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Flash Fiction Narrative Analysis: Thomas Bernhard’s “The Royal Vault”

[Editor's Note: We are grateful to Lee Martin's article "Stuart Dybek's 'Sunday at the Zoo': A Class in Narrative Structure," an article that served as our own model for the structure of the narrative analysis essay of short short fiction.]


One is first drawn to "The Royal Vault" in The Voice Imitator by Thomas Bernhard because of its intriguing title. Bernhard illustrates an event that, for all intents and purposes, could have been true. The piece immediately interested the reader with this supernatural element of a hymn emanating from a Polish king's sarcophagus.


First, the reader is introduced to the geographic location, time period, and main character. The piece then describes this character's experiencing something quite out of the ordinary. The introductory paragraph reads as follows: "In Cracow, in which, as is well known, communism has held sway since the end of the so-called Second World War, there was a man who, whenever he visited the so-called royal vault on the Wawel, always heard the hymn coming from the sarcophagus of the last Polish king."


With an unnatural occurrence such as this, a reader would expect this main character to tell someone. However, Bernhard does the unexpected by writing, "Without considering the consequences he did not, in the nature of things, immediately report this experience."


There is a passage of time and the character begins to tell people what happened. In addition, "[the character] had experience[d the event] almost a hundred times."
The main character is clearly active in this story, as people journey to the location of the unnatural event per the re-telling of his experiences. Bernhard writes that "as a result, more and more inhabitants...made a pilgrimage to the royal vault...and hundreds and thousands of them did hear the royal man." Finally we are told that "the Cracow police arrested the man and threw him into jail."


If the main character were passive, he probably would have never told anyone what happened and would have internally speculated about it—something which does not make for a very interesting or active piece. But because the character was vocal about what happened, he changed things drastically within the world of the story. For example, the government and police take a hand in the situation: "The inhabitants of Cracow were forbidden, on pain of punishment, to walk along the Wawel, and the royal vault was closed. For years, anyone walking along the Wawel was subjected to a thorough interrogation by the police."


Bernhard yet again notes a passage of time, this time long after the commotion over this unnatural event. However, instead of resolving the matter, Bernhard writes, "Today, the royal vault on the Wawel has long since been reopened and no one remembers this affair."


The reader is left with a "why" and a "so what?" at the end of the piece. If the vault has been reopened and no one remembers what happened, then why tell the story at all? The "change" in the story seems to come solely from the character repeating his tale, not what happens after people find what really goes on in the vault. So, as readers, we are perhaps meant to believe that the character might be an unreliable source.


FF.Net Author's Note

Beard.jpgNichole Beard is a graduate of Rosemont College's MFA in Creative Writing program. She received her BA in Integrative Arts from Penn State University where she published articles for a student-run arts & culture journal. She is currently working on her first novel.

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