How Simple is Simon? Unemployment, Masochism, and Daydreaming in Robert Walser’s The Tanners


His New Job, Charlie Chaplin, 1915

by Menachem Feuer

He labored long hours, was the soul of honesty – he could not escape his honesty, it was bedrock; to cheat would cause an explosion in him, yet he trusted cheaters – coveted nobody’s nothing and always got poorer. The harder he worked – his toil was a form of devouring time – the less he seemed to have. He was Morris Bober and could be nobody more fortunate. With that name you had no sure sense of property, as if it were in your blood and history not to possess…to do so on the verge of loss.

— The Assistant, Bernard Malamud

In a 1938 book review on an academic study of unemployment in Germany in the early 20th century, Walter Benjamin gives a fascinating and tragic description of what happens to a person once he or she becomes unemployed. Historicizing the experience, Benjamin argues that the experience of an “ever shrinking income” forces proletarians to “confine” themselves in an “ever diminishing experience.” From these words, we can see that, for Benjamin, the smaller one’s income is the more “diminished” one’s “experience” will be. In other words, a lack of income or a meager income can affect one’s experience of the world and oneself.  Benjamin’s description of this diminished experience is, to be sure, quite extreme:

With their ever-shrinking income, these proletarians must confine themselves to an ever-diminishing experience. They fall into trivial habits; they become overpunctulous; they keep a record of every penny in their attenuated psychic economy. Then they compensate themselves with heady excitements, for which they find dubious justifications and threadbare pleasures read to hand. They become unstable, volatile, unpredictable. Their attempt to live like other people only makes them more unlike them. (127, “A Chronicle of Germany’s Unemployed,” Selected Writings, Volume Four, 1938-1940).

Benjamin’s description of those who work for no wages as “unstable, volatile, and unpredictable” suggests that, in response to being made poor, people who have an “ever-shrinking income” and go through a “diminishing experience” are dangerous to themselves and others!

For Benjamin, economic reduction and experiential smallness breed a working class kind of madness. Poverty works on different levels: it diminishes life and reduces experience. The assumption is that if one lives better, economically, one can have the possibility of a “larger experience” of life. One can be more at peace with the world rather than at odds with it.

The question of whether one is employed or not is big for Benjamin. Like Karl Marx, Benjamin believed that people must work. Man is an animal laborans (“a laboring animal”). Without work, one’s experience will not be “diminished” so much as destroyed.  A tormented experience of life is the result of doing nothing:

One of the many blessings of working is that toil alone makes perceptible the bliss of doing nothing.  Kant calls the weariness at the end of the workday one of the supreme pleasures of the senses. But idleness without work is a torment. This is yet one more deprivation amid the many that the unemployed suffer (127).

Benjamin suggests that the poor worker desires, more than anything, “the bliss of doing nothing.” And this can be experienced and understood. Since “the bliss of doing” nothing is, should, and can only be experienced by the worker, the unemployed doesn’t have the luxury dreaming about doing nothing. The worker, in contrast to the idler, would rather be doing something other than work. This is what the author Robert Walser would call “daydreaming.”

One can, following Benjamin’s logic, only daydream on the job. To daydream while being idle and not have work, in contrast, is not really daydreaming. But, as Robert Walser points out in his novel, The Tanners and in many of his short stories, one doesn’t need to be a worker to daydream. One can be unemployed and daydream.

But, for Benjamin, this would present a problem and some form of denial. Since the main experience of the idle and unemployed is “torment,” Benjamin is more interested in the daydreaming of the worker because it nourishes a utopian view of a better world. The daydreams of a person out of work, on the other hand, are not possible or interesting. They cannot comprehend the meaning or desire for a world in which no one works.

Benjamin suggests that there is a kind of messianic aspect that is hidden in the daydream of a worker who is in search of not just better work but no work at all. However, without toil, this dream is empty.  What’s fascinating about Benjamin’s description of the alienated worker is the fact that he or she can’t fit in to the world, is wild, and dangerous. His or her wildness is connected in some way to his toil. In contrast, one wonders if the unemployed person is equally dangerous to themselves, others, or no one..

