The Use of Irony in Arthur Schnitzler's "Lieutenant Gustl"

Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931)
[This paper was written for one of my classes on Fin de siècle Viennese literature.]


Readers of Arthur Schnitzler's 1901 novella Lieutenant Gustl may, upon first encountering the text, feel somewhat overwhelmed by a seemingly chaotic literary structure filled with run-on and disjointed sentences, frequent breaks, and short focus. Notwithstanding this seemingly troublesome structure, there are actually present in the text a number of subtle literary and narrative devices that add meaning and depth to the story of the young eponymous Austrian officer contemplating suicide after a man from the lower class insults him. One such literary device that spills across almost the entire plot of this novella is the use of irony. From its very first scene to its climax at the end, the text is replete with irony. But how is irony used in Lieutenant Gustl as a narrative device, and what does this potentially tell us about the text's portrayal of Gustl? As I shall argue, Schnitzler uses irony to highlight the follies of young Gustl and turn the entire plot into a farce.

In this paper I shall first provide a review of some of the literature written on both the use of various literary devices in Lieutenant Gustl and the function of irony as a literary device. Then I will briefly look at some of the historical background behind Schnitzler's novella, particularly what the contemporary reaction to Lieutenant Gustl possibly indicates about Schnitzler's use of irony. Finally, I shall provide three of the more prominent examples of irony in the beginning, middle, and conclusion of Lieutenant Gustl that highlight the use of this literary device in the text.

Review of Literature

My own review of what other scholars have written on the subject of literary devices in Lieutenant Gustl reveals that little has been said in the way of the use of irony in the text. While scholars have focused on such topics as the Freudian undertones of the prose in Schnitzler's works (Bellettini), Schnitzler's pioneering use of "der vollstandige innere Monolog" (Craig) and the historical–literary context of Schnitzler's piece compared to contemporary works of a similar nature (Carl), they have not said much about irony as a literary device. The same goes for discussing certain themes in Lieutenant Gustl. Scholars have paid attention, for example, to the themes of death and honor (especially military honor) in Lieutenant Gustl (Krellner; Beharriell 305–306), while others have discussed the themes of eroticism and psychoanalysis present faintly in Lieutenant Gustl and prominently in Schnitzler's larger corpus of work (Beharriell). But these scholars have not focused on how these themes function ironically. Thus, my undertaking in this paper will, I hope, bring something new to the discussion. Before I examine how irony itself is used in Lieutenant Gustl, it is needful to define the term and see how it is generally used as a rhetorical device. This necessitates examining what literary critics have written about irony. A review of some of the standard works on literary theory shows that critics have not been able to settle on a single definition of irony. For example, Bernard Dupriez defines irony simply as, "Expressing in the form of a joke, intended seriously or not, the opposite of what one
thinks or wants others to think" (Dupriez 243). Peter L. Oesterreich, similarly, explains that irony, as a literary device, is used "to make something understood by expressing its opposite" (Oesterreich 404). But, unlike Dupriez, Oesterreich goes on to explain that irony can be used as more than just a literary device, but can also be an "existential, [as well as] ontological" phenomenon. By this Oesterreich means that humans perceive irony in their actual day-to-day lives, and not just within works of literature (Oesterreich 404).

Patricia L. Dunmire and David S. Kaufer, however, are not so certain that a single definition of irony can easily be elucidated. Defining irony has been a perennial problem for scholars. The most common definitions have consistently proven inadequate, as they fail to distinguish irony from other major tropes (such as metaphor, allegory, and so forth); furthermore, such definitions fail to address the underlying rhetorical nature of irony. (Dunmire and Kaufer 356.) Given their reluctance to settle on just one definition of irony, Dunmire and Kaufer instead offer a look at the historical and philosophical use of irony. For example, they explain how the ancient Greeks originally conceived irony as a negative rhetorical device, and how it eventually became a popular literary device beginning in early modern Europe (Dunmire and Kaufer 355–236). Notwithstanding the reluctance of Dunmire and Kaufer, others, such as Liesbeth Korthals Altes, feel comfortable in narrowing irony down to at least four categories: (1) verbal irony, (2) dramatic irony, (3) structural irony, and, finally (4) irony "as an attitude of life" (Altes 262). For the purposes of this paper, the most important category above is (2). Dramatic irony, or, one might say, situational irony, is irony that one finds in the development of a dramatic plot. This is, as I shall show later, especially the form of irony the reader can abundantly see in Lieutenant Gustl.

