“I Myself Shall Shape My Destiny”: Uncovering Alma Schindler’s Agency in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna

Researched and Written by Mary Dillon ©

Completed Fall 2020 under the instruction of Grinnell’s Professor Maynard

Synopsis excerpted from the paper’s introduction:

The daughter of painter Emil Schindler and the future wife of Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, and Franz Werfel, Alma Schindler was a part of Vienna’s bourgeois circle of legendary artists from her childhood onward, even composing her own vocal and instrumental music.[5] She was an avid reader and brilliant pianist. After Gustav Mahler’s death, Alma published several literary works, including collections of Mahler’s letters and two memoirs.

Historians have looked to Alma Schindler as a muse in her time because of her flirtatiousness and in theirs as a primary source for information about the men she married.[6] Scholarship about her has centered on her love affairs, being hailed as “sensational gossip.”[7] In 2018, Novelist Mary Sharratt’s presented us with Ecstacy: A Novel of Alma Mahler and attempted to “[reveal] the true Alma Mahler,” through provocative historical fiction.[8] Until now, Alma has not been studied as the intellectual she was in her own right as opposed to the supportive wife. Cate Haste’s 2019 book, Passionate Sprit: The Life of Alma Mahler recognizes her passion for reading philosophy, yet still argues that her choice to stop composing was the result of overwhelming love.[9]

My study of Alma Schindler was enabled by a reading of her diaries. Published in 1998 after being transcribed and edited by Susanne Rode-Breymann and Antony Beaumont – the latter of whom translated a selection into English – Alma’s diaries between January 1898 and January 1902 span her transition into adulthood. The entries end less than two months before her wedding with Mahler, with the last entry being her final contemplation of whether to follow her ambitions of being a great composer or to give herself fully to Mahler in marriage.[10] Alma’s ambition is clear from the first pages of her diary. Six entries in, she writes, “I want to do something really remarkable. Would like to compose a really good opera – something no woman has ever achieved. In a word, I want to be a somebody… Please God, give me some great mission, give me something great to do! Make me happy!”[11] This dream is sustained for years but is suddenly washed away when Mahler wrote to her that he expected his wife to give up her music. Alma’s seemingly abrupt abandonment of her passion has until now been interpreted as either an act of love by Alma or her succumbing to gender limitations.

The theory that Alma gave up her compositional dreams simply because of traditional gender roles is incomplete. In correspondence, the editors of her diary lamented the all too often “distorted and obscured” image of Alma in academia and the public sphere.[12] Alma’s affinity for reading philosophy and her sharp mind shaped her into an intellectual creature in her own right, if not the same form of a scholar embodied by men. The writings of Spinoza swayed her idea of spirituality, Nietzsche’s words influenced her opinions about people, and Schopenhauer’s philosophical lens guided her own thinking about how to achieve self-actualization. While pressures of marriage plagued young women in fin-de-siècle Vienna, Alma Schindler’s knowledge of these three great philosophers supported her intellectual growth into a person capable of making a conscious choice of love over ambition, rather than someone forced to set aside her dreams.

It is important to reevaluate the interpretation of Alma Schindler’s choice between love and ambition in order to understand the possibilities for bourgeois female autonomy at the turn of the twentieth century. Making gender-related assumptions about the capabilities of women, no matter their intellect and access to the same philosophical writings that men had, borders on revisionist history and strips women of their volition. Through the case study of Alma Schindler, we can explore how women were able to make choices about their future based on their individual worldview…

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[5] “Alma Mahler,” Britannica, accessed November 14, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alma-Mahler.

[6] Jens Malte Fischer and Stewart Spencer, Gustav Mahler (London: Yale University Press, 2011).

[7] “Malevolent Muse: The Life of Alma Mahler,” Amazon, accessed December 10, 2020, https://www.amazon.com/Malevolent-Muse-Life-Alma-Mahler/dp/1555537898.

[8] Mary Sharratt, “Ecstasy: A Novel of Alma Mahler,” accessed November 24, 2020, https://marysharratt.com/main/books/ecstasy-a-novel-of-alma-mahler/.

[9] Cate Haste, “On Alma Mahler, Muse and Mistress of Fin-de-Siecle Vienna,” LitHub September 16, 2019, https://lithub.com/on-alma-mahler-muse-and-mistress-of-fin-de-siecle-vienna/.

[10] Alma Mahler-Werfel, Diaries 1898-1902, eds. Antony Beaumont and Susanne Rode-Breymann, trans. Antony Beaumont (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1998), 468.

[11] Mahler-Werfel, Diaries 1898-1902, 5. In transcribing Alma Schindler’s diary, the editors chose to italicize phrases she underlined once, while phrases that Alma underlined more than once during writing are underlined in the transcription. None of the italics or underlined phrases contained in quotes in this paper are added, all come from the edited diary.

[12] Mahler-Werfel, Diaries 1898-1902, xvi.