Author: Christopher Isherwood
Publish Date: 1939
Page Length: 288 pages
Goodbye to Berlin is a poignant work of fiction written by Christopher Isherwood and published in 1939. The novel, set in 1930s Berlin during the twilight years of the Weimar Republic, artfully portrays a diverse cast of characters and offers a glimpse into the social and political climate of the time. Through a series of interconnected vignettes, Isherwood depicts the lives of individuals from various walks of life, highlighting their struggles, desires, and the increasing political turmoil lurking in the background. This summary aims to provide a concise yet comprehensive overview of the plot, characters, themes, and significance of the narrative.
The novel is divided into six semi-autobiographical sections, each featuring distinct episodes and characters. Isherwood himself can be seen as the observer and narrator, capturing the essence of pre-World War II Berlin.
Section One introduces the reader to the milieu of Berlin, specifically the seedy nightlife and cabaret scene. Isherwood shares his encounters with flamboyant personalities such as Sally Bowles, a reckless and unpredictable English cabaret performer. Through his interactions with Sally and other characters, Isherwood explores themes of personal freedom, sexual identity, and the allure of the Bohemian lifestyle.
Section Two delves into the working-class side of Berlin through the lens of the Landauer family. Natalia Landauer, a young Jewish woman from a wealthy background, becomes a symbol of the social upheaval taking place at the time. Isherwood adeptly portrays the effects of anti-Semitism and the racial tensions building up in Germany, foreshadowing the tragic events to come.
In Section Three, Isherwood introduces the reader to a new set of characters, the Nowaks. This working-class family provides insights into the lives of everyday Berliners struggling to make ends meet. The Nowaks' struggles reflect the economic recession gripping Germany, as well as the rise of Hitler's National Socialist Party. Themes of poverty, unemployment, and the growing support for fascist ideologies permeate this section.
Section Four takes us to a boarding house run by Fraulein Schroeder, an elderly German woman. Here, Isherwood shares the lives of his fellow lodgers, including a Jewish family seeking refuge from the Nazis. As Hitler's control tightens, the fear and despair of those affected by persecution intensify. Isherwood underscores the themes of displacement, loss, and the inescapable grip of political oppression.
Section Five shifts the focus to an aristocratic family, the von Pregnitzes, embodying the fading glory of the old German elite. While Berlin becomes more tumultuous, the von Pregnitzes provide an insight into the lives of the upper classes who initially dismissed Hitler and Nazism. However, the family's journey serves as a cautionary tale, illuminating the consequences of willful ignorance and complacency.
Finally, in Section Six, Isherwood concludes the narrative with his own departure from Berlin. The city eventually succumbs to fascism, becoming a place of intolerance, violence, and despair. Isherwood's decision to bid farewell to Berlin acts as a powerful symbol of the city's irreversible transformation. The novel concludes with a sense of loss, demonstrating the devastating consequences of political extremism and the fragility of societal cohesion.
Goodbye to Berlin serves as an invaluable historical artifact, shedding light on the multifaceted experiences and voices of Berliners during a tumultuous time. Isherwood's ability to depict an array of characters, from the marginalized to the privileged, allows readers to comprehend the intricate web of socio-political conflicts that shaped the city. Additionally, the novel offers important insights into the rise of fascism, anti-Semitism, and the gradual erosion of civil liberties, which eventually led to the Second World War.
By avoiding personal bias and embracing a factual academic tone, this summary presents an objective view of the novel's components. The plot's diverse sections, the nuanced characters, the thematic explorations, and the book's historical significance merge to create an engaging and informative narrative that encapsulates the essence of a transforming Berlin.