This tale is a sweetly naÏve, charming description of a couple's relationship and survival through economic hard times in Berlin 1932. It is a response to social stories of the day, of bleak futures on the horizon as poverty, conflict and social disorder dominated everyday life. Fallada draws on his observations of many Berliners left jobless and despairing by the depression. In 1932 when Little Man, What Now? was published, 42% of German workers were unemployed and further cast into desperation as unemployment support was cut. Realism dictates the themes of the novel as Fallada illuminates the essentially invisible day-to-day struggles of staying above the breadline, the terror of being on the thin edges of employment, and the fear of financial insecurity while trying to provide for a family. His fictional world of Berlin was praised as "no fiction at all," but rather an authentic report of life - a novel for 'the people.'
The novel's strength is in the acute perspectives and observations of its characters, mainly through Johannes Pinneberg, a man of little means; and his wife, Lammchen, as they confront an unexpected pregnancy, the contentment and wonderment of the newly-wedded, the fulfillment of work regardless of its meagerness, the anxiety of unemployment and then utter despair. Pinneberg finds joy in the prospect of becoming a husband and father, but hopes of providing for a family turn dismally in a string of unfortunate events. "Down the slippery slope, sunk without trace, utterly destroyed. Order and cleanliness, gone; work, material security, gone; making progress and hope, gone. Poverty is not just misery, poverty is an offense, poverty is a stain, poverty is suspect.”
Pinneberg's love for Lammchen, who rises above her proletarian parents; his confidence in her judgment; her courage and steadfastness when her husband becomes one of the 6 million unemployed, are validations for the novel. Lammchen, modeled after Fallada's wife, the levelheaded and stabilizing influence of his life , Anna Issel: shines as the novel's equally supportive and incorruptible heroine. “But you know, money isn’t the answer. We can get by, and money isn’t what’s needed. It’s work that would help Sonny, a bit of hope. Money? No.”
Fallada deliberately restricts political tones, although the more astute reader might recognize, buried within the folds of the story, a clearly developed political context of the time. He concentrates more on the couple's romantic idylls, contrasting those with despair and hope, irony and humor, the ups and downs of daily life, never allowing their troubles to completely overwhelm them. Even in the moment of Pinneberg's dejected, lowest point, Lammchen's bright outlook won't allow it.
And suddenly the cold had gone, an immeasurably gentle green wave lifted her up and him with her. They glided up together; the stars glittered very near; she whispered: 'But you can look at me! Always, always! You're with me, we're together..' It was the old joy, it was the old love. Higher and higher from the tarnished earth to the stars.
Fallada suggests no resolution to the dismally urgent situation of unemployment, but as he often does in his novels, leaves the reader with a glimmer of hope; in this case to ponder the question: 'What Now?'