Some speculations on how Hoffmann's 'Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr' would have ended

[Do NOT read this unless you have read E.T.A. Hoffmann's 'The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr.' It contains spoilers. And don't just read the following out of sheer inertia thinking, oh, I'm not likely to read Hoffmann's Murr. You might do one day. And if you like romanticism, or Sterne, or Bulgakov, or Dinesen, or of course Hoffmann himself, or are interested in the development of the modern novel, you should certainly get a copy at once, for it is wonderful.]

[2021: updated at bottom with a new discovery]

I've just finished Hoffmann's brilliant Kater Murr and want to get my thoughts down on how the unwritten but promised third volume would have resolved the story. I don't, incidentally, completely rule out the possibility that Hoffmann either planned or later decided to let the first two volumes stand alone as a deliberate conundrum. They certainly can stand on their own, and Hoffmann only died six months after the publication of the second part, which was time enough for a man as industrious as him to complete the third, whereas in fact he doesn't seem even to have started it - but then we don't know what toll his illness took. On the whole I think he did intend to write a third volume satisfactorily concluding the work; and even if not I believe that throughout the first two he was aiming towards a specific explanation and ending we were intended to guess. Either way I think the denouement would have been something as follows.

I base my speculations on the belief that there would have been a happy ending all round. However there is one large obstacle in the way of this: the episode of Princess Maria's birthday celebrations. At the end of volume two Master Abraham has urged Kreisler to attend these, hinting that he schemes to prevent the threatened double wedding of Hedwiga to Hector and Julia to Ignatius - 'I have great plans afoot, but you must be here... Come as fast as you can.' But of course we already know from the fragment torn out of context at the beginning of volume one that for some reason Kreisler does not attend, for which Abraham repeatedly berates him, and that Abraham's plans for the festivities misfired. Furthermore, it would seem that Johannes then didn't meet up with Abraham for quite some time, and moreover that Abraham left Sieghartsweiler shortly after the birthday, possibly banished by the irate Prince because of the fiasco of the celebrations. For the night of the birthday was the night when Abraham rescued the newborn kitten Murr from drowning; and Murr is raised in a busy town; and Murr is entrusted to Kreisler on the occasion when Abraham finally describes the birthday celebrations to him; Murr himself describes this at the end of volume two, and guessing from the internal evidence of Murr's life story, falling in love with his own daughter and so on, I would say that Murr is at least two years old at that point; therefore Johannes was absent for two years. On the face of it, everything is blown right there. Neither Kreisler nor Abraham being on hand to prevent it, the disastrous double wedding presumably took place.

But everything else in the novel points towards a happy ending, or, if you prefer, the resolving of complex dissonances, as Kreisler delights in doing in music. Most likely Hoffmann intended the birthday party ending-and-beginning as a cliffhanger for the attentive reader. Certainly there are any number of ways around the problem; it may be that Kreisler really was gone for two years, and Abraham exiled, but that even banished far from the fisherman's cottage he contrived some way to delay the misguided weddings in the meantime. His tone is gloomy, full of regret and foreboding, as he describes the birthday celebrations to Johannes - 'Tell me everything, Master,' 'It would do you no good' - but Kreisler is as ebullient as ever, and it may be that the journey Abraham is about to undertake is a first step in finally uncovering the various mysteries and putting things to rights. I am proceeding, anyway, from the presumption that something of the sort would have been the case.

What, then, would have been revealed in volume three? To begin with the obvious: it is quite clear that Princess Hedwiga and the beautiful Angela were swapped in the crib by Madame Benzon. Angela is really Hedwiga, the daughter of Prince Irenaeus and Princess Maria, and Hedwiga is really Angela, the illegitimate daughter of Irenaeus and Madame Benzon, whom the Prince ordered to be banished as an infant for fear of scandal; Benzon disobeyed him and, outraged by his cruelty, substituted her own daughter, whom we know as Hedwiga, for Maria's, who was sent away and grew up to be Angela. This of course is revealed in the passage in Part III (page 236 in the Penguin Classics translation by Anthea Bell) where Benzon talks of Hedwiga's morbid disposition:

'Her mother has always been clear-minded, sensible, free of any excessively strong, disastrous passion.' Madame Benzon spoke these words in a low, quiet voice, averting her gaze.

