Keller, Gottfried 1819-1890
Swiss novella writer, novelist, and poet.
Considered Switzerland's most prominent author, Keller is best known for his satiric novellas that explore societal and individual concerns of nineteenth-century life. His short fiction emphasizes the role of the individual as a virtuous, compassionate public citizen, free from the extremes of moral and religious fanaticism. Keller is praised for the humorous, ironic tone of his work, as well as for his clear, simplistic language.
Keller was born in Zurich. His father, an activist in public education and community service, died young, leaving Keller, his mother, and younger sister. The early death of his father created an intense bond among the three that lasted throughout their lives. Keller's second childhood trauma came when he was expelled from a public trade school at the age of fifteen, putting a temporary end to his formal education. After his expulsion, he studied painting, which resulted in his enrollment in an art school in Munich in 1840. After a few years, Keller returned to Zurich. Inspired by the political ferment in that city, he began writing political poetry, which garnered favorable critical reviews. As a result of this attention, Keller was awarded a university scholarship by the city of Zurich. While attending the University of Heidelburg, he was influenced by the teachings of the atheist and materialist philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach. Keller left the university in 1850 but remained in Berlin where he continued his writing of poetry and fiction. In 1855 Keller returned to Zurich and worked as a freelance writer, often publishing articles favorable to the government. In 1956 the first part of his collection of short fiction, Die Leute von Seldwyla, was published (the second part was not published until 1874) to positive commercial and critical attention. At the age of forty-two, Keller took his first job as First Secretary of Zurich. He functioned in this position until 1876, at which point he resigned to devote himself to writing fiction. Keller died in 1890.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Keller's first collection of novellas, Die Leute von Seldwyla, concerns the lives of people in and around the small town of Seldwyla and exposes the greedy, hypocritical ways in which the community members interact. In Clothes Make the Man, a young, unemployed tailor is mistaken for a Polish count by the townspeople of Golach. He plays along, demonstrating that people can be deceived by appearances, in this case, the tailor's fine clothing and aristocratic manner. Another novella, The Smith of His Own Fortune, chronicles the story of a lazy young man who agrees to act as the long-lost heir to a wealthy older man. The young man, John, cannot control his flirtatious impulses and eventually impregnates his benefactor's wife, thereby usurping his own place as heir. Keller's later collection, Züricher Novellen, is a volume of stories that are based on the history of Zurich. Many of the novellas frame shorter stories, a device that Keller used in his final work of short fiction, Das Sinngedicht, which is a series of several stories set within the novella. Thematically, these stories address the problems of love, marriage, and compatibility.
Keller's short fiction is replete with social commentary, especially his emphasis on the virtues of moderation and the fulfillment of the individual through civic responsibility, orderly living, and honorable conduct. He is praised for his often humorous presentation of plot and character, in particular his use of such devices as irony, satire, farce, the grotesque, and caricature. A paternalistic and moralistic tone has been detected in Keller's short fiction; in many of his stories, the ignorant, vain, and lazy are exposed and humiliated by others. Overall, Keller's short fiction is lauded for its poetic prose, simple language, detailed descriptions, use of color, and incorporation of the natural world.
Die Leute von Seldwyla [The People of Seldwyla] 1856-74
Sieben Legenden [Seven Legends] 1872
Züricher Novellen. 2 vols. 1877
Das Sinngedicht 1881
Stories [edited by Frank G. Ryder] 1983
Other Major Works
Gedichte (poetry) 1846
Neue Gedichte (poetry) 1852
Der grüne Heinrich [Green Henry] 4 vols. (novel) 1853-55
Gesammelte Gedichte (poetry) 1883
Martin Salander [Martin Salander] (novel) 1886
Gedichte [edited by Albert Köstler] (poetry) 1922
Sämtliche Werke 24 vols. [edited by Jonas Frankel and Carl Helbling] (collected works) 1926-54
New York Times Book Review (review date 1914)
SOURCE: A review of A Village Romeo and Juliet, in The New York Times Book Review, March 29, 1914, p. 142.
[In this favorable review, the critic praises the simplicity and poetic nature of the language in Keller's novella .]