A serviceable synthesis of the above statements on irony by these critics reveals that, at its core, irony is the expression of that which is not expected or intended. When employed in a situational or circumstantial context, irony is the depiction of something that the reader does not expect to occur. This is the definition of irony, specifically dramatic irony, which I shall use in this paper: the depiction of that which is not expected or which runs contrary to what one would commonly assume should occur.

Background: Schnitzler as Ironist

As others have already noted, Schnitzler's works, including Lieutenant Gustl, stand out for their heavy moralizing (Swales). Swales even goes so far as to call Schnitzler a "moral philosopher," or one whose artistic works are actively engaging and defining morality (Swales 475). Although Schnitzler's moralizing is most evident with such classics as Anatol, which playfully scrutinizes sexual morality, some historical evidence suggests that Schnitzler likewise wrote Lieutenant Gustl with a moralistic purpose in mind.

When it was first published on December 25, 1900 in the Neue Freie Presse, Lieutenant Gustl was met with varied reaction. Although critics had mixed opinions on the literary quality of the piece (Schinnerer 243–244), other newspapermen were less than charitable in their critiques of what came to be called the "Gustl-Affäre." As a Jew, Schnitzler found little support amongst either conservative or liberal commentators, who, with considerable justification, felt that Lieutenant Gustl was little more than a thinly veiled Jewish attack on the military (Sayer 482–484). Likewise, and much more seriously, the military itself was in no way amused with Lieutenant Gustl. Shortly after the publication of Lieutenant Gustl, Schnitzler, himself a commissioned officer, was summoned before a military court (Schinnerer 239). Thanks in no small part to his incorrigibility, stubbornness, and obfuscation,[1] "the consequences [of the trial] for Schnitzler were hugely detrimental" (Sayer 484). Schnitzler was stripped of his officer's commission, demoted, and officially censured (Schinnerer 243). 

What was it about Lieutenant Gustl that so badly upset both the public and the military? As I shall demonstrate with the following three examples, I am convinced that Schnitzler's use of biting irony played a significant role in eliciting this overwhelmingly negative reaction from his readers. It is evident that neither the military nor the public missed what appears to be one of more obvious moral critiques of Lieutenant Gustl–––that the sort of behavior promoted by contemporary military culture, as represented by Gustl, is hypocritical and dubious. Although it cannot definitively be said that Schnitzler used irony to turn Gustl into a farcical character in order to satirize the military, a review of the historical evidence surrounding the "Gustl-Affäre" suggests this is a very real possibility. As an influential newspaperman and officer, Schnitzler had ample opportunity to rebut the charges of subversion leveled against him by both the press and the military. Although one must be careful when arguing from silence, in this instance Schnitzler's refusal to even attempt to refute the charges that he was slandering the military speaks volumes.

Gustl at the Concert

The Musikverein in Vienna.
The first example of irony that I will discuss can be found in the opening scene of Lieutenant Gustl, where Gustl is in attendance at an oratorio (Schnitzler 7). As would be expected of any self-respecting officer, the reader sees Gustl obligingly rubbing shoulders with Vienna's bourgeoisie at the "Wiener Musikverein am Karlsplatz im I. Wiener Gemeindebezirk" (Schnitzler 49).[2] However, Gustl is irredeemably bored. "Wie lang wird denn das noch daurern?" Gustl impatiently asks himself as he checks and re-checks his watch (Schnitzler 7). In fact, he is so bored that he even has to remind himself what he is watching. "Was ist es denn eigentlich? Ich muss das Programm anschauen ... Ja, richtig: Oratorium! Ich hab' gemeint: Messe" (Schnitzler 7). The reader thus sees that Gustl really has no interest in the fine arts. Is he in attendance, then, for an ulterior purpose?

In fact, it is soon revealed why Gustl is at the Musikverein: women. Gustl's sexual appetite not sated with his current lover Steffi (Schnitzler 8), the young officer notices and comments on the physical (read: sexual) features of no fewer than: (1) his friend Kopetzky's sister (Schnitzler 7), (2) a chorus of "mindestens hundert Jungfrauen" (Schnitzler 7), (3) "das Mädel drüben in der Loge" (Schnitzler 7), (4) an anonymous group of beautiful Jewish women that Gustl encounters after the performance has ended (Schnitzler 14), and (5) "das hübsche Mädel" that Gustl finds standing "am Geländer" (Schnitzler 14). It is apparent from the text that the fairer sex captivates Gustl, as the mere sight of a woman so easily diverts his attention and engages his fantasy.

But how is this ironic? First, it is ironic that Gustl is at the concert not out of a genuine appreciation for the arts. Indeed, Gustl can't wait to for the program to actually end. "Jetzt wird's doch bald aus sein?" Gustl complains during the performance (Schnitzler 9). Gustl is no patron of the arts, in other words. This runs contrary to what the reader would expect in a refined Austrian officer. Second, it is ironic that Gustl, who, as an officer, is supposed to be representing the excellence of the Kaiser and the majesty of the Austro–Hungarian Empire, has nothing else on his mind but sex. Niekerk has already called attention to the eroticism present in this scene, but he fails to note the irony (Niekerk 100).[3] The reader would expect a supposedly gentlemanly officer like Gustl to be interested in art, but in fact Gustl doesn't have much regard for the concert itself, as Gustl's pretense for being at the concert is based on no more than carnal satisfaction. In just a few lines, then, Schnitzler shatters the stereotypical portrayal of the refined, elegant, cultured military man with an incisive use of irony.

The final ironic moment in the opening scene at the concert, which is also the climax of the scene, is where Gustl gets in a scuffle with a "Bäckermeister," who insults Gustl by calling him a "dummer Bub" and grasping the hilt of his sword (Schnitzler 15). At first Gustl is shocked, as the reader would rightly expect him to be: "Ja, was macht er denn? Mir scheint gar . . . ja, meiner Seel', er hat den Griff von meinem Säbel in der Hand . . . Ja, ist der Kerl verrückt?" (Schnitzler 15). Gustl continues to quietly panic during the entire ordeal until the baker releases the hilt of the sword and reassures Gustl with palpable condescension:
Aber ich will Ihnen die Karriere nicht verderben . . . Also, schön brav sein! . . . So, hab'n S' keine Angst, 's hat niemand was gehört . . . es ist schon alles gut . . . so! Und damit keiner glaubt, dass wir uns gestritten haben, werd' ich jetzt sehr freundlich mit Ihnen sein! – Habe die Ehre, Herr Lieutenant, hat mich sehr gefreut – habe die Ehre! (Schnitzler 16)
At this point, after Gustl has been grievously insulted and spoken down to by someone of a lower class, the reader would expect the officer to do something to redeem his honor and put the malfeasant baker in his place. After all, the text elsewhere indicates that Gustl was willing to duel others for slighting the military (Schnitzler 10–12). Surely, then, Gustl wouldn't let this insult go unchallenged. Yet, surprisingly, and highly ironically, this is exactly what happens. Instead of courageously following through on his thoughts of fighting the baker on the spot for this transgression (Schnitzler 16), Gustl, after realizing that he is helpless alone, instead tiptoes away into the night once everyone is gone (Schnitzler 16–17).

With this cowardly depiction of Gustl, who talks big but won't stand up for himself, Schnitzler uses irony to expose the officer's true colors. Gustl isn't a brave soldier who is ready to fight at a moment's notice to preserve his honor and the honor of the military, as the reader would expect, but is instead a coward and a pushover. This ironic depiction of Gustl, in turn, only reinforces the already negative portrayal of the young officer that Schnitzler crafted in the opening pages of the text.

Gustl in the Prater

The Vienna Prater from the view of the Wiener Riesenrad.
Today an amusement park occupies a large portion of the Prater. 
The next scene that I shall examine that portrays irony comes directly after Gustl has left the Musikverein. Upon his humiliation, Gustl enters the streets of Vienna and wanders aimlessly about, eventually making his way to the Prater (Schnitzler 25). Gustl's first thoughts are that the baker could potentially ruin his reputation by telling everyone about the incident (Schnitzler 17). At one humorous point Gustl even contemplates fleeing to America to seek refuge from the potential storm of ridicule (Schnitzler 27). This leads the young officer to thoughts of suicide, as he cannot imagine having news of the incident ruin his public persona (Schnitzler 18).

The scene continues for many pages with Gustl vacillating between various thoughts and desires. Should he kill himself right now? Should he wait and see his family one more time? Should he just own up to what happened and deal with it? Should he seek out the baker and confront him? Gustl cannot fully decide, until finally he makes up his mind that, indeed, suicide is the best course of action. "Ja, ich weiß schon: sterben muss ich, darum ist es alles eins – sterben muss ich" (Schnitzler 30). In fact, this decision to kill himself becomes so final in his mind that it leads Gustl to morbidly fantasize about his obituary, which of his family and friends will mourn the loudest, and about "die Würmer in Graz" that will joyfully eat his corpse (Schnitzler 20, 31).

