Adalbert Stifter Essay - Critical Essays


The basic directional principle that governs Adalbert Stifter’s narrative prose is the search for order in a person’s relationship to him- or herself and his or her external world. Stifter’s novellas and novels document the lifelong pursuit of an artistic unity of physical experience and reality of the soul, of universal meaning derived from the perception and understanding of individual phenomena, of resolution of the pain of existence in the discovery of faith in the basic goodness of life.

In their original form, Stifter’s early novellas differ markedly from his mature epics in their dynamic focus on humankind’s failure to realize an effective harmony with surrounding people and things. Human passion emerges as a destructive force when uncontrolled by reason, assuming the role of a fate that condemns humans to affliction and loneliness because of guilt. Unreasoned obsession is a tragic factor in most of the narratives in Studien, but the sharply fatalistic conception that dominates My Great-Grandfather’s Note-book, Crazy Castle, and Brigitta takes a somewhat different form in Abdias the Jew, in which fate becomes a clear manifestation of cause and effect rather than a product of unmastered feeling. The author revised these novellas, altering their initial form to temper the impact of inner compulsion on the lives of his characters, making them more visibly subject to the gentle law.

Stifter arrived only gradually at the concretely defined philosophy of life and literature for which he is best known. Nevertheless, his preface to Bunte Steine is commonly recognized as the key to interpretation of his oeuvre. The gentle law, as it has since become known, is a categorical rejection of the demoniac, catastrophe-oriented dramatic art of Hebbel. It ardently affirms the peace of a quietly benevolent world order and attests Stifter’s conviction that the universe is governed by a calmly divine principle in which Christian and humanistic ethics merge. He asserts that the small, still miracles of existence, the flowering of plants, the rustling of the brook, the shimmer of stars are the truly great phenomena of human experience, because they most accurately reflect the actual form of God’s plan. By contrast, the randomly violent outbursts of natural force in the physical world and the destructive emotions of humans are of less moment in the absolute framework. They are not typical of the overall pattern but remain products of isolated causes that are subject to far higher laws. In their revelation of tension within humans caused by the confrontation of the harmonious natural ideal with the chaos of unbridled passion, the most important novellas in Studien document the tragedy of human noncompliance with the dictates of the gentle law. The later works, on the other hand, offer a vision of the idyllic existence that is possible under a patiently rational humanistic order.

Central to Stifter’s worldview is his perception of nature. Influenced by Jean Paul, at the beginning of his career he attempted to discover in small things the secret of humankind’s being. The experience of landscape became especially meaningful as nature assumed the role not of background and scenery for the play of human events, but rather of elemental essence with independent presence, having rank equal to humankind’s own. Objective examination of nature’s every detail provides the individual with an unclouded knowledge of truth undistorted by passion, yielding a viable model for society and a resolution of civilization’s problems. For that reason, Stifter cultivated intimate descriptions of forest and meadow, water and stone, interactions of animals and growing things with natural processes. Each of his narrations weaves together the softly majestic beauties of earth and sky, past and present, eternity and transitoriness, year and day, the physical elements, the large and the minute, everything coexisting with equal right. There is a clear rejection of urban haste and an insistent advocacy of quiet, slow, imperceptible growth apace with the peaceful change of the seasons. In nature, Stifter saw the means for personal achievement of the ultimate goal: serenity of the soul.

In Studien, the six-volume compilation of Stifter’s early works, specific novellas stand out as especially successful. Abdias the Jew, the poignant tale of a North African Jew whose life is a mirror of human helplessness vis-à-vis the miracle and tragedy of natural events, is a masterpiece of description in its portrayal of a landscape that Stifter never saw. The melancholy, haunting love story Brigitta is perhaps the author’s most penetrating interpretation of erotic suffering and fateful loneliness that arise from human imperfection. Neither of these narratives, however, is as important as My Great-Grandfather’s Note-book within the broader spectrum of the author’s creative legacy.

My Great-Grandfather’s Note-book

A profoundly personal epic, My Great-Grandfather’s Note-book is a document of cosmic feeling for existence, filled with peaks and abysses, mysteries and revelations, strengths of the earth and gratitude for ancestral heritage. This description of the life of the rural doctor Augustinus, a man who is purified through pain and work and fulfilled through love and the learning of self-control, occupied Stifter’s attention from the beginning to the end of his literary career.

Portions of the novella exist in four different versions, the last of which was left unfinished at the author’s death; their variations reflect the evolution of Stifter’s style and of his perception of reality. The first version is informed by his ties to the literary currents of his time, especially the gushing subjectivity of the late Romantics and Jean Paul’s demand for sensual individuality of presented phenomena. The pessimistic fatalism of this version, however, represents a break with the Romantics, while the characters’ experiences of identity loss and the determining effect...

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