By Shelby Trapid
for the course 603-103-MQ 00036
Instructor: L. D’Antoni
“Moving House”: Discrimination, Nationalism and the Universality of Music
In Pawel Huelle’s short story “Moving House”, a Polish boy is drawn to the brilliant musicality of an elderly German woman with whom all interactions have been forbidden by his parents, an encounter that ultimately reveals the dark post-war reality of his family and the country that he calls home. The presence of discrimination and social tension in “Moving House” demonstrates the overpowering and often destructive desire to preserve national and cultural identity, as well as the difficulty of moving forward after great tragedy. This is observed throughout the story in the instances of essentialization, alienation, and the indication that a common humanity exists.
History has scarred the characters in this story, leading the concept of collective identity to override the knowledge and acceptance of other cultures. This is evident throughout the narrative, in both the narrator’s description of how his family views Madam Greta and Mrs. Schiffbaumeister’s insults toward her. Mr. Skiski refers to Madam Greta as ‘the Heiress’ while Mrs. Schiffbaumeister refers to her as ‘that old Kraut’ (Huelle, 331), demonstrating the contempt that the Polish people have for Germans and the old regime that socialism has eliminated from society in Poland. For centuries, the Polish people underwent successive waves of overarching German and Russian influence (Bromke, 636). As a means of defense in a battle to preserve identity, Poland resorted to nationalism. Though communism was not a popular political ideology in Poland prior to World War II, a new communist program was put into place during and in the years immediately following the war that demanded the reclamation of ancient Polish territory (637). It is at this point in history that the story takes place, with the house formerly owned by Madam Greta having been repossessed, divided into apartments and left to deteriorate, much like the people living inside the house. The ideology of the time rejects Madam Greta’s role as the owner of the house, as well as the elevated social status that she may have had in the past. The overt separation of the narrator’s family from Madam Greta in the house is representative of the hostility of the Poles toward the Germans after World War II. She is ostracized, robbed of her past and isolated to a world between the terrace and the Great Room, which the narrator describes in wonder: “Mysterious and ethereal things went on in there, to which neither my father nor Mr. Skiski, our upstairs neighbour, had access” (Huelle, 331). Madam Greta’s world is seen as entirely different from that of the narrator and his family. Hers is a separate culture, full of inaccessible secrets. According to the Polish people living in the house, this cultural difference is something to be avoided. It is in this way that Madam Greta becomes alienated, and consequently essentialized by all of those who, in an effort to preserve their own identity, will not truly know her or the role that she has played in history.
The nationalism and consequent alienation that was motivated by the horrible atrocities of war leads to a level of hatred and discrimination that causes damage within the narrator’s family. Madam Greta’s presence in the house is extremely difficult for the unsettled Mrs. Schiffbaumeister. She expresses her anti-German sentiments through dialogue, while Mr. Schiffbaumeister is much more tolerant. After the narrator’s visit to the Great Room, his mother reacts violently and decides to eradicate her son’s innocence of their family’s past. The narrator describes his mother as being possessed by ‘an evil spirit’ that refuses to go away: “She began to shout names, beloved names she knew well, spreading out one finger for each name, first on her left then on her right hand; once the fingers were all outspread, she repeated the same thing many times in tears, for there were far more murdered people than fingers” (337). History has broken and marked her, taken away her family, and filled her with anger and hatred. She directs this hatred at Madam Greta, simply because she is German and in close proximity, even though there is no evidence that Madam Greta had any implication in the war. At the end of the story, Mrs. Schiffbaumeister moves house, as a way to move beyond her past, but it is clear that it will not be so simple. The removal of the old regime in Poland provoked a propagation of culture in accordance with political goals (Humięcka-Jakubowska, 14). Wherever the Schiffbaumeisters go, the memories of the war will persist in the form of national propaganda as well as the many family members that are lost forever. The night of Mrs. Schiffbaumeister’s fit, the narrator articulates “once we were all in bed, the word ‘Germans’ hovered in the room like a bird aroused in the darkness” (Huelle, 337). His mother’s sentiments have affected and troubled him. He is torn between his mother’s pain and Madam Greta’s illuminating music. He feels pressured to pick a side as his parents fight and it is unclear whether he will, like his mother, develop a hostile attitude toward the Germans or practice a form of tolerance and acceptance like his father. It is in this way that the narrator maintains his role as the moral centre, showing that common humanity may yet prevail.
The possibility of a better, more cohesive future is demonstrated in this story through the universality of music. The narrator is captivated by Madam Greta’s music and the way in which it tells stories and can mark important moments in people’s lives. Reminiscing, he describes how “The sounds of the grand piano would melt on the air, and I could almost feel their velvet touch; when she stopped playing, I felt sad, as if something was missing” (332). He has become emotionally invested in the music, as it adds lavish colour and texture to his life in an otherwise rotting and deteriorating world. Madam Greta herself seems to be kept alive by the music, as it is all that she has left. She frequently plays the music of Richard Wagner, a very important composer for German patriotism, but as the narrator is innocent of this knowledge and Madam Greta likely only plays it because it is familiar and very ornate, it loses its negative historical implication and simply becomes a centre for human connection. A historical parallel can even be drawn between patriotic music being composed for the German population and the music that was being imposed on the Polish population after the war: both were designed to appeal to the masses, based on the nationalist principle that the arts should serve the society as a whole (Humięcka-Jakubowska, 14). Madam Greta’s Great Room disregards these new rules and encompasses art in its purest form. The narrator’s own parents privately enjoy the music, as the boy witnesses them dancing together one summer evening, as if they are recreating a honeymoon that they never had (Huelle, 334-335). Mr. Schiffbaumeister seems to transcend discrimination through the music, while Mrs. Schiffbaumeister evidently cannot. Not even the beauty of art can help alleviate the persistent hatred that she feels, but it does so at least temporarily when she is dancing with her husband. The narrator observes another instance of human universality in the Great Room when he is looking through a book with illustrations depicting the human anatomy: “They weren’t exactly naked, and I didn’t feel ashamed, but looking at them gave me a mixed feeling of curiosity and revulsion: if they were human beings, then I must look like that inside as well” (334). He has realized that all people in their most natural state, when stripped of their nationality, their history and their skin, are fundamentally the same. Togetherness is a natural state of humanity, as evinced by the fact that music is a universal language that brings people together. By transcending material conditions, people can revel in their common humanity.
History has a way of tearing people apart, and human nature has a way of bringing people together. By discriminating and essentializing people based on nationality in an effort to preserve identity, groups alienate themselves and people become separated from each other. There is a common humanity to be found, and making connections by sharing in something universal such as art has the ability to heal people, though this can be made more difficult in the face of tragedy. The thrill that Madam Greta’s music brings to the narrator during a time of darkness and weakness is not something to be underestimated, as it is a memory that he will carry with him for the rest of his life, regardless of how many times he moves house.
Bromke, Adam. “Nationalism And Communism In Poland.” Foreign Affairs 40.4 (1962): 635-643. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 4 Nov. 2012.
Huelle, Pawel. “Moving House.” The Art of the Story: An International Anthology of Contemporary Short Stories. Ed. Daniel Halpern. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. 331-337. Print.
Humięcka-Jakubowska, Justyna. “The Ethical And Political Conditions Of Musical Activity In Poland After World War II.” Tempo 64.253 (2010): 13-20. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.