Lenz (written 1835, first published 1839)

Historical Context

This novella is based on a period of twenty days in the life of the Sturm und Drang playwright Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792). From 20 January-8 February 1778 Lenz stayed with Pastor Johann Friedrich Oberlin (1740-1826) in Waldersbach in the Steintal. Oberlin wrote a report of Lenz’s twenty-day stay with him. This report became the principle source of Büchner’s novella ‘Lenz’. The full report was not published until after Büchner’s death in 1839, but extracts from the report were published in December 1831 in an essay by Büchner’s friend August Stöber, ‘Der Dichter Lenz’, which appeared in the Morgenblatt für gebildete Stände; The Morning Paper for Educated Classes. In May 1835 Büchner received a handwritten copy of Oberlin’s report from August Stöber. Büchner was also able to draw on Lenz’s own letters and the anecdotal evidence of Oberlin’s friends, e.g. Johann Jakob Jaeglé, the father of Büchner’s fiancée Wilhelmine Jaeglé, who had performed the funeral service for Oberlin in 1826.


The novella is a landmark study of schizophrenia, informed by Büchner’s scientific knowledge (he was a neurologist himself). Pastor Oberlin’s attempts to console Lenz with religion fail completely, as Lenz is afflicted by a terrible boredom and ennui. Despite the third person narrative, Lenz’s condition seems to be portrayed from the inside, until it takes on the dimensions of an existential crisis:

die Welt, die er hatte nutzen wollen, hatte einen ungeheuern Riß, er hatte keinen Haß, keine Liebe, keine Hoffnung, eine schreckliche Leere und doch eine folternde Unruhe, sie auszufüllen. Er hatte Nichts.


the world, which he had wanted to be of use to, had an enormous crack through it, he had no hate, no love, no hope, a terrible emptiness and yet an agonising disquiet, [an urgency] to fill it. He had nothing.

Narrative Technique

‘Lenz’ is narrated in the third person, but the narrator is barely evident as an independent voice; most of the narrative is given from Lenz’s own perspective in the form of free indirect speech (in German this is known as erlebte Rede [lived speech]). For a discussion of the use of free indirect speech in ‘Lenz’ see below, Roy Pascal (1977). Like Woyzeck, ‘Lenz’ is also notable for its use of parataxis. Parataxis is the placing together of sentences, clauses or phrases without using conjunctive words. The use of parataxis in ‘Lenz’ gives the impression of a medical report, like a list of occurences. Büchner’s use of free indirect speech combined with parataxis in ‘Lenz’ creates an antilinear, fragmented form of narrative, which anticipates much 20th-century and 21st-century fiction including Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard. Peter Schneider’s novel Lenz (1973) is influenced in terms of both content and form by Büchner’s ‘Lenz’. Büchner’s ‘Lenz’ also seems to have had strong influence on East German writers (see Dennis Tate, below).

The Kunstgespräch; The Conversation about Art

Lenz is visited by his friend Christoph Kaufmann and the two of them have a conversation about art, the famous Kunstgespräch; Conversation about Art. Kaufmann admires the literature of German idealism, but Lenz disagrees fiercely, saying that those authors who present an idealised, transfigured version of reality are guilty of an arrogant falsification:

Die Dichter, von denen man sage, sie geben die Wirklichkeit, hätten auch keine Ahnung davon, doch seien sie immer noch erträglicher, als die, welche die Wirklichkeit verklären wollten. […] Dieser Idealismus ist der schmählichste Verachtung der menschlichen Natur.


The authors, about whom one says that they depict reality, really have no idea about it, but they still much more bearable than the authors who want to transfigure reality […] This idealism is the most shameful scorn of human nature.