There is no single, clear-cut ironic moment in this scene, as opposed to the previous one in the Musikverein. Instead, the entire scene of Gustl wandering throughout Vienna is ironic. The irony of this scene lies in the fact that the text portrays Gustl as being unable to actually carry out the decisions he makes. The reader would expect Gustl, who eventually becomes determine that suicide is the only viable option, to actually commit the deed and for the story to end with his death. Gustl's suicide, however, never materializes. Despite what the reader might expect in the otherwise adamant Gustl, the young officer never actually brings himself to take his own life. Gustl continues to put off the deed by reminding himself of sundry affairs that he feels he first needs to resolve. There is always something that Gustl fabricates ad hoc in his mind that prevents him from killing himself.

The purpose of this irony seems to be to portray Gustl as indecisive, doubleminded, finicky and obsessed over small, inconsequential details that don't matter in the long run. What's more, the irony makes it (almost comically) obvious why Gustl is acting like this. Despite continually reassuring himself that this is the only way to deal with the scandal between him and the baker, Gustl really doesn't want to commit suicide. So instead of confronting his humiliation and cowardice, Gustl instead conjures up petty excuses to justify himself. These are traits, however, that one would not usually associate with a hero or a protagonist. In doing such, the text ironically casts Gustl as the opposite of what one would expect in a heroic, brave, and honorable military man.

Gustl at the Kaffeehaus

A section of modern Vienna's Ringstraße.
The concluding scene of Lieutenant Gustl takes place at a "Kaffeehaus" on the "Ringstrasse" (Schnitzler 41–42), where Gustl briefly stops for breakfast before he plans finally commits suicide (Schnitzler 41). After a brief chat with the waiter, Gustl, in a totally unexpected turn of events, discovers that the baker who insulted him the night before, and who the reader just now discovers is named "Habetswalner" (Schnitzler 43), is now dead. "[Ihn] hat heut' Nacht um zwölf der Schlag getroffen," the waiter informs Gustl (Schnitzler 43).

Gustl, upon hearing the news of the baker's death, is incredulous. "Vielleicht träum' ich," Gustl tells himself. "Ich bin ganz wach – stimmt alles – und doch kann ich's noch nicht glauben – ich muss ihn noch einmal fragen" (Schnitzler 43). After reconfirming the news, Gustl then becomes uncontrollably happy. "Ich glaub', so froh bin ich in meinem ganzen Leben nicht gewesen . . . Tot ist er – tot ist er!" (Schnitzler 44). In fact, Gustl celebrates the news of the death of Herr Habetswalner by ordering Champaign and a cigar with cries of "Famos!" and "Ich bin so froh, so froh!" (Schnitzler 45).

This final scene in the café is, appropriately, richly ironic on a number of levels. First, the surprising death of the baker is ironic in its own right. This entire time the reader has been expecting Gustl to die at any minute, when suddenly, and out of nowhere, the reader discovers that it is the baker who has died. Gustl himself doesn't miss the irony of this development. "Und das Mordsglück, dass ich in das Kaffeehaus gegangen bin . . . sonst hätt' ich mich ja ganz umsonst erschossen – es ist doch wie eine Fügung des Schicksals" (Schnitzler 44–45). With the baker's death, Gustl is not only spared suicide, but also any potential ignominy ("Keiner weiß was, und nichts ist g'schehn!" [Schnitzler 44]), something the young officer fully understands and appreciates.

More importantly, however, is the irony in Gustl's totally unexpected reaction. The reader would expect such tragic news to be met with sorrow or shock on Gustl's part. After all, although he had grievously insulted Gustl, surely Gustl isn't so cold-hearted as to not be sorrowful upon hearing about the death of the baker. But, in fact, Gustl has a reaction opposite to what the reader would expect in this situation. Instead of mourning, Gustl rejoices. "Ich möcht' ja schreien . . . ich möcht' ja lachen . . . ich möcht' ja dem Rudolf ein Bussel geben" (Schnitzler 44). So insensitive to the situation is Gustl, that instead of expressing any sorrow over the baker's demise, the officer instead compliments the late baker for his rolls. "Komisch, wie ich mir da immerfort die Semmel einbrock', die mir der Herr Habetswallner gebacken hat!" (Schnitzler 45).

It is the second instance of irony in this scene that is especially crucial. By describing this highly ironic reaction to the death of the baker, the text, once again, portrays Gustl in a very negative light. Not only is Gustl a womanizer, a pushover, and a coward (all traits that one would not expect in an officer) but he is also a miscreant, who is so enwrapped in himself that he obviously does not care about anything tragic befalling others. In fact, Gustl is such a heartless scoundrel that he even has the audacity to believe God was behind the baker's death. "Am End' ist das Alles, weil ich in der Kirchen g'wesen bin" (Schnitzler 44). Gustl's ironic reaction to the baker's death further portrays him in a highly unflattering light, and further serves to reinforce the reader's negative impression of the contemptible young officer.