Mrs. Wharton's "Introduction" to this novelette of a hundred and fifty pages [A Village Romeo and Juliet] is both biographical and critical. Her sketch of the author's life is very brief and deals only with such of its chief outstanding facts as were concerned with his literary work. But her account of his most important books is sympathetic and illuminating, showing how the life, the work, and the character of the man interacted upon one another, and, with clear insight into his literary values, summarizing his greatness and his shortcomings. It is among German writers, she says, that Gottfried Keller must be classed, although he was born in Switzerland. In Zurich he spent the greater part of his long life, and died there in 1890. Although he has been famous in Germany for the last half century or more, this is the first of his writings given to American readers. The story is taken from a volume of tales called Seldwyla People, which Nietzsche declared to be one of the four masterpieces of German prose. Mrs. Wharton places these tales in artistic achievement upon a higher level than his four-volume novel. Der Gruñe Hein-rich, upon which rests a large share of his fame; and of these stories this present one, she says, "attains perfection."
The novelette is a retelling of the old, old story of the vain love of two young hearts whose families are separated by feud and hatred. But the author has taken only the central situation that is common to all literature because of its universality and its poignancy. His setting is the life of a Swiss village, which he makes so intimately a part of his story that its homely daily course takes form and movement before the reader's eyes. He shows the beginning of the feud between the two families and with swift narrative follows it to its culmination in the ruin of both and the budding of love between the two young people. Quickly passion is blooming in full perfection in their two starved and wretched young hearts, and they set forth for their one glorious day of wandering together in the hills and forests. And at its end, because they can neither marry nor part, they seek death in the river.
The little story is hauntingly beautiful, for Keller had the poet's vision, and saw things simply, and at the same time veiled with that witchery which is denied to the eye of the ordinary mortal. And he had also the gift of a simple, flowing prose style which translates his poetic vision into a tale that is tender, noble, moving, and, above all, beautiful. Mrs. Wharton well says of it that it "has the careless completeness of a cloud or a flower."
Lee B. Jennings (essay date 1958)
SOURCE: "Gottfried Keller and the Grotesque," in Monatshefte, Vol. L, No. 1, January, 1958, pp. 9-20.
[In the following essay, Jennings DISCusses the role of the grotesque in Keller's work, maintaining that it has a social as well as a personal function in his short fiction. ]
Exceedingly strange figures adorn the pages of Gottfried Keller's sketch books and confront us in his "doodling" in the margins of poems and elsewhere: bubble-blowing creatures whose limbs taper off into thin tendrils, fiddling skeletons, skulls with duck's feet bowing elegantly, a skull inhabited by tiny jesters. The vividness of these figures suggests that they spring from elemental forces in Keller's artistic personality, the effect of which upon his literary production has not as yet been systematically explored.
Although we find the term "grotesque" employed in a confusing variety of ways, these images unquestionably fall within its range. Indeed, it is to such visual prototypes that we must continually return in order to form any distinct and unwavering concept of grotesqueness. The drawings of skulls and skeletons in comic poses seem to illustrate especially well the peculiar interplay of effects called forth by the fantastic distortion of the truly grotesque object: demonic fear and boisterous amusement. The grotesque might be briefly characterized as the fearsome made ludicrous in freakish form.
To be sure, the only aspect of the grotesque agreed upon by all authorities is that of "distortion." This is sometimes extended to include everything incongruous or deficient in some formal principle. It seems obvious, however, that the most strikingly grotesque effect is produced by concrete objects, real or imagined (the mandrake root, the gothic gargoyle, the figures of the Totentanz); that the distortion is of the kind that inspires both fear and amusement; and that such distortion usually involves some modification of the human form. Further, the grotesque is best regarded as a pre- or sub-aesthetic genre (note its constant appearance in the art of primitive peoples); thus its precise position in the hierarchy of aesthetic categories need not greatly concern us. It has seemed best to avoid the treatment of grotesque "style." This concept, which is more consistent with the German usage, usually comprises Rabelaisian rhetoric and nonsense verse and really has little to do with the phenomena DISCussed here. The meaning "burlesque, clownish" is also peculiar to the German usage. Current American usage tends rather toward the extremes "gruesome" or "nonsensical."
