Ingeborg Bachmann’s writings offer unique perspectives on narrative construction and on the possibility of distinctively female storytelling. Her writings feature a varied approach to storytelling, using a marriage of unconventional structure, romantic and mythological imagery, and biblical symbolism. These elements contribute to a style of writing that is both engaging and provocative. Also unique is Bachmann’s attempt to create stories that are born out of a distinctively feminine voice. The stories collected in her compilation, Das dreißigste Jahr epitomize both Bachmann’s narrative style and her tenuous struggle to develop a feminine literature. Whether she succeeds in developing such a feminine voice is dependent upon whether one agrees that a new language is needed in order to do so, and whether she is capable of creating that as well.
Bachmann’s style of storytelling is exceptionally unique as well as complex. She employs a wide range of imagery and symbolism to construct her tales. Karen Achberger appropriately characterizes her projects as heavily laden with multiple layers of symbolism, the deciphering of which is essential to a proper interpretation of her work:
“Behind or beneath the figures and events of the surface narration lies a tightly woven fabric of parallels and models taken from the realms of myth, music, and other literary works, the decoding and analysis of which is crucial to an understanding of Bachmann’s writing, which she termed a “Gewebe” (web).”
Bachmann’s characterization of her own stories as “webs” provides an insight into how they should be read. The surface storyline, when present, is most often merely a vehicle used to express the deeper message contained in the imagery, symbolism, and parallels within the tale. In cases where she is attempting to narrate a tale that subverts the patriarchal system, it may be only through these techniques that she is able to express her ideas.
In the titular story of the collection, “Das dreißigste Jahr,” Bachmann reworks the familiar romantic tale of the wanderer. Georg Philipp Schmidt von Lübeck’s “Der Wanderer,” which was later adapted by Franz Schubert, narrates the experience of a presumably male character venturing out into the world in search of a happiness that has hitherto eluded him. ” Dort, wo du nicht bist, ist das Glück.” It is implicit that there is no new place that will ease his existential angst. It does not matter how far he travels; he will not find happiness by treating it as an object to be discovered in the world. The wanderer’s journey is one of self-discovery, as the only way he will discover this elusive happiness is by becoming existentially content. Bachmann’s story maintains the theme of the poem, but incorporates in a first-person narrative of a man entering his thirtieth year. On the surface, the story seems to deviate very little from the familiar narrative. The man decides that he is too restless to stay in one place, wanders the world for a time, eventually discovers that everywhere he goes is equally disappointing, and eventually comes to content himself with his own life only after a spiritual near-death experience. But there is much more to Bachmann’s story than the linear narrative.
The story begins with remarks from the protagonist on the nature of memory, and how the ability to remember suddenly presents itself to a man in his thirtieth year. One morning he awakes, and is struck by his newfound ability to remember. This introduction invokes the idea of examining one’s own life as narrative. Rather than constructing a story that only chronicles the events in one man’s life, Bachmann begins her story as one in which the man views his own life as a chronicle. Thus he is always searching his past for the cause of his present distress and seeking to add new memories to his collection in hopes of finding contentment. This technique establishes the character as protagonist, narrator, and reader of his own story. The age of the protagonist, nearly thirty, is also significant. Presumably someone his age will have already settled into his life; the time for adventure and self-discovery has already passed. This may be a way for Bachmann to question the traditional norms regarding age and maturity. Who is to say that the man must have already completed his project of existential introspection before this point?
The significance of the man’s age is also tied to the biblical symbolism in the story. The title of the story is a reference to a biblical passage from the book of Ezekiel. “Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.” The thirtieth year of Ezekiel’s life is the time when, living in exile, he experiences a spiritual awakening. The titular character is also living in exile, but it is a self-imposed one that estranges him from his friends and family. He also eventually has his own spiritual awakening; an epiphany about his life and the way he has thus far lived it. The story also bears a similarity to the biblical story of Christ. In the end of the story, the protagonist hitchhikes with a man who eventually crashes his car. The main character survives while the Samaritan is killed. The main character undergoes his spiritual transformation after the unknown man’s death. He “thinks of him (the man) as someone who has died in his place,” an allegory to the death of Christ. Like Christ, the unknown man’s death enables another’s salvation. The use of the biblical symbolism is essential to Bachmann’s style of storytelling. The patriarchal nature of biblical stories precludes the possibility of a feminist faith. Similarly, the narrative of a journey of self-discovery is not one that is inclusive of women. The woman does not go on a journey to discover herself; she waits for the man to return.
