Homo Faber

Homo Faber Summary and Analysis of "Paris" to "Hanna's Home"

In Paris, Walter meets with his business associate Williams and tells him about what happened with Joachim and why his business was delayed. Williams looks concerned and keeps asking Walter if he would like to take a vacation. Walter is so disturbed by the meeting that he embarrasses himself at a restaurant by ordering red wine with fish. The waiter clearly thinks he has no manners, and Walter wants to explain that he had only forgotten what he ordered, but he cannot.

For no reason, Walter begins thinking of his first sexual experience. It was with the wife of a teacher. The teacher used to invite him to his house on the weekends to read proofs of the new edition of his textbook. Walter was saving up for a motorbike. Walter remembers being slightly disgusted by the woman's passion for him. She died of consumption later that summer. Walter was always terrified by the idea that his teacher would find out. He had forced himself to visit the woman's grave.

The next day Walter goes to the Louvre for an hour, but there is no sign of Sabeth. He goes every day after that until he manages to run into her. He takes her to have coffee. Walter wants to see her again, but he does not know what to say. Finally, he asks her as a favor to buy him tickets to the opera that night. He adds offhandedly that she is welcome to join him. She happily accepts. On the way out of the restaurant, he almost walks into his old teacher, Professor O. He is shocked by the coincidence as well as by the deathly appearance of the old man. His teacher invites him to have a drink with him, but Walter awkwardly makes excuses. At the conference, Walter tells Williams he would like to take a vacation after all. Williams offers to lend him his car.

Once again switching to the future, Walter reflects on the issue of abortion. He considers the evils of overpopulation, high infant mortality rates, and the desirability of population control. He decides that those who wish to reject abortion might as well reject all technology and set humanity back a thousand years.

Walter and Sabeth drive through Italy together. Walter is happy, but he is frustrated at Sabeth's need to stop everywhere and visit museums, monasteries, and monuments. He does not understand her obsessive need to see art. While Sabeth makes her pilgrimages, Walter sits in piazzas drinking campari. He thinks about their relationship. His mind often drifts back to their first night together in Avignon, but he does not elaborate, and they continue to stay in separate hotel rooms. Walter no longer seriously considers marriage. One afternoon, Walter forces himself to accompany Sabeth to a monastery to look at the artwork. He makes a tremendous effort to engage with the artwork, and for a while he is able to become interested intellectually. Sabeth's interest, however, is too much for him, and he becomes bored once again.

At dinner one night, Sabeth talks about her mother. Walter decides he probably would not like her very much, so he does not ask Sabeth any questions. The woman strikes him as too intellectual to be attractive. A few days later they visit the Via Appia and lie on a tomb in the shade. Walter thinks that Sabeth no longer reminds him of Hanna and again thinks about the night at Avignon. Then, Walter asks Sabeth what her mother's name is. At that moment Sabeth notices a busload of tourists getting out of the bus a hundred yards away. She is extremely irritated and does not answer Walter's question. When she quiets down again, Walter repeats the question. Sabeth tells him it is Hanna. She stands up again, not noticing the effect of her words on Walter. He begins questioning her about her mother, until she realizes that he must have known her. Sabeth is not particularly disturbed by this news, but Walter is shaken. He does not think Sabeth could possibly be his daughter, but he knows their relationship must end. Anyway, he is supposed to leave in two days. He remembers Hanna and their agreement that she would go to Joachim.

Walter asks Sabeth if he was the first man she slept with. She tells him that she once had a lover at Yale, and she slept with the young man on the boat. He had wanted to marry her. Sabeth suddenly seems embarrassed, as if this were the wrong answer. He avoids discussing the issue further. Sabeth mentions they have not seen Joachim in years and do not even know if he is alive. As they drive, Walter calculates in his mind until he is absolutely positive Sabeth is not his daughter.

That night in Rome, after they separate for the night, Sabeth comes to Walter's room, crying. She is afraid that Walter thinks badly of her, and he reassures her. She falls asleep on the bed, and he lies next to her, fully dressed, unable to sleep.

Again in the future, Walter tries to see exactly what he did wrong. He truly believes that he never forced their relationship. It was Sabeth who kissed him that night in Avignon during the lunar eclipse, and it was Sabeth who came to his room that night.

The narrative moves abruptly forward in time. It is a June 3rd in Athens, Walter wakes up in a strange room. He realizes Hanna is there. She is crying. When he wakes again, she notices him. They speak as if nothing strange is happening, and Hanna tells Walter that the doctor does not think the snake was an adder. She pours him a cup of tea. She asks him how long he has been in Greece and how far it had gone with her child. Walter avoids her questions.

