Berlin Alexanderplatz Summary

Alfred Döblin

Berlin Alexanderplatz

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Berlin Alexanderplatz Summary

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Set in Germany just before World War II, Alfred Döblin’s classic novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) follows Franz Biberkopf, a murderer just released from prison, as he struggles and ultimately fails to turn his life around. Considered one of the most important pieces of literature of its time, a poll of authors conducted in 2002 named it one of the one hundred most important novels of all time. Döblin is one of Germany’s most prolific and beloved authors across many styles and genres.

Four years ago, Franz Biberkopf made a mistake. In a fit of jealousy, he attacked Ida, his mistress, with a cream-whipper, and one of the tool’s wires killed her when it accidentally stabbed her in the chest. Now, Franz has served his time, and it is the day of his release from Tegel Prison. As he stands by the gates, the gatekeeper urges him forward, but Franz hesitates. He is determined to turn himself around and lead a respectable life, but will he succeed?

The streetcar ride into Berlin seems to confirm all his worst fears. After so many years of the quiet orderliness of the prison, the city is chaotic and overwhelming. He hallucinates that the roofs are flying off the houses. Fortunately, however, a kindly Jewish couple takes pity on Franz, helping him to gain his footing. He begins selling bowties on the street corner and takes a new mistress, a woman named Lina.

Things are finally looking up for Franz until Lina introduces him to her uncle, Otto Lüders. They strike up a friendship, and Franz tells him about a widow he recently slept with. The woman was so enamored of him that she bought a pack of shoelaces he was selling. Later, Otto visits the widow, using Franz’s name to gain entry to her apartment. He then rapes her and steals from her. When Franz returns for a visit, she turns him away, and he learns what kind of friend Otto really is.

To avoid complications from this occurrence, Franz disappears to the outskirts of the city for a while. When he returns, he renews his resolve to lead a good life. Soon, however, he becomes friends with Reinhold, a womanizing gangster. The two men strike a deal: whenever Reinhold finds a new mistress, Franz will seduce away the old one. In this way, both men will have a steady stream of new partners without Reinhold having to do the dirty work of breaking up with them.

This plan works well until Franz falls in love with Cilly, one of Reinhold’s discarded mistresses. When Reinhold next finds a new mistress, expecting Franz to dump Cilly to seduce Trude, Reinhold’s old mistress, Franz refuses. In fact, he and Cilly tell Trude about Reinhold’s plans, and Trude resolves to stay with Reinhold for as long as she can.

Seeing this as a betrayal, Reinhold plans his revenge. The next time the gang has a robbery scheduled, Reinhold invites Franz to come along, saying they are simply picking up a fruit delivery. When they are discovered during the robbery, their car speeds away, and the authorities pursue. Reinhold pushes Franz out of the car, causing him to be run over by the police car. He is taken to the hospital, and his arm is amputated.

As Franz is recovering, old friends from his criminal youth visit him. The friends (Herbert Wishchow, a pimp, and his mistress, Eva) take Franz in until he is fully recovered. Herbert and Eva give Franz a young prostitute named Meize, and they fall in love. She continues working as a prostitute to support Franz. She also secretly dates Oskar Fischer, a member of Reinhold’s gang, so that she can have inside information that might help her protect Franz.

Eventually, Franz feels well enough that he starts visiting Reinhold again. Initially, the gang is afraid that Franz sold them out to the police, but soon they realize he has no grudge against them for what happened. Reinhold, however, wants more revenge on Franz. He invites Meize out for a walk in the forest and tries to seduce her, but he makes the mistake a speaking ill of Franz. When she becomes angry and refuses him, Reinhold tries to rape her. Instead, he accidentally kills her.
Reinhold calls Oskar, and the two bury Meize’s body in the forest. Franz is sick with worry when Meize never comes home, but he thinks nothing of it when Reinhold asks him to buy a conspicuously large trunk. Reinhold then goes back to the forest and reburies Meize’s body in the trunk in a new location. When the police catch Oskar during a robbery, he tells them about Reinhold’s murder in an attempt to gain their leniency.

The police check the forest in the location specified by Oskar, but do not find anything. However, the body is found soon after, and an arrest warrant is issued for Franz based on witnesses’ accounts of him buying the trunk. When Franz reads in the newspaper of Meize’s murder and his status as a wanted man, he decides to go undercover to track down Reinhold.

During this time, Franz believes he is protected by two good angels; he has several conversations with them. However, he cannot find Reinhold because his former friend has already been arrested. When Franz enters a nightclub one night, he has the bad timing to arrive as the police are raiding the club. He is arrested and goes mad.

Now in Buch Asylum, Franz remains catatonic while believing himself to be in a confrontation with Death. Death charges him to truly live a better life. When Franz awakens, he feels he has been reborn. Taking the name Franz Karl Biberkopf, he becomes a gatekeeper at Tegel Prison.