Short Story Spotlight: “The Triple Warning,” by Arthur Schnitzler

Arthur Schnitzler
Arthur Schnitzler, Austrian writer and playwright

Three pages are all that Arthur Schnitzler requires to challenge his reader’s thoughts on multiple topics. With them, he deeply examines humankind’s relationship with the cosmic “powers that be,” but he avoids dry philosophy. Instead, “The Triple Warning” entertains its reader with a tense, emotional dialogue between characters. It represents the entire spectrum of human thought while also exploring some of mankind’s most contested ideas.

It all starts when a youth goes hiking one day with plans to climb a nearby mountain. He seems like a regular person on a regular day, but during his travels a Voice warns him that three things will happen before the day is over: he will commit murder, he will dishonor his country, and he will die. The youth continues on his journey, but at the top of the mountain he decides to confront the Voice, who explains that all three events already have or soon will come to pass.

This tale is guaranteed to make you think. The youth’s argument with the Voice raises a great question about free will. Schnitzler wants us to wonder, “Am I really free? Does it matter?” At the same time, we’re forced to confront the idea that there may be massive consequences for the most trivial actions, putting daily life in a whole new perspective. There’s also an implied question about the nature of God and the universe, but the story lets us draw our own conclusions about them.

While “The Triple Warning” is good because it asks so many hard questions, there’s one question that it outright rejects. Eventually, the youth asks why these things happened to him, and the Voice’s response reveals that it’s pointless to ask such a question. It’s obvious that we’re not supposed to ask “why” when something bad happens to us, but then we’re forced to consider, “What, then, are we supposed to ask?”

Even if you’re not the type for philosophy, the story’s worth looking into because it’s beautifully told. As the first line shows, Schnitzler is a master of language: “In the morning mist, shot through with the blue of the heavens, a youth was making his way toward the beckoning mountains.” That’s elegant to the point of being poetry. Much of the story is like that, and it’s related in a fairytale fashion that appeals to the days of our childhood.

In the end, Schnitzler’s story may seem to be a nihilistic rejection of basically everything (free will, the justice of God, the reason behind our actions, etc.), and Schnitzler may mean for it to be so; however, the way the story handles all of those topics makes it impossible to say that it supports or rejects anything. I’ve read this story five times and come away with a different interpretation each time. The whole tale is one big question without an easy answer, and that’s what makes it great.

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