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Literature / The Threepenny Novel

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The Threepenny Novel (original title: Der Dreigroschenroman) is a scathingly satirical novel by Bertolt Brecht, based on his play The Threepenny Opera. Brecht wrote the novel in political exile during the Nazi regime, and re-interpreted the play's story as an allegory for Hitler's rise to power.

It's London, 1902. A soldier named Fewkoombey loses his leg, his girl, his money and his dignity, and finally resorts to begging on the streets. The local beggars don't take kindly to the competition, beat him up and drag him over to the Beggar's Guild, led by Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum.


Peachum's daughter Polly, locally nicknamed "the Peach", is being courted by two men: the friendly but dull Mr. Smiles, and the rich, successful, humorless and balding Mr. Beckett. She's rather interested in both, but fantasizes even more about the mysterious and dashingly handsome "Mack the Knife", a Gentleman Thief accused of the city's greatest crimes.

Meanwhile, Mr. Peachum is being scammed and extorted by a broker named Coax, whose scam revolves around three unfit war ships for the Boer War. He decides to offer Coax his daughter as a bribe, understanding full well the horrible implications (not to mention all the time and money wasted on her upbringing), but being too much of a nihilist to even care anymore. His wife, Emma, has long since resorted to alcoholism.

Polly starts skipping school to hang out with Mr. Smiles, and quickly ends up pregnant. Mr. Beckett, the guy with a "face like a radish", turns out to be Mack the Knife himself. He's appropriated all the crimes of his gang as his own, and thrives on his ill-gained reputation as a dangerous and charming gangster. And he's got great plans: instead of robbing banks and stabbing men, he now wants to found a bank and hire men. After all, true grand scale thievery can only be done by the bourgeoisie. Mack is ready to climb out of the criminal slums and into criminal nobility. And Polly is just the right kind of wife to have by his side for it.


As Polly gives up all control over her life and people around her rapidly start dying, Mack's reputation and actions are increasingly linked to those of Hitler, Napoleon and Lenin. Eventually, The Everyman Fewkoombey becomes tangled up in the story and finds himself choosing to commit murder. As he reflects on all that has happened, the reader is implicitly asked to see the novel not as a template full of solutions, but as an open question: why did you cheer on Mack when you saw The Threepenny Opera? Why did you cheer on Hitler when he rose to fame? Why does it surprise you to suddenly see the play's beggars described as people in this novel? And what do you need to do to change the world back to normal?

The novel was translated into English by Christopher Isherwood and D.I. Vesey.



Alternative Title(s): Threepenny Novel


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