Analysis of Die Zeilenesseniss in the Novel “Brodeck” by Philippe Claudel

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In the novel, Brodeck, Philippe Claudel devotes two brief, but impactful segments of the novel to the minor character Die Zeilenesseniss. In these, this authoritative figure is portrayed as both a murderer and nurturing mother while in the concentration camp, suggesting that human beings have the capability to personify both good and evil, depending on the conditions in which they are placed. In Brodeck, the intervention of the minor character Die Zeilenesseniss amid the cruelty and sadistic nature of the guards juxtaposes and symbolizes the concentration camp’s atrocities demonstrating humanity’s paradoxical capacity for both horror and beauty. Ultimately, Claudel’s ironic characterization of Die Zeilenesseniss of an individual seeming to be beyond the simple human condition reveals the dehumanization of the human being.

The character, Die Zeilenesseniss, is first introduced in the novel as the “camp commandant’s wife” (Claudel, 60) who is “young and moreover inhumanly beautiful, with a beauty composed of excessive blondness and excessive whiteness” (60). Immediately, the contradiction of “excessive” and “beauty” not only present the reader with a negative impression of her, but also establish the complexity and irony of her role as both a mother and murderer. She is characterized by her appearance, representing perfectly the type of beauty defended by the Nazis, that of the professed Aryan race. By putting an emphasis on her “ideal” physical features, Claudel is connecting her to Nazism, further foreshadowing her gruesome actions toward the prisoners in the concentration camp.

In addition, the terms describing Die Zeilenesseniss are flattering. When she appeared in front of the prisoners to watch a morning hanging, she was ‘fresh-faced’ with her “cheeks still ruddy from pure water, soap, and cream” (60). Claudel employs her excess of self-care to further humiliate prisoners who were “eaten by the vermin” with their bodies “filthy and stinking” and their skulls “shaved and scabby” (60). By doing so, her beauty and physical attributes become a source of unfairness to the prisoners, and her inhumanity and indifference toward them becomes evident in the passage. Furthermore, Claudel establishes contrast when he describes how Die Zeilenesseniss carries a “scent of wisteria,” that of which Brodeck could no longer smell “without retching and weeping” (60).

The recurring theme of irony is present in this, as most would find the scent pleasing, but Brodeck finds it nauseating after his time at the concentration camp. It is particularly unexpected because of the fact that she was previously portrayed as ‘fresh-faced’ (60) and attractive. Antagonists are generally depicted as having an unattractive appearance to mirror their personalities and actions, but Claudel deliberately makes Die Zeilenessiness stand out in the novel by characterizing her as a beautiful, healthy woman. By doing so, her character comes across as different and unconventional, thus making her memorable as a means to intensify her impact on the reader.

In the same scene, Claudel proceeds to illustrate Die Zeilenessiness as a loving, affectionate mother to her infant son as she watches the morning hangings, always “whispering in his ear or humming the melody of some nursery song” (61), adding to the paradoxical nature of her character and contrasting the cruelty of her subsequently described actions. Just like his mother, the child, “a baby boy a few months old swathed in gay clothes” (61), is well dressed. By his age and “always calm” (61) attitude, Claudel demonstrates how he is a stranger to the violence surrounding him. It is only after the author conveys how Die Zeilenessiness is a caring mother that he reveals the meaning of her name: “the Woman Who Eats Souls” (62).

By giving her this nickname, Die Zeilenesseniss is represented as a monster and the incarnation of evil. As she watches “the jumps and jolts, the throaty noises” and the finally “the great silence” (61) as the hanged prisoner meets death, she instills immense fear and psychological damage in all of the concentration camp prisoners, symbolically eating their souls. Claudel’s feelings toward the actions of the Nazis are portrayed in the name he gives her, as her cruel actions denote purifying the Aryan race and eliminating those who do not belong. Furthermore, it is she who triggers the act of murder. It was “only when [her child] opened his eyes at last” that she would “signal to the guards, with a simple movement of her chin, that the ceremony could start.” (61).