Weaving these two patriarchal influences into the framework of her story allows Bachmann to construct a subtle, yet poignant critique of male-dominated society. The tale of a woman’s self-discovery, a woman’s spiritual awakening, cannot yet be told. There is no language for a tale such as that. She alludes to this reality, when her male-mouthpiece in the tale laments that there can be “no new world without a new language.” How can one speak about such a journey without invoking patriarchal baggage? The man is the only one who can experience an existential crisis and rebirth because the man is the only one who grapples with such issues. The woman, especially the biblical woman, is typically depicted as having no inner life. How can a woman emancipate herself through seeing visions of God, if the concept of “God” is an inherently male one? Even her faith is constructed through the male lens. This is why the protagonist in this story must be a man. Bachmann’s method of storytelling in this example is exceptionally intricate, but also quite critical.
One of the most rhetorically powerful and allegorical stories in the collection is “Ein Schritt nach Gomorrah.” This story presents another example of Bachmann’s ‘web’ technique in storytelling. It contains even more biblical symbolism and imagery than the previous story, and this time Bachmann undertakes a complete reworking of the biblical story of creation. On the surface it is a story about a lesbian relationship. However this simple interpretation fails to recognize the complex imagery in the story. Charlotte, the main character, from whose perspective the story is told, is the creator. Her name signals the biblical figure Lot; the only man saved from the destruction of Sodom. Mara, her love interest, represents Abraham, the father of faith, and therefore represents Charlotte’s salvation. When Abraham leaves for Canaan to begin his new life, the only person he brings with him is Lot. The argument that ensues between Mara and Charlotte (really acted out only by Mara) leaves Charlotte’s apartment in ruins. Like Lot, Charlotte is faced with the option of saving herself from the destruction of her destroyed apartment and of starting a new life with Mara.
However, this element of biblical symbolism is not the most profound in the story. More important is the new myth of creation employed. Bachmann uses the demolition of Charlotte’s apartment, a space entirely designed by her currently absent husband, as the foundation for her own myth of female creation. The destruction of the male space provides the opportunity for Charlotte to begin anew. The male space must be destroyed in order for her to transcend the patriarchal framework of her life: ” not until she threw everything behind her, burnt everything behind her, could she enter her own (kingdom).” Much of the story is told in the form of Charlotte’s inner monologue, wherein she contemplates the possibility of creating a new world for herself according to her own specifications. Charlotte looks upon Mara as God looked upon Adam; she views Mara as a creature she can mold in her own image. She judges Mara as “usable” and “good;” worthy of Charlotte’s potential project of recreation. If she chooses, she can leave. She can take Mara with her and create her own kingdom.
Charlotte’s story of female creation is juxtaposed with traditional patriarchal stories of creation found in biblical texts. It is constructed both in tandem and in opposition to these texts. Unlike the women in the Bible (and most women in general), Charlotte is presented with the opportunity to define the parameters of her own life. She can take possession of her own life, which has always been defined by her relationship to a man. She takes over the role of the biblical patriarchs and uses it to contemplate a world that is free from the male influence. Bachmann uses biblical imagery to critique one of the most exalted myths of patriarchy. She strips men of their power to define female life and purpose and returns that power to the oppressed female character. Her decision to use the biblical stories of destruction and creation strikes at the heart of patriarchy and robs it of its greatest glorification.
This story can be interpreted as being far more positive than many of Bachmann’s other stories. The tale ends with the two women lying side by side in Charlotte’s bed, clothed in white— pictorially similar to two angels. White can symbolize a new beginning; a clean slate. Perhaps Charlotte will create something for herself. However, the ending also depicts her setting the alarm before falling asleep, signaling her intention to wake up early so that she may pick up her husband the next morning. It is extremely difficult for the woman to liberate herself from the male space and the male gaze. It is left unanswered whether Charlotte is capable of doing so. A less optimistic interpretation sees her repeating the familiar pattern of domination and subjugation that she has experienced in patriarchal society. She cannot bring herself to break from that paradigm-she is still imprisoned. Her husband dominates her, and she wishes to dominate Mara. While this story certainly employs the idea of a female literature, it muddies the waters on whether a woman can yet liberate herself enough from a man to create her own world. The voice in the story may be distinctively feminine, but it may be a feminine voice that still finds its constitution in the male definition of femininity. Ultimately Charlotte cannot redefine the parameters of femininity for herself; the only way for her to revolt against patriarchy is for her to seize the role of the man.