When Benjamin argues that that the unemployed and idle person has no experience save for “torment,” he suggests that they are not wild so much as utterly powerless and self-lacerating. The unemployed person lives in a hell that is and is not of his own making. How could a tormented person daydream? Benjamin’s language suggests that this is simply not possible. The “bliss of doing nothing” doesn’t exist for him.  What is most thought provoking about this is that Benjamin’s distinctions are based on using religious categories to differentiate the idle person from the worker. The idler has no hope, while the worker, though his experience is diminished, does.

If the unemployed person is thought of as a “simpleton,” which is put forth in much folklore from the 17th to the early 20th century, this suggests a challenge to Benjamin’s categories. The simpleton is never presented as a wild, dangerous, or unpredictable man (as Benjamin’s low wage workers are). The simpleton is the smaller man (more diminished than the low wage worker).

Although he is oftentimes a failure and is subject to much misfortune, the simpleton usually either has a job or is looking for one. The simpleton is a low wage worker in one moment, and walking out of a job, in another. His employment is on a sliding scale.

The simpleton is seen as a figure who helps and even encourages people to dream about a better world. Through his good deeds or his simplicity, there is kind of happenstance hope. But things have changed. While the poor simpleton of the past may have been a figure of hope and goodness, the simpleton who lives in the capitalist era would, for Benjamin, be a tormented man. Although the simpleton may be a figure, in the imagination of the worker, of the “bliss of doing nothing,” the fact of the matter is that the simpleton can also be seen as “tormented” by failure. By being both and working between the employed and unemployed, the simpleton gives the reader a tragic and a comical sense of a “simple life” in a complicated economic world.

In focusing on the figures of the poor and the unemployed, Benjamin sets up an important question for a kind of literature that, today, could be of great relevance.  How can poverty and unemployment be taken up in a novel in such a way that it does not become a Dickens novel but something more complex, something that puts the simpleton in the space between the dream of not working and the torment of unemployment? After all, many of us in this ailing economy move from one space to the other quite often. We share much with in common with the simpleton who relies on what Georges Bataille would call the “naive certainty of chance” (The Impossible, p.17).

In the era inundated with unemployment, temporary employment, and economic uncertainty, the simpleton poses the question of what one should do with one’s hands. What is my purpose in life and can I, if I am so misfortunate, accomplish it? Or do things just happen – “the naïve certainty of chance” – that I can have no control over? Isn’t the simpleton’s naïve trust of existence – his daydreaming despite all of his misfortune and torment – his greatest trait? The fictional portrayal of the simpleton addresses all of these questions. But this is the case for a secular simpleton. How does it compare to a religious one?

The Hasidic case for the simpleton – as put out by Rabbi Nachman of Breslav – puts things into perspective. It gives us a different notion of work which is not economic so much as spiritual. In a story like Rabbi Nachman’s “The Simpleton and the Sophisticate,” the Simpleton, who lives in poverty and takes up the meager profession of being a cobbler, sees a good end. Although he is poor and lives a misfortunate existence, the simpleton’s trust in others – despite the fact that there is no reason to trust them – is his true work (not cobbling). His humility and happiness in the midst of poverty – while living in close quarters with the sophisticate, who thinks the simpleton is living a lesser life – contribute to this trust. And since he gives his greatest love to the sophisticate (whose life is great by virtue of his wide experiences, his intellect, and his skills), it garners the attention of the King. In the end, the simpleton experiences what people only dream about: he meets the king. After seeing the king, he becomes a leader in the Province.

