Masters of our own destiny

Image from Otto Nückel, Destiny

Otto Nückel, Destiny

Though most wordless novels are dark, Otto Nückel’s Destiny is perhaps the darkest. First published in 1926 under the German title Das Schicksal, it was republished in the United States in 1930 and inspired American artist Lynd Ward to create his first wordless novel, Gods’ Man. Other than Myron Waldman’s Eve (a parody), Destiny may be the only wordless novel from the period of their heyday in the 1920s and ‘30s—when the genre was dominated by men—to feature a female protagonist.

Born in a gritty tenement, the main character’s childhood is marred by an alcoholic father, who stumbles in front of a streetcar one day and is killed, leaving her and her mother destitute. She is later seduced by a traveling salesman, becomes pregnant, and drowns the baby. On release from prison, she reluctantly turns to prostitution. A workman falls in love with her and rescues her from the brothel, only to be murdered soon after. Another man saves her when she tries to take her own life. He then marries her, but the marriage is unhappy, and when he discovers her infidelity, he hangs himself. Burdened with guilt, the woman and her lover flee, but misfortune follows. The couple falls into bad company, including Death dressed as a clown, and a fight ensues between two men, one of whom the woman kills with an axe. She tries to evade the police, but they eventually find her and shoot her as she jumps out of a window to her death.

What message does this bleak story convey? On one level, it speaks to the situation of working-class men and women in Germany after the First World War, which left the country crippled by unemployment, food shortages, national debt, and political turmoil that gave rise to the Nazis. In addition, France and Britain were forcing Germany to pay reparations as punishment for its actions in the war, a step that fostered more resentment than reform. It has been suggested that Nückel’s images can be read as an allegory for the struggles Germany faced in the 1920s.

Another key to interpretation may lie in the book’s title. Are we powerless victims of other people’s bad decisions and abuse? Or should we work to be masters of our own destiny? Throughout the story, the central character is silent to the men who mistreat her, and she does not seek good solutions to the problems that result. Ultimately, she, too, becomes violent, leading to her own demise. How would the story have turned out, we are left to wonder, if she had not kept quiet? In the same way, was the misery of Germany’s working class a consequence of its failure to make heard its demands for a society where everyone was well cared for? The wordlessness of novels like Destiny operates on many levels, but as an expression of how the common man and woman needed to voice their demands more strongly, it is especially powerful.