179. (Theodor Fontane)

Effi Briest: a nineteenth-century European bourgeois world that doesn’t have the melodramatic horrors of hell or the hopeless delusions of fatuous romance.

The heroine, Effi, does not, cannot, realize how miserable she is; nobody in the novel’s world, not even the narrator, does; but it is obvious and terrible to see. For most of the novel, her misery is felt mostly in the diminished tones of her happiness, the impossibility, which is felt in the prose (in translation, even), for her to experience any intensity of feeling at all ; the narration is neither cold nor hot, but tepid, muffled, muted, like the voices at a party heard through a door. We hear her feeling clearly once, when she is disappointed at her reunion with her daughter; that is near the end.

The reasons for Effi’s suffering are everywhere, contained in every scrupulously noted painting on the walls of her home, every destination of her travel, every interaction at a party, and in the narration’s very need to scrupulously detail these. Her affair with Crampus is a cause of her suffering, but is not made responsible for it.

The most surprising part of the novel’s design is how diminished a place the affair occupies, in its narrative space and emotional space alike. Effi’s motives are barely mentioned; she carries out the affair as a matter of course, but the force of habit in the affair is similarly not dramatized; it happens.

That is how everything in the novel occurs, Effi’s engagement, the decision of where she and Innstetten will honeymoon, how they will entertain, what she will read, how pass days: happening, not especially willed, not growing from stubborn tillage of thought, not caressed in feeling. But habit again is not the right word; that is too individual, and this is a world in which people, like objects, accord to normal place and behavior. The jargon of “habitus” is helpful.

The novel comes near to reflecting on, to articulating an awareness of, “habitus” when Innstetten decides he must, without considering whether his own willpower, beliefs, motives, challenge Crampus for a duel. But even that awareness is below the surface of Innstetten’s thought; it comes to the surface of a novel only in his failure to provide any reason beyond knowing it must happen.

“Convention” is the word, but unlike in the works of Flaubert, “convention” is not taken up in the novel’s rhetoric or discourse; it is latent. Madame Bovary is the inescapable point of comparison for the novel, but Fontane’s methods are so different from Flaubert’s that the comparison inevitably leads one to differences. What if Fontane were taken as a locus classicus of realism? There is much less of the virtuoso free-indirect discourse in Effie Briest, much less of the narrator’s finesse and nimble accommodation of perspectives, registers, discourses within a single sentence; but there is much more of the social field, balanced in small scenes, not just in the clustering of those terms and names that mark out status and taste (novels, destinations, luxury goods, publications, historical events, titles), but in the accommodation of voices, the direct discourse of characters, are placed without disparagement.

Whereas Flaubert indicts, with cool surgical hatred, the stupidity of the world and its little inhabitants, Fontane seems to be left entirely cold at the prospect of blaming–here he is a bit like Tolstoy–though he also seems unmoved at the prospect of praising–and here he differs from Tolstoy; he is animated by a tender regard that does not do much more than that: regard. And yet he is not inhuman or inhumane: every character is a character, treated with a standard of minimum dignity. They live, they have a voice, they have ambitions, and they are all, more or less, of the same quality; they are not judged as individuals for bringing about suffering, since the suffering that the novel exposes is not owing to any one of them. It is not about human stupidity, or even the stupidity of humans living together. It is about how human stupidity might be beside the point, which is bleak indeed, if it implies that human intelligence is not of much use either.

But the novel is not without blame: the situation itself, the situation that contains and emanates from everyone in the novel, is wrong. Even when her parents write their letter to Effi, explaining that they cannot have her in their home without cutting themselves off from the world, their rejection of her is made to feel no worse than the common behavior of their class and culture, impersonal and not even requiring much moral deliberation, though they likely feel regret and sadness. It could be said that we hold them to the standard to which we hold writers from the past: we should admire them if they are better than the standards of their time, but not blame them if they are not.

