For some reason, I have a strange mental association of the Chili Pepper’s song Otherside with Gerhart Hauptmann’s Bahnwärter Thiel. Gerhart Hauptmann wrote works of naturalism that featured the plight of working poor Germans shortly before and at the turn of the twentieth century.
In the story, Thiel is a railroad signalman, a happy, simple worker who wants to be a good person and to serve his wife, whom he loves. But his wife is sickly and dies soon after giving birth to their first child. Thiel’s infatuation with her haunts him even as he marries again purely out of necessity to a woman who is essentially the opposite of his first wife. To make matters worse, the second wife horribly abuses his first child whom Thiel loves as the living memory of his first wife. Thiel, however, cannot cope with the thought of this outcome and chooses not to see it (although he witnesses her beating the boy). He drifts away more and more as he isolates himself in his small shack next to his signal post near Fürstenwalde in Brandenburg (I spent a lot of time in Fürstenwalde while a missionary). He passes the days there, between switching the railroad signal — an occupation that reduces his entire life and capacity to one important but rudimentary assignment per day — contemplating a shrine to his first wife that he has constructed there.
Eventually, his second wife comes to the shack with the kids to plant on land adjacent to the shack. This invades Thiel’s comfort zone and he is confronted with the terrible reality of his life. While they are there, Thiel must attend to his duties with the switch and his second wife neglects his first son. Thiel’s mind finally breaks when his first son, neglected while he is busy with his duties, wanders on to the railroad tracks to play innocently and is killed by the approaching train. In his grief, sadness, and despair, Thiel disappears and his second wife and the child she has born him are found dead with their throats slit. In the end, Thiel is found sitting dejected on the railroad tracks where his son was killed and must be subdued with great force by the authorities to be removed from that spot.
It is a shattering read. Hautpmann develops a sense of inevitability that one nevertheless fights until the end. One is tempted to resort to denial with Thiel about the reality of his life and the abuse of his son. Although the story tracks Thiel’s slow descent into insanity, one wonders at the end if Thiel ever was mentally healthy in the first place.
As for the reason for the association with the song, I’m not sure where it comes from. It is probably as banal as having heard the song while reading the story back in college. But hearing it again never fails to bring thoughts of Thiel to mind. This is a good thing, I believe, and helps me do a reality check on my own life and the plight of others.