Author Archives: psmukler

Naturalism and Human Existence

Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck illuminates Büchner’s thoughts on society and the pessimistic way in which he views the world. Written in 1837, Woyzeck stems from the beginnings of the realist movement, a wave of art and literature that attempted to showed the world with complete authenticity. With a starkly pessimistic and harsh look at the human experience, Büchner pushes beyond realist themes in Woyzeck as he no longer strives to uphold the balance of good and evil, but rather allows suffering to prevail. Some would say that Büchner’s work is then more rooted in the philosophy and literary movement of naturalism. Naturalism is the belief that the world functions on natural laws and forces and that supernatural beings do not exist (1). This naturalist view aptly embodies Büchner’s feelings toward his own world. Through his use of biblical allusions, frequent reference to animals, and language regarding time and existence, Büchner conveys his disgust for his unjust and nonsensical world.

Büchner paradoxically plays with biblical language to reflect his belief that the world is not influenced by a higher god, but rather that mankind is left to suffer alone without help from a higher power. Büchner’s tragic protagonist, Woyzeck, takes on a Christ-like role as he is tormented physically and psychologically by his thoughts, the Doctor, and even Drum-Major. In the first scene, Woyzeck almost clairvoyantly hallucinates about an apocalypse as “fire [rages] around the sky” ending with “the world [being] dead” (Büchner’s Major Works, 137). We, as the audience, feel sorry for Woyzeck who must endure such torments as apocalyptic hallucinations and a starved diet of only peas. However, our views of the poor protagonist become jaded at the end of the play as Woyzeck kills his wife (a very non-Christ-like act). A similar paradox is created with the character, Marie, Woyzeck’s wife. Marie illusively resembles the Virgin Mary: she is referred to as “Mrs. Virgin” in the scene 4,2 (Büchner’s Major Works, 137), she frequently is seen with her baby – Christian – on her lap and her name so closely matches that of ‘Mary.’ Ironically, this “Virgin Mary” gets killed because of her flirtation with Drum-Major and is frequently called a “whore” and “bitch” throughout Büchner’s play. Büchner’s cynicism toward the human experience is ever-present in these two tragic characters. As they both endure such harsh lives only to kill or be killed in the end of the play, Büchner ironically employs biblical allusions to convey the idea that there is no higher being influencing the world. If God were present, perhaps Woyzeck and Marie, would not turn at the hand of their immoral society, but since God is not present, Woyzeck and Marie are left to their own undoing. In this sense, Büchner’s Woyzeck seems to parallel Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as Vladimir and Estragon wait for a God that never arrives.

Büchner’s disgust for the human experience is also present in the way in which he elevates animals in his play. Büchner comments that animals have a “beastly wisdom [that] put[s] human society to shame” (Büchner’s Major Works, 139). He jabs at humans in saying that “It’s all a matter of upbringing; [a monkey] is no brutish individual like a lot of people” (Büchner’s Major Works, 139). Through his references to animals, Büchner establishes his antipathy for humans in his society in saying that they are less than creatures that do not even act by their own accord.

Lastly, Büchner’s mere language concerning time and existence throughout the play is laden with disgust for the human experience. Through his characters, Büchner expresses his “fear for the world when [he] thinks about eternity” and how “thirty years” left on Earth is an “ungodly amount of time” (Büchner’s Major Works, 141). Büchner believes that “everything goes to hell…man and woman alike” and questions, “why does man exist? … Why doesn’t God blow out the sun so that everything can roll around in lust, man and woman, man and beast” (Büchner’s Major Works, 147). Through this language, we see Büchner’s utter contempt for human existence and his true sentiments on the reality of life.


Do you think Büchner’s views on society would be different today in the age of technology than they were back when he was writing Woyzeck? If so, how and why would they be different (i.e. what would technology do to change Büchner’s mind about his failing society)? Would he feel more positively about the human experience or would technology engender further disgust for mankind?

How might Büchner’s thoughts about human existence manifest in social media today? Do we gain validity and/or solace in our understanding of human existence through social media? Does social media re-affirm existence for some or help others feel a sense of comradery in life?

(1) (2016). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

Topic 3: The Truth of Reality

Date: 2/15/16

Topic: The Truth of Reality

In Chapter 4 of Revolutions in Communication, Kovarik et al. discuss the history of photography and the ways in which photography has been used “to advance social causes as well as artistic subjects” (Kovarik et al., ebook location: 3513). Through numerous examples, Kovarik suggests that the medium of photography can be used as a way to identify a deeper meaning or truer reality in a contrived setting. In the 1930s, for example, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) was taxed with the job to help “introduce Americans to Americans…by sending photographers and writers out into the country to document the national spirit.” As it turned out, the result of such efforts “was not always a morale-boosting portrait, but rather one of a people struggling to cope and not always managing” (Kovarik et al., ebook location: 3557). With the country functioning under the pretense of strong nationalism, the photographs of these reporters provided an ulterior reality – a vastly more accurate reality – of the American population discovering the falsities of the “American Dream.” Similarly, Kovarik discusses Dorothy Lange’s uncovering of the Migrant Mother which brought to light the reality of poverty in America. Kovarik says, “the Migrant Mother gave no hint that the subjects had brought misery on themselves through any fault of their own. Instead, they portrayed good people as victim’s of a flawed system” (Kovarik, ebook location:3618). Kovarik et al. acknowledge photography’s ability to capture the authenticity of modern life hidden beneath the façade of a disillusioned reality.

Like Kovarik, Zarilli et al.’s examination of Modernism in drama in Chapter 9 of Theater Histories looks at the way in which modernist playwrights, such as Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekov, “represent the many dimensions of real experience” through their works. As Zarilli discusses, modernist playwrights attempt to “separate realms through which they [can] transcend the problems of modern life… look[ing] to new modes of aesthetic order that could help people [move beyond] the chaos of the industrial city” (388 & 389). Such Kantian ideals are present throughout Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In A Doll’s House, Ibsen seeks “to confront and change the oppression and obsession of bourgeois culture” through his character Nora, who, the course of the show, puts on many different personas in order to identify (at the end of the play) that she no longer wants to play the role of the doting housewife; she decides to leave her husband and children behind in search of a more fulfilling life. The one room in which the entire play takes place works as a metaphor for Nora being trapped in a home-life that she wants to escape. Having Nora play the overly enthusiastic housewife of her demeaning, patriarchal husband and then seeing her switch to the various different roles she takes on when other characters – Mrs. Linde, Doctor Rank, Krogstad, and even her children – enter the room not only highlights the absurdity and oppressiveness of the bourgeois culture Ibsen attempts to dismantle, but also shows the true repressive reality of the bourgeoisie housewife. Through Nora, Ibsen communicates “real human experience” as not only the modernist drama do, but also other forms of media – photography included – do (Zarilli et al., 389).



In what other ways does Ibsen’s A Doll’s House communicate the reality of society in the time of bourgeois culture? How do different forms of media, in particular theater and photography, mediate self and societal understanding? Do you see any connections between the ways in which theater and photography mediate self and societal understanding and the way in which contemporary social media platforms help develop this understanding?

Last class, in examining The Importance of Being Ernest, we discussed the ways in which people change their identity depending on the setting they are in and the people they are with. It seems to me that Nora plays this exact same “hat-switching” game with the various people she encounters throughout the play. What does this say about humans? How is this “identity switching” carried out on social media and what does this show us as individuals (our values?, Our desires?, etc.)?

Phoebe Smukler