The Fictional World of Garshin and Borchert: "The Red Flower" and "The Dandelion"

By Conliffe, Mark | Germano-Slavica, Annual 2003 | Go to article overview

The Fictional World of Garshin and Borchert: "The Red Flower" and "The Dandelion"


Conliffe, Mark, Germano-Slavica


Vsevolod Garshin's "The Red Flower" ("Krasnyi tsvetok" 1883) and Wolfgang Borchert's "The Dandelion" ("Die Hundeblume" 1947) are famous stories with remarkably similar structures, yet as far as I know they have not received a comparative treatment. In Garshin's story an asylum patient believes some red poppies are the keepers of the world's evil and he decides to break from his watchful guardians and pluck the poppies to save the world. In Borchert's story a prisoner, repressed from performing any act of self-expression, reaches outside his tightly guarded daily routine to pluck a dandelion and, thus, redeem his sense of individuality and life. On first glance, the stories share obvious traits: the titles are common flora and represent the goal of the protagonists' quests; the stories are set in an institution where anonymity of patient and prisoner is the norm; the protagonists have not chosen to be there; the stories focus on an existence of solitude; and, in both stories the minds of the protagonists uniquely empower seemingly insignificant flowers, an empowerment which reveals awareness and action that distinguish the characters' individual domains. Perhaps most apparently, both characters come to act in a manner best defined as unreasonable. Certainly, Anthony Storr's generalization, "when solitary confinement is accompanied by threats, uncertainty, lack of sleep and other measures, the victim may surfer disruption of normal mental function without being able to muster any compensatory reintegration" (Storr 42), could explain this bent for unreason. Yet, these two character portraits are subject to different, and individual, world conditions. The aims of this paper are to clarify these world conditions, underscore the different ways in which Garshin and Borchert employ similar structures, devices, and motifs, and account for the unreason that might explain the protagonists' exceptional desire.

One-person worlds

The world of Garshin's and Borchert's stories is best described as a one-person fictional world (Dolezel 1998, 37). Other characters are present in the fictional world, but they are "not admitted into its activities" (Dolezel 1998, 48). The designation "one-person world" does not ignore the fact that the protagonist's communication and interaction in each of these stories are fundamental to these fictional worlds. In any narrative text, Claude Bremond reminds us, there is some form of communication or experience that involves a protagonist (Bremond 390). However, the discursive nature of the world that results from the text does not need to depend on the presence of more than one character. Protagonists can wrestle with societal forms and ideals or reckon with nature. In such instances a protagonist is in communication with a participant or quasi-participant, and this communication affects the order of the narrative. It follows, then, that in Garshin's and Borchert's stories the process whereby the participant--the red flower or the dandelion--becomes the protagonist's focus reveals a trait of the fictional world and presupposes order in the narrative. In addition, the cause of the flower's significance and the manner of interaction between the protagonist and the flower reflect the protagonist's individual nature. Such meditated, spontaneous, and accomplished actions of a character, Thomas Pavel has shown, define the narrative domain of that character (Pavel 1980, 105; 1986, 103). The reason underlying such character definition accords with the personal system of rules that instructs the character in his activities, and each domain has its own rules of perception and ontological structure (Pavel 1980, 107). In Garshin's and Borchert's one-person worlds two levels of communication and experience exist: the level dominated by the domain of the hero, and the level dominated by the actions of the asylum and prison staff. The micro world of the protagonist is a distinct element of the macro world of the institution. …

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