Comparative LItterature: The Literary Work 1: A Monument in Ruins: Musil’s The Man Without Qualities

Course content

Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities is a modernist classic, one of the defining novels of the 20th century. As a literary testimony to times of upheaval, a radical change of the world as one knew it, Musil’s incomplete magnum opus takes on new significance in our present moment. We follow the protagonist Ulrich, the “man without qualities”, on his “vacation from life”, exploring a “sense of possibility” in a reality veering towards collapse: the days of Kakania (i.e. the Austro-Hungarian Empire) are numbered, World War I is on the horizon. Against this background, Musil explores the emergence of new notions of identity and consciousness in new literary forms and modes of representation. His planned great novel, which Maurice Blanchot called “a monument admirably in ruins,” remained unfinished. While mainly focusing on the first, published part of The Man without Qualities, we will also consider the text’s genetic history and ask what it means to deal with an unfinished (or unfinishable) work. Working our way chapter-by-chapter through Volume I, we will address questions of politics (e.g. impending war and the “parallel campaign”), race (e.g. the representation of Jewish and Black characters, discursive racism), gender and desire (e.g. the representation of masculinity; Ulrich’s erotic relation to his sister), language and thought (The Man Without Qualities as poetological text or novel of ideas), intermediality (the negotiation of media and other artforms like the newspaper, photography, music, etc.), literary techniques (e.g. the narrator’s irony), literary genre (e.g. Musil’s essayism) and translation (of the German original into English and Danish). By reading Musil’s text closely, analytical methods and concepts introduced in the course Literary Theory and Analysis will be put into practice (we will analyze narrative technique, style, voice, prose rhythm, and character-building) and put to the test (e.g. how does Musil’s concept of Gleichnis relate to literary tropes?). You are not required to be able to read German; the basic text used is Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike’s English translation.


Litteraturvidenskab BA

Classroom teaching. The course will consist of presentations by the instructor, group work and joint close reading and textual analysis.

Robert Musil. The Man Without Qualities. Volume I. Translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. New York: Vintage, 1996.


Examples of Secondary Literature:

Maurice Blanchot. “Musil.” In: The Book to Come. Stanford. Stanford UP, 2003. 134-149.


Philip Payne. Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities. A Critical Study. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988 (selected chapters).


Philip Payne, Graham Bartram and Galin Tihanov (eds.). A Companion to Robert Musil. Rochester: Camden House, 2007 (selected chapters).


Stefan Jonsson. Subject Without Nation: Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity. London and Durham: Duke UP, 2001 (excerpts).


Florian Kappeler. Situiertes Geschlecht. Organisation, Psychiatrie und Anthropologie in Robert Musils Roman “Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften”. Paderborn: Fink, 2019 (excerpts).



Reading secondary literature is optional; the relevant texts will be summarized and presented by the instructor.

Students are required to obtain The Man Without Qualities. Volume I and II. The other texts can be found at KB or will be uploaded to Absalon.

Students should read chapters 1-5 (p. 3-16) of The Man Without Qualities before the first course. It is recommended to read Maurice Blanchot’s essay on Musil as well as Philip Payne’s introduction of Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities. A Critical Study before the start of the course.


Type of assessment
Written assignment
All aids allowed
Marking scale
passed/not passed
Censorship form
No external censorship
  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 42
  • Preparation
  • 293
  • Guidance
  • 1
  • Exam
  • 84
  • English
  • 420


Course number
Programme level

1 semester

Efterårssemesteret 2021
Study board of Arts and Cultural Studies
Contracting department
  • Department of Arts and Cultural Studies
Contracting faculty
  • Faculty of Humanities
Course Coordinator
  • Liselotte Ardal Bille   (7-74696a7174746d48707d7536737d366c73)

Stefanie Heine

Saved on the 10-08-2021

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