This image of a train station is a befitting representation of the overall tenor of “The Pegnitz Junction”. The busy and blurred quality of the photo parallels the increasingly fragmented nature of the work–with other passengers’ thoughts intruding and criss-crossing with our protagonist Christine’s thoughts. It also relates to a certain obliviousness that Gallant seems to be advocating against when it comes to the remembrance of Germany’s atrocities during WWII.
Herbert is someone who is independent in his manner of thinking (note his pacifism) but he is also someone who aligns himself with traditional authority. For instance, he is constantly perplexed when men in uniforms do not behave appropriately–in the sombre, dignified, authoritative manner that he believes men in uniform should embody. Academics such as Margaret Toye have pointed out that Herbert’s character is analogous to rational-thinking scientists who disagreed with Hitler’s thoughts and actions but nevertheless failed to question or noticeably undermine his authority.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran priest and theologian whose essays make up the book that Christine is reading intermittently throughout the journey. Bonhoeffer was a noted opponent of the Nazis and was anti-authoritarian in that respect.
Christine’s evolution from a character who initially tries to hide her collection of Bonhoeffer essays from Herbert to someone who imparts quotes on morality from Bonhoeffer’s book to Little Bert speaks to a major motif underpinning the story–which asks readers to consider that ethics and authority are distinct from one another.
It is interesting how Bonhoeffer invokes listening because Christine herself listens to the thoughts of others so much that they cut into her own and she states several times that there is too much interference. This imbrication of others’ thoughts onto her own and the progressively complex perception shifts in the story are both positive and negative. In a way, the interference confuses her, but it also reveals Christine’s ability to listen and practice the type of morality that Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought was necessary to oppose the rule of the Nazis.
There is a sense of precarity and aimlessness that pervades “The Pegnitz Junction”. The title of the work itself suggests that post-WWII Germany is at a crossroads and the citizens have to decide which way they will proceed–whether it be towards obliviousness and forgetting of the past or towards confronting, remembering, and taking ownership for their history. The tunnel is an emblem of this crossroads.
On a related note, Little Bert is literally a stand-in for the children of Germany, the next generation, the future. Although Christine begins the novella with a detached disdain for Little Bert, by the end, she seems to have a greater investment in educating Little Bert herself. And throughout the story, she pushes back against Herbert’s censored education of Little Bert through her creative storytelling about Bruno the sponge.
Tied into the image of static, Margaret Toye considers that even though the story is not conclusive about Germany’s future, it is hopeful in the sense that Christine is able to practice ethical and compassionate listening. And that her burgeoning relationship with Little Bert and her move to endow Little Bert with a more truthful and less censorious education illuminates a way forward for Germany.
Toye, Margaret E. “The Promise and the Apology: Speech-Acts, Ethics, and Reading in Mavis Gallant’s” The Pegnitz Junction”.” Papers on Language and Literature 47.2 (2011): 162.
Schönherr, Albrecht. “The Legacy of the Church Struggle in Contemporary Germany.” Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe 12.5 (1992): 3.