I was quite wrong about where I thought Beware of Pity was heading. At the halfway point, I noticed little if any sexual tension between the lieutenant and Edith, the crippled young woman he befriended. That changes quickly after the mid-way point. Her sudden expression of love for Toni alters the course of the novel, and the life of many of the main characters. It’s a key to subsequent events, every bit as important as pity.
Zweig does an excellent job conveying something we often forget. That people are never who they seem to be at first glance. Often, they aren’t the same people we think they are after several glances. Toni’s commanding officer, Colonel Bubencic, for instance, proves himself worthy of respect and appreciation very late in the novel, even though he is seen as a “martinet” early on, and disliked intensely by most of the regiment. The doctor who treats Edith also takes more complex form as the novel progresses. We the readers can see more of his motivations after we discover his wife is blind, and that he, too, married out of a sense of duty, perhaps pity, perhaps honor. Toni never really sees how this alters the doctor’s view of what is right for Toni to do in his own situation. We can see it. Toni seems not to. He doesn’t put two and two together. He treats the doctor’s pleas as if they have some objective, black and white basis.
Pity, in and of itself, is not the problem. Not in the novel or in life. In the novel, pity becomes the driving force behind the tragedy primarily because Toni is incapable of living without obsessively worrying about what others think. His fellow officers, Kekesfalva (Edith’s father), Doctor Condor, Llona (Edith’s cousin) and so on. He lives his life according to his perception of codes, conventional wisdom, and the opinion of those in his own society. Rarely deviating. And then when he does, he worries himself into a state of panic, of wanting to commit suicide. Even after the main events of his narrative, when he performs heroic deeds in the Great War, he is acting largely out of a sense of duty to a memory of a broken promise, a lie, and what others might still think of him. He enters the war, perhaps with great relief, because it is yet another time when he can follow orders, live by someone else’s code, and avoid decisions that involve the reservoir of the self and his own willpower.
Still, the character of the narrator is complex. He sees and knows his own weaknesses, and that colors his vision of his surroundings. This prevents him from being a mere cartoon, a puppet, and keeps us interested in his life. But the reader sees and knows more, which is one of the great aspects of the novel. We can step back and have pity on Toni, the doctor, Kekesfalva, Edith and a host of others, and sense that Toni himself is trying to elicit pity as well. His feelings regarding Edith are mirrored by his own attempt to seek absolution as he tells his story, while he tells us he isn’t doing that, can’t do that, that he just has to live with his shame. He tells his story to Zweig (ostensibly), out of a sense of shame that he is now, in 1937, considered a hero, and he wants someone to know that’s bunk. But is the telling yet another form of deception, of self-deception?
Edith manipulates her family and Toni, gets them to order her world the way she wishes, uses her crippled state to gain power over others and overcome her initial powerlessness over her physical world. Perhaps the narrative is Toni’s attempt to do the same, to order his world, even though it fell apart once, almost to the point of the lights going out forever.
If the reader is honest, he or she will find echoes in their own attempts at manipulation, masks and self-deception. As George Harrison once said, isn’t it a pity?