Harry Mulisch’s Novel “The Assault”

Pages: 3
Words: 821

Many books are set in the setting of war, and they explore different topics from loss to fate. The novel The Assault by Harry Mulisch is one such book since it is based on the story of Anton, a boy who suffers the loss of his parents during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. Specifically, he becomes a witness to their murder at the hands of the Nazi soldier and then gets detained before being handed over to his uncle. The story of the novel exposes many important themes, but the main one is the ability of childhood trauma to continuously affect a person, which is demonstrated by Anton’s life.

It is well-known that the absence of treatment only contributes to the worsening of the trauma condition, be it physical or mental. Anton, a child of twelve years old, encounters the experience of watching his parents recklessly killed by Germans, which traumatizes him. Anton does not undertake any efforts to resolve his trauma through therapy. Moreover, Anton tries to suppress the disturbing memories, but it still leads him to face recurrent flashbacks.

For instance, when Anton attends a theater to see Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard, he relives the experience of being around his lost family members. One of the scenes of the play implies a man sitting at the table and a woman shouting outside, which causes Anton to feel a “sense of something dreadful” (Mulisch 79). It is clear that by watching actors, he unconsciously remembers his parents during their last moment alive, including the scream which he heard before the shots were made. Essentially, Mulisch shows the audience in detail how strong traumatic experiences can manifest themselves in unpredictable ways and cause people to suffer years later.

As mentioned above, trauma can affect people in different ways, and it is impossible to forecast the exact scenarios. At the same time, traumatic experiences can shape people’s life choices and decisions which can be considered real milestones. For instance, as Harry Mulisch shows in The Assault, people’s trauma and experiences related to it can affect an individual’s romantic preferences. Despite his difficult childhood, Anton manages to become a fully-functioning member of society and creates a family of his own. Yet, he chooses his wife, Saskia, because her appearance reminds him of the woman with whom he sat in a detention cell after his parents were killed. As stated in the book, “She was the embodiment of an image he must have been carrying about in his head, without knowing it, since he was twelve” (Mulisch 130). Essentially, the traumatic experience and the events which ensued after it eventually shaped Anton’s romantic feelings toward his future wife. Once again, Mulisch provides an example of how powerful trauma can be and what considerable impact it can have on a person’s life.

Moreover, a romantic relationship is not the only area in which trauma can affect a person. The book demonstrates another example of the long-term effects of trauma by showing that their choice of occupation of Anton was also dictated by his childhood experience. Anton decides to study medicine and, specifically, the profession of the anesthesiologist, a specialist who delivers anesthesia to patients before and after surgeries. Anton “was fascinated by the delicate equilibrium… whenever the butchers plant their knives in someone – this balancing on the edge between life and death” (Mulisch 80). Such thoughts of Anton once again highlight his fixation on his traumatic experience and, namely, the aspect of death. Anton’s decision to become an anesthesiologist can be explained by his unconscious desire to numb the pain from which he has suffered since his childhood. Anton’s choice of profession indicates his constant search for a remedy for the trauma he experienced, which could help him to escape the past.

The desire of Anton to avoid his trauma or to subdue it and prevent it from interfering in his life also can be traced in other scenes in the book. For example, when visiting Westminster Abbey’s cemetery, Anton realizes that he envies the dead whose tombs are placed there, and he views them as “permanently anesthetized” (Mulisch 98). Essentially, Anton is tired of the trauma, which torments him to the point when he does not want to have any feelings.

Harry Mulisch’s novel The Assault provides an account of the story of how a man can be affected by his childhood trauma during his entire life. The experience of witnessing the murder of his parents shapes his life of Anton by making him choose a specific profession and wife. Additionally, the trauma causes Anton to face flashbacks and the desire to escape the recurrent disturbances caused by his memories. The trauma, to a considerable extent, controls his life of Anton and guides him in his actions and decisions. Mulisch shows the audience how, when left unaddressed, traumatic experiences can undermine the ability of a person to have a normal life.


Mulisch, H. (2011). The Assault. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.