Elfriede Jelinek’s novel “The Piano Teacher” is a breathtaking, a shocking, a fascinating and a terrifying study case of human’s emotional, sexual and societal repression. The book deals with three main characters, i. e. Erika Kohut- the daughter of Madame Kohut Senior, a. k. a. the Mother and Walter Klemmer- Erika’s master student, and their relations to each other and to the outside world of classical music and clichi?? s. Vienna is the setting for the drama, pain, humiliation, domination and love Erika experiences while dutifully teaching piano in the Musical Conservatory.
The opening pages of the novel contain the essence of Erika’s sufferings, and allude the reasons for her pathological behaviour to herself and to others:” She puts Erika against the wall, under interrogation-inquisitor and executioner in one, unanimously recognized as Mother by the State and by the Family” (p. 3). This is the “nurturing and loving” home atmosphere Erika comes to every day from a work and lives in since birth.
But Erika’s family has never been and wanted to be the typical formation of Mother, Father and Child happily living together, it is the cool calculated design for fulfillment of Mother’s personal desires. Mother usurps Father’s role and Erika has only her to look up to and to be taken care by. The Mother has also taken care of Erika’s Father: “Erika did not see the light of day until the twentieth year of her parents’ marriage- a marriage that drove her father up the wall and behind the walls of an asylum, where he posed no danger to the world” (p. 3).
Kohut Senior dedicates her life to her daughter – to create the best human being who would be always there with pleasure to submit to and to stay with her:” Her mother had visions of something timid and tender. Then, upon seeing the lump of clay that shot out of her body, she promptly began to mold it relentlessly in order to keep it pure and fine. Remove a bit here, a bit here…. Mother chose a career for Erika when her daughter was still young.
It had to be an artistic profession, so she could squeeze money out of the arduously achieved perfection, while average types would stand around the artist, admire her, applauding her. Now, Erika has at last been patted into perfection. ” (p. 23, 24) Erika is brought up in an atmosphere of constant control, and exaggerated proves of her Mother’s love, care and irreplaceable presence that Erika has to respect unquestionably and to make an eternal part of her life.
The young child is deprived of the contacts with other children her age, because she is too sophisticated and talented to mingle with them and might get influenced into doing ordinary things, such as to play at the river’s bank. Erika’s young existence is guided and guarded also by her Grandmother, who fully supports Erika’s mother methods of upbringing the child. Both elder women have one aim- to keep the child in the vacuum of eternally important for civilized society classical music and at any cost stop the intruders, i. . men, who would like to pull Erika into the drudgery of household and childbearing life.
Young Erika is drilled day and night with the concept of her own uniqueness and others mediocrity, especially the primitivism of the male sex and the great dangers related with being in any contact with them. But her cousin does not seem so dangerous, on the contrary he is very attractive and full of energy, but though a man having his cunning male abilities -he tricks and gently forces the village pumpkins into kissing his feet.
The young man is handsome and her Mother and Grandmother are also charmed by the irresistible attractiveness of the future doctor. The image of her cousin is an allusion to Erika’s later lover Walter Klemmer, the cousin enjoys sports and “tells her she ought to laugh a bit” (p. 42) and the almost identical phrase “He tells her to lighten up, laugh a little, beautiful lady! ” (p. 183) will use Klemmer to address his lover-teacher Erika. But her Mother confines her daughter’s laughter and joy to exclusively playing the piano virtuously.
Erika is deprived of any activities that normal girls engage in, Erika not only does not play with boys, she does not dress like the others girls and she never reads books or has a hobby other than slaving on the piano for hours. A childhood that consists of unrelenting piano playing, of the omniscient presence of a mother that is cruel and controlling and the of absence of a father who could have given Erika moral support and defended her from the mother’s oppression, is bound to have devastating effects on the young child’s psyche.
Nevertheless that Erika youth passes her quickly and she fails to become the world-famous pianist her mother pictured her to be, she does not flee from or revolt against her mother’s controlling and oppressive nature, because her resistance is broken and her psyche is preserved in its embryonic state. Erika Kohut has developed a very complicated and intermixed relationship to her mother. She hates the omnipresent control of the mother but she is so well trained for the submissive daughter’s role that she cannot think of her life without the mother.
Erika has no examples in her personal experience of people revolting and asserting themselves against someone’s domination, on the contrary she sees every day the willing subservience with which parents and children submit to the sacrifices required for the perfecting of the artistic performance, and thus securing the entrance to the higher class in Austrian society. The cult of the musical world reinforces its mechanism of domination and submission, continuous sacrifice and possible reward for the ones, who have been perfected in this scheme-like Erika Kohut the victim and her mother the perpetrator.
In Erika’s world no one revolts, even her father preferred the silent and non resistant exit from her mother’s domain into the realm of the psychiatric asylum. Her surroundings are filled with the sterile air of classical music and Viennese adoration for performers, whose competitiveness with each other often borders brutality, and no one else but her old mother. The mother-daughter relationship is painful, deep and distressing not bearing any happiness or fulfilment.
Erika has also been deprived from the ability to communicate her desires to other people but to her mother, who has molded her, and thus knows best what is allowed to bring Erika pleasure and what not, and who does not perceive this as Erika’s disadvantage. Erika Kohut experiences no pleasures, her feelings and desires have been suppressed ever since the first unconscious attempt her being has expressed to show them and her creative, emotional and sexual energy were carefully channelled by her mother into the majestic realm of the institutionalised Viennese cult for classical music.
The mother resumes all aspects of Erika’s possible wishes and needs; she bases their relationship on a distorted understanding of love and duty. The closed cycle of pain and inflicting pain in Erika’s attitude to her mother and herself is not even broken with the appearance of the young lover-rapist Walter Klemmer. Erika has so deeply internalized the feeling of being a victim of her mother and an all powerful perpetrator of humiliation to her young piano students in the Conservatory that she cannot and will not break out of this vicious circle.
The inability to express her feelings of rage, hate, sadness, loneliness and sexual desires causes Erika to enact her frustration on her own body. She self mutilates and debases her body and mind, she yearns for love, but it appears to be an invitation for a rape. Erika reinforces her suppressed emotional and sexual desires on the straightforward, easy to handle young man- Klemmer, who clings to her even though he feels disgusted and repelled by her wants to experience brutality and pain through him.
She remembers her childhood and it is barren of emotions and sweet memories, she cannot articulate her love and anger either towards Klemmer or to her mother. Erika has no stamina, she does not fight for her happiness, she is taught not to look for it in the main stream picture of family and friends, because art is the highest and the sole deity deserving her human existence besides her mother, of course. Erika does not revolt and stand up for her right of individual fulfilment and happiness, because she is an individual already created by her mother.
Her mother has instilled into Erika the notion of being the best, i. e. it will be impossible for her to become any happier in an outside reality that is not her mother’s controlled environment. It is a long and painful string of events in Erika’s existence that have eradicated her instinctive desires to disobey or to revolt. She lives and thrives in the grotesque and dominant atmosphere of her mother’s world; she is a very important part of this establishment, she-Erika was born and trained to replace the bread earner of the family and to care exclusively of the mother till she has the mercy to die.
It is difficult for Erika to escape the grip of her mother with whom she is in constantly shifting position of power domination, Erika is used to her domain of harshness and love and so is her mother, the two are a team fully dependent on each other. For Erika the dependence is purely psychological, she does not need her mother in order to exist on a daily basis, but she cannot see this, because she has never lived without her and her mother has convinced her in her irreplaceable functions and benefits for the daughter’s life.
The mother has worked on her psyche since birth and shaped her view of life, love and fulfillment. Erika’s repressed sexual expression during her whole life, leads her back to the cycle of victimization and dependence on her mother. Erika is unable to openly speak with her mother and is lamed with fear of expressing her mainstream desires of love and happiness to her young lover from who she expects: “Instead of torturing her, she wants him to practice love with her according to Austrian standard” (p. 31).
Erika is brought up as the best, she has sacrificed her life to become a piano player, and she has obediently rejected the regular mode of living and dedicated herself to the artistic aspirations of her mother. Erika is manipulated and guided by her mother and instead of fighting the distorted images of life her mother presents her, Erika Kohut uses the same methods her to gain the yearned control, obedience and simultaneously submission over her very handsome master student Walter Klemmer.
The nature of domination is polyphonically treated in the text-Erika is not solely caught in the cycle of her mother’s pathological domination over her, she is the vital part on which this cycle depends for its existence, if Erika breaks free the personal revolt would lead to a search of breaking the constraints of societal and artistic world. The power of domination is imbedded in the everyday attitude to each other, in the language one uses and in the institutions that subtly reinforce and internalize it.
Erika has been robbed from her ability to revolt against the things that make her unhappy by her omnipresent demanding mother, by the institutionalised world of music in Vienna, and by the indifference of the society as a whole to the individual request for happiness. The book “The Piano Teacher” explores the venues of possibility for an individual to accomplish a happy and a fulfilled existence in a world that rests on relations built on oppression and domination of its members.
The author Jelinek uses language masterfully to reveal the suffering and the victimization of Erika Kohut and to truly recreate the restless, disturbing and unpredictable atmosphere her protagonist lives in. Jelinek exposes quite realistically every detail of Erika’s private and public appearances and thoughts and thus showing that Erika is trapped in the dark and repressive circle of power struggle and submission to her mother and to Austrian society. Erika Kohut is the product of her mother’s design closely intertwined with the doubtful moral principles of the society and the world of classical music1.
Erika does not even perceive love as the driving force to escape the well guarded world of her mother and stand on her own. And love has no romantic or idealized meaning either for Klemmer or for Erika. He needs her to practice his sexual desires and to reinforce the oldest power structure of domination-man over woman. Erika’s rejection to play by his rules and simultaneously not admitting the simplicity of her desires end in her brutal rape, which she herself has depicted in her letter to Klemmer.
She is dead for a long time now, maybe even since birth, she lives the life her mother wants her to have and there is no one else who really cares about her or wants her as much as her mother. Erika does not revolt against her despotic mother because her present life is determined by her thoughts and inactions in the past, in the long gone unhappy and controlled childhood. The end of the book reinforces Erika’s inability to push the limits of her barren existence and the cycle of interdependence is closed: “Erika knows the direction she has to take. She heads home, gradually quickening her step. ” (p. 280)