Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version
Tommy Wilhelm, an over-sized ex-salesman, is the protagonist of the novel. He is portrayed as a character on whom the world's burden and agony fall heavily. He is a man who has been "stripped and kicked out". He is spurned by his father, persecuted by his wife and victimized by crooks. They all exert a real and sinister power over him. By the end of the novel he is genuinely exhausted, bowed down, and totally deprived of his inner and outer resources. Through him the novelist explains the problems and sufferings of humanity at large. His emotional crisis and final catharsis is his symbolic death by drowning.
Wilhelm's antagonist is really himself. Forces within him make him commit mistakes at every stage of his life. Several people in the novel aggravate his problems, including Maurice Venice, his father, Dr. Tamkin, and Margaret.
The climax of the novel is reached in chapter VI, when Wilhelm loses his last 700 dollars. He is frantic and desperately searches for Tamkin, who has disappeared without even informing him. This heavy blow shatters him completely, for he is stripped of dignity and without financial means. He also has nowhere to turn as proven by his father and his wife's indifference to his situation.
An anticlimax is also reached in the novel. Wilhelm is inadvertently pushed by the crowd into a funeral parlor. As he stands next to the coffin of the unknown dead man, Wilhelm cries softly for the loss of another human being, he sobs for himself and his wasted life, and he weeps for the cold and uncaring humanity at large. He symbolically drowns in his tears; but it is also a baptism for him, a rebirth into a life of possibility and responsibility.
The outcome of the novel is tragic. Wilhelm loses everything and feels he is totally alone in life. He feels financially, physically, and emotionally bankrupt. When he is swept up in a crowd and shoved into a funeral parlor, his pent-up emotions are released. He weeps bitterly at the sight of an unknown dead man, drowning in his tears. This catharsis is the only positive sign in the whole novel. The reader is left with the hope that Wilhelm has truly been baptized into a new and better life.