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From the youngest child to the oldest man, everyone has experienced the unpleasant feeling of disappointment. Everyone has been to a place that was not all that they anticipated it to be. No one can say that someone has never somehow let them down. At one point or another, everyone has been disappointed in something they have purchased. And what child is not heart-broken when he learns there is no Santa Claus? Whether it is in a person, thing, place, or idea, disappointment can be the most devastating and hurtful feeling people face. Disappointment is an experience that the German people, especially, have had to live through. The German writer, Heinrich Boll, uses his story “Pale Anna” to illustrate the universal experience of disappointment, an experience his countrymen are very familiar with, through both literature and history.
When a long-lost German soldier returns to his hometown five years after World War II has ended, he returns to a place that is familiar, but everyone he knows is gone. His new landlady constantly asks him if he knew her dead son. She talks endlessly about her dearly departed son’s life and shows him again and again all the pictures of her son. The final picture that was taken of the landlady’s son was of him at his job as a streetcar conductor. All the other occasions that the soldier had seen it he reminisced about his own time spent at that particular terminus. He remembers the pop stand, the trees, the villa with the golden lions, and especially a girl that he thought of often during the war that always boarded the streetcar at that terminus. The soldier never recognizes any of the people in the picture until he had been there for three weeks and then he sees the girl in the streetcar. The landlady tells him that the girl was her son’s fiancée and that she is living in the room next to his. Pale Anna is what they always call her because of her extremely white face, but her face was unrecognizably destroyed when she was thrown through a window by a bomb blast. The soldier returns to his room and tries unsuccessfully to imagine Anna’s face being anything else but beautiful, even with scars. He thinks about his past romances and remembers them as complete disappointments.
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This theme of disappointment comes up frequently in many others of Boll’s stories. In “The Balek Scales”, the entire town is thrown into the realization that placing their trust in the Balek’s was a big mistake. Everyone is disappointed that the Balek’s weren’t trading honestly. It is a further disappointment that no one ever thought to question their authority over the possession and use of weights and measures and their dispersion of “justice”. The greatest disappointment, however, was calculating and figuring out how much money the Balek’s had cheated the entire community and surrounding communities of. The consequences of these collective disappointments befell, not on the source, the Balek’s, but on the narrator’s grandfather’s family, because he was the one who exposed the Baleks’ fraud. Another of Boll’s works that the presence of disappointment appears in is “Black Sheep.” The entire family of the narrator is disappointed in Uncle Otto. They are disappointed in him because they think that he has wasted his life doing nothing. He is such an intelligent and knowledgeable person, but refuses to obtain a job and instead asks everyone he knows for loans. This disappointment soon follows to the narrator because he starts to become exactly like Uncle Otto. After inheriting his uncle’s newly acquired wealth, he drops out of the University to move into his uncle’s old apartment and become a composer, which he later realizes and admits that he has no talent in that area. Following in his uncle’s footsteps also gave him the disappointment of his family. The odd thing is that neither Uncle Otto nor the narrator is upset or bothered by the fact that their family is disappointed in them, in fact, they are proud of what they are. In “Candles for the Madonna”, the narrator is also proud of who and what he has become. He has been honest, fair, hard working, generous, kind, and helpful in his business dealings as well as in his community. His disappointment lies not in a person, but in the failure of his business. For many years, he and his wife had worked hard in their total monetary investment of candle making. However, when their hard work was supposed to pay off, the previous rationing of electricity was abolished and large amounts of candles were no longer in great demand. He tried to find other markets to sell his candles in, but he again is disappointed with another failure. Another of Boll’s works that deals with disappointment is “Children are Civilians too.” In this story, a soldier in a military hospital wants to go outside to purchase cakes from a little girl who lives in the town. Despite the guard’s warning that soldiers are not allowed to go outside and civilians are not allowed to come in, the man leaves the building and obtains the sweets from the little girl. After the girl leaves, he finally notices the stench of the urinals, the decay of the town, and is disappointed with the conditions that surround him.