'You mean the Princess her mother,' suggested Prince Irenaeus with some emphasis, since he did not think it proper for the word 'mother' not to be qualified by the word 'Princess'.

'Whom else?' replied Madame Benzon, intensely. 'Whom else should I mean?'

Not long after, recriminating the Prince for tearing her daughter from her no matter how much money he has paid for her upkeep, she also says, 'The fact is, Your Highness, there is another way for caring for one's child, which satisfies the mother better than any amount of gold!' - which may be another hint. And in a couple of places, e.g. p296, it is said that Hedwiga and Benzon's daughter Julia are 'like a pair of sisters', which it seems certain they in fact are.

(Before Angela's later arrival in the story I considered the possibility that it was Julia and Hedwiga who had been swapped as infants, Angela really having been sent away, but in this case they would not of course be sisters, Julia being the legitimate offspring of Madame and Councillor Benzon, and furthermore in scheming to marry 'Julia' to the Prince Ignatius she would be uniting her not only to an idiot but to her own true brother, which seems too dark even for her.)

Next, it seems equally obvious to me that Kreisler loves the Princess Hedwiga, not Julia, and that in turn Julia loves Hector, not him. It is other characters who assume Kreisler's love for Julia on his behalf; discreetly he never responds to their insinuations. At times he refers to his love; at other times he refers to the uplifting effect of Julia's singing; it is wrong to assume the two are connected. The one time he seems to directly refer to Julia as his beloved, in his letter to Abraham, he is in fact making an allusion to Romeo and Juliet (Julia apparently being equivalent to Juliet in German) - he is not talking of the Julia but of his 'Juliet', i.e. Hedwiga. It may be this that leads Abraham astray, for he is not privy to the secret and his plans serve the end of uniting Kreisler and Julia. I believe Abraham finally sees his mistake, however, on the night of the fateful birthday celebrations - 'Julia and Princess Hedwiga were kneeling at the prie-dieu... I learned what I had never guessed, fool that I am' - I think he either hears Julia admit her love for Hector, or conceivably Hedwiga telling of some proof of love Kreisler has let slip to her which we haven't so far heard about due to the fragmentation and shuffling around of the biography.

Kreisler certainly cares deeply for Julia, but in a fraternal, amicable way, mingled with admiration for her art; perhaps he even feels himself torn between her and Hedwiga; but it is Hedwiga who has a, literally, electrifying effect upon him. Moreover they are suited, respectively yearning to give and to receive an artist's love; although it seems to me that there is a strong passion at the bottom of both their hearts, denied and feared by each. Julia, for her part, only fears Hector in the same way that Hedwiga feared and was repulsed by Kreisler at first, and for the same reason, i.e. because of the stirrings of a shocking and hitherto unknown passion; she longs for Kreisler to save her from this simply because he is the non-threatening male friend who stirs up no such feelings. Moreover she believes she would be betraying both Hedwiga, Hector's betrothed, and Kreisler, of whom she is certainly very fond, if she yielded to her passion for Hector. Despite herself she feels drawn to him. Witness, among others, the scene on p299 where Master Abraham talks of Johannes comforting her from afar and Julia cries 'Only protect me from myself!' and covers her blushing face.

Kreisler's love for Hedwiga is what makes the infant-daughter-swapping important. Not only would the Prince not permit a misalliance between Kreisler and his daughter, it is said somewhere by Abraham - I am in a hurry and cannot find the damn quote for now - that Kreisler would not marry someone highborn due to the restrictions of court life. Once it is revealed that Angela is the rightful princess and Hedwiga merely a changeling and illegitimate, there is no obstacle; the dissonance is resolved.

