Kenneth Cochrane Hayens.

Theodor Fontane; a critical study online

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Copyright 1920


A STUDY of the foremost realist in German literature
of the nineteenth century requires no apology. It has
been my object in the present volume to deal in detail
with the work of Theodor Fontane as a novelist, with
the reservation that I have made no attempt to cover
the ground of a possible source-book. The novels have
not been^taken in strict chronological sequence, but have
been grouped, as the headings to the chapters indicate,
rather with regard to their character. This method
necessitated the giving of a separate chapter to QiUtt,
but this is not altogether to be regretted, for the serious
student of literature must seek to understand failure as
well as success. While in Chapters III., V., VI., VII.,
VIIL, I have dealt conjointly with some aspects of the
individual novels, this arrangement has not been
followed in Chapter II. It appeared to me that, although
from one important point of view Vor dem Sturm and
Schach von Wuthenow go naturally together, the former
novel will continue for many good reasons to be classed
by itself. Despite certain hasty conclusions, the best
appreciation of Fontane in a succinct form is that con-
tained in R. M. Meyer, Die Deutsche Liter atur des neun-
zehnten Jahrhundertst Not so satisfactory is that to be
found in H. Mielke, Der Deutsche Roman des neunzehnten
Jahrhunderts. Passing assistance may be derived from



R. M. Meyer, Gestalten und Probleme; Erich Schmidt,
Charakteristiken, Bd. II.; A. Biese, Deutsche Literatur-
geschichte, Bd. III.; A Stern., Geschichte der neuern
Literatur, Bd. VII. L. Pineau, U Evolution du Roman
en Allemagne au XI Xe Siecle, is of no value; but the
following papers are not unsuggestive : K. Frenzel,
Theodor Fontane als Erzdhler, Deutsche Rundschau, Oct.,
1906, p. 1153; H. Hart, in Velhagen und Klasings
Monatshefte, 1898-9, Bd. I., p. 362.; C. Busse, in Vel-
hagen und Klasings Monatshefte, 1907-8, Bd. I., p. 927.



I. Introductory i

II. The Historical Novelist: Vor dem

Sturm; Schach von Wiithenow 7

III. The Story Teller : Crete Minde : Ellern-

klipp : Unterm Birnbaum 63

IV. The New World : Quitt 10 1

V. Berlin Plutocracy : LAdultera ; Frau

Jenny Treibel 121

VI. Unequal Marriages I. : Graf Petofy ;

Cecile 152

VII. Unequal Marriages II. : Unwiederhring-

lich ; Effi Briest 184

VIII. Sentiment and Society : Irrungen, Wir-

rungen ; Stine. 215

IX. Poor Nobility : Die Poggenpuhls 235

X. A Liberal Conservative : Der Stechlin 248

XI. Conclusion 273



When Theodor Fontane published Vor dem Sturm in
1878, he was in the sixtieth year of his Ufe. He was best
known to the general reader by his accounts of his
experiences in Great Britain and France, in peace and
in war; and by his certainly excellent descriptions of
the nobility and gentry of the March of Brandenburg.
Forced to class him, the literary youth of the day would
have given him a place amongst the ballad writers of
the forties and fifties, upon whom it looked back in
mingled pity and contempt. And at least one modern
critic is content still to regard him, somewhat naively,
primarily as a ballad writer. ^ Nevertheless, he became
the first and has remained the foremost of the German
realistic school.

If one familiarises oneself with the boyhood, youth,
and early manhood of the novelist by means of his most
interesting autobiographical volumes, Meine Kinder-
jahre, 1893, and Von Zwanzig bis Dreissig, 1898, one
appreciates better his slow but sure development. Born
in 18 19 at the small town of Neu-Ruppin in the March
of Brandenburg, Fontane was descended on both sides

* Prof. Koch. — Vol. II. of, the Geschichte der deutschen Literatut
by Friedrich Vogt and Max Koch.


/,2:;.;;';.-.-:THj:QDaR FONTANE

from Huguenot immigrants. His father, a chemist,
possessed little aptitude and less liking for business; as
a consequence, the financial record of the family is
distinctly chequered. His mother, although struggHng
staunchly to maintain her home on what she considered
a fitting level, did not display much generous affection
in dealing with its members. Yet, even while he
remained under his parents' roof, Fontane would not
appear to have passed an unhappy childhood. Swine-
miinde, to which town the family removed while Fontane
was still very young, was not lacking in qualities which
compensated to some extent for its rather forlorn situa-
tion; and the novelist always recalled it with pleasure.
Nor were there wanting amongst its inhabitants persons
who served in a lively fashion to awaken the boy's
power of observation. This power of observation was,
however, probably brought to bear more keenly upon
his parents than upon others; and it is not difficult,
with such excellent portraits before one, to remark those
traits in father or mother which were transmitted to the
son. If Fontane did not inherit what he describes as
his mother's 'southern French hastiness,' ^ he profited
greatly by a liberal measure of her willingness to work
and of her desire to lead a settled, though by no means
staid existence. In Fontane, the novelist, there is
undoubtedly much of this mother who dealt not in
fancies, but in facts. On the other hand, the son retained
his father's generousness of disposition, love of striking
figures, and arresting incidents, and habit of acquiring

1 Although R. M. Meyer, in Gestalten und Probleme, describes
the mother as of North French extraction.


scraps of knowledge of no apparent value. The father's
unfailing interest in such a man as the. Napoleonic hero,
Latour d'Auvergne, has a direct significance when
considered in connection with the son's early ballad
production; while the elder man's motley collection of
information became in the younger the basis of much
characteristic conversational matter. It is possible also
that, his French extraction accounts in some part for
the conservative use of French borrowings in Fontane's

The educational possibilities of Swinemiinde were not
of the highest order; and one is inclined to think that
much the best thing that Fontane took with him to
Berhn, whither he went to complete his schoohng, was
the good health which a liberal enjoyment of active
games in the open air had bestowed upon him. If one
is to believe his own account, he did not take the fullest
advantage of the opportunities which a school in the
capital could afford. Nor did the guardianship of his
Uncle August, a dilettante and happy-go-lucky, tend to
encourage him in the way of strict attention to duty.
His schooldays over, he was apprenticed to a chemist,
but his own interests were from the first literary. He
mixed with budding writers, students, and young
officers with artistic leanings. His scant resources were
not greatly augmented by his contributions to the news-
papers, despite the fact that he introduced himself to
the editors both in prose and in verse. Nevertheless,
he was always able to take an active share in the dis-
cussions and actual achievements of many literary clubs,
the chief of these being that called the 'Tunnel.' Here

A^ ;.';' :::r/::TI5E0DaR FONTANE

he distinguished himself by his considerable success in
the ballad, success which later criticism has, on the whole,
not sought to depreciate. Here, also, he made full use
of his powers of observation upon a very varied assembly
of men, differing as widely in their social standing as
in their literary ability. ^^'ith politics he was not

As a chemist's assistant he made the acquaintance of
other German towns, particularly Dresden and Leipzig,
in which he continued as far as possible his ordinary mode
of life. During this first period of wandering an attack
of fever almost proved fatal; while the after effects
troubled him for years. Gradually his literary work
became more remunerative; but it was not until after
the revolutionary period (1848-1849) that he was able
to rely upon the earning power of his pen. His volumes
of poetry — Manner und Helden, 1850, Gedichte, 185 1,
Balladen, 1861 — were well received; while he showed in
such writings as Ein Sommer in London, 1854, Jenseits
des Tweed, i860, how well qualified he was to record
impressions of travel. After his marriage, he lived for
some time during the fifties in London as a special
correspondent; and on returning to Berlin maintained
his connection with the newspaper world. His connec-
tion with a paper was, however, never ruled by political
motives. It is only in the most general sense that one
can say that, without abating anything of his patriotism,
he became ever more liberal in his attitude towards
public questions. The fruits of a labour of love, which
he never at any time wholly relinquished during a score
of crowded years, are to be found in four volumes issued


between 1862 and 1882. These volumes, entitled
Wanderungen dutch die Mark Brandenburg, contain the
tribute of Fontane to the land of his birth; and it is
significant that, granting the all-round excellence of his
work, he succeeds better in the portrayal of his com-
patriots than in the painting of the country-side.

During the campaigns which led up to the establish-
ment of the German Empire, Fontane proved his ability
as a war correspondent. Wrongfully suspected of being
a spy, he was arrested and kept in captivity for some
weeks. The most important outcome of this blunder
was the entertaining record of his prison experiences,
published under the title, Kriegsgefangen, 1871. His
account of the war with France, published between
1873 and 1876, serves, in common with earlier accounts
of the Danish and Austrian wars, as an illustration at
once of his patriotic feeling and of his highly lucid style.

Fontane spent his later years in Berlin, occupied to
the last either as journalist or novelist. And, although
he thoroughly enjoyed holidays, short or long, in the
country, he remained always a townsman, delighting in
the endless food for contemplation afforded by the
crowded streets. One or two outside honours, such as
the doctorate of the University of Berlin, were bestowed
upon him; but the really significant occurrences in an
otherwise uneventful life were the appearances of his
books. From 1878 until his death in the autumn of
1898, Fontane was before all a novelist. The sequence
of his novels, more especially if one considers his auto-
biographical work as partly novehstic and written
wholly from the novelist's standpoint, was broken


seriously only by the appearance in 1889 of Funf
Schlosser, a complement in essay form to the Wander-
ungen. Although finally enthusiastically acclaimed by
the young writers of the day, Fontane did not enjoy
success at every turn; indeed, he was unable in the first
instance to find a publisher for Stine, which lay for
several years in manuscript. On the whole, however,
Fontane cannot be said ever to have been discouraged,
as was Gustave Flaubert in his later years, by the
reception accorded his work.

His bare record as a novelist reads as follows : Vor
dem Sturm, iSyS; Crete Minde, 18S0; E llernklipp, iSSi;
U Adulter a, 1882; Schach von Wuthenow, 1883; J^raf
Petdfy, 1884; Unterm Birnbaum, 1885; Cecile, 1887;
Irrungen, Wirrungen, 1887; Stine, 1890; Quitt, 1891;
Unwiederbringlich, 1891; Frau Jenny Treibel, 1892;
Effi Briest, 1895; Die Poggenpuhls, 1896; Der Stechlin,


The Historical Novelist : Vor dem Sturm ; Schach
von Wuthenow

Despite his late beginning, Fontane reveals himself in
Vor dem Sturm as dominated by the influence of that
gifted historical novelist who took his theme from the
story of Brandenburg and Prussia, the most distinguished
follower of Walter Scott in German literature, Willibald
Alexis.^ He challenges comparison with Alexis the more
especially as he elected to place his novel in the Napo-
leonic period, upon which the earlier writer had already
drawn for two of his ablest works, Isegrimm and Ruhe
ist die erste Burgerpflicht. Whatever uncertainties may
arise from such a comparison, one thing stands out plainly,
that Fontane by no means followed his model so closely
as Wilhelm Hauff or Alexis himself in his earlier
work had adhered to the manner and methods of

The sub-title of Fontane's first novel is Roman aus
dem Winter 1812 auf 1813, and in keeping with it the
author attempts to picture the state of Prussia during
the months which preceded the final liberation of the
country from French control. His chief characters are

^ A pen-name for Wilhelm Haring, who is generally supposed
to be, in common with Fontane, of French extraction.



at home in tlie country which lies between BerUn,
Frankfurt on the Oder, and Kustrin, and forms part of
the Brandenburg to which Fontane was deeply attached;
at the same time, he is not completely silent as regards
the state and feeling of the two larger towns. The
opinions presented in the novel are thus in the main
those of the landed gentry and the peasantry; and they
are presented in such a manner as to make a distinct
impression upon the mind of the reader. One perceives
the differences existing between those of the nobility
who are or have been state officials, and those who have
been soldiers : the former unwilling to implicate them-
selves, the latter anxious, albeit in varying degrees,
to strike a blow at the enemy. One realises the slow
movingness of the peasant's mind. ,0n the other hand,
one does not see sufficient of the townspeople to be in a
position to remark more than, and even this in a rather
superficial way, the general spirit of irritation. Dis-
cussions disguised as conversation are prominent enough
to warrant the connection of Vor dem Sturm with such
a novel as Heinrich Laube's Das junge Europa, in which
they succeed in proving fatal to the general action and
composition. Yet Fontane, although he cannot deny
his relationship to the novehsts of the Young German
school, does not allow it to become too obvious. The
verbal reviewing of the politico-military situation is,
after all, only one of the means he employs in his attempt
to bring his period to Ufe. With his more usual types
he contrasts such figures as that of the Polish nobleman,
Bninski, who detests Prussia, as those of the thieves, .
taking full advantage of the troublous times, or as those


