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The Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris, Goodbye to Berlin Summary & Study Guide Description
The Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris, Goodbye to Berlin Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
William is the narrator of "...Mr. Norris" - events, characters and circumstances are described from his point of view. It could be argued that he is also something of a protagonist, in that his experiences are central to the narrative line - he plays an active role a number of key events (i.e., Mr. Norris' scheme to involve the Baron in the passing of political intelligence), and is also active in encouraging actions taken by Mr. Norris. It's important to note, however, that many of these actions are taken in response to circumstances generated by Mr. Norris. In other words, William is more of a reactor to events rather than an initiator of them. Also, if the term "protagonist" is interpreted to mean a central character who undergoes a process of transformation, William is NOT a protagonist, since there is little or no indication of his experiencing any kind of transformation. It's possible to infer that he has in fact changed, perhaps in the direction of becoming more worldly, but this is by no means explained in the narration or pointed up by events. A not unrelated point is that William is also a very objective narrator, in that descriptions of his emotional reactions to the events he experiences are few and far between. There are exceptions - his visceral and instinctive dislike of Schmidt, for example, or his affection for Fraulein Schroeder. For the most part, though, the story he tells is about Mr. Norris - William's own attitudes and feelings are secondary.
In this context, it's interesting to consider William's essential character and purpose in this story in relation to the narrator's comments at the beginning of "Goodbye to Berlin," in which he (the author) describes himself as "a camera," simply recording and observing events. When juxtaposed with the narrative perspective of "... Mr. Norris," there is the strong sense that as a character and/or presence William is, on some level, simply a pseudonym, a stand-in for the author - Christopher Isherwood, who is referred to by name throughout "Goodbye to Berlin" and who shares a landlady, several friends, and time spent in Berlin with William. For further consideration of the relationship between William and Christopher, see "Topics for Discussion - Why do you think ..."
Arthur Norris is the true central character of the story (almost a novella) that bears his name - the action revolves around him, narration focuses on him, and the narrative begins and ends with his presence. In other words, he is in many ways the story's protagonist, but in one particular way he is not - the narrative never explores his inner world, his emotional life, his motivations, his psycho-spiritual context. In other words, the reader never truly gets to know him, or for that matter really care about him. He is a large personality, to be sure, intriguing and complex and quirky. The story presents him, rather than explores him or defines him. It could be argued that this is something of a cheat - why tell a story about such an intriguing character if the ultimate truth at the core of his actions is never revealed? Is not the purpose of art to reveal hidden truth, as opposed to merely presenting experience? It could also be argued, however, that this approach is not necessarily a problem at all, in that Mr. Norris' mysteriousness, combined with the narrator's objectivity in presenting him (see "William Bradshaw" above), creates a very realistic experience (since it's difficult for an individual to truly know and/or understand another). In other words, the story is simply a portrait, and the author is leaving any judgments and/or interpretations up to the reader, and is therefore a manifestation of one of the central themes of this collection of writings - that the true individual lives of other human beings are essentially unknowable.
This character, the affectionate, morally flexible landlady of a boarding house in Berlin, appears throughout the book. In "Goodbye to Berlin" she is a figure in what is evidently a memoir, while in "...Mr. Norris" she seems to be a fictionalized version of herself. There is the strong sense that she is a clear manifestation of the author's thematic intent, spread throughout all the stories, to base his writings closely and thoroughly on observed, lived experience (see "Themes - The Line between Fiction and Reality").
Fritz, like Fraulein Schroeder, appears throughout the book, but for the most part in a much less substantial role. He is a friend of William (in "...Mr. Norris") and Christopher (in "Goodbye to Berlin"), a man who enjoys good times and knows where/how to find them. His presence in both narratives, like that of Fraulein Schroeder, suggests that William and Christopher are essentially the same person.
Like Fraulein Schroeder, and Fritz, the Nazis are a presence throughout the book. Unlike those two other individuals, however, the Nazis are less immediately present and more of a distant threat, hovering on the fringes of the book's socio-political-cultural setting. Like Fraulein Schroeder, however, they do occasionally (and briefly) take on active roles in defining the action, principally through their persecution of those who oppose them and their aims of social, racial, and political purity.
Schmidt is first seen as Mr. Norris' unfriendly personal assistant, but after being apparently fired by him, he becomes an even more threatening presence, resorting to violence and threats of blackmail in order to re-establish their relationship (which, at the end of the story, he does). The core of his relationship with Norris - that is, the reason for the blackmail - is never explicitly defined, but there are two possibilities ... that Schmidt knows about Norris' unusual sexual tastes (and threatens to make them public and therefore ruin Norris' reputation), or that Schmidt knows that Norris is essentially untrustworthy (and threatens to make life difficult for him).
In spite of his playing a key role in several episodes and/or relationships in "...Mr. Norris," the Baron is a highly enigmatic figure - sexually ambiguous (although clearly leaning towards the homosexual), emotionally both distant and childlike, financially discreet, and politically ambivalent (in that it's never clear whether he supports the Communists, the Nazis, or the status quo). There is the strong sense that he, like Mr. Norris, is a manifestation of the author's central thematic exploration of the ultimate un-knowability of the human individual.
