“Effi Briest” by Theodor Fontane

As part of the German literature Month organized by Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzie’s Literary Life, I read recently Theodore Fontane’s Effi Briest. Sadly, due to various other commitments, I am a bit late on reporting on my reactions to the book, but I trust I am not too late.

This novel, like the Spanish novel La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas, is often ranked by its admirers alongside Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, two of the mightiest peaks of nineteenth century literature, and I am not sure that such comparisons does this novel any favours. It is not to criticise Fontane to say that he does not see so deeply into his characters as does Tolstoy: no novelist does. (In my reading experience, at least.) The comparison with Madame Bovary may seem on the surface more attractive, but once again, I don’t think it is to Fontane’s advantage. Flaubert’s novel, as well as being about a specific group of characters, is also a profound meditation on the nature of human aspirations in a world in which there does not appear to be anything to aspire towards: Fontane’s novel seems to me more modest in its artistic scope. None of this is to criticise Fontane, of course: not ranking with the best is not in itself a shortcoming. There is much to admire here – the pacing, the deft handling of symbols and imagery, the elegance and the polish of the structure, My impression – at least for now, a few weeks after reading – is that of a novel of comparatively modest artistic aims (though immaculately executed), but lacking either the piercing depth of vision of Tolstoy, or the sad and lyrical contemplation we find in Flaubert of the seeming futility of human affairs.

Effi, when we first meet her, is a charming and vivacious seventeen-year-old, not quite an adult, but not a child either. She reminded me at times of the equally charming Sophie in the Richard Strauss – Hugo von Hofmannsthal opera Der Rosenkavalier. It does come as a bit of a shock, at least for the modern reader, when we discover in the opening chapters that she is to be married off. Not that Effi is averse to this, but it is quite clear that she has not sufficient experience of life to make an informed decision in this respect. Unlike Emma Bovary, Effi doesn’t have time for such sentimentalities as mere love: social status is more important for her (as it is for Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier), and, given her background, this is not really very surprising. But where Sophie in Strauss’ opera does indeed find love and discover its importance, Fate is not so kind with Effi. She marries the middle-aged von Instetten, an aristocrat, and an ambitious civil servant.

There are, however, complications. Von Instetten had been in love with Effi’s mother, but they had not married because they did not have the requisite funds required to maintain their social status. Effi, we are told, is physically much like her mother. To what extent is Effi but a surrogate for her mother in her husband’s eyes? Or, for that matter, in her mother’s eyes? One can imagine what Henry James might have made of this situation, but this is not Fontane’s theme: having introduced this element, he moves Effi into a new environment after her marriage, and her parents appear again only in the final stages of the novel.

Von Enstetten cares deeply about his career, and about the impression he makes where it matters. And he expects his young wife to present a face that will be consistent with his current position, and also with the position he hopes to achieve. At all costs, his wife must be, like himself, correct. He recognises, of course, that Effi is still immature, but he feels it his duty to educate her: Crampas, a womanising middle-aged major who moves into town, is quite correct in describing von Instetten as a “pedagogue”.

Effi, naturally, feels out of place, and is bored. Her husband is not unkind, but he is in every respect “correct”, and nothing more. There is never any hint of his displaying unseemly emotion (not that Effi would have cared for that anyway), or, indeed, any emotion at all: his aspirations are fixed on his career, to the exclusion of everything else. And Effi is seen but as a wax doll, who needs to be modelled into a figure suitable for presentation as wife of a senior civil servant.

The house they lives in appears to be haunted by a Chinaman who had been brought into this German town, and who is as alienated from the others in death as he had been in life: not having been Christian, he is buried outside the churchyard. Effi is frightened, but her husband, while not dismissing the possibility of the existence of the ghost, has little patience with her concerns: what do such things as ghosts matter when all that is really important is his career?

Not surprisingly, none of this makes for an ideal marriage, and Effi is easy pickings for the experienced womaniser, Crampas.  Effi soon regrets the affair, and is relieved to move to Berlin, away from Crampas. But the past doesn’t die: von Instetten discovers the affair of some seven years earlier, and despite, by his own admission, not feeling any great sense of shame or of outrage, he does the right thing: whatever else he may be, he is always correct.

There is much to admire in this novel – the pacing, the deft handling of symbols and imagery, the elegance and the polish of the structure – but the characters never reveal any hidden depth, or display any unexpected shaft of thought or of action. They are perfectly consistent in themselves, but they lack the richness one finds in Tolstoy or in Flaubert. Not here such moments of revelation as when Vronsky feels shame for the first time in his life, and, unable to bear such a feeling, attempts suicide; or when Karenin, worn down by his cares, sees his wife’s illegitimate baby and suddenly bursts into a smile. Neither do we find such revelations as the depth of feeling the apparently insipid Charles Bovary has for his wife, and his insupportable grief after her demise. None of the characters here ever surprises us: throughout, each character thinks and acts precisely as we would expect them to from their first appearance.