As for Angela... I leave now what I consider cast-iron certainties and start to make deductions. The first of these concerns the miracle of the Virgin Mary saving Cyprian after he was stabbed through the heart by Hector. Namely, I am fairly certain that there was no miracle, and not even a stabbing, merely some legerdemain by Master Abraham.

Although Kreisler (and Hoffmann) has a strong spiritual sense, miracles have no place in the scheme of the novel. The only example of the supernatural in the book (if one leaves aside the device of conversing and literate animals) is the matter of Chiara's psychic gifts (and we only have Abraham's word that there can have been no natural explanations for her insights.) After startling Kreisler with his mirror illusion, Abraham (p125) scoffs gently at people's preference for supernatural as opposed to natural wonders. Kreisler himself (p260) thinks miracles 'wonders not necessary for the practice of true Christian virtue by a devout, innocent mind remote from the feverish ecstasy of an intoxicating cult.' The Abbot (p257) maintains that 'miracles have never ceased', but then talks of miracles in the mind of man, miracles of art and music. Such was the case in hand - a miracle of Abraham's art.

Furthermore, he faked Angela's death, too. It is necessary that she did not die in order that the book be resolved happily; besides Abraham has promised the prince that he will return her (although of course he may merely have been referring to unmasking Hedwiga as the real Angela). What I propose is as follows. We know from Hector and the Abbot that Abraham, under the name of Severino, 'witnessed a very tragic event several years ago in Naples' and 'has been involved with the two brothers in many other ways.' In the confidence of both and acquainted with the lust of Hector and the jealousy of Cyprian, for the sake of Angela he resolved to teach them both a lesson. He furnishes the one with a trick dagger and the other with a fake poison that will simulate the appearance of death (Romeo and Juliet again) and brings the situation to a head. Hector believes he has killed Cyprian, Cyprian that he has killed Angela but that the Madonna has miraculously saved his life, both are stricken with remorse. The surgeon who pronounced the dagger had passed through Cyprian's heart must have been a confederate, or Abraham himself disguised.

(I digress to speculate on two side-issues: firstly, is Angela's old gypsy woman Abraham's lost Chiara? On the whole I think not. For one thing, although the chronology is vague and often confusing, I don't think Chiara, assuming her alive, can be more than middle-aged at this point, and possibly not even that. For another, the old gypsy woman - in her guise as respectable old woman - is described as 'striking only because of her unusual size and curious clumsiness'. Chiara was small; small is not an unusual size for an old woman. Therefore this one was a hulking big gallumper. The curious clumsiness and emphasis of her ugliness is suggestive too, but of what I don't know, unless that she was a man in drag for reasons I cannot fathom - the ugly gypsy who attacked Johannes in the monastery? - but these are the wilder shores of speculation. Or was she perhaps Chiara's grandmother? Was Chiara connected with the gypsy from the monastery? I do not know. It seems likely that Chiara is the mysterious veiled woman who soothed Hedwiga in her agitation, but as to her movements and motives over the years I can only idly conjecture.

Secondly, did Abraham go so far as to contrive an illusory Virgin Mary for the miracle? If so, who played her? Angela herself, in on the scheme from the beginning? Cyprian himself, as monk, describes her beauty in divine terms, but one would expect him to have recognised her if it was her.)

If I am right that Angela did not die, Abraham presumably then concealed her somewhere for reasons which are not quite clear but may be guessed at - the desire to save her re-appearance for a dramatic final denouement at a moment of his choosing, most likely. And when Abraham (with help from Chiara, who appears to know more about some things than he does and whom I would expect to have emerged from hiding in the third volume) finally reveals all, the resolution would be a satisfying one. Kreisler is free to marry Hedwiga as she is not a fully-fledged princess. Cyprian is reunited with his beloved Angela, and perhaps disabused of his belief in a miracle; either way he leaves the church, and the delighftul Benedictine monastery is spared the threat of any excessive monasticism. Angela is reinstated as Princess; Cyprian is already married to her; Prince Irenaeus can be pleased with this as he is Hector's elder brother. Hector himself is free to marry Julia. Abraham is reunited with his dear Chiara. And - child? The only remaining unresolved dissonance I can see is that Abraham has lamented they never had children. Is it too late? Are they too old? Or might it have been revealed that she was pregnant when she was stolen from him? But I cannot see where their child would fit into the scheme of things. Unless - but I will leave that thought for now.

The one objection I will admit is that Hector and Cyprian are both quite loathsome and unworthy of Julia and Angela. Cyprian at least has repented and presumably been redeemed. Hector surely has not. But perhaps extenuating circumstances for his crimes would have been produced - maybe it would have emerged his adjutant acted on his own initiative in trying to kill Kreisler - and is it feasible that Abraham egged him on to act out his violent resentment towards his brother by administering some intoxicating draught? Cyprian's description of him as flushed in the face and foaming at the mouth as he attacked him leads one to speculate. At any rate, he seems passionately devoted to Julia; perhaps the love of a good woman will lead him to virtue.

What of the other villains, Irenaeus and Benzon? Were they to get no comeuppance for their crimes? Well, there is a murderous gypsy at large, and an idiot prince who has taken to brandishing swords... one speculates fondly.

For better or worse we will never know. My theories are largely guesswork and intuition and are far from complete. As Chesterton's Father Brown once cried, I see only half. For the most part, however, I am quite convinced I am correct and am prepared to duel anyone who disputes my assertions - tomcat-style, with leaps and savage bites.

Michael Kelly 19th Dec 05

If any academics happen to wander in here, I'd love to know how many of the above suggestions have been raised before or what other theories have been proposed. For example, while the baby-swapping seems absolutely glaringly obvious and incontrovertible, and I don't for a second expect I'm the first person in 200 years to have realised it, Jeremy Adler doesn't even hint at the possibility in his introduction to the Bell translation. He also seems to believe Julia is Kreisler's beloved, which is just plain wrong.

In particular, if anyone has read George Sand's theories on Murr, I'd love to know what they are.

At any rate, all of the above (and now the below) are my own ideas (regardless of whether anyone's had them before); anyone tempted to borrow them for essays or papers is welcome, so long as you cite me.

UPDATE 2021:

I have had a big new insight that may be the key to solving all or most of the mysteries.

Goaded by a correspondent, Duncan Richardson, who's as keen to find a solution as I am, I started a re-read. Duncan's put together a helpful table charting the events of the Kreisler section of the book which I may upload here when I have a moment. It suddenly occurred to me to wonder why we were so sure we could ignore the Murr parts and if there were any clues to the Kreisler bits lurking there.

This was swiftly followed by a moment of blinding, transfiguring revelation such as probably only the likes of St Paul and Buddha have known before. I made a bombshell discovery, vast in its ramifications yet breathtakingly simple in its formulation, like E=MC2.

It is this:

Cats can't write.


There it is. That's the key to the book. It's been staring everyone in the face for two centuries. Perhaps no-one wanted to see it because the tomcat is so loveable it's a say-it-ain't-so moment when you realise. Nevertheless, and with apologies to the broken-hearted, and offering the consolation that what follows from it puts Hoffmann even more ahead of his time than we already knew, I have to insist:

Cats can't bloody well write!

In almost any other Hoffmann story, a scribbling cat would be nothing, but in this one, with the supernatural ruthlessly excluded, no.

Therefore someone else wrote the Murr memoir as a lark. Namely, Kreisler.

Technically Abraham, the cat's earlier owner, would also be a candidate but from vigour, personality and references alone it's clearly Kreisler.

And, in fact, Hoffmann tells us Kreisler wrote it. Near the end Hoffmann as purported editor intrudes himself to chide Murr for plagiarism:

'Murr, I am sorry to see you decking yourself out in borrowed plumes so often... Don't all these reflections you're so proud of come straight from the mouth of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler?' And just to hammer it home: 'And anyway, how could you acquire sufficient experience of life to see so deeply into the mind of a human writer?'

