Welcome to the finest German novel of the 19th Century. In 1919 Thomas Mann said that if one had to reduce one’s library to six novels, Effi Briest would have to be one of them.
This was my fourth reading. It is, in fact, the only novel I have read during my teens, my twenties, my thirties and now my forties. I will, no doubt, read it again, because as simple as the plot may seem, and, as discretely as the author may tell it, this is a tale with layer upon layer of hidden meaning. There is no doubt that I share Thomas Mann’s regard of this novel.
It is a tale in the tradition of 19th century adulteresses – a German Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, if you will. Yet, it is from a completely different mould. Effi is a 17-year old girl, sacrificed on the altar of German, specifically Prussian, convention and proprietry. Innstetten, the husband, is a flawed, yet sympathetic character. Effi’s adultery isn’t brazen – in fact, unless you read closely you may miss it altogether.
The real strength of this novel lies in the control Fontane has on his material. The structure is tight. The opening scenes between Effi and her parents are mirrored with great poignancy at the finale. There is never any sentimentality or melodrama. Effi’s downfall is reflected in the symbolism of the natural world.
I was so struck with this that I’vve included some detail in the following paragraph. Don’t read it, however, if you mind spoilers.
Effi is established in the first few chapters as a “Naturkind” – child of nature. This works on two levels. Firstly, her behaviour: She loves to take long walks. She prefers the scenery to the museums that her “culture vulture” of a husband drags her round on her honeymoon. But she is also a natural personality: bubbly, girlish, impulsive, adventurous, not inhibited by the starchiness of the society surrounding her. And it is this personality which brings her into danger and, ultimately, triggers her downfall.
Fontane spells this out in allegories involving the natural world. So, for instance, when she arrives in Kessin, the first thing she notices as she enters her new home is the threatening presence of a shark and a crocodile in the hall. These water creatures are above her. Symbolically she is under water. There is a danger of her drowning here. On an early outing to the sea, she encounters a seal, which she romantically believes to be a mermaid. But it is these “innocent” picnics by the sea with Crampas that sow the seeds of the coming seduction.
The climax of the water allegory is the scene where the seawater rises from below and turns the land into a swamp. Effi is about to be pulled under. Ah, but they make a detour and disaster is averted …… But Fontane once again uses the mirroring technique to tell the whole story. At the beginning of her life in Kessin, Effi must travel with Innstetten on the mandatory visits to the local aristocracy. Once these visits are completed she complains to Innstetten, “All that time alone in the coach and you never touched me once”. So what does Crampas do that night in the sleigh: “Then he took her hand and untwined her fingers …. And covered them with passionate kisses. She felt as if she would faint.” You just know that the girl is undone.
To emphasise this Fontane returns to the water allegory. A shipwreck and Effi is reduced to a sobbing mess when the sailors are saved. Why, if not, because she believes that there is no redemption for a lost soul like herself?
So with Fontane using natural allegory to show both the delights and dangers of Effi’s personality, I don’t suppose we should be too surprised that it is ultimately Effi’s love of nature that induces her final demise.
Not only is this novel a social critique of the lower aristocratic values, it is also an indictment of the rising Prussian military state. Typically Fontane mixes that criticism into the blend with as much subtlety as the other themes we have mentioned. Yet, if you read the final scene between Innstetten and Wuellersdorf with this in mind, what a lambasting criticism of Prussia and all it stood for! Amazing, that the novel was never banned.
And finally, Effi and Innstetten are based on real characters. The real Effi, however, was not destroyed in the same way. She was divorced but she went on to become a nurse.