of the conventiclers who denounce all wars as un-
righteous. Contrast, however, is not all at which he
aims. He brings before one a lengthy series of men and
women, such as one might well have met at the time;
and lie endeavours to recount the incidents in which
they might naturally take part, to describe their habits,
customs, enjoyments, and to reproduce the manner and . -n
topics of their conversation. As far as the individual
parts are concerned, he is successful— in some cases, with
the help of peculiarly realistic touches, highly successful;
but there is a too strong resemblance to patchwork,
which greatly reduces the value of the whole. If Alexis
employs, as does Fontane, the art of the genre painter,
he is able to supply at the same time something approach-
ing a general focus for his pictures, and to conceal in
part the considerable lack of concentration by the
possession of an epic tone. The epic tone, the suggestion
of a wide but connected movement towards a definite
goal, Fontane does not attain; the general focus he
would not appear to have sought to introduce. The life
of the country gentry or small nobility is undoubtedly
that which he is most effective in reproducing. Even
here, however, there is a tendency to give only the cul-
minating points in any particular line of action or develop-
ment, a tendency due doubtless in some part to Fontane's
early attachment to the Romantics, as also in part to
his exercise of the ballad form. In dealing with other
circles, Fontane is still more guilty of allowing scope to
this tendency, whereby a disproportionate idea of the lives
of the people concerned is bound to arise. An excellent
example is his presentation of the BerHn lower-middle



class in its best clothes and on its best behaviour
at Frau Hulen's supper-party.^ Moreover, he follows
mainly in the introduction of his characters a method
which compares with that of the true novel, as does the
method of the pageant with that of the drama. Thus
Chapters VIII.-XI. are occupied by preliminary descrip-
tions of a series of figures, with no attempt to show any
need for the portraits to appear in a particular order, or
to establish any real connection between the chapters.
In making the reader acquainted with the circle of the
Countess Amelie, he goes even further in the use of a
convenient method, so far, indeed, as to suggest a
museum catalogue. And he makes his own defence.

It will be our immediate task to add a short characterisa-
tion to the mere introduction of these gentlemen who, with
the exception of Dr Faulstich, had all reached or passed
their sixtieth year.. If this is an offence against the laws
of good narrative, it is for the reader to be indulgent, more
especially as the error about to be committed is more
apparent than actual. For, however justified one may be
in condemning the presentation of ready-made figures
whose thoughts and actions are recorded on a ticket in
their coats, and in extolling instead that narrative art
which by the giving of mere suggestions makes it possible
for the reader's own fancy to supply the development and
completion, yet exceptions may be always allowed where,
as here, this marshalling of ready-made figures purports
to achieve little more than a portrait gallery, presented to
the reader less on account of the pictures, than on account
of the place in which they are found. — XX., 171.

The italics are Fontane's, and are important on account
iCf. Ch. XL.


of the fact that he is accustomed to derive the milieux
from the characters, and not vice versa.

Notwithstanding the deference which Fontane almost
always shows to the Royal House, he holds firmly, in
common with Alexis, that the country comes before the
king, and that the service of his country is the first
service of every man. He is not fortunate, however, in
Vor dem Sturm in his attempts to convey an impression
of his beliefs to the reader; there is a certain uncertain-
ness in the atmosphere of the book which militates
against his success. This indefiniteness extends to the
plot, which properly speaking consists of two love stories;
firstly that of Lewin von Vitzewitz and Marie Kniehase,
the adopted daughter of a village magistrate, and
secondly that of Tubal von Ladalinski and Lewin's
sister, Renate. One is forced to add a third thread,
the desire and failure of Lewin's father, Berndt von
Vitzewitz, to strike a serious blow to the French power.
This addition, however, does not greatly enhance the
value of the connected action; one is inclined to think,
wrongly perhaps, that the author was himself at times
in difficulties as to how to proceed. The love stories do
not bear close inspection; that of Lewin and Marie is
the better, not on account of that well-worn device
whereby the young man has first to be cured of a foolish
passion for another woman, but because of the figure cf
Marie, which is so much more lifelike than that cf
Renate. In Renate, as also in her father, Fontane makes
a first attempt to show that there are people born to be
unhappy, an idea which in some later novels he freely
developed; but though it is important at the opening