In his mind Walter goes over what had happened. He heard Sabeth scream, and she was unconscious when he reached her. He saw the bite above her breast. He sucked at the wound to remove the venom, picked her up, and ran. He ran down the road barefoot on the hot tar. A cart appeared and began to carry them toward Athens. The donkey was incredibly slow, and the driver did not seem to understand Walter's demand to hurry. The driver stopped at a well. Furious and confused, Walter picked Sabeth up and began to run again. He realized he must stop--he could not run to Athens. Then, a truck came by. Walter had left his wallet on the beach, but he gave the driver his Omega watch to take them to Athens. Twice the driver prevented them from switching to a faster vehicle, as if afraid he would have to give back the watch. It took him forever to find the hospital in Athens.

The doctor explains that the snake was a viper, not an adder, and that Walter had done the right thing. At first he talked only to Hanna, but Hanna explained that Walter was her friend. The doctor tells them that snakes are not generally as poisonous as people think. Walter finds his statistics very reassuring. Walter wants to see Sabeth before he leaves, yet Hanna does not leave them alone together.


The majority of the book's action takes place in this sequence. The novel up to this point was primarily establishing the background, and after this point it will continue to work out the consequences. Very little else will happen in the novel. One cause of this sequence is the temporal disjunction of the novel. This temporal disjunction and the recursive style of writing emphasize that Walter's perception and understanding have changed over time. When Walter learns that Sabeth is Hanna's daughter, he must rethink his past relationship with Hanna. Even before he acknowledges that Sabeth is his daughter, the fact of her relationship to Hanna alters the way that Walter thinks about her.

This section also begins to realize the Freudian pattern in the novel. The reader now understands that this is the story of a man who sleeps with his daughter without knowing she is his daughter. The exchange of mother and daughter from the Oedipal archetype has the effect of updating it (in the ancient Greek account, Oedipus married his mother without knowing it). Walter, however, does not gain kingly power from his mistake but gains mainly, at least at first, a satisfying belief in his attractiveness and masculinity.

As the reader realizes what Walter has done, the reader also becomes more aware of Walter's fear of death. Walter is incredibly annoyed by Williams's worry about the way he looks; Walter thinks that he actually looks better then ever--after all, he has just taken a relaxing cruise. Walter's irritation comes from his fear that Williams is perceiving the approach of old age and death. When Walter runs into his old professor, he fixates on how old and how sick the man looks. He cannot carry on a conversation with him, because he sees the professor's face as a death mask. This coincidence should remind the reader of Walter's obsession with guilt--or with proving his innocence. Running into his professor is even more of a coincidence, because this is the very professor whose wife seduced Walter (the experience he apparently had recently been recalling). In another Oedipal-Freudian turn, it is an open question whether Professor O. truly looked so ill, or whether Walter is subconsciously wishing his teacher dead so that Walter will no longer have to feel guilty about sleeping with his wife.

Further guilt begins to intrude on Walter's relationship with Sabeth. When Walter finds out that Hanna is Sabeth's mother, he feels two kinds of guilt. One kind arises simply from his previous relationship with Hanna. The other kind arises from his possible relationship to Sabeth. Walter easily deals with the second kind by convincing himself mathematically that he could not be Sabeth's father. Walter has more difficulty doing away with the first kind, which has affected him for a longer time. He attempts to mitigate this guilt by transferring some of it to Sabeth. By forcing her to admit that he is not the first man she slept with, he makes Sabeth feel guilty. But this inadequate manner of establishing his own innocence falls apart as soon as Hanna asks Walter how far he went romantically with her (their) daughter.

Finally, the narrative continues to chip away at Walter's dependence on technology and to question his lack of appreciation for other human creations. Walter goes to the Louvre only to look for Sabeth, and he tries to appear like someone who enjoys art solely to make a connection with Sabeth. He uses the same trick when he suggests going to the opera. Walter only goes to the opera because he knows that Sabeth will want to go. As they travel together, Walter makes less of an effort to conceal his dislike for such things. Still, when he fears that his lack of appreciation for art is having an effect on the way that Sabeth views him ("Sabeth, out of pure spite I believe, went all over the monastery. ... I didn't know what a young girl like that might think. Was I her chauffeur?"), he makes a real attempt to share an artistic experience with her. Despite his effort, however, Walter cannot feel any real affinity for the art. Walter's failure suggests that he has not been able to establish a real, truthful connection with Sabeth.

One possible literary interpretation of Sabeth's snake bite is the idea that Sabeth belongs to the classical world of ancient myth and art, and that the snake is a divine sign that she does not belong in Walter's world. This idea is underscored by Walter's inability to gain access to the technology he needs to help her. First, they ride in a cart, then in a very slow truck. Even Walter's bribe of his watch (note the gift of a timepiece in exchange for time in life) has no effect or even a restraining effect on their slow, steady process. The point of the undependability of technology will be made even more harshly near the end of the novel.