Schnitzler’s Century: The Making of Middle-Class Culture 1815-1914

ISBN: 0393323633
ISBN 13: 9780393323634
By: Peter Gay

Check Price Now


Currently Reading Foundation Short List History History European History Of Ideas Non Fiction Social History To Read Victorian England Vienna

About this book

An essential work for anyone who wishes to understand the social history of the nineteenth century, Schnitzler's Century is the culmination of Peter Gay's thirty-five years of scholarship on bourgeois culture and society. Using Arthur Schnitzler, the sexually emboldened Viennese playwright, as his master of ceremonies, Gay offers a brilliant reexamination of the hundred-year period that began with the defeat of Napoleon and concluded with the conflagration of 1914. This is a defining work by one of America's greatest historians.

Reader's Thoughts


Mr. Gay seems unsure as whether he is writing a biography of Schnitzler or an overview of the "bourgeois" of the Victorian era. The jumping between and weak comparisons are distracting and unnecessary. He should have picked one or the other.The information provided in this book is neither new nor interesting to someone who has already read books on this time period. On top of that, Mr. Gay seems to have a determination to view most of what he is writing through the lens of sexuality a la Freud.A most disappointing and boring read.


Although I haven't read Peter Gay's five volume history of the victorian era, I just might check it out after reading "Schnitzler's Century". You have to be suspicious of any book where the offer admits that one might notice a more then faint resemblance between the current volume and the author's prior output(as Gay does in his foreword). Regardless of any repetition, Gay is a more then capable writer, and I found the contentn of this book fascinating. Gay uses the framework of Freud to discuss the mind set of the Victorian bourgeois. Along the way, he debunks many myths perpetrated about the Victorians, particularly those relating to Victorian prudishness and fridigidity. As we all know from our histriography books, the past is more complicated then historians of prior era's gave it credit for. I never get tired of searching out the origins of "modernity", and for that reason, I would recommend this book to any with a similar interest in knowing why the world is the way it is today.


I love history. I especially love Victorian history. It baffles me why I hated this book. The analysis in this book was forced and dry and next to impossible to read without my mind wandering somewhere else. The only thing I got out of it was what a jerk Schnitzler was...which I am pretty sure was not the goal of the author. I had to read it all for a class but I really really wanted to chuck it across the room.


We are all Viennese now.


The rhetorical strategy of using Schnitzler as a vehicle for an exploration into the Victorians employed herein seems forced. In many instances, the prose itself is simply flat. I find Gay's deification of Freud to be utterly contemptible and do not recommend this book to anyone. Perhaps his larger works, of which this is a distillation, do not suffer from the same infirmities; however, I am not inclined to find out.

Geoffrey Rose

Probably a bit too breezy but Gay, an esteemed intellectual and cultural historian, makes a strong case that the roots of what we think of as "Modernism" were very much rooted in the Victorian age.


Fraught with anecdotes presented as case studies, generalized out into laws. Letting go of the need for water-tight argumentation, this is an interesting examination of a culture and a problematic class category. One wishes Peter Gay would have mediated a conversation between Luis Bunuel and William F. Buckley in follow-up to this book.


A bit disappointing as the gist is that Victorians were less "victorian" than we might imagine. Well I knew that and that the later in the period (especially if you are talking of the long 19th Century as here) was even more like the 20th.This is good on detail about Victorian taste in arts, sexuality and privacy though. Indeed, this book would probably be ideal for anyone who says they hate History as it is purely a cultural history. Sadly, those people will probably never find their way to this book and those who have already read widely on this subject will find it a little disappointing and thin.


Seeing how Peter Gay spent five books on the Victorian middle class already, to cover the same ground in a single book, clocking in at just under 300 pages, seems like an editing project I don't wish on anyone. But sometimes you need a book of manageable length to introduce the period to readers lacking the gumption to down five volumes on the Victorian Age (I confess my interest in Victorian history doesn't run that deep). For this reason, I'm willing to cut Gay some slack on how quickly he moves through his subject and how, even while trying to dig into the particulars and the complexities, he has to gloss over some things.That being said, Gay at times reveals a certain annoying admiration for the Victorian bourgeoisie that causes him to completely sidestep some rather important aspects of that time and culture. The biggest transgression might be the complete omission of the Victorian era's colonial exploits, which most certainly connected to middle-class society -- Gay goes to great pains to assert how important the middle-class was to all other aspects of Victorian life, so by that logic, they would have also been involved in colonial issues as well. This seems a convenient negation given that he calls the twentieth century a far more barbaric century than the nineteenth. Such comparisons often seem boring anyway and just a way of praising one era at the expense of another -- a lazy tactic.The other point that I found rather suspect was some of his praise of marital sexual relationships. He wants us to debunk the perception of Victorians as stuffy prudes who hated sex, so he goes to great lengths to show just how sexually active they were and how open they were about (among other things) bodies, sex, and birth control. This seems fair and I really enjoyed portions of this discussion. But he refrains from really taking to task some of the blatantly sexist and misogynistic attitudes relating to sexual relationships. He needles it a bit, acknowledging women's oppression in rather "safe" (superficial) ways, but never really rips into the subject. Several of his references reveal that, yes, women clearly weren't frigid and most men knew that, but it still shows that women were hardly allowed to be as sexually experienced as men (certainly not before marriage) and that it was a man's job to awaken a woman's sexual feelings (translate: dude, break her in!). How's a man to do that? Oh, because he's allowed to be sexually active before marriage, unlike a woman. Woulda been nice if Gay had actually interrogated that. Also, his talk about wedding nights sounded so clearly one-sided to the male perspective that it was embarrassing. As did his evasion of aggression, be it physical or emotional, dealt out on women. Instead he'll talk at length about the death penalty (which was interesting) and just avoid violence against women all together (I thought he'd address it since he opens that chapter by pointing out Schnitzler's own repeated "conquests" with the ladies and the violence contained within that word -- but that's where the discussion of violence against women began and ended). For a book published in 2002, I expect a bit more from him on these issues.But there are good parts to this book, obviously. The part on birth control is very interesting, as is the part on masturbation. With both of these subjects we see the religious and political powers as being the primary crusaders against such examples of indecency. With both these sections I couldn't help but think about the current debates happening in America over birth control and women's reproductive health and the ongoing fear and distorted understanding of masturbation -- in both cases the opposition is largely spearheaded by conservative powers, be they political or religious. What we consider to be a very oppressive conservative climate in the Victorian age, could be us looking more at the controlling powers than at the attitudes of the middle and lower class. Several of Gay's points on these issues were good ones.Overall I liked this book as an entry point to this period. I didn't mind the book being, however loosely, framed around Arthur Schnitzler. But I'm a student of Germanic culture, so I would be fine with such an approach. I do think such an approach would have perhaps been more fruitful if Gay had in turn used the history he was unfolding to illuminate Schnitzler's own art a bit more -- show more strongly how his work was informed by Victorian bourgeois culture. But that wish is the art critic in me, not the historian, and this is primarily a history book. Gay's use of Freud throughout might be a problem in that we've moved quite a ways past Freud in the last hundred years. But since Freud was also working during this period, his theories a product of the times, it was interesting to see Freud applied to his own. I really liked portions of this book, didn't like spots where I thought Gay was evading responsibility, and then was kind of ho-hum about other sections. But overall it was good and worth a read if you're curious about this peculiar historical period.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *