Literature Annotations


Mann, Thomas
Felix Krull


Genre Novella (44 pp.)
KeywordsAdolescence, Body Self-Image, Children, Empathy, Family Relationships, Individuality, Rebellion, Suicide
Summary

Felix Krull begins his "confessions" at the beginning, with his family background and infancy. He comes from an upper class family in the Rhine Valley; his father owned a small manufacturing concern; he has an older sister named Olympia. Felix writes about his childhood love of fantasy, as exemplified by his love of dressing-up in costumes at home and his passion for the theater. He detested school, however, because it was so unremittingly boring.

Felix first practiced the art of deception by forging his father's penmanship on notes excusing him from school because of sickness. Later, he graduated to "performing" the illness by being able to fool his mother with imaginary symptoms. In fact, he was so good at "performing" that he was actually able to create the symptoms in himself (e.g. nausea and vomiting), and in so doing, "I had improved upon nature, realized a dream . . . " When the doctor arrived to examine Felix, the doctor initially assumed that it was a phony case (just being "school-sick"), but Felix was able to convince the doctor as well, or at least force enough doubt that he went along with the ruse.

Among the adolescent episodes that Felix confesses is his first theft (of chocolates from a sweet shop) and his first sexual experience (with a much older housemaid). He cites the latter event in the context of explaining how his "great joy" over sensual experience is so much greater than that of the common person.

Felix Krull's confessions end with the family's bankruptcy and loss of their sparkling wine factory, and his father's suicide some months later: "I stood beside the earthly husk of my progenitor, now growing cold, with my hand over my eyes, and paid him the abundant tribute of my tears."

Commentary

This long story of 1911 later served as the nucleus for Thomas Mann's light and humorous last novel, The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (1954).

The story evokes two medically related comments. First, the character of Felix Krull demonstrates that ability (or skill) and motivation are two entirely separate issues in understanding empathy. Felix is extraordinarily empathic. He is able to understand how others feel and what they want, and then act accordingly. That is why he becomes such a good confidence man. However, in his case (at least in this story) he uses this ability to achieve his own ends, rather than for the benefit of others. Clinical empathy, on the other hand, implies a therapeutic motivation.

The episode in which Felix pretends to have an illness, and then actually is able to create symptoms, raises the mind-body connection: Is the "pretend" illness still phony if the pretender has sickened himself?

This incident leads to some interesting comments on the art (or lack thereof) of medicine, as the family doctor makes a house call to see the sick boy. Felix observes: "Indeed, the doctor's calling is not different from any other; its practitioners are for the most part empty headed folk, ready to see what is not there and to deny the obvious. Any untrained person, if he loves and has knowledge of the flesh, is their superior and in the mysteries of the art can lead them by the nose." (Around page 32 of the story)

SourceDeath in Venice and Seven Other Stories
PublisherVintage
Edition1989
Place PublishedNew York
MiscellaneousTranslated from the German by H. T. Lowe-Parker. Originally published in 1911.
Annotated by Coulehan, Jack
Date of Entry 10/18/04
Last Revised 11/12/04