Sexism and Racism in Georg Buchner’s Play Woyzeck
Woyzeck is a tragic stage play written by Georg Buchner. Due to Buchner’s unexpected death, the play remained unfinished. The unpolished manuscripts and Buchner’s peculiar style resulted in the play gaining a fragmented quality, though every scene remains independent and deep. Woyzeck, the protagonist of the drama, is a military barber who stabs his beloved wife Marie to death. Poverty and despair force Woyzeck to take advantage of every opportunity to make money. The Doctor pays Woyzeck to conduct experiments on his body and requires the protagonist to eat beans exclusively. The man has violent visions and hears voices. Marie’s infidelity and problems with money drive him insane. The scene in which the Grandmother tells a fairy tale expresses the deep message of the stage play. It mirrors Buchner’s tragic and pessimistic views on mankind’s existence. The play addresses complex social issues like poverty, the animal nature of mankind, suffering, religion, and sexuality. However, the playwright only slightly touches upon such themes as sexism and racism; they are not the main focus of the play though they are integral to its message.
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While reading the play, the reader follows the inner thoughts and emotions of the protagonist. Buchner provides an external explanation of Woyzeck’s in the dialogues between him and the Doctor, him and the Captain, him and Marie (Buchner 1879). He reveals his feelings and the hardships he endures, and it helps the reader develop empathy for Woyzeck. He is a lonely insane man, whose crime, namely the murder of Marie, is seen as acceptable (Schmidt 1982, p. 407). Nevertheless, the murder is neither a solution to his existential loneliness, nor a logical result of Woyzeck’s abuse.
The play presents it outcome, namely the murder of an impious woman, as an acceptable and unavoidable, even desired event. Moreover, the word “Mensch”, when used in relation to the protagonist, refers to his status and basic humanity as an individual overcoming severe troubles; meanwhile it applies to Marie only to emphasize her sexual promiscuity, stressing her animal instincts instead of individuality (Martin 1997, p. 429). When Woyzeck desperately cries “Mensch! Mensch!”, he implies that these words mean lechery. It is the first tangible display of sexism.
Nevertheless, a social-realistic reading still does not provide a reasonable explanations for Marie’s murder. It is implied in the play that Woyzeck is under constant pressure on the part of the selfish captain, abusive and egocentric doctor, and other external social forces. However, the outcome of the play fails to explain how vengeance on Marie releases maltreated and abused Woyzeck. Moreover, it does not demonstrate how her death solves his problems. The only possible excuse for the committed crime is the pea diet, but it still a poor one. Marie was was a source of misery for Woyzeck, but she was simultaneously the dearest person in his life. If he wanted to destroy himself, to become free from all the pain and suffering, it was not logical to involve Marie and deprive her of life. Nonetheless, it is not clear why Woyzeck chooses Marie as a subject of his revenge among all the antagonists. When he discovers her sin, he attempts to strike her (Buchner 1879, Scene 11). She is full of dignity when she says “Put a knife in my guts if you want but not you hand on mine. My own father didn’t dare do that … and you won’t now” (Buchner 1879, Scene 11). This scene is a clear example of Woyzeck not respecting her because he tried to hurt her physically. Moreover, she is the only one to experience remorse for her actions, because she understands what effect they may have on Woyzeck. From this perspective, Marie is a more appropriate victim because she felt guilt for what she did.
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Furthermore, the play erases the woman’s side of the story, focusing on Woyzeck’s point of view, describing his loneliness, providing excuses for the violence, and presenting his shallow motive. Woyzeck is not the only character of the play who would like to satisfy his fleeting desires and change his status in society. Marie is not seduces by the gold; she knows and understands what she wants. The readers should not forget that Marie is a real human being who breathes, feels, and needs. Just like Constance Reid, the protagonist of the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence, Marie strives to find love, passion, and fulfillment. Her passion and suffering, her desires and needs are perceived as inferior to those of a man. Though Woyzeck has deep feelings for her, there is no hint of intimacy between them. Therefore, it is her infidelity that leads Woyzeck to commit murder.