The story, without a doubt, rewards the simpleton with the fruits of faith. His experience, to pun on Benjamin, may be diminished in terms of poverty and economic hardship but it is actually enhanced through his simple trust in other people. Through his humility, the simpleton’s experience is expanded. The twist is in the contrast between the simpleton who trusts and is by and large a happy poor man and the sophisticate who, for all his knowledge and experience, doubts all (including himself) and lives miserably. While the simpleton is redeemed, the sophisticate, who lives in doubt that such an experience of royalty is impossible (which is an obvious allegorical reference to the experience of God), is unredeemed and confused.

For the simpleton, the good life, the proper “work of the hands,” is helping others and being humble before every person one meets or task to be met. In the end, the simpleton is the most fortunate person in Rabbi Nachman’s story. The only experience that is “diminished” is the sophisticate’s. While interesting, this comic ending to a sad life of poverty speaks to a religious plot not an economic one.

In contrast, the simpleton we find in folklore experiences many misfortunes that don’t seem to be recognized or rewarded. In European folklore, the simpleton is one of the most understated and misfortunate characters. He is the man-child. The child who never grows up and moves from one misfortune to another. However, he also belongs to the daydream of the worker who dreams of the “bliss of doing nothing.” The irony is that, in doing nothing, he, in reality, always fails. The daydream, in other words, is really a tale of torment. Simple Simon is not…so simple.

Simple Simon’s Three Types of Misfortune

“Simple Simon” is one of the most celebrated figures of the simpleton in western folklore. The figuration of Simple Simon first emerged in England in the 17th century in Simple Simon’s Misfortunes and his Wife Margery’s Cruelty. It re-emerged in the 20th century in Mother Goose. As the tale tells us, Simple Simon is a poor and hungry man-child. He experiences three types of misfortune.  On his way to the fair, he asks the “pieman” for a free “taste” of his pie. But the pieman will only do it for a penny. Simple Simon shrugs his shoulders and moves on because he doesn’t have a penny. His first misfortune is poverty.  Coupled with this is the idea that humankind is cruel and refuses to feed the poor.

Simple Simon met a pieman,
Going to the fair;
Says Simple Simon to the pieman,
Let me taste your ware.
Says the pieman to Simple Simon,
Show me first your penny;
Says Simple Simon to the pieman,
Indeed I have not any.
Simple Simon went a-fishing,
For to catch a whale;
All the water he had got,
Was in his mother’s pail.
Simple Simon went to look
If plums grew on a thistle;
He pricked his fingers very much,
Which made poor Simon whistle.

The second misfortune has to do with his abilities. When he goes fishing, with the hope of catching a whale, he doesn’t go to the ocean: he fishes in his mother’s pail. And this suggests that he is more feminine than masculine. He can’t leave his mother. He can only imagine that he will catch a whale; in reality, Simple Simon catches nothing.  This suggests that the simpleton is not a “man” because he still clings to his mother and the feminine. As such he can only “dream” of catching a big fish.

His third and final misfortune deals with nature. When he goes to see if “plums grow on a thistle,” he gets pricked. His final misfortune makes him whistle with pain. If anything, Simple Simon doesn’t live a good life. He is poor, hungry, and disappointed. He is, as Benjamin would say, tormented. And even nature is no on his side. Nonetheless, as the pattern set by the story suggests, he won’t give up on trying.  And, at the very least, he is whistling.

This comical tale is really quite sad. Given these circumstances and this kind of life, who would want to be a Simple Simon? Wouldn’t it be better to be rich and successful?  Is this folktale cautionary? Isn’t it the opposite of a religious tale of the simpleton, like Rabbi Nachman’s? Perhaps there is another kind of religious element that can be found amidst Simple Simon’s failures and simplicity?

The misfortunes of Simple Simon are given a new, fictional and religious form in Robert Walser’s novel, The Tanners. By paying close attention to the Simpleton, in ways that this poem cannot, Walser manages to convey a not so simple simpleton. The main character, Simon Tanner, turns Simple Simon into a complex kind of character who lives not in this or that fairy tale but, here, amongst us. His misfortunes are ours. And it is this shock of recognition which creates something akin to a religious experience because we, like Simon, have a naïve trust in chance and believe, like a Charlie Chaplin character, that there can be a good ending despite the fact that poverty seems to be never ending and experience is…diminished if not destroyed.