I have now reviewed a number of scenes in Lieutenant Gustl that are richly ironic. From these examples the reader can see that this recurring use of irony turns Gustl into a rather noticeable caricature. He is a cultural philistine who gets bored at concerts, a libertine who dresses down woman just upon noticing them, a pushover who gives up at the first sign of distress, an indecisive, double minded coward who won't follow through on his promises, and, finally, an insensitive scoundrel who applauds and celebrates the untimely death of his enemy. Although there are a few moments in the text that conjure genuine sympathy for Gustl, such as when he breaks down emotionally at the Church (Schnitzler 37–38), overall the text creates a very negative portrayal of the young officer. Schnitzler fashions this negative portrayal with a use of irony that turns Gustl into a buffoon.

What's more, it appears that Schnitzler intended to portray Gustl in this manner as a not too subtle hint at what he felt about Austrian military culture of his day. By an incisive use of irony, Schnitzler turned Gustl, and, by association, the Austrian military, into a farce. The overwhelmingly negative reaction of the military and the public to Schnitztler's novella indicates that he largely succeeded in his ironic lampooning. This in turn shows just how powerful irony as a literary device can be in drawing out strong reactions from readers.

With this understanding, the reader can now hopefully make better of sense of why irony is used so frequently as a literary device in Lieutenant Gustl. Although Lieutenant Gustl may be somewhat jarring upon a first encounter, a close reading of the text reveals a literary richness that is nicely augmented by the use of irony.

Works Cited

Altes, Liesbeth Korthals. "Irony." Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. 2005. Print.

Beharriell, Frederick J. "Arthur Schnitzler's Range of Theme." Monatshefte 43.7 (Nov. 1951): 301–311. Print.

Bellettini, Lorenzo. "Freud's Contribution to Arthur Schnitzler's Prose Style." Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 61.2 (Fall 2007): 11–27. Print.

Dupriez, Bernard "Irony." A Dictionary of Literary Devices. 1991. Print.

Dunmire, Patricia L. and David S. Kaufer "Irony." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition. 1996. Print.

Krellner, Ulrich. Über den Tod und die Ehre in der Novelle Leutnant Gustl von Arthur
Schnitzler. Paper. Stockholms Universitet Institutionen för baltiska språk finskaoch tyska, 2007. Print.

Morris, Craig. "Der vollstandige innere Monolog: eine erzahlerlose Erzahlung? Eine Untersuchung am Beispiel von Leutnant Gustl und Frdulein Else." Modern Austrian Literature 31.2 (1998): 30–51. Print.

Niekerk, Carl. "Vienna Around 1900 and the Crisis of Public Art: On Text and Music in Klimt, Mahler, and Schnitzler." Neophilologus 95 (2011): 95–107. Print.

Oesterreich, Peter L. "Irony." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric. 2001. Print.

Sayer, Holly. "Arthur Schnitzler's Critical Reception in Vienna: The Liberal Press and the Question of Jewish Identity." German Life and Letters 60.4 (October 2007): 481–492. Print.

Schinnerer, Otto P. "Schnitzler and the Military Censorship: Unpublished Correspondence." Germanic Review 5 (1930): 238–246. Print.

Schnitzler, Arthur. Lieutenant Gustl. Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam, 2009. Print.

Swales, M. W. "Arthur Schnitzler as a Moralist." The Modern Language Review 62.3 (Jul. 1967): 462–475. Print.


[1]: As Schinnerer (240–242) notes, not only did Schnitzler not follow the advice of a friend to give him any of his (Schnitzler's) sensitive documents or correspondences that might incriminate Schnitzler, but Schnitzler even refused to show up to his trial, and only reluctantly corresponded with the military with curt communiqués.

[2]: The text of Lieutenant Gustl uses ellipses throughout as a means of either connecting or scrambling Gustl's inner thoughts. I mention this to notify the reader that any ellipses in my quotations of Lieutenant Gustl are from the original text, and do not represent my omission of any text.

[3]: Niekerk (100–101), does, however, notice a different bit of irony in this scene. He notes that the oratorio being sung in this scene, based on the one line quoted in the text ("Ihr, seine Engel, lobet den Herrn"[Schnitzler 13]) is likely Felix Mendelssohn’s Paulus. This is ironic, as Gustl, who betrays hints of anti-Semitism in this scene (e.g. Schnitzler 9, 14), seems unaware that a Jewish composer wrote the oratorio he is currently listening to.