“Undine Geht” is Bahmann’s most radical story, both thematically and structurally. Once again, it is a reworking of a traditional mythological tale, this time one about a siren. Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novella provides the background against which Bachmann constructs her tale. In the myth and in Fouqué’s tale, the siren falls in love with a human man, which is convenient, as the only way she can inherit a human soul is through marriage to a man. It is one of the most deeply patriarchal stories one can find. As critic Eva Revesz summarizes, “she comes into being-that is, becomes a human being-through her union with a man…epitomizes the notion that a woman’s identity-indeed, her very existence-is defined by and through a man.” The man is the only one who can grant legitimacy to the woman.
Bachmann takes up this myth, and instead tales the story from the first-person perspective of the siren, Undine. The story has no linear plot. It is written as one long, sustained outburst. This is intentional; Bachmann creates an address to the male-dominated world. As Achberger points out, this cold, logical male world is opposed to Undine’s feminine world of emotion, fluidity and passion. This side “is the dark side that is allowed to speak and tell its story before it retreats into darkness.” In that way this tale is at once the most hopeful and the least hopeful of the three. Undine has her own world, one that is free from the influence of the human men she now hates. It is hopeful because she is able to recede from the male-defined world into another one. But that world is not part of the human world. So in order to escape the patriarchal world of men, she must abandon her dream of being human. Undine must go away. Yet even on the end she cannot abandon the need to reach for a man. The last lines of the monologue (“Come. Just once. Come,”) are a plea for a man to attend to her.
Bachmann’s unique manner of storytelling weaves symbolically weaves biblical imagery, mythological influence and romantic allegory into her tales in a way that permits her to critique both patriarchal society and patriarchal storytelling. However, she is only able to critique these institutions from within. Though she escapes the male world a bit more with every story, at the end of the collection she has not yet succeeded completely. The latter two stories, especially Undine, are written in a feminine voice. But they are not written in a new, feminine language. Bachmann does not need to write with a feminine language in order to write with a feminine voice. But her female characters are unable to transcend the male-dominated world. Perhaps if one discovers a new language for a new world, as Bachmann wants, a feminine language might be possible.
 Understanding Ingeborg Bachmann 78.
 “Der Wanderer” Line 20.
 Das dreißigste Jahr 12-13.
 The implication in the conception of life as a process throughout which one become closer and closer to inner completeness is that life is a journey towards death. To be complete, incapable of further growth, is to no longer live. Corpses are complete.
 Ezekiel 1:1
 Das dreißigste Jahr 52-53.
 Das dreißigste Jahr 53.
 At least not during the time at which she wrote this story.
 Das dreißigste Jahr 50.
 Understanding Ingeborg Bachmann 80.
 Understanding Ingeborg Bachmann 81.
 Ein Schritt nach Gomorrah 126.
 Ein Schritt nach Gomorrah 127.
 Ein Schritt nach Gomorrah 130.
 Ein Schritt nach Gomorrah 132.
 Undine geht and Lola rennt: Symbolic Female Flights in the Work of Ingeborg Bachmann and Tom Tykwer” 112
 Understanding Ingeborg Bachmann 86.
 Understanding Ingeborg Bachmann 86.
 Undine Geht 181.
Achberger, Karen. Understanding Ingeborg Bachmann. University of South Carolina
Press, Columbia, South Carolina. 1995.
Bachmann, Ingeborg. Das dreißigste Jahr. Trans. Michael Bullock. Holmes &Meier,
New York. 1987. Originally published 1961.
Ezekiel. Book 1, Chapter 1. American King James Bible. American Bible Society. 1980.
von Lübeck, Georg Philipp Schmidt. “Der Wanderer.” Accessed online 12/9/2012.
Revesz, Eva. “Undine geht and Lola rennt: Symbolic Female Flights in the Work of
Ingeborg Bachmann and Tom Tykwer” Germanic Review 83.2. 2008. 107-137