While it's never explicitly stated, there is the very strong sense that Anni is a prostitute and Otto is her pimp. Also, Anni is portrayed as being more morally and/or ideologically flexible than Otto - she does what she has to (including switch allegiances between political parties) in order to survive. Otto, however, is a passionate, committed Communist. While narration describes them both as disappearing from the narrator's life, there is the strong sense that Anni will survive whatever comes (including the reign of the Nazis), but that Otto will not - she's tough enough, but he's too vulnerable.
Again, the essential nature of this character is never explicitly defined, but there are clear implications that Bayer is the head of the Communist Party of Berlin. Watchful, wise, and politically astute, he is revealed to be far more knowledgeable than he lets on - again, another manifestation of the book's central thematic premise that ultimately, human beings are unknowable.
The narrator and the Baron encounter the mysterious van Hoorns (attractive young Nazi Piet and his talkative business man uncle) while on a ski holiday in Switzerland. First impressions are that the encounter is a purely chance one, but narration eventually reveals otherwise. The elder van Hoorn is in fact the mysterious, code-named "Margot," the agent of French Intelligence for whom Mr. Norris is a double agent and to whom Mr. Norris wants to introduce the Baron, in the hopes that the Baron will himself become an agent.
These three characters are tenants in the boarding house run by Fraulein Schroeder. Fraulein Kost is a good-hearted but fiery prostitute, Fraulein Mayr is a traveling vaudeville artist and staunch Nazi, and Bobby is a good hearted, affable bartender and bouncer. All three appear as peripheral characters in the narratives that follow.
Hippi is one of Christopher's students. Her evident disregard for the world and events around her is evocative of the attitude of Germans in general, and of German Jews in particular, to the changes being brought in by Hitler and the Nazis.
Sally is easily one of the most vivid characters in the entire book. There are several reasons for this - she speaks differently, has a more impulsive nature, and is generally more emotionally open than almost anyone else in either narrative ("...Mr. Norris" or "Goodbye to Berlin"). This last characteristic is particularly important - because her emotions are so passionately experienced and easily expressed, she is a powerfully defining contrast to Christopher whose emotions, both in action and narration, are so carefully and thoroughly controlled. In other words, while Christopher describes himself as a camera, Sally lives her life as though she's in front of a camera all the time. She lives life, while Christopher seems to be merely observing it.
These three characters, while different in certain superficial aspects (age, nationality, wealth, appearance) are all essentially the same - they enter the lives of Sally and Christopher, play important roles in those lives, and then suddenly (and somewhat traumatically) leave. All three have a greater effect on Sally than they do on Christopher (at least that's what Christopher's narration leads the reader to believe), all three are essentially users, and all three are manifestations of the book's thematic exploration of how people are essentially unknowable.
Peter and Otto are fellow visitors at the guest house where Christopher stays in "On Ruegen Island," and essentially function in the narrative (in Christopher's life?) in the same way as Sally Bowles - their vivid personalities and conflicts are observed and described by Christopher as manifestations of his essential camera-like nature. They are, perhaps, somewhat more knowable than Sally, in that their essential characters are revealed to a somewhat greater degree - Otto is an opportunistic user, Peter is a troubled and vulnerable neurotic. Their relationship is one of several in the book built upon a subtext of homosexuality - they share a room and a bed in the guest house, but a sexual relationship is never overtly or even covertly discussed.
This family with whom Christopher briefly lives (including opportunistic, manipulative Otto from "On Ruegen Island") consists of Frau Nowak (angry, volatile, apparently suffering from tuberculosis), Herr Nowak (cheery, alcoholic, a spendthrift), brother Lothar (sullen and hardworking), and sister Grete (spoiled, manipulative and whiny). As is the case throughout the book, Christopher observes and records their relationships and confrontations, occasionally playing a peripheral role in the action but for the most part living on the outside even when he's on the inside (i.e., in the apartment as part of their lives).
The Landauers are a wealthy Jewish merchant family in Berlin. Christopher's involvement is principally with Natalia, the imperious daughter, and Bernhard, the successful manager of the family's main store and a sexually ambiguous practical joker. The most obviously Jewish of all the characters in the book, Christopher's peripheral involvement in their lives contains brief but telling glimpses of the relationship between victimized Jews and viciously controlling Nazis in the Germany of the mid-1930s. In other words, the experiences of the Landauers personalize (to the degree that it's possible for such an impersonal narrator) the nation/society-wide racism that has, throughout the book, been little more than a looming darkness occasionally erupting in horror. The placement of the story of the Landauers at the end of the book can be no coincidence - it is, essentially, the end of Christopher's experiences in Germany. In telling their story, albeit briefly, he is truly bidding "Goodbye to Berlin."
This section contains 1,983 words
(approx. 5 pages at 400 words per page)