The slight gesture of her chin parallels the ‘small, patient, infinitely tender” (61) gestures to her own child. Claudel juxtaposes the scene of maternal love with the murder of a man who is denied his humanity. When the execution is over, Die Zeilenesseniss plants “a long kiss” (61) on her child’s forehead, contrasting the usual and expected symbolism of a mother and child: love and gentleness versus cruelty and inhumanity. Claudel’s deliberate placement of her name at the end of the passage causes the reader to view her in an ultimately negative sense, moreover juxtaposing her beauty and maternity earlier in the passage.

The first scene of Die Zeilenesseniss conveying the dehumanization of the human being parallels the scene of Brodeck and Kelmar and the crime they committed on the freight car to a concentration camp. Throughout the novel, Brodeck is unable to leave behind the memory of how he and Kelmar had caused the death of a young woman and her baby by stealing the mother’s water jug and drinking all that was left. They survived, but at a terrible expense, eventually leading to Kelmar taking his own life as he could not bear the guilt of having murdered an innocent woman and her child. Brodeck expresses how it was his “tormentors’ great triumph, and [they] knew it.” (295) Here, he is able to realize the monster he has become and reflects on human nature.

Die Zeilenesseniss and her baby are the antithesis but also a direct parallel to the woman and her baby on the train. Die Zeilenesseniss “always carried an infant in her arms” and “gently rocked the child” (61), while the woman on train “held the child close the whole time” (289). The consequence of Brodeck and Kelmar’s action in the train was Brodeck’s recognition of his destruction of his own humanity causing him to wish the death of his neighbor. Claudel reveals that humanity and morality are not innate, but instead are produced and maintained as Brodeck comes to comprehend. Additionally, the dehumanization is just as much on the side of Die Zeilenesseniss and the executioners in the camp as it of the victims.

The final time Brodeck sees Die Zeilenesseniss is at the event of her death. In this scene, Claudel contradicts the negative perception of her established in her introduction with a feeling of sympathy for her as she lies dead and powerless in the center of the concentration camp. By doing so, Claudel forces the reader to reconsider her morality. In the first scene, Die Zeilenesseniss has immense power over the camp prisoners whom she views as subhuman. However, as she stood “Completely alone. Immensely alone,” “facing hundreds of creatures that were gradually becoming men again” (112), her fate turned to lie in the hands of the prisoners.

Claudel continues the paradox between her and the prisoners even in her moment of death when she, “without suffering a blow” (113), is not killed violently, unlike how the prisoners were murdered in the camp. The next day when Brodeck returns to see her lifeless body, he describes how she “was a poor thing, swollen and blue” (114), suggesting his compassion for her as she is now helpless and devoid of power, despite her countless acts of cruelty. It is then that he concludes that reason she came back was for a golden chain necklace meant for being “placed around infants’ necks when they’re baptized” (114) that was so tightly clenched in one of her fists. Brodeck assumes that “perhaps she’d noticed it was missing from her child’s small, soft chest,” so she then “reentered the camp, counting on leaving it again very quickly” (114).

The reader realizes that Die Zeilenesseniss died for her child, and the poetic justice of her death reveals her innate sense of morality and motherly love for her child and alluding once more to the woman and her baby in the freight car. Before her death, the reader only had a limited perspective of Die Zeilenesseniss, and it is only in her death that they, as well as Brodeck, can reflect on her sense of righteousness. Claudel’s view of humankind is thus revealed in that every human has good roots and strays from their morals when they are exposed to cruelty.

In the novel Brodeck, Philippe Claudel juxtaposes the good and evil actions and characteristics of the minor character, Die Zeilenesseniss, to argue that humans have the capacity of being both moral and immoral. Taking the roles as a mother and a murderer, Die Zeilenesseniss stands out in the novel as Claudel demonstrates through symbolism and vivid imagery that however much evil there is in humanity, there is always some virtue within it.


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Analysis of Die Zeilenesseniss in the Novel “Brodeck” by Philippe Claudel. (2021, Jul 30). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/analysis-of-die-zeilenesseniss-in-the-novel-brodeck-by-philippe-claudel/

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