Chaplin’s simpleton finds something to do with his hands and this attention to comic detail of “doing nothing” but moving in this way or that makes us smile. But perhaps Benjamin is right and it’s just a distraction from the torment of unemployment. Perhaps, on the other hand, Chaplin awards us for our naïve and simple trust in chance by making us smile.

While he isn’t as charming as Chaplin, Walser’s Simon Tanner poses similar questions. But he also makes us think more acutely about the torment that comes with the oscillation of being or not being employed as well as being or not being loved or seen as special. While people want to be near Chaplin’s characters, they think twice about being near Walser’s.  Nonetheless, Simon Tanner doesn’t give up on humanity because not only his experience but his very presence in the world is diminished by poverty…and day dreaming.

The Tanners: The Not-So-Simple Simon

In The Tanners, Robert Walser suggests, through Simon, a way of looking at the world and oneself through the eyes of a simpleton (who is not a child so much as a “boyish man”); and, in doing this, Walser prompts the reader to think through what it means to become a man or whether being a man is necessary.  The attention to Simon’s tragic-comic predicament comes across as uncanny because, like him, many of us don’t know what to do, as Walser would say, with our “hands.” Like Simple Simon’s final misfortune, we touch a branch thinking that it is a plum and see that it is a thistle. Most of us are constantly disappointed by the work that we do. We realize that in becoming like everyone else and doing what they do, we are learning to accept mediocrity and a life that, in its eternal repetition, is boring. Despite the misfortune, perhaps it’s better to be a Simple Simon who can’t become a normal functioning adult (his three misfortunes are so large that he can’t advance).

Strangely enough, when it comes to fiction and folklore (as opposed to looking at the working or unemployed poor), Walter Benjamin would argue that there may be something religious in the misfortune we find in folklore. In his reading of Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin claimed that Kafka’s fictional parables speak to “the core of folk tradition.” (And, as Benjamin noted, this core is shared by German as well as Jewish folklore.) Benjamin calls this core a “ground,” which is not arrived at through “mythic divination” or “existential theology.” Rather, one arrives at the ground (or rather, apprehends it) through a kind of “attentiveness” – found throughout not only Kafka’s work but Walser’s as well – which includes “all living creatures, as saints include them in their prayers.”  This reflection suggests something very novel: that attentiveness to misfortunate characters and narrators in this or that novel or story is saintly since it prompts a prayer for “all living (and suffering) creatures.” Will this prayer yield some kind of…literary redemption? Or will it just remind us of how ridiculous we are? If the torment of the unemployed is put in a story, does it prompt prayer rather than pity?

Walser, as I’d like to show, suggests all kinds of misfortune while at the same time suggesting a kind of redemption for Simple Simon; but it doesn’t seem to be coming through his hand alone. And this is the novelty of being unemployed. It shows how a woman can either create a masochistic relationship or a relationship that may liberty a not-so-simple Simon from a kind of self-hatred that comes with going from one bad job to another or just not wanting to work at all.

Simon needs the other to help him along the way. As a part of Simon’s venture through life, Walser suggests a kind of journey: that in being a simpleton, one must pass through unemployment, masochism, and countless daydreams. It is, so to speak, the anti-hero’s journey. At the end of the journey there is the possibility that Simple Simon can escape the endless cycle of misfortune. However, at the same time, since his experiences are “diminished,” he has lost faith in sharing them and is more interested n the experiences of others than in his own. It is only by letting the simpleton tell his story – about unemployment, masochism, his day dreams, and his search for a work for his “hands” – to the other that something can be redeemed. Simply leaving (and literally going for a “walk”) from jobs, rooms, and people, which he does throughout the novel, may not be enough for him to become human and make up for diminished experience caused by poverty and uncertainty. (Simple) Simon has a few options in the face of misfortune. Can he, like Chaplin, find the right thing to do? Does he, like Chaplin, stumble into a comic role in a film or book or does he stumble into someone’s life? Does his life experience remain, diminished?

