Other Side

For some reason, I have a strange mental association of the Chili Pepper’s song Otherside with Gerhart Hauptmann’s Bahnwärter ThielGerhart 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. 

5 Responses to Other Side

  1. Adam says:

    The moment Thiel decided to stop perceiving events around him as they really happened was when he departed the realm of the mentally healthy and began his gradual descent away from good mental health. As he created his own imaginary reality at his hut, he was creating a switch that would eventually be triggered by an invasion from the reality of his home life. It was only a matter of time! His refusal to reconcile himself with the events at home destroyed his mental health. I don’t think he was mentally unhealthy to begin with.

  2. I confess that I don’t enjoy books of this sort.

  3. kenji jb says:

    a very tragic story…but id like to comment more on the author than the write-ups or blog entry he is posting. John Fowles write very well, for a simple mormon guy like me working in the Middle East and from the Philippines, his blog entry are all timely and relevant. You write very well sir, and count on me to be reading your site often as well as those of other bloggers in MA. Thank you for taking attention to the favor i am asking. Thank you for contributing good in this world.

  4. john f. says:

    Thanks for the insights Adam. You are probably right about Thiel being whole to begin with but then being “broken” by the circumstances and his own retreat from real life.

  5. john f. says:

    Thanks Kenji! That’s very nice of you to say. I hope you like what you find in the bloggernacle.

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