Böll refused to join the Nazi youth group when he was in high school. After finishing school he was conscripted and sent to the front where he sustained injuries on four separate occasions.
In The Clown Böll's protagonist is Hans, a clown who no longer can perform at a high level because of a knee injury. Even when he was able to work not everyone appreciated his pantomimes. There were political groups who distained his work. When his girlfriend leaves him he becomes depressed, begins to drink and his hold on reality becomes tenuous.
Marie had left him because she felt that their relationship was sinful. She's a devout Catholic and wanted to marry Hans, but he refused to sign an agreement that mandated that he bring up his children as Catholics. Hans is also questioning the role the Catholic Church played, plays, in European society. What was their role during the war? What is the role of religion in German society?
Hans is always on the road, going from town to town—from one setting to another— plying his trade as a clown. This moving about is emblematic of what happened to people in those war years and the years that followed. In the years after the war many families were unable to pay the rent and lost their homes.
Han’s family is quite wealthy. During the war they forced his sister to volunteer for aircraft duty and she died. His brother Leo rebels against the family by converting to Catholicism and is studying theology. Hans who has been told by his agent to take six months off after he received a scathing review is desperate for money. He arranges to meet his father and hopes that he will give him a monthly stipend until he can return to work. Their meeting doesn't go well and Hans tells his father that despite being wealthy he and his siblings were always hungry. His father no longer supports his brother Leo who has chosen to live a life of poverty.
Hans asks everyone he knows for money, but is not successful. Böll uses Hans to depict the problems facing the postwar society— Catholics and Protestants locked in theological disputes and a stratification of society.
Finally unable to get money from his father or friends, he takes his guitar to the train station, places a hat on the ground and performs for those who stop to listen and watch.
In a Paris Review interview Böll said: