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An Analysis of Heinrich Böll's "Like A Bad Dream"

Heinrich Böll's "Like A Bad Dream"
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

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Heinrich Böll's "Like A Bad Dream" concerns an upwardly mobile young German couple in the 1960s; we do not know the narrator's name, but his wife is named Bertha. The narrator has bid on a large contract for the firm of a man named Zumpen, and on the evening before the contract is to be awarded, Bertha persuades the narrator to invite Zumpen and his wife to their house for dinner.

The narrator understands that Bertha is trying to curry favor with the Zumpens, to make Mr. Zumpen more inclined to award the bid to her husband. He also recognizes that Bertha knows something of such matters, since her father is an important businessman in his own right. What becomes increasingly apparent as the story progresses, however, is the fact that Bertha has a shrewd sense of business strategy -- something her husband completely lacks. What becomes even more apparent is that the narrator considers Bertha's tactics to be underhanded, and he really isn't sure he wants to know how to work this way. It all seems "like a bad dream" to him.

For example, after a very civil dinner during which the narrator never mentioned the contract (and Bertha quite properly didn't either, since it was not her place to do so), the Zumpens leave. Bertha puts on her apron, and she and her husband take care of the leftovers and tidy up the kitchen. Suddenly, however, Bertha gets the car keys. She wants her husband to go over to the Zumpens' and talk to Mr. Zumpen about the contract, as she feels he should have done during dinner. And she wants to come too.

He drives over there. Leaving Bertha in the car, he goes to the door, feeling like an idiot; Mrs. Zumpen tells him her husband has gone out for a bit, but should return in half an hour. He returns to the car and reports this to Bertha, who says she knew that already; Zumpen goes to the Gaffel Club to play chess every Wednesday at this time. What she expected her husband to do is discuss the matter with Mrs. Zumpen. "Please try and understand," she says to him. "I am trying to help you. I want you to find out for yourself how to deal with such things. All we had to do was call up Father and he would have settled the whole thing for you with one phone call, but I want you to get the contract on your own."

This time, they both go up to the Zumpens' front door. They are admitted by Mrs. Zumpen, who seems not the least bit surprised to see them back so soon. Mrs. Zumpen reveals to them that the narrator has, indeed, submitted the lowest bid; however, two more things remain to be done. The narrator should raise their price per square meter fifteen pfennigs; that way he will still come in fifteen pfennigs below the next highest bidder, but he will give himself a higher profit margin. And he is to make out a check for a thousand marks, payable to Mr. Zumpen.

This is clearly a bribe, and the narrator is shocked at the nonchalant manner in which Bertha whips out her checkbook and writes the check. Bertha also makes the changes on the original bid to reflect the increase per square meter. They then return home, where they receive a phone call from Mr. Zumpen. He has noticed the changes, and is surprised that Bertha raised the price not fifteen pfennigs as suggested, but twenty-five.
This is a critical moment. The narrator could cave in and agree to change the contract back to the way Mrs. Zumpen had suggested it. Or he could hold out for his wife's higher profit margin. He opts for the latter option. Zumpen counters with a demand for another thousand-mark check. The narrator, in turn, suggests five hundred. Zumpen says eight-hundred; the narrator says seven-fifty. Zumpen agrees, and the deal is done.

In the final paragraph, the narrator notes that Bertha is nowhere to be seen, but suspects that "she was thinking he has to get over it, and I have to leave him alone; this is something he has to understand." But, he concludes, "I never did understand. It is beyond understanding."

The theme of Böll's story is tied up in Bertha's earlier observation that "Life consists of making compromises and concessions." Here the concessions are not only financial but moral -- but in the world occupied by Bertha and the Zumpens, morality is all about who wins.

Both Böll stories will be found in the collection "The Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll," available Dec. 6, 2011.

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In the meantime, "The Laugher" can also be found in Irving and Ilana Howe's short story anthology "Short Shorts."

It is available in paperback from Amazon here:

It is also available in paperback from Barnes and Noble here: