German Literature Month – ‘Effi Briest’ Read-Along (Part Three)

I’ve finally made it to the end of Effi Briest, and an entertaining journey it’s been too.  However, dear reader, if you have yet to reach the end of the novel, it would be a good idea to leave my blog post-haste, lest your eyes be offended by news of events yet to come.  Go on then…

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For those of you who have also reached the end of the book then (and for those who don’t intend to), this third post will look back at the final section and try to summarise some of my overall thoughts on Fontane’s novel – and a very good one it turned out to be too.  As suspected, things all went a little pear-shaped for our heroine on her return to Berlin, and I turned out to be (sadly) right in my suspicions that Effi’s innocent comments on outliving certain characters were fated to be proven untrue.

Of course, Fontane’s light touch in describing, or rather not describing, Effi’s indiscretions was a major turning point, and when we find out (via the letters) the full extent of Effi’s betrayal, we feel a little betrayed ourselves.  For the first, and perhaps the only, time in the book, the reader distances themself from Effi, sympathising with Innstetten in his turmoil.  With later events in mind, it is ironic that it is actually Annie who is the means to Effi’s downfall…

Of course, our sympathy with the politician is fleeting.  In a matter of pages, he has made his decision, one which will end in a violent death, a further lingering one and (probably) an extremely disturbed childhood.  The moment Innstetten chooses to pursue Crampas, ignoring the inner voice which implores him to forgive and forget, he returns to his usual robotic self, unaffected even by a brief stretch in prison.  Effi herself describes her husband best when, near the end of the novel, she says to herself:

“Denn er hatte viel Gutes in seiner Natur und war so edel, wie jemand sein kann, der ohne rechte Liebe ist.” p.249 (Hamburger Lesehefte)

Effi’s casual comment about the goodness of Innstetten’s nature, coupled with a complete absence of love, is a telling one indeed.

We never really expected much from Effi’s husband, so his actions on learning the truth of the affair, while extreme, are not exactly surprising.  However, the reaction of her parents was absolutely stunning, probably one of the most jaw-dropping moments of the book.  I had assumed that Effi would be returning to Hohen-Cremmen to live out her life in tranquil solitude, so her mother’s letter was rather… surprising, shall we say.

Over the first two weeks of this read-along, our hosts, Caroline and Lizzy, had been dropping hints as to the importance of the parents in Effi Briest, and it is only in the third section that we see why.  It would be interesting to find out how Fontane’s contemporary readership saw this part of the plot.  Were the late-nineteenth-Century German folk as upset as we were at the way Effi was disowned, or did they also think that it was the only possible action?  Did they believe that Effi’s parents redeemed themselves by finally taking her in three years later after her serious illness?  Because I certainly don’t…

I’m fairly sure though that Fontane fully intended the parents to be despised by his readers.  The contrast in the final scene between the faithful Rollo and the disinterested Briests is a sight to behold, and the final words of the book, between the mother and father, really say it all:

“…ob sie nicht doch vielleicht zu jung war?”
“Ach, Luise, lass… das ist ein zu weites Feld.” p.250

When the mother tentatively asks if perhaps Effi really had been too young to marry Innstetten, the father replies with his usual stock, dismissive response (which I like to interpret as ‘opening up a can of worms’!).  Concerned parents?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

*****
So, stepping back from the action for a moment, how good is Effi Briest as a book, and how does it compare to those other great novels of marital infidelity, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary?  Well, as a character, Effi is infinitely more sympathetic than the two other fictional ladies mentioned, and credit for that goes to the writer and his decision to start his story at the very beginning.  I am not a big fan of heroines betraying their husbands, whatever the cause, but by introducing Effi to the reader at a relatively young age, Fontane allows us to live through her marriage with her, seeing it through her eyes, noticing the neglect of her ambitious husband.  It also helps that she realises that her actions are wrong and attempts to make amends, a very different turn of events to those portrayed in Tolstoy’s and Flaubert’s novels.

However, that’s not to say that it’s a better book.  Despite my antipathy for AK herself, I think Anna Karenina is a wonderful book (even if it’s more the Levin side which interests me), and I think it shows a deeper character development than Fontane’s novel.  Fontane is probably one of the best classic German authors I’ve read when it comes to character development, but compared to some Victorian writers (and the two Russian legends), he still comes off second best.

One of my problems with Effi Briest is the character of Innstetten.  I don’t feel that he was brought to life in the way you’d expect from a major character, especially compared to Effi herself, and this detracts a little from the novel as a whole.  Still, this is comparing the book to classics of world literature, and I’m not dismissing it by any means.  On the contrary – it’s a wonderful book, and one I’ll no doubt be rereading many times over the coming years.  And Fontane’s emphasis on Effi is not a bad thing; he is able to transfer the affection he feels for his heroine across to the reader, helping us to form an attachment with the doomed young women.

Finally, should anyone doubt Fontane’s affection for Effi, one line towards the end of the novel (p.247 in my version) finally shows us what his true feelings are:

“Arme Effi, du hattest zu lange hinaufgesehen und darüber nachgedacht…”

When you’re on such familiar terms with your characters, it’s safe to say that they have a special place in your heart…

11 thoughts on “German Literature Month – ‘Effi Briest’ Read-Along (Part Three)

  1. I feel the same abou the parents, that's for sure. I've been reading a few things about the book and it seems that Prussian society didn't only have a moral but a legal code regarding adultery and if someone had found out he didn't ask for the duel he would have been in serious trouble. That's why his second said, you shouldn't have told me. Telling his second was maybe the only non-robotic thing he did. He acted withouth thinking and then there was no way back.
    I find it hard to compare the three novels. I've read Mme Bovary three times, while I think it's superior from a stylistic point of view it didn't move me at all. And Anna Karenina is so much more Vronsky's and Lewin's story. I think however she is more tragic, the more subtle and psychologically interesting heroine.

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  2. That's a really interesting question to pose, how Fontane's original readers would have reacted to the parents (indeed to the whole book). Is there any way of finding out?

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  3. That's an interesting observation about the Prussian legal code, Caroline. So the only choice Innstetten really had was to stay stumm and not talk out his options with a confidante. That's a tall order. After that, the duel became a legal process and not a matter of personal honour?

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  4. Lizzy – Not really, not on first reading anyway. I think he just wants to forget about it all – it's in the past now…

    Gary – Well, it's not a difficult read, so don't be out off reading it at some point 🙂

    Caroline – Ah, Prussia – truly a different country 😉 As mentioned on my comment to your post, I'm watching the 1968 DDR version at the moment, and Innstetten comes across as a lot more symapthetic in the flesh – so far at least (he has just discovered the letters!).

    I have only read 'madame Bovary' once, a long time ago, and I remember loathing it (and her!). It would be interesting to reread it now, with nearly twenty years' more life and literary experience…

    Vishy – Thanks 🙂 Perhaps a reread one day will change that view!

    Eibhlin – I think Caroline's comment shows that things were taken very seriously indeed in Prussia…

    Hmm, maybe I should do a post on the film too 😉

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  5. I like Effi more than Emma Bovary and I sure don't want to re-read Anna Karenina. Emma Bovary is stupid and foolish and she brings misery over her, all by herself.Effi is a victim of the society.

    Interesting comment by Caroline about duels. That explains why the question of what to say to the authorities after the killing isn't raised. It also explains why the story ends up in the papers. What a strange law, totally in a different direction from other countries. In France, we had been fighting against duels since Louis XIV (17thC) and in A Hero of Our Time, they pay attention to make the duel look like an accident.
    That comfort my vision of Innstetten as a victim of society too. I pity Effi more because as a woman, she has no choice at all in anything. I think men had more consideration for their horses and their hunting dogs than for their wives.
    Emma

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  6. Effi is definitely the most sympathetic of the three 🙂

    Most Victorian literature portrays duels slightly differently too; the clandestine duel in Phineas Finn, fought on the shores of the Netherlands, is a good example. Finn even tries to cover up his injury with a story about a fall while hunting…

    As for the husbands and wives comment… I actually think Innstetten did love Effi, and she had a lot of freedom. It was actually her boredom and immaturity which caused her affair, just as much as Innstetten's work ethic. When he was at home, he was pretty much a model husband…

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  7. I wouldn't describe him as a model husband but I do grow more and more sympathetic to Innstetten as the years pass. He's as much an emotional victim as Effi and not to blame that society's strictures on women were harsher on her than him.
    Sympathetic as she was, Effi was still an adulteress and to ask any man to take his wife back after a prolonged affair (which it was) is a big ask. I think the 7 years between the act and the discovery of it is a red herring. That pile of letters would have destroyed any trust he had in her for ever.

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  8. I agree. I've become more sympathetic to Innstetten the more I've thought about the book – and especially after seeing a film version! Yes, he was within his rights to throw Effi out, but I think he was a little enthusiastic and ruthlessly efficient about doing so (rather Teutonic, even?!).

    As for the parents (especially the mother) – NO EXCUSE!!!

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