Employment and Unemployment

When we first meet Simon he is in the midst of asking for work at a bookstore: “One morning a young, boyish man walked into a bookshop and asked to be introduced to the proprietor. His request was granted”(37). But when he is asked to explain why he is fitting for the job, he puts his foot in his mouth:

For you see, sir, standing here before you, I find myself extraordinarily well suited for selling books in your shop, and selling as many as you could possibly wish me to. I’m a born salesman: chivalrous, fleet-footed, courteous, quick, brusque, decisive, calculating, attentive, honest – and yet not so foolishly honest as I might appear. I am capable of lowering prices when a poor devil of a student is standing before me, and of elevating them as a favor to these wealthy individuals who, as I can’t help noticing, sometimes don’t know what to do with their money. (38)

In response to this pitch, the owner of the book store is confused as to whether Simon was “having a good impression on him. He wasn’t quite sure how to judge”(38). When he asks Simon to explain some of the things he said, Simon digs himself into a bigger hole and explains how he really is not good at keeping a job:

“I didn’t last long,” the young man continued, “in any of the places I’ve worked at thus far, for I found it disagreeable to let my young powers go stale in the narrow stuffy confines of copyists’ offices, even if these offices were considered by all to be the most elegant in the world…To this day, I haven’t yet been sent packing by anyone at all but rather have always left on the strength of my own desire to leave…No matter where it was I’d been working, my departure was, as a rule lamented, but nonetheless after my decision was found regrettable and a dire future was prophesized for me, my employers always had the decency to with me luck with my future endeavors.” (40)

Although he is – strangely enough – given work, Simon (who loves to walk all over the city and country) literally walks out of this job. And when he does this, he feels a kind of liberation. He can now do nothing. That night, he starts daydreaming or, as Walser calls it, thinking:

Simon was filled thoughts, with beautiful thoughts. Whenever he was thinking, beautiful thoughts flooded his mind quite involuntarily. (48)

But when he wakes the next morning, “he reported to the Employment Referral Office”(48). The man who works at the office, who knows Simon by his first name, notes how often Simon returns to the office.  When he is asked what his last job was, however, Simon doesn’t say he sold books. Rather, he tells the man that he was a “nurse” (we will return to this below in the masochism section).  But he tells him that he can’t do that again: “I don’t have time to stick to a single profession.” Following this, Simon goes on at length about different jobs he thinks might be interesting and about how he’d rather not work at all:

What harm is there in being on the road, even if it’s raining or snowing, as long as you have healthy limbs and remain free from cares? You squeezed into your corner there, cannot even imagine how glorious it is to ramble down country roads. If they’re dusty, then dusty is just what they are, no need to trouble your head about it. Afterwards you find yourself a cool spot at the edge of the forest and as you lie there your eyes enjoy the most splendid view, and your senses repose in the most natural way, and your thoughts wander as taste and pleasure fancy. (49)

As one can imagine, Simon would rather not be working. He moves from one temp job to another.  And most of the work he gets is “copy work,” which is the lowest job anyone can get in that time period (early 20th century). Simon recalls, in many different places in the book, how this work is for low wages diminishes experience.  And this prompts him to want to just wander, unemployed. But, at a certain point, he becomes tormented; yet, the more he talks and daydreams, the more he seems to enjoy being free of work:

Simon was beginning to find his torpid, wastrel’s life unbearable. He felt he’d soon have to return to the world of work and day labor. “After all, there’s something appealing about living like most people. It’s starting to annoy me to be so idle, such an oddity. Food has stopped tasting good to me, going for walks makes me tired, and what’s so uplifting and grand about letting yourself be stung all over by wasps and gadflies on hot country roads, striding through villages, jumping down steep walls, perching atop erratic block, propping your head in your hands, starting to read a book and being unable to finish it.” (125)

When he goes back to work, he returns to his job as a copyist. The more he works, the less recognizable he becomes to himself. He is reminded of this when, on one of his after work walks, he comes across an unemployed man. When asked who he is and what he does, Simon describes his deracination:

“I’m an outlandish figure in my homeland,” Simon replied. “Actually, I’m a copy clerk, and you can no doubt imagine how great a role I therefore play in my fatherland, where the copyist is pretty much at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. Other young people intent on pursuing commercial trades go off traveling to distant lands for educational purposes and then return home with a sack full of knowledge to find that honorable positons have been reserves for them. I however – take my word for it – shall always remain in this country…Naturally I don’t enjoy any respect, I’m generally seen as a wastrel, but that doesn’t matter to me, no tone bit. Here I am and here I shall no doubt remain. It’s so sweet to remain. Does nature go abroad? Do trees wander off and procure for themselves greener leaves in other places so they can come home and flaunt their new splendor?”(273)

Simple Simon, so to speak, is a local. He’s isn’t going anywhere. He is not a young cosmopolitan. He is a poor copyist (temp worker, etc) who many think is just a “wastrel” and is disrespected. Moreover, he tells the unemployed man that he has no ambition to climb higher in the realm of copyists. He doesn’t mind being poor. Perhaps this is what Walter Benjamin meant by the madness of the low wage worker?

However, after saying this, Simon suggests he can leave at any time. He doesn’t need to stay employed. He would rather be poor and free:

“No think you! I prefer to remain poor but healthy and forgo a steady dwelling in favor of an inexpensive room, even if the view is of the darkest of alleyways; I’d rather be faced with financial difficulties than be faced with the difficult decision of where to travel on summer holidays to restore my ruined health…I am free and can always, when necessity commands sell my freedom for a certain length of time so as to be free again after. It’s worth remaining poor for the sake of freedom.” (275)

The problem with his freedom, however, is that although it gives him the freedom to walk (literally and figuratively) away from the job, it only gives freedom to his feet not his hands. The only people who can grant him that kind of freedom, as the novel suggests, is a woman.

Women, Finding the Work of His Hands, and Masochism

Simon’s relationship with women is odd. While he doesn’t actually have an intimate sexual relationship with any female character in the novel, he does fall in love with three women: Klara, a female employer, and, in the end of the novel, with a woman who offers to set him free.

Near the beginning of the novel, we see a Simon who wanders the streets not knowing where he will live. He – out of nowhere – rings the doorbell of a wealthy persons home in the city: “The bell sounded as if a beggar had rung it….Simon always smiled when someone opened the door and invited him in, and now, too, this smile was in evidence, a smile that resembled a timid appeal”(55).   Klara answers the door and asks Simon many questions. When he tells her that he has no money and is currently unemployed, he then asks if his brother can also stay with him. He becomes flustered, panics, and apologizes for fear that he and his brother – living in her space – will do more bad than good. He feels that his poverty – in the sight of this beautiful wealthy woman – is a disgrace.

Klara is enchanted with Simon’s self-deprecation: “the eyes of the beautiful woman gleamed intensely, and now all at once she said: “I should like to take in you and your brother after all. As for the price, I am certain we can reach some agreement”(58).  After she lets him, he day dreams about his brother and how close they are, almost like friends. But, in truth, that’s a lie. But…it feels good and it adds to his new, good fortune which came to him through a “naïve trust in chance.”

