however, is not a dumb dictator: he is a philosopher and psychologist. He wants to purge Basini’s soul, inflicting a moral torture on him. Törless, however, shows an interest in Basini as a curious object of observation and tries to describe Basini’s experience from an aesthetic point of view.

The Quest of Self-Discovery

As the plot develops, Törless begins to hide his true feelings from Reiting and Beineberg, faking his interest in what they are involved in. But Törless does have a real inner self. It is not merely a mask. At times, he is overtaken with sudden confusions:

Only at the moment when he was carried away did he awaken for a second and clutch desperately at a single thought: “This isn’t me! . . . isn’t me! . . . It won’t be me again until tomorrow! . . . Tomorrow . . .”

Even so, Törless is seeking to find some sort of a mask that would prevent him from seeing all the ugliness of this world. At the end of the book, Törless leaves the boarding school; he has not found this mask, though he understands that the day will come when he will need to do this. As Musil comments,

Later, once he had overcome the events of his youth, Törless became a young man with a very fine and sensitive mind. He became one of those aesthetic and intellectual characters upon whom respect for the law and, to some extent, for public morals, has a calming effect, relieving them of the need to think about anything coarse and remote from the finer things of the soul . . .

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