The Murr memoir was written by Kreisler and is - among other things - a funhouse-mirror version of his own life. A close reading of it will reveal (amid the social satire and jokes) clues to the Kreisler story.

The first one that leaps out is this, and it really should have been obvious before:

Kreisler is the illegitimate son of Prince Irenaeus (or possibly just believes he is), and thinks that Hedwiga is his sister.

This is hinted at by the bit near the start where Murr's mother tells him about his father (p34-6 in my Penguin Classics 1999 edition). 'Your father had very distinguished manners; imposing dignity sat on his brow... But soon a harsh, tyrannical disposition... showed itself... Many folk took him for a Count on his travels, because of his demeanour and elegant disposition.' And Murr later alludes to his distinguished descent (from the German version of Puss in Boots, who has been raised to the nobility by the end of Tieck's play.)

Furthermore consider, 'No sooner were you born than your father felt a dreadful appetite to devour you and your brothers and sisters' in the light of the Prince's behaviour to his offspring by Madame Benzon. Murr's mother telling him she had to defend him from this and hide him from his father's persecutions may conceivably even be the unvarnished truth of Kreisler's early years if the Prince went further in his case; or it may just be that it was the Prince who had him hidden away as with the above.

Kreisler (wrongly) believing Hedwiga to be his (half-) sister explains much that is hitherto unclear; it is, in fact, the only thing that makes sense. Otherwise, why doesn't he admit he's in love with her? Because 'he would hate court life' as I had it previously? That isn't enough. Because a princess is above him? A bit feeble, they could elope, but I suppose more plausible. But why has he never said anything about it even to Abraham? Because (not knowing she was swapped at birth) he thinks it would be incestuous!

The episode of Murr falling in love with his own daughter also most likely alludes to this.

Moreover the mysterious doppleganger is probably Kreisler's brother (possibly even a twin), another by-blow of the busy prince.

A caveat or disclaimer: the Murr sections obviously can't be reduced to just the key to or a commentary on the Kreisler strand and contain many other things besides. For one thing it may also serve as Hoffmann's own biography (note that in his foreword he says he obtained the manuscript from 'a friend with whom he is united heart and soul, and whom he knows as well as he knows himself') in the way that it has long been speculated the Kreisler story does. (The latter should not deceive people into thinking the Julia in the story equates to the Julia that Hoffmann loved - Anthea Bell's excellent notes in my edition energetically track all the ways Kreisler does not share the same history as Hoffmann as well as the ways he does.) Murr's standoffishness and then sudden warm enthusiasm when he meets Ponto the poodle reminded me of Carlyle's description of the beginning of Hoffmann's relationship with his friend Hitzig, and the feline claw-duels are reminiscent of tales of his behaviour in drawing rooms. And it's a sort of social biography of his times, as well as a comment on human nature.

Nevertheless other clues may be there. I'm too busy at the moment to properly scrutinize the Kreisler portions in the light of the ones I've found and invite anyone else interested to do so. It's high time we solved this. I think this year is the 200th anniversary of the publication of the second part of the novel, and also of Hoffmann's death. While it's a tribute to him that fascination with the book has endured so long it's a poor reflection on the rest of us that we haven't fully fathomed its mysteries yet.


Added later:

'Kreisler is the illegitimate son of Prince Irenaeus (or possibly just believes he is)'

- I think when all was finally revealed it would have turned out that Kreisler was really Abraham's son, but cannot prove this at the moment or see how it would have worked. Someone is Abraham's child, because of his lament at not having had children, and Kreisler is the obvious choice; it seems hard to reconcile with some things but there could have been explanations. (Alternatively... I forget, do we know how old Abraham is? He may actually have been Kreisler's grandfather, and Kreisler's mother his daughter.)

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