The theme of disappointment is not limited to Boll’s stories. Disappointment is a common issue in much of German literature. In The Tin Drum, disappointment runs through nearly all of the characters in some form or another. Jan Bronski is disappointed that his cousin, Agnes, marries Matzerath because he is in love with her himself. The postal workers at the Polish Post Office are let down by the fact that Jan would desert them, his comrades, at their greatest time of need during the battle. Agnes’ life is a study in disappointment. Her marriage to Mazerath was a sham because she was cheating on him with her cousin. Her son didn’t grow after his 3rd birthday and neither did his mind, supposedly. Both children that she conceived, she could not know for sure who the father was. It was her disappointment about her life that made her commit suicide. It was her death that was one of the greatest disappointments for Oskar, her son. Oskar’s life would hold many more disappointments. Not long after his mother died, his presumptive father, Jan Bronski, was killed for being a part of the Polish Post Office group. Oskar’s first love, Maria Truczinski, held several disappointments in store for him. After they became intimate, she continuously and heartlessly rejected and avoided him and two weeks later, Oskar caught her having sex with his father and no long after that she married Mazerath because she claimed that the child she was carrying was his. Oskar firmly believed that the child was his and was very excited about the idea of having a son follow in his footsteps. When Kurt came, however, Oskar was very disappointed by his son’s unwillingness to follow his wishes. It was the combined frustration of Maria and Kurt that drove Oskar to Bebra’s group of midgets. It was in that group that he met, loved and lost another woman, his beloved Roswitha.
In The Reader, Michael also faced the disappointment of losing a woman he loved. The woman he loved was Hanna, who was nearly twice his age at the time of their relationship, and because of her disappointment in his failure to acknowledge her in public was the reason she disappointed him, by leaving without a trace. His relationship with Hanna later caused major let downs in his marriage because his wife was not what Hanna was. Hanna was a further disappointment to Michael when she turned out to be a female guard from Auschwitz and was on trial for her crimes. Hanna faced much disappointment during her trial because of the way she handled herself in court. Michael was disappointed in her for not telling the judge that she could not have written the report because she could not read or write. Because she wanted to do the right thing and admit the crimes she had committed, she was made to be the scapegoat and received the longest sentence of the entire group. Before she was released from prison, when Michael came to visit her, she experienced great disappointment in the fact that Michael did not want any kind of relationship with her, a disappointment that drove her to commit suicide the night before she was to be released from prison.
One of the reasons that disappointment is such a common theme that occurs so many times in German literature is because it is a theme that pops up all over German history. After becoming “Germany” in 1871 during the war with France, the German people faced their first major disappointment in the coming of World War I. Even though Germany wanted the war, they were soon disappointed and frustrated with the lack of progress the troops were making. As the war ended, the German people were also disenchanted when the count totaled nearly 2 million of their troops that would never return to their families. The greatest disappointment of World War I for the Germans, however, was the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was deprived of military empowerment, destroyed economically, placed under legal sanctions and completely disgraced in politics under the treaty. It was the Treaty of Versailles and its harsh restrictions that allowed a man like Adolf Hitler to rise to power. Because of the poor economic state Germany was put in through the Great Depression, people were willing and eager to listen and elect a man that promised them the things they needed to survive. But the man that the people chose was the source of the greatest disappointments in all of German history. The war completely destroyed Germany in more ways than one. World War II caused 5.5 million deaths of Germans. The entire country was in ruins: millions of refugees were everywhere, entire cities were leveled, people were hungry and sick, and crime was widespread. Germany was no longer one nation, but divided between an Allied controlled West Germany and a communist controlled East Germany. But the greatest disappointment that World War II brought to the world was the Holocaust. Hitler’s “Final Solution” killed more than 6 million Jewish people. It is an event that the entire world finds complete shame and disappointment in.
The German people have been subjected to many disappointments and setbacks throughout its entire history. It is because of these occurrences that the universal experience of disappointment is such a common theme in so much of German literature. The story of “Pale Anna” is only one example Boll gives us to illustrate how disappointing, frustrating and disheartening life can be. What better way to describe disappointment than through the eyes of a German?
Stories of Heinrich BoLL