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Der kleine Herr Friedemann

Der kleine Herr Friedemann; Little Herr Friedemann (1897)
Thomas Mann’s literary breakthrough contains many of the seeds of his later fiction: it tells the story of a repressed protagonist destroyed by love, experienced as a terrible visitation (Heimsuchung). Herr Friedemann is a small hunchback, who, crippled from an early age, decides to renounce love and instead to savour the more modest pleasures which life has to offer. Friedemann’s peaceful existence is destroyed when he falls in love with Gerda von Rinnlingen, the wife of the new chief lieutenant posted to the town. Gerda von Rinnlingen is a masculine woman who carries a whip; she humiliates Friedemann by staring him down. This faintly recollects Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895) and his novel Venus im Pelz; Venus in Furs (1870), in which the protagonist Severin desires to be ill-treated and humiliated by the woman he loves. But the really terrifying thing about Gerda is the way in which her moods are unpredictable and inexplicable, her feelings are illegible.

The novella explores Ibsen’s idea of the life-sustaining lie or ‘Lebenslüge’. Herr Friedemann’s composed, peaceful existence depends upon a lie. As long as he can persuade himself that he is content with the little things in life, then he has the strength to carry on. But in Gerda’s presence this cultivated composure fails him utterly. The narrative combines tragedy and humour. For example, we are often reminded of Friedemann’s short stature, his lack of height. Literally and figuratively, he is a downcast character, and even his suicide is pathetic: he doesn’t even have the energy to throw himself into the lake; instead, he crawls and drags himself into the lake. The grotesque elements are an important part of the text’s message: they suggest the absurdity and cruelty of life in general.

There is a brilliant analysis of the story’s opening paragraph in T. J. Reed (see reading list below, pp. 10-14). According to Mark M. Anderson (see reading list below), this story is melodramatic, because it focuses on the elemental human drama of suffering. Gestures and body language become signs of this existential drama; even small physical details take on a fatalistic quality. The melodramatic, inexplicable gaze of Gerda herself has been examined by Ernest Schonfield (see reading list below).
Further Reading
Mark M. Anderson, ‘Mann’s early novellas’, in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, ed. by Ritchie Robertson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 84-94
T. J. Reed, Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
Ernest Schonfield, ‘Melodrama and the Gaze in Thomas Mann’s “Der kleine Herr Friedemann”’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 80:2-3 (2011), 153-65