Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

Schulz, Bruno

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony
  • Date of entry: Aug-15-2005


Joseph takes a lengthy journey on a strange train to visit his father who resides in the Sanatorium. On the way, he meets a fellow with a swollen face who wears a tattered railwayman's uniform. That man eventually vanishes from the train. When Joseph arrives at his destination, he is informed, "Here everybody is asleep all the time" (115). The Sanatorium's physician, Dr. Gotard, provides a confusing explanation about the condition of Joseph's father. From the perspective of the natural world, Joseph's father is already dead. As a patient in the Sanatorium, however, time is manipulated for him. The past is reactivated allowing for the remote chance of recovery (or at least existence in a type of limbo).

During his stay, Joseph sleeps with his father since no other bed is available at the Sanatorium even though he suspects they may be the only two guests there. He discovers that his father--pale, emaciated, and nicely dressed in a black suit--has two different lives. In the Sanatorium, the man is moribund. Outside the facility, he is vibrant and runs a small cloth shop in a peculiar nearby town. Joseph finds himself "mortally tired" [p 125] and often overpowered by sleep.

A ferocious watchdog guards the Sanatorium, but up close Joseph notices that it is not a canine but rather a man (or perhaps a dog in human guise) so he unchains the creature. Feeling an urgent need to escape his situation, Joseph races to the railroad station where he boards a departing train. He is convinced he will never see the place again. Joseph makes the train his home. Nonstop travel becomes his future. Joseph now has a swollen cheek that is bandaged. He is attired in a worn out railwayman's outfit. When he is not wandering on the train or dozing, Joseph sings and people lob money into his hat.


This perplexing story lends itself to multiple interpretations. The tale has a dream-like quality and is crammed with allusions to death and the landscape of a possible afterlife. The story acknowledges an unfathomable reality with infinite possibilities. It speaks to the power of fear. Most of the characters (including the doctor) are mysterious and elusive. Sleep is a vital symbol. Fatherhood, futility, confusion, disappointment, loneliness, and transformation are only some of the topics addressed.

Time is a critical concept. In fact, the narrator (and perhaps the author too) is fascinated and frustrated by "the quick decomposition of time" (127) and how "whole chunks of time are casually lost somewhere" (125). The narrator poses a central question: "Does anyone here get time at its full value?" (131). As a bonus, the story is illustrated with twelve drawings by the author.


Translated from the Polish by Celina Wieniewska. This collection of stories was originally published in Poland in 1937. The title story has also appeared in The New Yorker.

Primary Source

Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass



Place Published

New York



Page Count