“The Murder of a Buttercup,” an Expressionist short story originally written in German, is one of Alfred Döblin’s earlier works. Entitled “Die Ermordung einer Butterblume” in its original language, the story follows the actions of a store owner as he is haunted by the memory of a buttercup he destroyed one evening while walking in the woods. It was originally published in 1910 in the literary magazine Der Sturm, of which Döblin was both a co-founder and frequent contributor. In 1913 “The Murder of a Buttercup” was published as the title story in a collection of four novellas by Döblin. In this collection, the characters are all eccentric “Anti-Helden (anti-heroes),” and the stories tend to give nature anthropomorphic qualities. Stark reality and surreal fantasies coexist in a realm where both seem equally plausible, and it is hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins.
Alfred Döblin was born in 1878 in Stettin, Pomerania. He began studying medicine in 1900 while pursuing his career as a writer on the side (Bernhardt 25). During the time period in which he wrote “The Murder of a Buttercup” he was also studying psychiatry; this training bore fruit in his fiction, as Döblin frequently portrays the disorders he observed in his patients in the characters of his stories (Bernhardt 36).
“The Murder of a Buttercup” is a groundbreaking example of Expressionist writing. The story is told entirely from the perspective of the protagonist, using metaphors and strong descriptors (Dollinger 37). It is difficult for the reader to tell what is real and what is only a product of the protagonist’s mind; this is a trait characteristic of Expressionism, which sought “to abolish the intervention of the narrator situated between external reality and the reader.” Expressionism attempted to express the inner workings of a person on the outside (Bernhardt 28).
“The Murder of a Buttercup” is a portrait of the psychotic tendencies of a store owner in early 20th-century Germany. We first meet the protagonist on his Sunday walk through the forest: “The gentleman in black had been counting his steps at first, one, two, three, up to a hundred and back again, as he made his way along the wide road edged with firs up to St. Ottilien.” As the man, Herr Michael Fischer, is walking, his stick becomes trapped in the weeds near the path and he is forced to rip it free. He is so enraged by this that he attacks the flowers, taking off the head of a buttercup in the process. He then proceeds with his walk, but a few minutes later, he has a vision of himself decapitating the buttercup. Shaken, Herr Michael returns to the spot and searches for the buttercup’s head, but to no avail. He returns home and finds himself haunted by thoughts of the violated flower. To appease “Ellen,” as he names the flower, Herr Michael begins to leave her food in a small dish at every meal and opens a bank account in her name. The thought of Ellen begins to take over his life until one evening, while out walking once again, Herr Michael realizes that providing for one of Ellen’s “daughters,” another buttercup from the field, will absolve him, according to the law. Herr Michael digs up another flower and places it in a pot, upon which he writes “Paragraph 2403, section 5” (Döblin 66). A few months later, Herr Michael returns home to find that his housekeeper accidentally knocked the flower down, broke the pot, and threw it all out. Herr Michael is overjoyed that he has finally escaped from his debt to Ellen, and in his excitement, he leaves home to return to the woods where the story began.
This story has been subject to a number of interpretations, with some examining the psychosis at the root of the tale, others exploring the conflict between man and nature, and some analyzing the idea of control in an ever-changing world. All of the interpretations agree that the story was a product of the society in which it was written, with the ever-changing times serving as a backdrop for Herr Michael Fischer’s rage at the beginning of the story.
A Portrayal of Madness
One interpretation of Döblin’s story focuses on the madness that seems to underlie Fischer’s exterior, with an emphasis on the way in which this madness relates to Döblin’s view of the world as a whole. Like many Expressionist writers of the time, Döblin represents the differences between the outward, banal appearance of the middle class and its internal, often deranged workings. Due in part to his work as a psychiatrist, Döblin had a keen eye for the madness that often hid behind the polished exterior of the bourgeoisie: “violence and insanity lurk just beneath the surface of middle-class respectability” (Donahue 4). Expressionism as a movement was interested in the resistances put up to the conformity demanded by society, and Döblin’s experiences with psychosis led him to participate in the movement, at least in his early career (Donahue 4).