Keller's "grüner Heinrich" shares his creator's inordinate fondness for grotesquery. He draws tree-trunk faces, tattered vagabonds, and other "Fratzen" and has to suffer much criticism for this morbid strain in his budding artistry. Nor was this problem an abstract or impersonal one. Keller's own sketchbooks contain just such figures as those which he describes here.
In Keller's diary, too, we find a highly grotesque scene described with considerable relish: a carnival booth featuring preserved human foetuses and wax models of diseased organs. The scene must have made a deep impression on Keller, for it appears also in Der grüne Heinrich. As a boy, Heinrich is fascinated by such an exhibition of foetuses. He makes wax models, even queerer than the originals, of these "grossköpfige wunderliche Burschen," gives them comic names, and makes them "dance." In the course of the episode, the demonic fear latent in these bogey-like artifacts rises to prominence and is finally objectified in the form of a mysterious, menacing cat. The terrified Hein-rich is left crying out in the darkness amidst the ruins of his fantastic world.
Thus, Keller's deep and natural affinity for the grotesque is well attested. There are also strong indications that it does not merely represent a whimsical idiosyncrasy but is impinged upon by the same dark undercurrent that causes his autobiographical hero Heinrich Lee to torture small animals and to make a skull his vademecum. Perhaps, too, it serves as an involuntary mechanism for holding this dark strain in check. The balance of forces observed in connection with the young Heinrich and his wax men—the counteracting of panic fear by detached amusement—may prevail, somewhere in the depths of the mind, during the creation of all vividly grotesque material. This is suggested, at least, by the complex effect called forth by the finished product.
Numerous scenes in Keller's writings follow this pattern of grotesqueness, whatever its origin—scenes which often stand out curiously from their surroundings. They are related to the passages representing pure drollery, buffoonery, and whimsy and are often confused with these more innocuous flights of fancy, but they can be distinguished by their undercurrent of the demonic or terrible. Keller's literary friends occasionally object to the grotesque episodes and other outbursts of his boisterous nature as violations of plausibility or good taste. He replies to one such objection that he cannot delete these pranks and crudities once they are there; these "erratic boulders" in his literary terrain represent compulsive, fragmentary outcroppings of an "unwritten comedy" within him.
This does not mean, however, that we are dealing merely with the random effects of some obscure mental quirk. The most compulsive and idiosyncratic mental currents may be in complete harmony with higher aims and more general attitudes; indeed, we expect the literary work to unite such varied levels of the author's thought in a harmonious manner. In order to determine what higher implications Keller's grotesquery may have, we must turn to the individual examples.
In Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe we notice a shift toward the bizarre and grotesque which increases proportionately as the miasma of decay and decline settles over the surroundings. The reader descends, as it were, into successive levels of an underworld in which the firm order of existence expounded at the beginning of the story undergoes all sorts of odd deformations. The two fathers, in their misery and poverty, are twice expressly compared to shades in the underworld, and their whole environment is like a kind of limbo or Hades where the author has placed them as punishment for their transgressions. The bizarre note is provided here by the elephantine coyness and absurd ornamentation of Sali's mother and by the series of fishing tramps along the river, each more oddly dressed than the next; the last one is stark naked (faselnackt), and his feet retain their black color (like an indelible stigma) despite his proximity to the water.
The fate of the children seems to carry us farther into the nether regions. The "Paradiesgärtlein" where the paupers and homeless people hold their dance no longer represents a realm of punishment for petty miscreants, but is rather the focal point of dangerous forces of chaos. The promiscuous vagabond-folk are not the punished sinners of Keller's cosmos, but its demons, and their "paradise" is far from celestial. The decorations about the walls—cherubs with fat bellies and large heads—begin to verge on the grotesque. But it is in the figure of the Black Fiddler that the high point of grotesqueness is reached.
However realistic the ultimate motivation of this figure may be, his immediate appearance is that of a distinctly more-than-human creature, a demon presiding over the process of decay. Every aspect of his person bears out this fact: the devilish blackness of his hair, face, hands, and clothing, his affinity for pitch, coal, and soot; the tiny round hole of a mouth that whistles and wheezes incessantly; the eyes, shifting so rapidly that the pupils are scarcely visible; and the "terrible" nose, resembling a club thrown into the face—a feature that becomes comic in retrospect. In short, the Fiddler is the very embodiment of infernal menace, chaos, and, especially, restlessness or unsteadiness; even his hat seems to change its shape constantly.