After going for different walks and getting to know each other, Simon starts becoming obsessed with Klara: “He had a strange, free, open way of speaking about people who were his immediate companions, who sat or stood bedsides him listening to what he said”(110). The more she asks about Simon’s brother, the more confused he becomes as he desperately tries to keep her close. He confesses to being something like a guilty Don Quixote or Madame Bovary who gorged himself on romance books:

All my senses grew up with these books, perishing again and again when I closed their covers. Then I stepped into life and forgot all those things. I became obsessed with questions of freedom, but I dreamt of experiencing love. What good would it do me to be angry that love has now arrived but not for me? How childish.  I am almost even happy that this love desires not me but another. (111)

After this confession, Klara becomes more of a living ideal of beauty that a human being. He has epiphanies when he sees her and listens to her speak:

Klara felt divine. Dressed in a dark-blue morning coat that flowed loosely about her body in opulent folds, she sat upon the balcony, which provided a view of fir trees whose tips bobbed gently to and fro in the light morning breeze….In the forest you pray involuntarily, and its also the only place in the world where God is near; God seems to have created forests so we can pray in them as if in sacred temples; one person prays in one way, another or another, but everyone prays. When you lie beneath a fir tree reading a book, you are praying, if praying is the same thing as being lost in thought. Let God be where He will, in the forest you can sense Him. (121)

She is the wrong person for Simon to serve. She asks nothing of him save to be her witness. This isn’t real work, however.

Simon, after walking away from her home, goes out in the street again. But this time a woman calls on him to come off the streets of the city and into her home (207).  While the reader might think something sexual is going on in this mysterious moment of calling, s/he will be surprised to find that what she shows him is a room with a sick child. After he gives his talk about how poor he is, she is, like Klara, moved and she asks Simon to take care of her child.

Under her tutelage, he becomes so enamored with her that he becomes masochistic. Once in a while he messes things up so that she can reprimand him. He feels that in being reprimanded – although not too frequently (after all he doesn’t want to be fired) – he feels needed.  Most importantly, he realizes the at he would rather be in the kitchen or caring for the child (being a nurse) than being working in an office! He has finally found a work for his hands that is fitting and meaningful: “He by far preferred the open, airy, warm, steamy, interesting kitchen to the dry-as-dust office where the air was usually stale and the general mood embittered”(222).

He remains silent about his adoration for her mastery of the home and her concern for her sick child. But when an opportunity comes up for him to share what he his writing to his brother, about the kindnesses of his new female boss, Simon is rejected. She has no interest in what he thinks of her. The chapter ends on this note, but the next chapter begins with another: he decides to leave that job and, once again, be an unemployed vagabond. Even masochism, he realizes, has its limits. 

Spending his last bits of money and wandering around the city, Simon bumps into another vagabond and they travel to different bars. In one encounter, Simon shocks a table of men in a bar by telling that that, after all his failures at work, he realizes that “misfortune is educational.”

But what did he learn from failure?

Misfortune is educational, that’s why I’m asking you to raise your glasses with the glittering wine to drink a toast to it. And again! There. I thank you. Let me tell you, I’m a friend of misfortune, a very intimate friend, for misfortune merits feelings of closeness and friendship. It makes us better – that’s doing us quite a good turn…No, it’s destiny – misfortune – that’s beautiful. It’s also good, for it contains fortune its opposite. (259)

From this talk, one can see that it approaches a kind of faith that fortune can come out of misfortune. One simply has to wait. It will come around. This is exactly what Bataille meant by the “naïve confidence in chance” which we see in nearly every film of Charlie Chaplin. But what kind of fortune is he talking about? Is he, like Simple Simon, interested in getting a free taste of pie, catching a whale, or eating a plum? Is he, in other words, daydreaming again?

Conclusion: Simplicity and Love

At this point, we can see that Simple Simon’s life isn’t so simple. He tires work but at the end of the novel he decides that it’s better to be a poor beggar. But from what we have seen in the novel, this is nothing to celebrate. Simple Simon’s lives a life of misfortune.  At the very end of the novel, Walser surprises the reader with a comic ending. But it can only be provided for by a generous woman.

