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...
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