Woyzeck’s obsession with Marie is another issue that is worth mentioning. If Woyzeck were the one to betray Marie and she were the one to murder him, her actions would hardly be portrayed as self-explanatory. Being weaker and close to him, she represents a kind of sacrifice, which alters the course of violence, so the captain and the doctor are no longer in danger. As a loose woman, Marie existed on the fringes of society, so the readers may not even assume that her murder was an act of revenge (Glick & Fiske 1996). A different outcome would be possible if the captain or the doctor were hurt.
Racism is another social issue addressed in the play. Before 1925, major German theaters did not have to deal with open manifestations of Antisemitism (Nahshon 2009, p. 157). Until then, ideological attacks perpetrated by the Nazi and other right-wing organizations had taken more deceptive paths and sought effectiveness in disguise (Aosved, Long & Voller 2009). In order to create a negative perception of the Hebrew people, they were portrayed as the bargaining Jew (Nahshon 2009, p. 157). In sharp contrast to the aforementioned bigoted tactics, there are no openly racist situations or discrimination in the play. When Woyzeck wants to purchase a weapon to murder his beloved Marie, he comes to a Jewish man (Buchner 1879, Scene 17). Thus, from the very beginning, the Jew is perceived as a negative character who sells instruments intended to harm living beings or inflict damage.
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Consequently, the Jewish man is associated with his business. Moreover, everything does not happen according to plan in the shop. When Woyzeck attempts to buy a gun, it turns out to be too expensive for him. The readers, who are accustomed to be sympathetic towards the protagonist, are ready to blame the Jew for the high prices and pity Woyzeck. However, upon further consideration one notices that Woyzeck behaves rudely in the shop. Thus, it is not the Jew who aggravates the situation and makes it more intense (Swim, Aikin, Hall & Hunter 1995). The dialogue between Woyzeck and the Jew starts from the abrupt question “Any guns?” (Buchner 1879, Scene 17). Moreover, the Jew is described as a mercantile person. When Woyzeck gives him money for the knife, the Jew seems to be offended by the way the protagonist speaks about money “Take it! Just like that: as if it was nothing. – And it’s money, all of it money.” (Buchner 1879, Scene 17) Additionally, this was the reason why the Jew called Woyzeck “Dog”. Thus, the scene is a clear example of racial discrimination of Jews.
Other characters seem to have the same negative opinion about the Jewish man. In the second scene, Marie recalls a Jew and neglectfully gives Margaret a piece of advice – “Take yours to the Jewman and let him polish them”, meaning that the Jew deals only with objects of great value and big money, putting high prices on things (Buchner 1879). Another person the Preacher, who is considered to be a person of high moral values, says “piss on the crucifix and a Jew will die”, which is far beyond how a reasonable man should behave. Preacher often serve as examples of how an individual should act and treat others. He is a spiritual mentor for others. Therefore, his words can serve as a negative example and encourage the readers to treat Jews negatively. For this reason, racism is tangible in the play.
To conclude, Georg Buchner’s play Woyzeck is full of social themes and motifs. The sexism and racism are not obvious in the play at first glance, but they can be perceived after critical consideration. The sexism of the play manifests in the depiction of Marie and Woyzeck’s attitude towards her. During the shaving scene at the end of the play, Woyzeck’s motivation for committing murder becomes clearer. He was presumably encouraged by external circumstances. However, the real motives are hidden away from the reader. The plot of the play focuses on the male protagonist, avoiding Marie’s side of the story. Woyzeck’s murder is considered to be not only acceptable and understandable, but also reasonable and desired. The racial issue is touched upon both deeply and covertly in the play. The Jews are not discriminated against openly, but the only Jewish character is treated as inferior. Nobody abuses him directly, but he is perceived to be an undesirable member of society.