Themes of Guilt and Innocence

In Harry Mulisch’s The Assault

Harry Muslich tells The Assault against a backdrop of shifting Dutch post-war society that is centred on points in history that are quite significant. A canvas is painted by Mulisch of the difficulties faced by the Dutch society in coming to terms with the wars events. Significant questions are faced by Mulisch on innocence and guilt in writing the novel that lead to the hand of fate to strongly lurk throughout the novel. The Assault morphs into a morality play that faces a lot of difficulties in the determination and judgement of what is wrong and what is right and through the live of Anton Steenwijk, guilt and innocence become strong central themes in the novel. The novel`s central protagonist is Anton Steenwijk and has been plagued with his family`s murdering at a relatively young age (Episode 145, p47). Anton is observed to constantly struggle to comprehend those events that occurred that very night that led to his ultimate apathy for the subject.

In Harry Mulisch’s The Assault, the third-person narration of the novel from Anton’s perspective is crucial to understanding how the concept of guilt affects Anton’s understanding of the past. Through Anton’s relationships with the people whom he encounters on his returns, Mulisch conveys the emotional crippling effects of survivor’s guilt on Anton’s understanding of what happened the day his family died and the difficulty of coming to fully understand the nature of who is most responsible for the harm that is perpetrated in this novel.


“Anton had the feeling that by doing something that was within his power but which he could not think of, he could undo everything and return to the way they had been before, sitting around the table playing a game. It was as if he had forgotten a name remembered a hundred times before and now on the tip of his tongue, but the harder he tried to recall it, the more elusive it became. Or it was like the time he had suddenly realised that he was breathing in and out continuously and must make sure to keep doing it or else suffocate – and at that moment he almost did suffocate.”

“He was sobbing but hardly knew why, as if his tears had washed away his memories,” Episode 145, p52.

Although Anton rarely expresses his guilt, his refusal to acknowledge and deal with what has happened implies that he is struggling with his own feeling of survivor’s guilt. This is so because the refusal of someone to acknowledge their past especially where they were a guilty party communicates the idea that they do not at all wish to remember. Furthermore, they might be remembering but the fact that they feel the guilt they always wish that they did not. Despite the statement, it is also possible that they have really moved on and forgotten of the same, but it is does not necessarily mean that the guilt does not bother them at times. However, equally significant is the way he looks at the concept of guilt. He questions the concept of guilt as it applies to all of the people involved in the incident, and in the time occupation of Holland. Because he is reluctant to relive the horror of the night that he lost his parents, he does not until much later in his life seriously question who really might have been responsible for all of the terrible events of the war (Episode 1945 p19).

Ultimately, the novel shows the complexity of guilt and the ways in which people maybe guilty without realising it, and responsibility often rests on something as absurd as lizards kept in a tank. This is an implication of the fact that people express survivor’s guilt in different ways but mostly constitutes some emotional attachments to even family assets with sentimental values, or even lizards as suggested earlier. Suggesting that for Anton to fully understand the nature of guilt, responsibility and the past is always complex and elusive.

The prologue sets up the novel as being retrospective in nature in that it is concerned with Anton’s search to “figure out exactly how this happened”. Therefore, the novel is essentially about Anton’s struggle to understand the past. Furthermore, it is about the ways in which he finds it difficult to do so. Anton finds it difficult to understand his past both because of the complexity of the concept of guilt, and the anxiety he feels about his own survivor’s guilt. One of the things that his survivor’s guilt has caused him to do is to repress his old memories as well as how frightening he finds it. “I told you that Anton…… I remember exactly what you said.” The novel unfolds the story through Anton’s perspective of different times of his life (episodes) (Episode 145 p9). This is vital to understanding of how complex the concept of guilt is, and as well how those involved with it suffer with it. Understanding it from the perspective of Anton is the best since it provides the opportunity for the reader to understand the processing of everything concerning guilt, from the point of view of the bearer. Therefore, the novel only shows what Anton understands each day and gives a limited perspective. The prologue introduces Anton’s understanding of what actually happened. “The motorboats were different. Pitching, their prows would tear into the water…. Then the waves bounced back and formed an inverted V….” The description of the motorboats and the waves that the motorboats create, and the way that the waves bounce back is a metaphoric description of Anton’s complicated and intertwined life. More importantly, the struggles by Anton as regards dealing with his survivor’s guilt are represented as those of a person fighting for their life in a rocking boat. Consequently, the author uses a complicated braiding of ripples and becomes symbolic of the complex stories that make up the whole concept of guilt in the novel.

The aspect of the past that is clear to Anton is the concept of the guilt of the Nazis for the terrible atrocities they committed against Jews and civilians during their occupation of Holland. But even this guilt is not without its nuances particularly because of Sergeant Schulz. People’s different memories about the past cause them to have conflicting images in their minds about past events. Even when Ploeg Jr tries to make Anton understand, Ploeg Jr makes impediments by telling his side of story. “Besides isn’t there some difference between your father’s and my parents’ death? What difference…. My father too, he said without a moment’s hesitation”. Anton believes that the collaborators like Ploeg father are guilty of terrible crimes, but Ploeg argues with him and for Anton to understand the past he has to accept these different views and understand these conflicting ideas (Prologue p3). Therefore, this shows how the novel reveals different perspectives of versions of the story and we experience other characters’ thoughts through the use of dialogue and Anton’s memory.

Anton’s understanding of the past is only able to actually happen when he meets Karin Korteweg as an old man. At this point, Anton comes to a full understanding from her story that he comes to understand that guilt is not only complex but also that simple little things can have an enormous significance. Even when Karin tells him enough about that night that had been causes for his inability to allow himself understand the past, this memory is clouded by the memory of Schulz lying dead across the truck. He realises that the lizards are the guiltiest the entire time. The narrative voice is told mostly in the 3rd person, and mostly from Anton’s perspective. The free indirect discourse takes the narrative inside the mind of Anton by exploring his thoughts. “Could everything be blamed on the lizards?” This is an extraordinary statement as it seems hard to believe that something as harmless could be guilty of causing this atrocity. The realisation that Karin’s father had been a kind man shows Anton that all of his past understandings may have been wrong. As a result, the novel uses free indirect discourse to depict and describe the novel’s main idea about guilt. Inside Anton’s mind the idea is formed “was everyone both guilty and not guilty?”

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Overall, the novelist has revealed that the concept of guilt is more difficult to understand and the whole picture needs to be unfolded before assumptions are made. This has been achieved through the use of Anton’s perspective as well as metaphors, and more importantly by using a third person’s narration. The metaphors enhance the reader’s understanding of the real situation facing Anton, through comparisons with everyday events. Using the free indirect discourse is also crucial to enabling the readers understand Anton’s perspective, especially what is always going on in his mind. Therefore, the author has succeeded in making everything that Anton’s passes through symbolic and thus easy for the reader to comprehend and relate with.


Mulisch, Harry. The Assault. New York: Pantheon, 1983. Print.

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