For my part I said the German name Mummelsee sufficiently declared that there was about the thing, as about a masquerade, some disguise, so that none might fathom either its nature or its depth, which had never yet been discovered, though such high personages had attempted it ... I represented to myself how in that very place I had begun to be in place of a free man a slave of love, and how since then I had become from and officer a peasant, from a rich peasant a poor nobleman, from a Simplicissimus a Melchior, from a widower a husband, from a husband to a cuckold, and from a cuckold a widower again; moreover, from a peasant’s brat I had proved to be the son of a good soldier, and yet again the son of my old dad . Then again I reflected ... of the manifold changes which I had undergone in my lifetime, till I could no longer refrain myself from tears.The first thing that confronts us in reading Simplicissimus is that it is not in fact the story of an ingenu telling his simple truth to a deceiving world. The first third of the novel, with Simplicissimus playing the fool, indeed suggests an ironic Erasmian praise of folly. But in the rest of it, the titular vagabond has no trouble at all with adapting and internalizing the world's corruption. Where the folly of Erasmus has only two modes--as a negative worldly folly and as a positive Christian one--in Simplicissimus folly becomes a multiplicity. Some hint of that shows through in the very beginning, where Simplicissimus experiences no fewer than three abortive "educations"--he gives them their due but is fundamentally quite unmolded by the effort.
- Hans Johann Christoph Grimmelshausen, Simplicissimus (1669)
As a critique, Simplicissimus is distinguished from its descendants in the Bildungsroman genre by one startling attribute: the absence of a fundamental narrative cleavage between internal subjectivity and the external objective world. In most novels of this sort the dialogue between the two worlds is an ironic one: the subject observes the strange and unfamiliar ways of the world, critiques them, then transforms itself by constructing a satisfying, more or less cynical relationship between the external and itself. In Simplicissimus the subject is a part of the world: there is no stable subjectivity to comment on the world from outside, because the world itself constantly transforms the subject.
Thus we see the natural piety of Simplicissimus give way to lust and avarice with very little narrative transition to explain the shift; there is no internal monologue to explain how the teetotaler of the early stages becomes the ready drinker of the later part. In short, Simplicissimus changes constantly and irremediably: he moves from one army to its opponent, becomes a musketeer from a dragoon, a soldier from a vagabond and back again. Simplicissimus is a novel of Becoming and becomings--becomings-animal, becomings-female, becomings-noble. And because in no case is this becoming a transformation of some underlying stable self, it is always an assumption of different "external" masks or aspects. This is why Simplicissimus can only confront his subjectivity near a lake as deceptive as himself; and it is also why he is repeatedly compared to Empedocles, the philosopher who once said, "I have already been a boy and a girl, a bush and a bird and a leaping journeying fish."
The end of Simplicissimus is increasingly frantic and unsatisfactory, for Grimmelshausen could not resolve the novel without making the Becoming of Simplicissimus "pay its debt to Nature," or Being (the repeated usage of "debt" in that sense is a distant allusion to Anaximander, who spoke of things giving recompense to one another through their destruction). But the nomadic flow of Simplicissimus's subjectivity cannot be smoothly reintegrated into the narrative structure of the novel, because he can never quite be a traditional dynamic character--the latter are in comparison very much static.
Simplicissimus is an unconquerable nomad, because he can immediately adapt to any requirements that power places on him and yet preserve his changeability. His is a character ideally suited for the anarchy of the Thirty Years' War, out of which the modern state was soon to be born. His most consistent literary descendant, a soldier making his way through the imagined chaos of another German war, is Tyrone Slothrop of Gravity's Rainbow, whose dissolution into several different personages at the end of the novel is merely a logical consequence of Simplicissimus' intractable nomadism. The Good Soldier Schweik, though a far more obvious successor, is only a bastard in comparison: Hasek's emplotting represents a return to an ironic but predictable Erasmian mode.