Woodcutters Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Holzfällen: Eine Erregung, 1984 (English translation, 1987)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: The 1980’s, in retrospect, the 1950’s

Locale: Vienna, Austria

Characters DiscussedThe narrator

The Woodcuttersnarrator, a writer who has recently returned to Vienna after twenty-five years in London. He is disgusted with himself for having accepted an invitation from the Auersbergers, met by chance in the street and well known to him in the 1950’s. He had hoped to make a clean break with his artistic past, which drove him to a nervous breakdown. He observes his fellow guests, many of whom he already had seen at the funeral of a suicide, Joana, that afternoon, while they were all waiting for the guest of honor, a famous actor. On leaving the Mozarteum in the 1950’s, the narrator had had close emotional and artistic ties with Jeannie Billroth, also present and now a celebrated writer, before turning to the Auersbergers and Joana. He feels hatred for them all now for setting him on the artistic path through life. The narrator is asleep when the actor arrives, and his behavior is ungracious throughout, but by the end he takes a kinder view of Vienna.

Jeannie Billroth

Jeannie Billroth, a celebrated writer. She is the Austrian Virginia Woolf, according to the narrator, a writer of trash who has sold herself for state subsidies. In her youth, she was the first to take the narrator’s poetry seriously, so that inevitably they now loathe each other, and he can note that she has grown fat and ugly. At Joana’s funeral, she takes a collection to help with expenses but is generally abused for tastelessness. That evening, she addresses a naïve question to the actor and has to endure further insults.

Elfriede Slukal

Elfriede Slukal, professionally known as Joana, an unsuccessful choreographer, dancer, and actress from Kilb, Lower Austria, who has hanged herself. A country girl, pampered by her parents, she had set her sights on Vienna and was a member of the artistic circles attended by the narrator after he left Jeannie. She married a tapestry weaver, Fritz, and her beauty helped to make his studio world famous. Seventeen years ago, Fritz ran away to Mexico with Joana’s best friend, and she became bloated and drunken, trying for a time to earn a living with a “movement studio.” Her last years were spent with a seedy former actor who tried in vain to cure her alcoholism.

Mr. Auersberger

Mr. Auersberger, a talented pianist and composer, a close friend of the narrator in the 1950’s and now his host. Of humble origins, he is a social climber who likes to impress people with coarsely ill-mannered scenes (for example, complaining about the goulash after the funeral and removing his dentures in public) and embarrassing remarks. His evenings have often ended with broken glass and furniture. Now he is a bloated alcoholic with a taste for young male writers.

Mrs. Auersberger

Mrs. Auersberger, the woman who invites the narrator to the supper party. She is a social climber from the minor aristoc-racy; she and her husband live off their dwindling estates. Her artistic gatherings of twenty-five years ago horrify the narrator. Once a singer, she now has a grating voice and a shabby appearance, and she quarrels in public with her husband.

Actor from Vienna Burgtheater

Actor from Vienna Burgtheater, a performer enjoying success as Ekdal in Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. As the guest of honor at the Auersbergers, he appears well after midnight for supper. He behaves in the manner of a self-centered celebrity, insulting Jeannie brutally when she asks him a question. The narrator describes him as a mindless ham, which is perhaps partly true. He departs, wishing he could live in peace like a woodcutter.


John, whose real name is Friedrich, a former actor turned commercial traveler. He has a chronic cough and was Joana’s constant companion for the last eight years of her life. He gives a grisly account of Joana’s death while the narrator is eating goulash. He met Joana at her foolish “studio” and attempted without success to cure her alcoholism. The narrator recognizes good qualities in John despite his appearance.

BibliographyDemetz, Peter. “Thomas Bernhard: The Dark Side of Life.” In After the Fires: Recent Writing in the Germanies, Austria, and Switzerland. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986. This comprehensive survey of German literature since 1945 includes a chapter on the important role that Thomas Bernhard has played in defining new directions in literature.Dowden, Stephen D. Understanding Thomas Bernhard. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. An excellent and complete introduction to the life and works of Thomas Bernhard. Dowden correctly places Woodcutters, along with the five-volume memoirs, in the chapter on the autobiographical works.Fetz, Gerald. “Thomas Bernhard and the ‘Modern Novel.’” In The Modern German Novel, edited by Keith Bullivant. New York: Berg, 1987. A critical analysis of the eight major prose works published between 1963 and 1985, concentrating on the uniqueness of Bernhard’s contribution to the genre of the modern novel.Modern Austrian Literature 21, nos. 3/4 (1988). Includes sixteen articles on various aspects of Bernhard’s work. Of special interest is David Daviau’s article “The Reception of Thomas Bernhard in the United States.”Ryan, Simon. “New Directions in the Austrian Novel.” In The Modern German Novel, edited by Keith Bullivant. New York: Berg, 1987. An excellent survey of the experimentation in language and writing that has become the hallmark of Austrian literature since the 1960’s. This article should be read in conjunction with Fetz’s study of Bernhard’s novels.
Categories: Characters