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Literature / De binocle

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"De binocle", Dutch for "The binoculars" in the sense of an opera glass, is a Short Story by Louis Couperus that was published in 1920. The seed of the story goes back to 1897, which is when Couperus, Indo-Dutch like the protagonist, lived in Dresden himself. Another source of inspiration proposed is the 1894 drawing The Wagnerites by Aubrey Beardsley, which depicts a bald man and a grey-haired woman amidst a crowd opera visitors. "De binocle" falls under Psychological Horror as shaped by fatalism, with the protagonist narrowly escaping a call to commit manslaughter only for that very same call to resound five years later.

Five years ago, the protagonist visited the Semperoper in Dresden, Germany, to finally catch a performance of Die Walküre. He has a seat in the front row of the fourth balcony and while on his way to the Semperoper he buys binoculars to have a better view. Once seated, two things happen. One, he becomes afraid he'll drop the remarkably heavy binoculars onto some unfortunate soul below. Two, he takes note of a man some rows further whose bald head stands out among the crowd. He becomes obsessed with throwing his binoculars at the man, but flees his seat before the sensation overcomes him and vows never to return. In the present, the memory of that evening has lost its edge. The protagonist laughs at how silly he was back then and decides to go to the Semperoper again, where coincidentally Die Walküre plays again and only the same seat of five years ago is still available. When he spots the same bald man in the rows below and is handed the same binoculars he bought five years ago, it's too much. He throws his binoculars, killing someone sitting nearby the bald man he'd never even taken notice of.


Because "De binocle" is short, suspenseful and laden with motif, it's a go-to inclusion for literary study in the Netherlands. Many are introduced to the story in high school, where it also is in use as a standard sample text to familiarize students with Couperus. In 2018, "De binocle" was turned into a short movie by the same name as a graduation project by students of the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht.

"De binocle" can be read in full here. Non-Dutch speakers can get by with automated page translations.


Tropes found in "De binocle" include:

  • Animal Motifs: Birds are either a guiding or warning element to the protagonist's eventual act of manslaughter. It starts with the optician who sells the protagonist the binoculars, whom the protagonist thinks resembles an eerie bird. Next is the woman with dove grey hair who like a bird grabs for a program that flutters down, thus drawing attention to her and therefore the bald man sitting next to her. Five years later, the clerk at the Semperoper that informs the protagonist a seat just became available is also described as looking like an eerie bird. Curiously, the bird motif isn't applied to the usherette who returns the binoculars to the protagonist.
  • At the Opera Tonight: The key setting of "De binocle" is the Semperoper in Dresden during a performance of Die Walküre. It is so in the past of five years ago and in the present of the story. Die Walküre forms the background for what occurs within the gallery, namely the protagonist's struggle not to throw his heavy binoculars at the shiny bald head of a man seated below.
  • Evil Tower of Ominousness: Invoked. The protagonist thrice describes his black binoculars as two towers, always in context of the harm they'd make him do if he flung them or dropped them.
  • Gut Feeling: Long before he's put in a situation of life-and-death, the protagonist feels that something is off and that he should not buy binoculars. He himself calls the feeling ridiculous and buys the binoculars anyway.
  • Mixed Ancestry: The protagonist is Indo-Dutch. As was a stereotype in the early 20th Century, this duality is implied to be at the root of the protagonist's psychological struggle. That is, his rational European side prevents him from listening to his hotblooded Asian side's warnings that he is going to act on his lethal compulsion.
  • No Name Given: Possibly in intentional contrast, no characters in "De binocle" are named except the characters that are part of Die Walküre.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Any of the people who facilitate the protagonist getting to attend the opera from the front row of the fourth balcony with binoculars helped doom charter its course. There's the optician who sells the protagonist the binoculars. There's the clerk who five years later gets the protagonist back in his fated seat. And there's the usherette who took the binoculars when the protagonist left them, renting it out to opera-goers for five years until she hands it back to the protagonist.
  • Wham Line: The final line of the story stands out as being more gruesome and complex than any line before. It intentionally obfuscates the information within that someone other than the bald man dies, in defiance of the lead-up. Because it is the last line, the significance that the "wrong" person got killed is left up to the reader.
    En brulde beneden, waar naast een duivegrijze dame een kaalschedelige heer zat, een ander, een, schoon nooit gemikt of opgemerkt, noodlottig getroffene, zijn leven uit, terwijl de hersens spatten.note 
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Could be played straight, could be averted depending on whether act or victim is the focus of fate. The protagonist knows from the moment he walks into the optician's store that something is wrong and that he shouldn't buy the binoculars. He does so anyway and once seated at the Semperoper he becomes consumed by the thought of dropping or throwing the heavy object at one of the other visitors, in particular a man whose shiny bald head is like a taunting target. The protagonist leaves before the temptation overcomes him, but five years later he laughs at his silly behavior and visits the Semperoper again. Everything is the same: it's autumn, Die Walküre plays, he's seated in the front row of the fourth balcony, he gets his own binoculars he left five years ago handed back to him, and the woman with the dove grey hair and the bald man are seated once more amidst the audience below. This time, he throws the binoculars, but he doesn't hit the bald man presented as the target. The person killed is someone seated nearby him, whom the protagonist hadn't ever noticed.


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