The characters experience a state of alienation from society and themselves. They are all jockeying for a secure position, but there is no security. Businesses change hands, people lose jobs, change partners, starve, get money, leave home or come home. Nothing stays the same, but change does not lead to satisfaction, though people keep looking for it. Marie Garga, for instance, is never happy no matter what she chooses. She feels fragmented and not herself: “I’m only half of everything. I don’t even love, it is just my vanity” (Scene 6, p. 58). She does not want Manky or Shlink, but as Shlink points out, “You can’t live alone” (Scene 6, p. 59). John Garga accepts the rent money from Shlink though he remarks, “Can’t trust anybody” (Scene 3, p. 39).
Garga and Shlink are enemies, but as Brecht remarks in a prologue, “In observing this battle, do not rack your brains for motives” (p. 12). He demonstrates the apparent absurdity of human relations. Garga seems out to prove that he is tough and independent, but at the end, Shlink confesses that his assault on Garga was merely an attempt to be close to someone, to have something to live for. At times he tells Garga he loves him. Love and hate are both passions, and passions keep people warm and make them feel connected. Yet the battle of hatred eventually runs out of fuel, just as Garga tells his girlfriend Jane “I don’t know if a man can stay in love forever” (Scene 1, p. 20). Shlink despairs of the emptiness he has to face: “People are so impossibly alone—you can never arrive at a real hatred” (Scene 10, p. 82). There is no possibility to approach another person in such radical loneliness, with either love or hatred. Loneliness is the human condition. Even the Garga family cannot love or understand one another. Shlink says: “the generations stare coldly into each other’s eyes.” He goes on to remark, “If you cram a ship’s hold full of human bodies, so it almost bursts—there will be such loneliness in that ship that they’ll all freeze to death” (Scene 10, p. 83).
George Garga tries to prove that he is free, that he cannot be bought. Whatever happens, he will have his freedom to choose for himself. His mother says George could never stand anyone bossing him, even as a child. In the first scene, Shlink tries intimidation and blackmail to get Garga to sell out for money. He reminds him that his family is destitute and needs him; his girlfriend is starving, and if he does not take care of her, she will become a prostitute. Shlink says everyone on Garga’s street feels sorry for him, bringing in the pressure of public opinion. When Garga gets fired, instead of being afraid, he exults, “that—is freedom” (Scene 1, p. 21). He sheds his clothes, or social identity and walks out. It seems heartless, however, when George replies that he sets his family “free” to fend for themselves. He won’t make them into dependents; he will give up everything to fight Shlink. Today, Garga’s stance might be called “fighting the Man,” the establishment. In Brecht’s time, it was the theme of existential freedom, of declaring oneself above circumstance through freedom to choose.
Garga accuses Shlink and his men, who have the upper hand, of being “Negroes in disguise,” meaning slaves to custom (Scene 1, p. 21). They may appear to be free to act as they will, but they have no imagination and are locked into the system, and this proves to be true. He, on the other hand, is “capable of being saved” (p. 21). Marie says she does not understand Shlink, because he seems to be able to choose anything he wants: “People get many chances,” she observes (Scene 2, p. 32). People do not seem to want so many chances; they do not want to exercise their freedom. Jane caves in to fear, deciding to go with Baboon: “Maybe this is my only chance” (Scene 1, p. 20). People are afraid or lonely; they want to control others, or be controlled.
Thinking that George got away to Tahiti, the Baboon says, “this kid got away with his soul” (Scene 4, p. 42). Though Garga fights for his integrity, the fight uses up everything he has, and it is dubious that he comes out on top, after all.
At one point Garga admits, “We aren’t free” (Scene 3, p. 35). When the human child grows up, he finds out “he’s already been consecrated, paid for, stamped and sold at a good price, so he isn’t even free to go and drown himself” (Scene 3, p. 35). The existential despair of the characters at the meaningless human condition is expressed in various ways. A hotel proprietor known simply as the Worm says that all people are “suckers for dreams out of nothing but paper; they fall for it like a ton of bricks” (Scene 5, p. 49). When George is busy fighting for his freedom, Marie says to him that they should just go home: “It’s all a big joke, and you just don’t understand it” (Scene 2, p. 28). When the Garga money falls through and George goes to jail, George’s mother says, “a human being can suddenly be damned, thrown into hell. They decide it in heaven” (Scene 7, p. 67). She gives up on thinking that things make sense or will work out. She leaves the family and goes to scrub floors. George taunts her about “all the good people, all the other good people” who do their duty, as if that will save them (Scene 3, p. 36). He speaks of life as “the Black Hole” where people cannot get out because their “desires are too weak” (Scene 5, p. 53).
When Marie is getting to know Shlink and falling in love with him, she asks him how he got to be so hard: “When did you get this sickness?” (Scene 4, p. 43). He says he got it as a boy on a junk in the Yangtze River when the master “stepped on our faces, trod them down. And at night we were too weary to turn them away” (Scene 4, p. 44). The sickness is the despair humans feel at their powerlessness. Life is a struggle without meaning. The Baboon (pimp) asks Jane if she knows her catechism. She replies: “It’s getting worse, it’s getting worse, it’s getting worse” (Scene 4, p. 44).
The plot is set up as a fight between Shlink and Garga, like in the Westerns, a shoot-out between two cowboys, each intent on being the winner. Garga says to Shlink: “What are you trying to do, start a frontier town all over again? Knives? Guns? Cocktails?” (Scene 1, p. 19). Shlink says, “I declare war on you! I’ll begin the fight by shaking the foundations of your life” (Scene 1, p. 16) Garga agrees to the ethics of “an eye for an eye” (Scene 2, p. 25), but when Shlink asks Garga if he wants to know what it is all about, Garga answers it is enough for him to know Shlink thinks he is tougher and that he wants a fight. The characters keep saying they have guns in their pockets as they confront one another, but Garga accuses Shlink of “staging a metaphysical battle, and leaving a shambles behind” (Scene 5, p. 50). The battle is not about any physical thing, not even money or power. Shlink and his gang want to destroy, not Garga’s body, but his soul, his integrity, his morale. The metaphysical battle is waged like a game that does not make sense in ordinary terms, such as when Shlink signs over his business to Garga in order to corrupt him and make him into a capitalist. In the last confrontation, Garga claims to be the winner because he is younger and has more fight left in him, but Shlink declares, “there will never be an outcome to this fight—never an understanding” (Scene 10, p. 84). He says this because he experiences life as merely a struggle with no purpose. After Shlink dies, Garga says simply, “The chaos has been used up” (Scene 11, p. 90). The fight reaches no conclusion; it dissipates.