On Christmas, wandering hungry and empty, living a life that is diminished and impoverished, Simon stumbles into a restaurant on the edge of the woods.  When he, in the spirit of Simple Simon, tells the waitress that he has no money and can’t pay for any of his food, she tells him to stay. He can eat anything he wants. But she wants to hear his story.

After confessing to how poverty has ruined his life, he sums himself up to her as follows:

That I am poor at the moment, what does that signify? It needn’t mean anything at all, its merely the tiniest slip in the overall composition that can be erased again with a few vigorous strokes. It might cause a health person a moment of embarrassment, perhaps not even worry, but certainly not alarm. (349)

After saying this, she starts laughing. Simon worries that he is the humiliated object of her laughter and that this is just another misfortune in a long line of misfortunes. And this makes him becomes more self-hating and angry with himself. This brings him into the “torment” that Benjamin saw as the life of the poor and unemployed. And he does so while contemplating what it would mean to go back to a meaningless and monotonous job:

That I’d have to withdraw into apathy, antipathy, and bitterness. No, things stand quite differently, they stand brilliantly, they couldn’t stand anymore brilliantly for a person just becoming a man: It is I –I – who have insulted the world. The world stands before me like an infuriated, offended mother: that face I’m so in love with: the face of Mother Earth, demanding atonement! I tally up everything I’ve neglected, dreamed away, overlooked and transgressed. (349)

After he finishes his tirade of self-deprecation and regret, she kisses him (350) and tells him to stop:

You must never again condemn yourself so criminally, so sinfully. You respect yourself too little, and others too much. I wish to shield you against judging yourself so harshly. Do you know what it is you need? You need things to go well for you again for a little while. You must learn to whisper into a n ear and reciprocate expressions of tenderness. Otherwise you’ll become too delicate. (350)

For the first time in the novel, Simon is given an opportunity to stop hating himself and diminishing himself in front of others – despite the fact that he thinks to himself that he is poor but free. In truth, Simon is his own greatest torment. The waitress tells him to “come with me” but as she leads him into the forest she tells him that she will become his “poor, happy prisoner.” Before he can resist the inversion of his masochistic desires, she says “not another word, not one more. Just come – “(350).

Walser’s ending is in many ways spiritual. It is beyond speech and is wholly wrapped up in being near that other. It suggests that the greatest torment for the simpleton is being alone in his poverty. And by never thinking about what he really wants he becomes his own tormentor. Walser’s conclusion is that, for the simpleton, perhaps love is the only way out of poverty.  Love is a shelter from the economic storm and it opens up a wholly other world of experience, one that Benjamin didn’t consider an antidote to the “destitution of experience” at the hands of poverty. Strangely enough, it’s a not-so-Simple Simon who happens to stumble upon it….in the midst of his poverty and unemployment. The irony: this time, although he didn’t have a penny, this Simple Simon gets to taste the pie. Without his trustworthiness, Walser suggests that Simon wouldn’t have had that fortunate and free….experience.

The lingering question Walser wants to leave us with is one that seems to be non-existent in the life of the low wage worker or the tormented life of the unemployed beggar that Walter Benjamin writes of in his 1938 review. Maybe “misfortune is educational” and teaches us that fortune is concealed within misfortune and maybe our “naïve confidence in chance” pays off. That’s the risk that every Simple Simon takes. But oftentimes he’s reminded that it’s just a daydream that….in this or that stray moment…slips into a life of endless misfortune and torment. It slips into a world that literally doesn’t work.

About the Author:


Menachem Feuer has a PhD in Comparative Literature and a Masters in Philosophy. He teaches Jewish Studies and Jewish Philosophy at York University in Toronto. Feuer has published several essays and book reviews on philosophy, literature, and Jewish studies in several book collections and peer-reviewed journals including Modern Fiction StudiesShofarMELUS, German Studies Review, International Studies in PhilosophyComparative Literature and Culture, Ctheory, and Cinemaction.