The novel, The Assault, is told against the backdrop of shifting Dutch post-war society, centered around significant points in that history. Mulisch paints a canvas of the difficulties of Dutch society in coming to terms with the events of the war. Mulisch faces significant questions of guilt and innocence when writing the novel thus leading to the hand of fate lurking strongly in the novel.
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The Assault becomes a morality play with much difficulty in determining and judging what right and wrong is, and guilty from innocence becomes a central theme throughout the novel in the lives of Anton Steenwijk, Fake Ploeg’s son, Cor Take and Karin Korteweg and Mr. Korteweg. Anton Steenwijk is the central protagonist in the novel and has been plagued with the murdering of his family at a very young age. Anton struggles to understand and comprehend the events that happened that very night which ultimately leads to his apathy for the subject.
Anton’s apathy and attempts of forgetfulness toward the killings makes him guilty in the novel; however, the fact that Anton’s only mechanism for coping with the tragedy is detachment and forgetting gives him the characteristic of innocence thus raising important questions of guilt and innocence in his character. Anton’s apathetic characteristic can be seen when he gains the “awareness that his house no longer existed [, coming] briefly but vanish[ing] at once (43).
Here Anton gains this awareness of a tragic event and quickly decides not to impose any guilt upon himself thus making him guilty, but because of the dreadful events that have happened to him, this can be seen as simple innocence of a teenage boy. Next, “[Anton] had felt upset at first, yet now, with shouting and screaming everywhere, people bleeding and trying to reach safety, he was pervaded by a strange indifference. This quote uses an extreme situation of madness and despair followed by a quick, short understatement of Anton’s indifference to portray the extent to which Anton has no feeling toward the event making him guilty to the situation; whereas, it also gives insight to how Anton deals with sadness and despair making him innocent to the situation (84).
Later in the novel, Mulisch describes Anton’s character conflict though the juxtaposition of light and dark imagery when “the two adults perspiring in their dark clothes, while Sandra, dressed in white, didn’t mind the sun. Mulish uses the dark clothes in to represent Anton’s perceived guilt and uses Sandra to represent the childish innocence in Anton thus the white dress. Anton’s character is debated whether his unemotional character is guilt in itself or whether since this is his coping mechanism makes him truly innocent. Fake Ploeg’s guiltiness as a Nazi collaborator is questioned and defended to be rather innocence through his son, Fake. Anton claims that his “family was senselessly slaughtered by Fascist, of whom [Fake’s] father was one.
Isn’t that right? (90)”, through the use of the rhetorical question Mulisch makes the guilt of Fake Ploeg an evident fact. Whereas, Fake tells Anton how his father’s death devastated his family and claims “[Fake Ploeg] was ignorant of [the Jews] and [Anton] can’t blame him for it. He was with the police and simple did his duty, what he was told (91). ” Fake’s philosophical view on the situation is seen by pleading ignorance for his father.
Mulisch uses Fake character as an arbitrator for the situation and as the events change, Fake’s character changes; for example, “[Fake] began to sob. The sob rose out of him as if they belonged to someone else who was inhabiting his body” Fake character, here, changes emotionally to portray the seriousness of Fake in his argument (92). Anton’s claims conflict with Fake’s claims of his father’s guiltiness that ultimately lead to a blurred line of innocence versus guilt.
Another guilt versus innocence conflict in the novel is the murder of Fake Ploeg. Cor Take, the murderer, claims innocence through several philosophical views on morality. When Take speaks to Anton about Fake Ploeg, Mulish uses harsh and rough words such as “barbered wire”, “ripped”, “blazing”, “vomited” to portray the evil character that Fake Ploeg was and to justify himself as well as using a rhetorical question “[Fake] killed God knows how many people… So he had to be gotten rid of…
Do you agree?… Yes or yes? ” to persuade Anton to eventually agreeing with him (111). Then Mulisch describes the setting with “a small cloud [creeping] over the sun, making flowers on the new grave look bleached, as if they were repenting, while the gray of the gravestones [became] dominant,” this juxtaposition of light and dark symbolizes Take’s innocent character being overshadowed with the corruptness of the murder, further adding to the question of innocence or guiltiness (111).
Take furthers his innocence by stating “if you believe we shouldn’t have done it, then you also believe that, in the light of history, the human race shouldn’t have existed;” Fake adds a more philosophical question here to support his earlier claims of innocence (113). Ultimately, the reader is left with an ambiguous question of guilt or innocence. The final encounter of guilt and innocence, in The Assault, is with Karin Korteweg.
Anton describes Mr.Korteweg through callous diction as “cold” and “bitter” who moved Ploeg’s body to his home to save his own, thus forcing the accusation of guiltiness upon him (173). The chilly and ominous mood is quickly set when “a group of boys… all [having] black leather jackets, black pants, and black boots with metal heels” walks past them; Mulisch uses the ridged diction and imagery of dark colors to portray this mood and rapidly put guilty undertones on the Kortewegs (176).