of Vor dem Sturm, it is by no means sustained. One
can hardly assume from the scraps of Renate's diary
given in the last chapter that she was particularly
unhappy; indeed, according to what is known of the
character of Tubal, she might have been much more
miserable had he lived. The action as given is, more-
over, too traditional, too much in keeping with that of
similar novels, to carry a philosophical theory. There
is, in consequence, no definite reason why the book should
close with an elegiac -romantic visit to Renate's grave.
Fontane seeks to strengthen the plot by means of the
dream, as experienced chiefly by Lewin and Renate,
and by foreshadowing passages, such as the following: —

The stars came out more numerously than ever. Taking
off his cap, Lewin let the fresh winter air blow about his
forehead, and gazed wonderingly and reverently up into
the glittering heavens. It seemed to him that every gloomy
fate, the heritage of his house, fell from him, and that
lightness and brightness from above entered into his soul.
He breathed more freely. — I., 7.

Fontane never makes any effort, as Alexis at times
certainly does, by manner and tone, if not in so many
words, to ensure the interest of the reader by allusion to
political questions or situations of his own time. This
is due in part, undoubtedly, to the differing attitudes
adopted by the two men with regard to the existent
classes of society. Alexis is a militant Liberal, certain
that the welfare of the state depends on the middle
classes; Fontane, influenced, one suspects, by a pre-
dilection for high-sounding names and lengthy pedigrees,
is a non-militant Conservative. Nevertheless, Fontane


introduces much more strictly extraneous matter than
the older writer; without it, indeed, Vor dent Sturm
would run to but quarter of its actual length. Some
matter which might in the first place be classed as quite
extraneous to the plot may be found, on closer investiga-
tion, to shed some light on the characters concerned in
the plot; but this is unusual. As a rule, one must keep
in view that larger picture which has already been
discussed. The detail of this picture is mainly un-
deniably good, and it should not be forgotten that it
has Mommsen's approval; but there are occasions when
one is met by artificiality. It is more surprising still to
find occasionally the same fault in those anecdotes,
which, after the manner of Alexis, Fontane makes so
prominent, and in the telling of which he already
approaches brilliance. True, some of the anecdotes are
illustrative of particular characters or circles in the novel,
but the author is also concerned with another issue.
He desires to cstabhsh the view that the anecdote is of
the utmost value to the critic of man and of history;
the desire arises from what he calls in the Introduction
to Meine Kinderjahre, 'my partiality to the anecdotal.'
It must be admitted that, on the whole, he introduces
his anecdotes well, and demonstrates their value in the
criticism of individuals. This value is not lowered
when an anecdote is, on the face of it, not strictly true,
so long as it has grown, and it invariably has so done,
from the character of the person concerned. It is in
the anecdotes purporting to be of wider historical
application that one notes on occasion an artificiality
which weakens the effect.


In view of what has gone before, it cannot prove
unexpected to discover that Vor dem Sturm fails badly
in proportion. More especially as Fontane has not yet
perfected the art of making a strong point out of a small
incident, one feels that in comparison with the actual
action of the book the reported action occupies too great
a space. Indeed, so much is introduced by the reporting
method, that one is at times rather uncertain as to
what is the actual action. Again, amongst many of the
prominent figures, General von Bamme may be taken
9 I as an excellent example ; the speech altogether outweighs
y* j what reflection is introduced. Even in the case of^
Renate and Lewin the balance is not rightly maintained,
as the reflection indulged in by them is much too general.
And although it has to be admitted that here and there,
most noticeably in the case of Berndt von Vitzewitz, he
does for a time achieve something approaching a true
proportion between speech and reflection, it is obvious
that he has no definite method of weighing the one
against the other. If the proportion of action to descrip-
tion is at least passable, there is, on the other hand, an
obvious disproportion between action and speech. Yet
it must be remembered that the continual suggestion of

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