38 pages 1 hour read

Christopher Isherwood

Goodbye To Berlin

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1939

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Christopher Isherwood’s novel, Goodbye to Berlin, was first published in 1939. The novel’s narrator, who is also named Christopher Isherwood, recounts his experiences living in Berlin, Germany from 1929 to 1933. Isherwood focuses the novel on the relationships he has with his friends and acquaintances and explores both the beautiful and unseemly parts of the city he calls home, all while the rise of Nazi influence grows steadily in the background.

Goodbye to Berlin’s chapters are divided episodically, rather than strictly chronologically. Each chapter tends to focus on a main character, a particular location, or a certain family, and each chapter is connected to the rest. As a whole, the novel presents Berlin itself as a character, with its own personality and evolutions. Christopher Isherwood, our narrator, has moved to Germany to work on his novel. We meet Frl. Schroeder, Isherwood’s comical landlady, and we get to know the various eccentricities of the other tenants Isherwood shares a flat with in Berlin. Chapter 1, “A Berlin Diary: Autumn 1930,” details life at Frl. Schroeder’s as a comedy of errors. Frl. Schroeder and Frl. Mayr gossip about the neighbors and consult fortunetellers. Bobby (whose real name Isherwood doesn’t know) is a flirty bartender who tickles and slaps Frl. Schroeder’s behind. Frl. Kost is a prostitute whose best customer is a Japanese man who doesn’t speak much German and likes to lie in bed with her and listen to the gramophone.

When Isherwood meets Sally Bowles through a mutual friend, Sally becomes like a bossy older sister to Isherwood, despite her young age. Sally has many affairs with many “marvelous” lovers and isn’t shy about sharing this information, though she regrets never being able to keep a man for very long. Sally thinks she is an ideal kind of woman—the kind of woman who can steal any man from another woman, but can’t ultimately make him stay with her because once he’s gotten her, he will discover that it isn’t what he actually wanted all along. Sally is thankful that Isherwood isn’t in love with her because she believes it would spoil their friendship. Over the course of the chapter, Sally gets pregnant by a man she thought she loved and who she thought loved her. Isherwood helps Sally to get an abortion without telling the father of the child. After a fight over a magazine article, Sally calls Isherwood for help again. She’s ended up sleeping with and accepting the marriage proposal of a 16-year-old con artist. Isherwood accompanies her to the police station to report the crime.

Over the summer, Isherwood stays at a beach house on the Baltic in the hopes of working more seriously on his novel. He stays with a gay couple, Peter and Otto, who are struggling to define exactly what their relationship is against a backdrop of Nazi antagonism. Peter and Otto fight about Otto’s promiscuity and flirtatious behavior at dances. Peter is often jealous of Otto, and Otto feels suffocated by Peter. Eventually, Otto leaves the beach house to return to Berlin without warning. Peter leaves for England, and Isherwood, having no one left for company at the beach house, decides he will return to Berlin.

Isherwood falls on some hard times and agrees to live with Otto’s family, the Nowaks, for the time being. The Nowaks live in a slum and Isherwood finds the conditions there increasingly intolerable. The Nowaks are childish and argumentative. Otto and Frau Nowak often fight loudly and Otto teases Frau Nowak about Grete, his sister, and Lothar, his brother. Herr Nowak is often drunk and seems to take this all in magnanimously. Frau Nowak gets news that she is to leave for a sanatorium to help with her illness she suffers from. Before she leaves, she and Otto have a big fight, which results in Otto attempting to take his own life. Isherwood eventually leaves the Nowaks but accompanies Otto to visit Frau Nowak at the sanatorium.

After a Nazi demonstration results in the smashing of several Jewish shop windows, Isherwood writes to Frau Landauer requesting to see her. The Landauers own a department store, which was one of the shops that was attacked. In addition to Herr and Frau Landauer, Isherwood meets Natalia, their 18-year-old daughter, and her cousin, Bernhard. Natalia is interested in art and literature and is excited to talk with Isherwood about these things. She becomes frustrated with Isherwood when she senses Isherwood isn’t sharing his sincere feelings and opinions with her. Natalia would one day like to live in Paris and study art. Bernhard manages the Landauers’ department store and feels like a slave to his position there. Bernhard and Isherwood visit each other quite a bit; Isherwood believes Bernhard has an arrogant way of talking to people. Bernard eventually opens up to Isherwood and shares intimate details of his childhood with him. Later, Bernhard receives death threats in the mail. When Isherwood leaves Berlin for the last time, he hears news that Bernhard is dead. People believe that police and the press are covering up his death and that Nazis murdered him.

Isherwood goes on a farewell tour of all the “dives” Fritz Wendel likes to visit. In the process, Isherwood shares anecdotes about the people and places he would be leaving behind when he finally decides to leave Berlin for good. The Nazis’ conquest of Germany is nearly complete. Hitler is in power and Isherwood fears that many of his friends and students are either in jail or dead.