Anton Reiser (1785-1790)
Anton Reiser tells of the childhood and early manhood of a figure resembling Moritz, but it is not strictly speaking an autobiography. Moritz called his novel a ‘biography’ or ‘psychological novel’, thereby underscoring the attempt he makes in Anton Reiser to trace the inner, psychological history of a character’s development in an objective, impartial way.
The first part of Anton Reiser describes Anton’s unhappy Pietistic upbringing in Hanover and his arduous years as an apprentice hatter in Brunswick. Early on, Anton discovers that he can escape from the difficult reality of his existence by fleeing into a world of the imagination that he first encounters through books and reading. This fantasy world is always at odds with the reality of his situation, for example in Brunswick, where the merciless physical labour he endures as an apprentice contrasts sharply with his heady fantasies of being famous and admired like the charismatic preacher Paulmann, whose sermons capture Anton’s imagination.
Anton’s fantasies of occupying centre stage continue in Part Two, for he now receives a stipend which allows him to attend the grammar school in Hanover. Unfortunately, here as ever, the fantasies are at odds with reality – now the reality of being a charity case. The humiliations associated with Anton’s low social position steadily mount until he again seeks refuge in the world of books, developing a full-blown addiction to reading. At this time, the idea of becoming an actor also offers itself as a means of escaping reality and simultaneously being an object of attention and admiration. This idea becomes an obsession for Anton after a famous troupe of actors spends the summer performing in Hanover.
In Part Three, Anton briefly enjoys better fortunes as a result of writing poetry. The peak of his success comes when he is asked to compose a speech for delivery on Queen Charlotte’s birthday. It seems that a new epoch may be beginning for Anton in Hanover, but soon he is distracted by his fantasies. First, a trip to Bremen plants the idea of travelling in his mind as a means of escaping his everyday existence and enjoying the freedom to be anyone he chooses. Next, the troupe of actors returns to Hanover for the season and Anton also obtains minor roles in several school plays. The ideas of travelling and acting now combine to produce a decision to leave Hanover and join a theatre troupe in Weimar.
In Part Four, Anton roams around on the heels of diverse theatre troupes, seeking engagement as an actor. The preface to this part of the novel predicts failure, for Anton’s desire to be an actor arises out of a selfish need to live vicariously through acting rather than out of a selfless wish to bring pleasure to others by his performances. Towards the end of Part Four, Anton enjoys a brief period of stability as a student in Erfurt, but as soon as his material circumstances begin to worsen, he again flees into his fantasy of acting. It seems that this time a concrete opportunity of being engaged with a theatre troupe exists, but this hope is dispelled in the closing lines of the novel.
Anton Reiser fails to gain a foothold in life because he constantly chases fantasies; as such, the story of his formative years is intended as a cautionary example. At the same time, however, Moritz’s distanced, ‘psychological’ approach encourages us to understand the reasons behind Anton’s behaviour, which usually lie in sociological factors that force him to escape from reality into fantasy, and which invite sympathy.
[…] seine ausschweifende Einbildungskraft ließ ihn endlich sogar Tiere, Pflanzen und leblose Kreaturen, kurz alles, was ihn umgab, mit in die Sphäre seines Daseins hineinziehen, und alles mußte sich um ihn, als den einzigen Mittelpunkt, umher bewegen, bis ihm schwindelte.
[…] finally his rampant imagination also led him to draw even animals, plants and lifeless creatures – in short, everything that surrounded him – into the sphere of his existence, where everything had to turn around him, the centrifugal point, until he grew dizzy.
Das Theater deuchte ihm eine natürlichere und angemeßnere Welt als die wirkliche Welt, die ihn umgab.
The theatre seemed to him to be a more natural and appropriate world than the real world which surrounded him.
Widerspruch von außen und von innen war [...] sein ganzes Leben.
Conflict from without and within characterized [...] his whole existence.
Karl Philipp Moritz, Anton Reiser: A Psychological Novel, trans. by Ritchie Robertson (London: Penguin, 1997)
Mark Boulby, ‘The Gates of Brunswick: Some Aspects of Symbol, Structure and Theme in Karl Philipp Moritz’s Anton Reiser’, Modern Language Review 68 (1973), 105-14
Michael Minden, The German Bildungsroman: Incest and Inheritance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 81-104
Catherine J. Minter, ‘The Psychology of Association in Karl Philipp Moritz’s Anton Reiser’, Forum for Modern Language Studies 44 (2008), 67-75
Isabel A. White, ‘“Die zu oft wiederholte Lektüre des Werthers”: Responses to Sentimentality in Moritz’s Anton Reiser’, Lessing Yearbook 26 (1994), 93-112
Edwin H. Zeydel, ‘The Relation of K. P. Moritz’s Anton Reiser to Romanticism’, Germanic Review 3 (1928), 295-327