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How Is the Life of the Poor Depicted in Buchner's Play Woyzeck?

By tutorgirl Mar 20, 2011 1120 Words
There are many themes that Buchner brings to light through his play Woyzeck, but perhaps the most dominant one is his depiction of the poor. Through the attitude portrayed by the various characters, the development of the story and the language used, Buchner gives us a real sense of his feelings on this topic. Through this essay I would like to discuss these. Woyzeck is a tragic story of a barber who stabs his wife to death. The basic storyline itself already gives us an idea of Buchner’s opinion of the poor, as the things that happen are not to a rich man. The scene in the story which really best underpins Buchner’s theme is the scene with the Grandmother’s ‘black fairy tale’. As she tells of the orphan child who will receive no treasures from life we see the parallel this creates with Woyzeck. That he will receive only hardship due to being a member of the lower class. Many critics create a link between Buchner’s ideas expressed through Woyzeck, and Karl Marx. However the key difference is Buchner’s abandonment of any idea of revolution and a utopian society. Although Buchner is showing us the despicable treatment of the lower classes, and the likeness of the poor to animals, it is important to note that he does in fact favour the lower class over the middle class. He expresses that the poor are the purest class, although they are unrefined and animalistic. Buchner prefers this to the pretention of the middle class. What is of course ironic is that while Woyzeck behaves openly like a poor person, it is actually the other characters who behave more animalistic. Let us start by looking at the Officer. He pays Woyzeck for his work, but openly mocks him to his face, almost as if he wouldn’t understand. There is no tact used, no subtle hints, just blatant insulting of Woyzeck’s character and way of life. Where is the class in this? There is none. The pleasure that the officer takes in demoralising Woyzeck is far worse that anything Woyzeck has done. Woyzeck himself expresses his feelings that he has not done anything wrong, that his way of life is not something to be ashamed of, it simply is what it is and that of course if he were richer then he would behave differently. It is just a case of choosing what is important and as a part of the lower class, Woyzeck does not have the luxury to behave like the Officer. Next we see the effect of the Drum-Major’s behaviour on Woyzeck. Were Woyzeck a respected man, there is no way the Drum-Major would have pursued and had his way with Marie. The fact that he so easily does what he wants to with another man’s woman, shows that he does not consider her to belong to another man. This is because he does not consider Woyzeck a man. There is no hesitation in his actions, no question and later on, no remorse. In fact the complete opposite is true, as he speaks openly and brashly of the events that occurred, with no thought as to the consequences. There is the assumption that there will be no consequences, as the Drum-Major considers himself above the common rules of society. In fact it is perhaps not even the fact that he considers himself superior, simply that Woyzeck is so inferior, there is no comparison and therefore no consequence. This again shows one of the ‘better’ characters behaving in such a way that is so primitive; one is really left wondering which class is which. The pursuit and seduction of Marie is the most basic animal action, and truly shows the Drum-Major to be a character of no substance. He views her purely as a sexual object, which again highlights the opinion he has of the lower classes and the fact that his own behaviour lacks the class he thinks he has. Last but certainly not least we come to the character of the Doctor. This character probably best defines the term ‘animalistic behaviour’. He mocks Woyzeck, controls him, and indirectly tortures him. The Doctor has put Woyzeck on a ‘peas-only’ diet, and monitors his symptoms as part of his research. We can see the side effects of this right from the very first scene in the play, where Woyzeck is having violent visions and believes he is hearing voices while his friend Andres hears nothing. When Woyzeck goes to see the Doctor and tells him of his symptoms, instead of concern or an offer to treat his patient, the Doctor simply expresses his joy at the severe side effects of the experiment. He also fails to speak to Woyzeck in anything other than a condescending tone, scolding him for urinating in the street, as this could have been used for further tests. When it comes to presenting his experiment the Doctor continues to treat Woyzeck as nothing better than a lab-rat. The Doctor in fact mimics the Showman and his monkey by ordering Woyzeck around, almost as a performance for the students. This treatment of a person like an animal is in itself animal behaviour. The Doctor is perhaps the best representation of how the richer people felt towards and acted towards the lower class. It is of course more shocking and more unacceptable as the Doctor is someone in a position of power, meant to be trusted and there for the healing and helping of people. He is in fact the opposite and it is through his efforts that Woyzeck is driven to the mental state that leads him to murder Marie. The main point that Buchner makes through Woyzeck, and what I feel is perhaps the most important point, is that the lower class are not to blame for their state of living or for their actions. Buchner presented us with a character who was good and honest, and only did what he had to do to survive. It was through the actions of those deemed ‘better’ than him, for their own selfishness and amusement that Woyzeck’s demise came about. Were it not for his poverty in the first place he would not have had to take part in the Doctors experiment, leading to his deteriorated state of mind. Were it not for his hallucinations he may have perhaps dealt with the betrayal of Marie in a normal manner. This play truly highlights how through thoughtlessness, superiority and a lack of understanding, terrible consequences can come about. If the poor are always treated like they are poor, how can things ever change?

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