Effi Briest is Theodor Fontane’s masterpiece. Surprised at how easily it came to him, he compared it to a psychogram. Based loosely on an actual case, the novel treats sensational topics, including adultery and a duel, but in his tolerant, nonjudgmental stance, Fontane keeps a discreet narrative distance from intimate scenes.
The main theme of the novel, death, is pervasive and eclipses individual incidents. By the end of the novel Effi’s death seems inevitable. It is her fate, the accumulation of myriad factors beyond her control. Her inclinations, circumstances, and surroundings combine so that the reader, with Fontane, can only say “Poor Effi.”
Effi is a remarkably passive and detached heroine. The plot is advanced not so much by what she does as by what is done to her. The opening scene of Effi playing in the garden with her friends shows her as a carefree child, quite unprepared for the arranged marriage her mother springs on her. As she stands trembling before Innstetten, her friend Hertha calls to her from outside, “Effi, come.” Even Innstetten finds the call fraught with meaning, as if Effi is being called away from him to finish her childhood. In the original German edition, these words are given even more weight when near the end of the book Effi’s father says exactly the same thing when he calls her to come home. Effi feels at home only in her parents’ manor house in Hohen-Cremmen and thinks of herself to the end as Effi Briest, her parents’ child, and not as Innstetten’s wife.
If violence is done to Effi, figuratively speaking, by interrupting her childhood, then violence is also done to her by moving her as a bride into the very house in Kessin where the previous bride had met with a mysterious end, leaving the house haunted by the ghost of a Chinese man who had presumably been her secret lover. The ghost bodes ill for Effi. It links the house with adultery and death, and it is the point of contention that widens the gap in communication between Effi and Innstetten. Effi wants to move out, but Innstetten is insensitive and insists they stay.
Fontane was a master at writing dialogue and often manages to convey as much through what is not said as through what is said. One such dialogue, at the beginning of chapter 20, reveals that the rift between Effi and Innstetten is beyond...
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