A Metaphor for Society
An alternate viewpoint argues that Herr Michael’s attempts to restrain his “nervous body” are a metaphor for society’s attempt to calm a “nervous culture.” While Herr Michael walks through the forest, he feels tense, which he explains by saying that the “city is making [him] nervous” (Döblin 58) This nervousness is a common trait attributed to man in the early twentieth century and is often considered a response to industrialization (Cowan 485). Fischer probably would be diagnosed with neurasthenia because of his “acute hypersensitivity and a corresponding tendency to attribute malicious agencies to the objective world” (Cowan 485). Herr Michael displays these tendencies through his response to the destruction of the buttercup. But while he tries to control the perceived attacks from nature, he also tries to assert control over his own body, as when he attributes his rapid heartbeat and sweating to the buttercups rather than to his own reaction (Cowan 486).
Fischer states that his nervousness is caused by living in the city, but it can be said that is caused even more specifically by his job, where he is known to be obsessed with control. As Fischer tries to explain why he attacked the buttercup, he refers to the daily task he assigns his apprentices of catching all the flies in the shop and arranging them in order of size. This can be seen as an attempt to impose order on both his body and the objective world. Analysts generally attribute the development of neurasthenia to the “advance of industrialization,” saying that it specifically affected those in positions of entrepreneurship due to their anxieties with the laissez-faire policies of that time period (Cowan 487).
Fischer’s approach to his problem shows the effects of cultural nervousness. Throughout the story, Fischer explains his issue with the buttercup by using the terms of economics, although it could just as easily have been explained as a moral issue. Fischer sees the buttercup as a business adversary and therefore attempts to pay her back through the bank account he opens for her, which supports the idea that “his insistence on bodily control must be understood as part of an effort to produce a sense of control over an objective economic sphere that no longer seemed to allow it…the violence towards both nature and the body in the story can be read as a displaced projection of a very different endeavor: namely that of “taming” a volatile economic sphere (Cowan 489).” Fischer hopes that, by understanding nature through the lens of economics, he will gain a stronger control over the economic sphere.
The Power of Nature
A look at the role of nature in the story offers a different interpretation of Michael Fischer’s behavior. Fischer is, as Cowan noted, obsessed with control, and he spends the entire story trying to bend nature to his will through the use of economic thinking, a purely human discipline. He emphasizes the legal way of compensating the buttercup for her murder because it goes against the chaos of nature and instills control. In another effort at control, he seeks to remember the murder of the buttercup as a nightmare rather than as reality. However, Fischer ultimately loses to nature: while he believes he has conquered it, the story ends with him returning to the forest and nature reasserting its power. Döblin saw men as “playthings” (Dollinger 49) of nature, ultimately at the mercy of a more powerful force. The story ends with a pessimistic view of man’s ultimate powerlessness: for Döblin, “all human strivings are viewed as futile and wrong, [so] the distinction between good and evil becomes irrelevant” (Dollinger 49).
- ↑ Roland Dollinger, Wulf Koepke, and Heidi Thomann Tewarson, A Companion to the Works of Alfred Döblin (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2004), 23. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.
- ↑ Christina Althen, “Nachwort,“ in Die Ermordung einer Butterblume und andere Erzählungen (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2004), 131.
- ↑ Oliver Bernhardt, Alfred Döblin (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2007), 17. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.
- ↑ Neil H. Donahue. A Companion to the Literature of German Expressionism (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2005), 71. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.
- ↑ Alfred Döblin, “The Murder of a Buttercup,” trans. Patrick O’Neill, in Early 20th Century German Fiction, ed. Alexander Stephan (New York: Continuum, 2003), 57. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.
- ↑ Michael Cowan, “Die Tücke des Körpers: Taming the Nervous Body in Alfred Döblin’s, ‘Die Ermordung einer Butterblume’ and ‘Die Tänzerin und der Leib,'” Seminar–a Journal of Germanic Studies, 43.4 (2007): 484. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.