Fontane adopts a somewhat detached, distant tone, refusing to depict characters’ emotions openly when they are particularly strong. Take for instance the scene when Effi meets her daughter again, and finds that her daughter has been instructed to keep her distance: beyond telling us that Effi faints, Fontane himself tells us nothing of the emotional turmoil that we know must be going on inside her head. Effi expresses herself in a long theatrical monologue, but the very artificiality of this technique creates a sense of detachment that keeps the reader at a distance.  One need only compare this to Tolstoy’s depiction of Anna’s emotional turmoil to see the difference.

Of course, Flaubert cultivated a detachment as well, but, as I argue here, here, and here, there is far more to Flaubert than merely a cultivated detachment. I sense little behind the detachment in Fontane, but I could be wrong: as I said in an earlier post, novels can leave an aftertaste that can be unexpectedly different from what one experiences during the actual reading, and it remains to be seen what sort of aftertaste Effi Briest will leave. But for the moment, while it is admirable in many respects, it seems to me to lack the emotional response that seems to me ideally required for such a story, or much awareness of the depth and complexity of human characters. Everything is in its right place, it is all correct: a bit like von Instetten, actually.

(It is fair to point out that others see the novel somewhat differently, and I would certainly recommend posts on this novel in the blogs Book Around the Corner, A Common Reader, Iris on Books, and, of course, by the participants of the “readalong”.)

6 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for the link.

    I don’t exactly agree with you on some details:
    – Effi cares for love and she says to her mother when she gets engaged that if she can’t have love, then, she’ll settle for ambition.
    – Innstetten doesn’t want her to help in his career. He attends receptions in the world without her. She stays at home; he goes outside. It’s a very archaic society.

    You don’t mention “society” as a deus ex-machina in this novel. It’s a character in itself and I felt that Fontane was violently (although in a polite way, the guy would be a champion in PC nowadays) questionning the basis of this society that condemns women to be living dolls, just a bit higher on the scale of livings than dogs and horses.

    And the parents are terrible for marrying their daughter to the mother’s ex-lover (seriously, you have a daughter can you imagine her marrying your wife’s ex?) and for abiding by the rules.
    I too thought of Henry James. I haven’t read many of his books but a comparison between What Maisie Knew and this came to my mind. Not that it’s the same kind of story, but more because James sounded more contemporary.


    • Hello Emma,
      Yes, I think I was wrong to say that Effi did not care for love: it is not quite so absolute. But it is fair to say, I think, love is not too high in her list of priorities. She says that she is happy to settle for ambition if she can’t have love: these are not words that indicate any great value placed on love. Of course, these are the words of an immature teenager who has never lacked love from her parents, but who will soon find out how empty life is when love is absent. But she doesn’t know this yet: she is not experienced enough.

      And yes, you’re right, she does not attend the functions & receptions with her husband. But the point is, I think, that she must accept her position, and never say or do anything that might cause her husband embarrassment.

      19th century literature often addressed the position of women in society: in particular, they addressed the question of what happens to intelligent, capable women who do not have any outlet for their intellectual aspirations. (Middlemarch, A Doll’s House, The Lady from the Sea, Hedda Gabler, Three Sisters, etc. all address this issue in their different ways.) One particularly intriguing variation appears in a Chekhov story, variously translated as “Anna Around the Neck” or “The Order of St Anne”. Here, a young and attractive woman, for the sake of her impoverished family, marries a man much older than herself, and is intimidated by him. But then, at a dinner party at which her husband hopes to impress people senior to him in his work-place, she realises that she is well-liked and admired by the very people whom her husband wishes to impress. And the realisation dawns on her that this gives her power over her husband. And she uses this power to turn the tables on him. As ever, Chekhov refuses to draw out any moral to the story: like Henry James, he was fascinated by the various types of power, often subtle and unseen, that people wield over each other.

      I am about to start a Henry James story now: In the Cage is a novella I haven’t read yet, and I’m assured it’s one of his best.


  2. I think the marriage is a bit kinky–a bit of the old surrogate thing going on there.

    La Regenta is on my list to read.


    • La Regenta has been staring down at me from my shelves accusingly for quite some time now: I have to get round to it soon.

      The marriage is, as you say, a bit kinky, with a lot of surrogates going on, and I must confess I was a bit disappointed that Fontane did not pursue that aspect of the story further.


  3. A very thorough review and thanks for the mention of my own. I have never seen your blog before – its very interesting and I shall return!


  4. I read this about two years ago, and the aftertaste is still much the same as the original flavour. I wasn’t greatly impressed, I found it dull. (Mind you, I’ve never got through 50 pages of Madame Bovary). Nothing happened for long stretches. I’m not even sure there was an affair in it. – On the plus side, some of the characters were quite good: Effi, the dog, Effi’s father. (I think – if I remember right, he’d have preferred really if Effi had just stayed at home).


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