The life of 50-year-old engineer Walter Faber is suddenly disrupted by a series of odd but intertwining coincidences in the splendid novel Homo Faber by the Swiss author Max Frisch (1911–1991). The novel opens with the protagonist on a flight from New York to Caracas in April 1957. Faber discovers that next to him sits the brother of his former friend Joachim Henkes. He quickly learns that Joachim was married for a time to Hanna Landsberg, a woman Faber himself was in love with 20 years earlier and who called him “Homo Faber” (“Man the Maker”)—a very revealing nickname for an engineer whose only belief is in the machine. Faber sadly recalls that at the time Hanna was pregnant with his child, but because of his reluctant acceptance of her pregnancy, she broke off their relationship, planning instead to abort the baby.
Back in New York, Faber decides to book an ocean crossing on a ship instead of a flight to Paris, where he has planned to attend a conference. This decision will change his life, for during the voyage he falls in love with Sabeth, a 20-year-old woman who is traveling home after spending one year at Yale University on a scholarship. Once in Paris, he decides to take a break to accompany the young woman through France and Italy. He then plans to travel with Sabeth back to her mother’s home in Athens. During this sightseeing trip they quickly become a couple. Faber is startled by the discovery that Sabeth is actually the daughter of Hanna, the woman with whom he was in love 20 years before. He takes refuge in thinking that Joachim is Sabeth’s father. However, tragedy follows Faber and Sabeth. Near Athens she is bitten by a snake and suddenly collapses to the ground. Faber rushes her to the hospital, where he meets Hanna and finally understands that Sabeth is his own daughter. In the meantime, the young Sabeth dies from an undiagnosed fracture at the base of her skull.
After these tragic events, Faber flies to Caracas, where he fails to attend an important business meeting because of a severe stomachache. Lying in bed at the hotel, he tries to understand the events of the last three months by writing what he calls a report. He spends more than two weeks writing, the product of which constitutes the first part—titled “First Stop”—of Frisch’s novel. He then flies to Cuba, where he spends “four days doing nothing but look.” Significantly, he stops using his camera to film the world and starts experiencing the world in a more direct way. He resolves to make meaningful changes in his life. Determined now to marry Hanna, he returns to Athens. Once in the Greek capital, he consults a doctor about his stomach trouble and learns that he has cancer. He must remain in the hospital to undergo an operation. There he writes the second part of his report—“Second Stop”—which ends abruptly when the doctors take him to the operating room: “8:45 A.M. They’re coming.”
Frisch’s novel has often been considered a modern variation of the Oedipus myth. In addition to Faber’s incest, the numerous allusions to antiquity, and the omnipresent question of fate and coincidence, there is an explicit reference to the famous Greek myth at the end of the novel, when Faber realizes his blindness and considers destroying his eyes, as Oedipus does at the end of the myth. Faber laments: “Why not take these two forks, hold them upright in my hands and let my head fall, so as to get rid of my eyes?” These parallels with the Oedipus myth have fascinated many literary critics.
Yet Homo Faber is much more than that. The novel deals with many universal themes, including manwoman relationships (as in all novels by Max Frisch), ageing, and death. (Faber behaves as though age did not exist. In the end he has to recognize that one cannot go against time: “We cannot do away with age . . . by marrying our children.”) One of the novel’s central concerns is also the technological society, as experienced by Frisch during several visits to the United States in the 1950s. The protagonist of the novel is a “technologist,” a “maker”; he evolves in a world of machines, trying to avoid human feelings. But after his sightseeing trip through Europe, the love affair with his daughter, and her tragic death, he starts to change. He is obliged to recognize his emotional weakness and discover a new way of living. In the second part of his report, he condemns the “American way of life,” a very harsh criticism leveled not only at America but also at himself.
By choosing to give the novel the form of a first-person report, Frisch confronts his readers directly with Faber’s perspective, allowing them to witness how the protagonist gradually becomes aware of his mistakes and consequently starts to change his life. Max Frisch’s Homo Faber was adapted for a film entitled Voyager in 1991.
Meurer, Reinhard. Max Frisch, Homo faber: Interpretation. 3rd ed. Munich: Oldenbourg, 1997.
Müller-Salget, Klaus. Max Frisch, Homo faber. 5th ed. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1994.
Schmitz, Walter, ed. Max Frisch, Homo faber. Materialien, Kommentar. 3rd ed. Munich: Hanser, 1984.
———, ed. Frisch’s “Homo faber.” 6th ed. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1995.
Sharp, Francis Michael. “Max Frisch: A Writer in a Technological Age.” World Literature Today 60. no. 4 (1986): 557–561.