We know that largely because of what Effi feels and how she reasons, and because of the limitations of how she reasons and feels. Her constricted, compromised, reduced self is at the center of the novel, and she goes from a girlhood of insubstantial dreams, to a married adulthood of insubstantial routine without developed awareness or resources to diagnose, let alone resist.

The feelings of guilt and shame that attach to the affair are really feelings that existed, in another form, before it; feelings of anxiety and isolation that she attached to the ghost of a “Chinaman” earlier, soon after her marriage. That figure, the “Chinaman,” is probably the most dangerous part of the novelist’s design from Fontane’s perspective: we need to see that its significance is overdetermined, not only for Effi, but for her husband, Innstetten, but the novel cannot become about overdetermination or it will become a psychological novel.


It is not a psychological novel. It is about the toll taken on a person’s psyche. By being so little about selfhood, from the perspective of any of the characters, or the narrator (who is, I should make clear, rather than hint at repeatedly, of the world of the novel), it is a statement on selfhood; how it can be lost, fade from view, become inert–and how much it is needed. The novel’s shadow is existential or spiritual. Did Rilke like Fontane? Fontane is compared to Jane Austen–nowhere does she resemble him so much as in the creation of Miss Bates, the shell of a person who reminds Emma of what her future might be. The only time anything about selfhood is brought into focus is when, near the end of the novel, Innstetten reflects on his “essential self,” thinking that it is really (as Crampas had said) that of a schoolmaster, and then, parroting some fantasy of vocation, losing himself in a meaningless regret, wishing he had been a moral reformer, as if that would have given his life meaning…

The last chapters of the novel, from Effi’s return to her family’s home, are dark with ironies like that one: that Innstetten, when he finally does think of a self, thinks of himself as an educator, is absurd because that is what he has always only been, a perfect outcrop of a society concerned most of all with teaching lessons for how to act…so that , in another irony, Effi’s parents end by worrying that they were to blame for failing to teach her stricter lessons when she was a girl….that Effi’s final thoughts are acceptance, of what Innstetten had to do in response to the discovery of her affair…

Against the ironies are moments of caring, as when Effi’s father insists on taking her back, or when the minister’s wife, sitting beside Effi, agreeing to plea with her for the return of Annie, acts “without a tough of haughtiness or reproach, just fine, human sympathy.” We might think there would be felt some tension, a heightened drama, in these pages between such sympathy and social norms. There is not. Instead, the moments of caring, the minister’s wife, Effi’s father’s, the doctor who writes to Effi’s parents asking that they admit her back to her childhood home, and some others, are set as inconsistencies that are tolerated and permitted, but not accepted as challenges to the situation in which the characters find themselves. They are the fruits of resignation rather than the seeds of resistance.

As much as any late-nineteenth century realist novel, Effi Briest understands that social experience is temporal experience; the experiences of memory and futurity are essentially social, and the experience of society is essentially an experience of past, present, and future. But the characters are barely capable of cultivating reflections of the past or future. Compromised selfhood in the novel is commensurate with the characters’ profound inability to reckon time, or to reckon with themselves as temporal beings. The failure is most glaring when Innstetten and his friend, his “second,” briefly attempt to calculate whether enough time has passed between affair and discovery to justify a duel–and when, later, after the duel, Innstetten returns to the same question. He does not remember, and does not think about the quality of time or its effects on anything except public perception: at what point does time make something ridiculous?

The novel, just above 200 pages in my edition, spans over ten years of Effi’s life; its leaps are abrupt; the pacing is uneven, so that a banal conversation at a spa or party, incessantly and dully of the moment and in the moment, is given space in the narrative whereas Effi’s response to her parent’s letter denying her return home is granted almost none. We are being denied the opportunity for characters to discover or establish a temporal relationship to themselves, to their past, present, and future, that would lend unity of purpose and coherence to their lives. Things happen, often as scripted by bureaucratic decree, by convention, by season; it feels empty, but nobody looks for an alternative beyond another routine, and nobody thinks to look elsewhere. Samuel Beckett thought highly of it.




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