Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

09 May 2011

(Short Story) Flagman Thiel by: Gerhart Hauptmann

(Reaction) Guilt and Lamentations by: Antonio Conejos

The eponymous Flagman Thiel is a good, solid man, both in physical build and in character. His reliability and stolidness are reflected in his work as well in his appearance. The brass buttons of his clean Sunday uniform were as brightly polished as before, his red hair as sleekly pomaded and as neatly parted, military fashion.

As trains run on a clockwork schedule, so too must a flagman be diligent and assiduous in monitoring the length of track assigned to him. Thiel is such a flagman. Each move had been regulated for years. The objects carefully spread out on the wallnut dresser went into his various pockets always in the same order... The clock on the wall with the long pendulum and sickly yellow face indicated a quarter to five when Thiel left.

So dedicated is Thiel to his work that it is the only thing that manages to pierce the fog of sorrow and uncertainty which has enveloped him after Toby is hit by a train, The ringing of the signal roused him. Under the influence of those three repeated sounds the attack abated. Thiel could rise and do his duty.

Why then does such an upright man become a murderer, slaying not only his wife but their baby as well? The reason for the killings, as well as Thiel's reduction to a madman in a psychiatric ward, is found in Thiel's responsibilities which he cannot meet.

Thiel's job is the successful redirection of forces away from each other, ie. a train's path should not intersect with anything else. Yet ironically he cannot redirect the force which is Lena, his second wife, who is as obstinate as a freight train, and just as deadly, A force seemed to emanate from the woman, indomitable, inescapable. Thiel felt himself powerless to cope with it.

In Thiel's eyes, Lena is the immovable object to whom he must bend. So impotent is Thiel before Lena that he cannot even reprimand her for abusing his son, Toby. Where it should be Lena who should be repentant of her behavior; instead it is Thiel who apologizes for catching her harming the boy.

Thus it was that Tobias, bathed in tears, cowering in a corner, saw his father go over to the oven bench without looking round at him, pick up the forgotten sandwich, hold it out to Lena by way of the only explanation, give a short, distraught nod of his head in good-by, and disappear.

It was Thiel's job to ensure that the tracks were clear of any obstructions. Moreover, it was his responsibility, sworn on the deathbed of his first wife, that he would take care of Toby. Yet Thiel, who had been diligent both as a flagman and as a father, fails woefully in both tasks. Thiel could not bring himself to defend Toby from Lena and he could not prevent the train from running him over.

It is not a stretch then to surmise that Thiel feels that he is to blame for his son's death. After all, was it not his responsibility to ensure the tracks were clear? Moreover, had he not left his son alone with his stepmother, even though Thiel knew perfectly well that Lena had been abusing the child? Treading as silently as possible, he glided nearer. Now he quite clearly recognized his wife's voice... For a few moments there was silence. Then a sound could be heard like the out of clothes... The whimpering did not subside. Indeed everyone knew that Lena was cruel to Toby; yet Thiel pretended to be oblivious to this, Thiel, who was most of all concerned, seemed to have no eyes for what was going on, and refused to understand the hints of well-meaning neighbors.

Hauptmann's story is a character sketch of a father who blames himself for the death of his son. Burdened with this guilt, Thiel disintegrates into a mad man whose only concern is holding the shaggy brown cap [of his son] in his arm and caressing it as if it were a living thing. But the train has already rolled on, leaving behind a broken man.

Review:

One can't help but feel sympathy for Thiel, who is by all accounts a very decent man. Even in his failings he demonstrates a kind of strength; trying to do anything to get his son back. Bracketing and highlighting the horror of the story's events is the solitude of the forest where most of the action takes place. This calm quiet is shattered when Lena intrudes into Thiel's sanctuary which results in Toby's death.

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