Places: Group Portrait with Lady

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Gruppenbild mit Dame, 1971 (English translation, 1973)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1922-1970

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Rhineland

*Rhineland. Group Portrait with LadyRegion surrounding the Rhine River in western Germany. The Rhineland experienced heavy militarization in 1936 and severe destruction by Allied bombing during World War II. The novel’s time frame and settings are revealing in that they signify harsh living conditions and the political socioeconomic climate that affect Leni and those around her in a war-torn environment. Civilians must cut back on luxury and food items, and bombing raids are frequent during the war.

During the years of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, nationalism and political ideals are instilled in the German people at all levels, to such an extent that Leni’s school votes her the “most German” girl in the city, district, province, and perhaps even the whole country. Despite the honorary title, however, she is actually German only in her physical heritage and place of birth–nothing more.


Nursery. Business concern for which Leni works in the Rhineland. During the economic instability of wartime, Leni’s boss creatively sets up a place to sell wreaths to funerals. He and his workers efficiently make the business into a lucrative enterprise because of the war. Since people are dying everyday, floral wreaths are in demand. The business becomes even more lucrative, thanks to Leni’s ingenuity in recycling wreaths and ribbons to save production costs.

Leni also meets a Russian prisoner of war at the nursery, where to work is a special privilege. During air raids, she and the Russian make love in a graveyard–the only place where they can find privacy together. Leni is often happy during the air raids and hopes they will last a long time each time they occur so she can be with her Russian lover as long as possible.


*Rome. Capital city of Italy, where the fictitious biographer Au goes to interview an informant on the relationship between Leni and a nun. In addition to uncovering fascinating information on the nun, Au is charmed by another nun, Sister Klementina, in one of several instances where he projects himself into the narrative.

Leni’s apartment

Leni’s apartment. Home of Leni in a apartment building owned by the Hoyser family in a Rhineland reminiscent of Cologne, where for the first time Au finds himself in the physical presence of his biographical subject. His biographical affection for Leni is still strong. All his perceptions of her prove to be true and correct. Even meeting her here, she is still bewitchingly enigmatic to him due to her reticence.

BibliographyButler, Michael, ed. The Narrative Fiction of Heinrich Böll: Social Conscience and Literary Achievement. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Analyzes Böll’s recurring themes of love, morality, economic pressures, and organized religion and his emphasis on renewal and utopianism. Discusses Leni’s influence on other characters and the role of the narrator.Conrad, Robert C. Heinrich Böll. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Excellent introductory source. Provides a helpful chronological summary of the novel’s complex development and identifies key actions, ideas, and symbols.Reid, J. H. Heinrich Böll: A German for His Time. Oxford, England: Berg Publishers, 1988. Provides informative biographical information and evaluates historical and literary influences on the writer. Discusses symbolism and defines the refusal to participate in evils of society as Böll’s central theme.Vogt, Jochen. “Böll’s Utopia: Great Refusal, Small Pleasures.” In From the Greeks to the Greens: Images of the Simple Life, edited by Reinhold Grimm and Jost Hermand. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. Examines historical and political influences on Böll’s themes and discusses the effects of materialism and capitalism on the common man. Traces these themes through earlier novels, finding a culmination in the character of Leni.Zachau, Reinhard K. Heinrich Böll: Forty Years of Criticism. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994. Discusses critical approaches to Böll’s work. Provides a clear overview of theme, characterization, and symbolism and evaluates Böll’s influence on subsequent German literature.
Categories: Places