The Assault by Harry Mulisch begins when the entire Steenwijk family, except for the youngest son, Anton, is murdered in retribution for the assassination of a Nazi collaborator, though, in reality, they have no hand in his death. Eventually, characters are introduced throughout the novel who could arguably be blamed for the Steenwijks’ deaths. These include Truus Coster and Cor Takes, resistance fighters who commit the assassination of the Nazi collaborator, Fake Ploeg. However, throughout the rest of the novel, Mulisch introduces their motives and personalities, which collide with what is expected of Truus and Takes. This contrast between expectations and true character help to put forward the universal theme that there is no such thing as an entirely good or evil person.
Anton first meets Truus in a prison cell under a police station after her planned getaway fails. However, before the actual meeting, Mulisch gives several hints as to the character of Anton’s cellmate, all of which describe a cold-hearted criminal. Firstly, the environment of the police station is described as very gloomy and bleak: “Downstairs it was cold again. A short hall led, below all sorts of pipes and wires, to some iron doors painted with yellowish paint full of rust spots. A weak, bare light bulb burned on the ceiling” (31). This descriptive imagery with diction such as “cold,” “yellowish,” “rust,” and “bare” evoke negative responses and foreshadow a scene that, reflecting the environment, is not so happy either. Also, the cell itself is so dark that Anton tries to see anything, “the darkness filled [his eyes] like black water” (32).
This simile showing a suffocating lack of light is also symbolic of the lack of love that the darkness instills within Anton, drowning him in despondency. The police that lead Anton to the cell also reveal that Truus’ cell “should be solitary” (31) and address her harshly: “‘You’ll have company, but keep the boy out of it, will you? He’s had enough misery, thanks to you'” (37). This, combined with traditional social prejudices, paints a criminal who is the worst of the worst, because not only do policeman suggest that she is the cause of Anton’s misery, but they also fear placing other criminals into the same room with her. Even Anton succumbs to this expectation: “All about him [Anton] could feel the presence of the man who must be in there somewhere” (31). Anton assumes that a person capable of committing a murder must be a man due to social stereotypes of criminals.
However, Mulisch debunks all of those social stereotypes and prejudices as he introduces Truus’ character and motives, beginning with her gender: “The gentle voice of a woman. Suddenly it was as if a great danger had been averted” (32). The fact that Truus is a gentle woman does not make her seem so much like a brutal murderer. Throughout their conversation, Mulisch portrays Truus and her actions as very gentle and soft: “He touched her fingers. She took hold of his hand and pulled him close. On the cot, she embraced him with one arm and with her other hand placed his head against her breast” (38). Truus becomes the model of a tender woman for Anton so that later on, when Anton marries his first wife, he realizes she and Truus have the same expression in their eyes. This certainly would not have been the case had Truus lived up to the expectations of the cold-hearted murderer that was first expected of her.
Also, the environment, which has a sliver of light in a sea of darkness, reflects the complexity of her actions, which are not entirely dark either. Truus helps Anton to see the light: “As he calmed down, he began to see a pale strip of light under the door and kept his eyes focused on it” (33). Once seeing this light, Truus tells Anton that this strip of light is symbolic of love:
‘In the poem I wanted to compare love to the kind of light you sometimes see clinging to the trees right after sunset: the magical sort of light. They’re the kind of light people have inside them when they’re in love with someone else. Hate is the darkness, that’s no good. And yet we’ve got to hate Fascists, and that’s considered perfectly all right. How is that possible? It’s because we hate them in the name of light, I guess, whereas they hate only in the name of darkness. We hate hate itself, and for this reason our hate is better than theirs.’ (38).
Truus attempts to justify the assassination in the name of light and love, because while she realizes that had she not shot the collaborator, the Steenwijk family may still be alive, the sliver of light comes from the fact that the Nazi collaborator was known for his brutality to others, and thus his assassination saved lives as well, showing Truus’ love for the greater humankind. Mulisch portrays Truus as someone to be pitied, rather than a villain, as she herself has been shot by the Nazi collaborator, and will eventually die, leaving a man behind who loves her, and she loves back, but never lives to confess it.
This man is Takes, the other perpetrator in the assassination, who Anton meets two decades later. The fact that Truus, the model woman, is his lost love leads to the expectation that Takes is also not the stereotypical murderer. Truus tells Anton in the cell:”‘He finds me very beautiful, which I’m not at all, really. He’s the beautiful one…'”(44). Takes’ connection to Truus makes the reader apt to see Takes in a good light as well. In addition, Takes is a resistance fighter against the evil Nazi regime just as Truus was, and dedicated his life to doing so. Social prejudice against Nazism is so strong that it makes one predisposed to feel positive sentiments towards protestors or Nazism.
However, the more Anton communicates with Takes, the less pitiful Takes seems. He is characterized as a brute, both in appearance as well as character: “The man had the swollen, blotchy-red complexion of someone who drinks too much…He [Anton] couldn’t evade the somber, dark-brown eyes staring right at him. The left one was different from the right, the eyelid somewhat heavier, its piercing glare leaving him defenseless” (123). The visual imagery of Takes’ face is commanding and rough, hardly the soft appearance of someone who has suffered silently for two decades. Also, the way in which Takes attempts to justify the assassination is hardly apologetic as Truus’ was: “Anton tried to avoid looking at his left eye.
‘You keep at me as if it were my fault. I was twelve years old and reading a book when it happened, for goodness’ sake!’ Takes sat down and lit another cigarette. ‘It’s just a stupid coincidence that it happened in front of your house'” (127). Takes degrades the event that killed Anton’s entire family to nothing more than a “stupid coincidence” and is not apologetic at all towards the life he has affected permanently. Takes claims that the assassination and the death of the Steenwijks are unconnected, thus effectively excluding himself from the blame, the opposite of Truus, who acknowledges the negative repercussions of her actions and pleads for Anton to see the sliver of hope.
However, as the book continues, traces of Takes’ suffering also become apparent. Takes makes the difficult decision to sacrifice his youngest brother, who is a Nazi hostage the night of the assassination and whose name is engraved on the same monument as that of Anton’s parents. Takes impassioned love for Truus also becomes more apparent: “As if he had controlled himself desperately till now, he seized Anton by the shoulders and shook him the way a teacher might do to the child who has fallen asleep. ‘Tell me, what else did she say?'” (155).
The simile comparing Takes’ desperation to that of an angry school teacher to know anything he can about the love of his life proves that Takes does indeed have the capacity to love another, making him seem not so cold-hearted. Mulisch also portrays Takes as weak and sick, rather uncharacteristic of a villain: “Shouting gave Takes a coughing fit that sent him to the corner of the room. Bent over, almost throwing up, he stood supporting himself with his hands on his knees” (155). All of these qualities support Takes’ complexity in being neither a purely good nor evil person.
Rather than characterizing them by the first impressions they give, Mulisch challenges traditional prejudices and social stereotypes by presenting Takes’ and Truus’ backgrounds and personality traits, which provide stark contrasts to the people we expect. Through this, Mulisch asserts that characters and people cannot be judged by labels or a small number of actions. In short, they are only human, and by being human, they are neither fundamentally evil nor good, but rather infinitely complex.
Mulisch, Harry. _The Assault._ New York: Pantheon, 1985. Print.
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