Lineman Thiel (Bahnwärter Thiel) by Gerhart Hauptmann, 1888

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LINEMAN THIEL (Bahnwärter Thiel)
by Gerhart Hauptmann, 1888

Of the 10 short stories Gerhart Hauptmann wrote during his long career, "Lineman Thiel" ("Bahnwärter Thiel") is the finest and best known. One of his earliest works, it was first published in 1888 in the Munich-based naturalist periodical Die Gesellschaft. Set in the countryside southeast of Berlin where Hauptmann, then a sympathizer of social democracy, was living, the story grew out of his frequent contacts with local working people, including railway men. In many respects it can be seen as a representative work of naturalism. Sexuality and crime, two typical naturalist themes, both figure prominently; the central character Thiel is firmly situated in a working-class milieu, and Hauptmann adopts a quasi-scientific approach in exploring the factors determining his behavior.

The story traces Thiel's development from the death of his first wife, Minna, in childbirth, leaving him a small son, Tobias, to his second, rapidly concluded marriage with the dairymaid Lene, who bears him another child. Because of his sexual dependence on her, Thiel for a period tolerates Lene's maltreatment of her stepson, but when Tobias is fatally injured by an express train on his stretch of track, the lineman's subsequent derangement culminates in the violent murder of Lene and her baby, after which he is admitted to a mental asylum in Berlin. The events, though shocking in the manner traditional to the novella as a genre, are not sensationalized. Hauptmann grants the railway accident just a few lines, viewed from the limited perspective of Thiel, while the murders are not described at all. His concern is rather to explore character and milieu, hence the subtitle "A Novella-like Study."

As the title proper suggests, Thiel's character dominates the tale. While the wives remain one-dimensional, Minna characterized by her spiritual hold on the lineman, Lene by her physical hold, Thiel himself is the subject of a complex, finely drawn portrait. Significantly, we never learn his first name. He remains lineman Thiel because the job in large measure makes the man. A cog in the efficient machine of the Prussian railway system, Thiel himself leads a routine life, organized on systematic lines and with a fixed schedule. His behavior is often mechanical, like the trains in whose service he is employed. This service resembles that of the army, Thiel taking great pride in his uniform and manning his post with all the discipline and punctuality associated with the Prussian military ethos. His workplace deep in the pine forest also isolates him from human company for long hours, thus intensifying his propensity to brood on things and, importantly, encouraging his mystical tendencies.

A regular churchgoer steeped in Protestant tradition, Thiel makes his workplace a sacred shrine to his late wife Minna, of whom he has ecstatic visions during nightlong sessions of Bible reading and hymn singing. This "spiritual intercourse" is intended to quell the pangs of conscience he feels about his abject sexual dependence on Lene, his puritanical upbringing having led him to associate desire with depravity. His guilt and self-disgust, however, are compounded when he realizes how much he is neglecting Tobias's welfare to satisfy his own physical needs. By dwelling on Thiel's Herculean physique, Hauptmann also indicates a potential for violence, although this is held in check by a fundamentally phlegmatic temperament. He is a giant, but a gentle one, his metabolism rendering him so sluggish and passive that only a severe shock to his system will prompt a violent reaction.

All these factors—social, cultural, psychological, and physiological—interact to determine and make plausible Thiel's breakdown and the ensuing murders. Yet they are not sufficient causes. He is not simply a victim of circumstances or a creature of physical impulses. Hauptmann often portrays him deep in thought, implying that he has genuine options, however limited, and because we witness him wrestling with awkward alternatives, we sympathize with, rather than merely pity, him.

A wide variety of techniques encourage this sympathetic response. For long stretches an impersonal narrative voice provides an objective, analytical account, investigating cause and effect in a detached, nonjudgmental manner consistent with the scientific approach of naturalism. But this omniscient stance is not maintained throughout. Less reliable passages of reported opinion and deceptive appearances intervene to complicate the picture, while at points the narration is subtly reticent, hinting at Thiel's complex inner life but leaving the content of his brooding to the reader's imagination. Switches in perspective are also exploited. Sometimes we view Thiel through Lene's eyes, on one occasion through Tobias's, but in the buildup to the accident and the murders Hauptmann increasingly adopts Thiel's own perspective, forcing us to share his reactions either by using interior monologue or, more frequently, free indirect discourse. The immediacy thus achieved is further enhanced by a switch to the present tense for fully two pages after Tobias's accident, ensuring that we remain "on the spot" throughout the lineman's most traumatic experience.

Another device used to chart Thiel's progressive disorientation is description, mainly of natural landscape but also of the railway track and the passing trains. Five lengthy descriptive passages interrupt the otherwise economical narrative, all symbolically evoking Thiel's state of mind or mirroring his situation. Thus, the imagery of a monstrous iron mesh for the railway track and of the web of a giant spider for the telegraph wires alludes to his ensnarement by Lene, while a violent storm reflects his inner turmoil and threatened loss of control. The fact that Thiel is acutely impressionable, hypersensitive to sounds, colors, and light partly justifies the view of many critics that Hauptmann's descriptive technique is impressionist. But in instances where Thiel is unconscious of his surroundings, grotesque imagery and garish colors seem rather to anticipate the techniques of German expressionist writing. These devices can appear somewhat forced, especially when compared to the understated symbolic effects Hauptmann derives from the concrete particulars of Thiel's everyday life, but they do extend the story's stylistic range beyond the confines of programmatic naturalism, thus contributing to its lasting appeal.

—David Horrocks