Instead of this, Lenz argues, one should immerse oneself in the life of the commonest people and things:

Man versuche es einmal und senke sich in das Leben des Geringsten und gebe es wieder, in den Zuckungen, den Andeutungen, dem ganzen feinen, kaum bemerkten Mienenspiel; er hätte dergleichen versucht im »Hofmeister« und den »Soldaten«. Es sind die prosaischsten Menschen unter der Sonne; aber die Gefühlsader ist in fast allen Menschen gleich, nur ist die Hülle mehr oder weniger dicht, durch die sie brechen muß. Man muß nur Aug und Ohren dafür haben.


One should try for once to immerse oneself in the life of the lowest things and people and reproduce it, in the tics, the suggestions, in the play of facial expressions which are very fine, hardly noticed. He had attempted to do this in [his plays] The Tutor and The Soldiers, with the most mediocre people under the sun; but the vein of feeling is the same in almost all people, the only difference is that the outer crust, through which one must break, is more or less thick.

These statements can be understood as Büchner’s own artistic manifesto, in ‘Lenz’ he combines a scientific perspective with a profound human sympathy with his subject.

Further Reading in English

James Crighton, Büchner and Madness: Schizophrenia in Georg Büchner’s Lenz and Woyzeck (Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1998)

Kathryn R. Edmunds, ‘“Lenz” and Werther: Büchner’s Strategic Response to Goethe’, Monatshefte 88:2 (1996), 176-96

Carlos Gasperi, ‘Recursive Mindscapes: Noematic Confusion in the Kunstgespräch of Georg Büchner's Lenz’, Germanic Review 87:1 (2012), 35-56

David Horton, ‘Transitivity and Agency in Georg Büchner's Lenz: A Contribution to a Stylistic Analysis’, Orbis Litterarum 45:3 (1990), 236-47

Dennis F. Mahoney, ‘The Sufferings of Young Lenz: The Function of Parody in Büchner's Lenz’, Monatshefte 76:4 (1984), 396-408

Roy Pascal, ‘Georg Büchner: Lenz’, in Pascal, The Dual Voice: Free Indirect Speech and its functioning in the nineteenth-century European novel (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977), pp. 60-66

Roy Pascal, ‘Büchner’s Lenz – Style and Message’, Oxford German Studies 9 (1978), 68-83

John Reddick, ‘“Man muß nur Aug und Ohren dafür haben”: Lenz and the problems of perception’, Oxford German Studies 24 (1995), 112-44

Erika Swales, ‘Büchner, Lenz’ in Landmarks in German Short Prose, ed. by Peter Hutchinson (Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2003), pp. 79-94

Martin Swales, ‘Büchner: Lenz’, in Martin Swales, The German Novelle (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), pp. 99-113

Dennis Tate, ‘“Ewige deutsche Misere?”? GDR Authors and Büchner’s Lenz’, in Culture and Society in the GDR, ed. by Graham Bartram and Anthony Waine, GDR Monitor Special Series 2 (Dundee, 1983), pp. 85-99

John Walker, ‘Büchner and Real Presence: A Reading of the Kunstgespräch in Lenz’, in Georg Büchner: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by Robert Gillett, Ernest Schonfield and Daniel Steuer (Leiden: Brill, 2017), pp. 281-92

Andrew Webber, ‘Charting Extraterritorial Identity in the Opening of Lenz’, in Georg Büchner: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by Robert Gillett, Ernest Schonfield and Daniel Steuer (Leiden: Brill, 2017), pp. 244-60

Further Reading in German

Jennifer Clare, ‘“Auf dem Kopf gehen”. Peter Schneiders Lektüre von Büchners Lenz vor dem Horizont der Literatur der deutschen Studentenbewegung’, in Georg Büchner: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by Robert Gillett, Ernest Schonfield and Daniel Steuer (Leiden: Brill, 2017), pp. 261-80

Christian Neuhuber, Lenz-Bilder: Bildlichkeit in Büchners Erzählung und ihre Rezeption in der bildenden Kunst (Vienna and Cologne: Böhlau, 2009)

Web Link in German


Free audio download of ‘Lenz’