The grotesqueness of the Fiddler is expanded in the weird, nocturnal procession near the end of the story, which seems to represent a Dionysian dissolving of all sense of order. The Fiddler cavorts "like a ghost," while his companion, the hunchback, leaps about wheezing under the weight of his bass viol.
In this work, at least, the appearance of the grotesque is seen to follow a certain pattern. The kinship with negative and demonic forces bears out the assumptions already made about the nature of the grotesque, and the association with the "underworld" and its freakish denizens suggests that the basic structure of Keller's poetic world is ultimately involved.
Die drei gerechten Kammacher also portrays the degeneration of a fixed order; and, although the treatment is satirical and humorous, there is no doubt as to the grim seriousness underlying it. There is, again, a distortion of the orderly environment toward the bizarre and grotesque; it is represented in the distressed comb makers' meteoric shooting-about and their strange entanglements, and in the curious habits and foolish discourses of Züs Bünzlin. There is an air of vampirism about Züs (perhaps suggested by her blood-letting equipment and her copy of the Lord's Prayer on so-called "Menschenhaut"); and there is more than a suggestion of the demonic in the race-scene, where the comb makers pass from the limbo of folly to a truly infernal realm of torment with distinct Dantean overtones. A representative of some deeper stratum seems to materialize in the form of the street-urchin who clings to Jobst's back like a grinning goblin.
In Dietegen the "underworld" is represented by the town of Ruechenstein, whose grim residents so annoy the funloving Seldwyla folk. The chaos-theme is somewhat obscured by that of puritanism, i.e. over-rigorous adherence to the externals of order and morality; but this, too, may have sinister and disruptive consequences, as Keller proceeds to demonstrate. Distinct underworld-motifs are present. The town is located in a cool, shady region and traversed by a dark river. Its appearance is that of a gray, gloomy fortification, recalling the classical conception of Tartarus (as in book VI of Virgil's Aeneid). The sadistic punishment-mania of its inhabitants is developed to truly devilish proportions, and their appearance does nothing to discourage their being viewed as grotesque "demons"; they have fat bellies, spindly legs, long yellow noses, and they lie in wait for their victims like spiders. Finally, Ruechenstein is a realm of death. Dietegen is almost literally "brought back from the dead" by visiting Seldwylans who find him there; and later Küngolt faces death after venturing too close to the boundaries of the dread region.
The fabulous episodes at the beginning of the story stand in marked contrast to the realistic body of the narrative. The Seldwylans capture trespassers from Ruechenstein and paint their noses black "mit einer höllischen Farbe." In a battle between the two cities, the Seldwylans achieve victory by painting the faces of their foes with a huge brush, wielded with lightning speed. In this way, they force them back into their proper region, and they even go so far as to daub the city gate of Ruechenstein with black paint. However fantastic this tale may be, it is not to be dismissed as inconsequential. In it we see Keller's recurring struggle with the demons of death and violence, and we witness their magic exorcism by means of their own sign: the infernal color black, the color of the Fiddler.
Even in the more realistic body of the narrative, a native of Ruechenstein appears with grotesque and demonic attributes; namely, the hunchback Schafürli, who represents the menaces of violence and eroticism. He exhibits the utmost grotesqueness in his dancing (which seems to arouse strange desires on the part of the heroine); he leaps about deftly and ardently and is able to take longer steps than all the rest because of his long legs, which appear to divide directly beneath his chin.
An episode in Das verlorene Lachen, though of minor significance in the story, provides us with another example of the descent into an underworld; this time, it is the political underworld of schemers and malcontents who plot a "smear-campaign" against public officials. Their world is a sordid one, bizarrely embellished like that of the comb-makers or the parents in Romeo und Julia. They are pictured in a dingy, dark banquet-hall with wallpaper depicting a smudged and distorted mountain landscape, which they further deface by throwing herring-bladders at it. The hero, after passing through this "limbo," penetrates to a deeper level: the small, dark room occupied by the "Ölweib," the source of the city's malicious gossip. As befits a "demon," she is outlandishly ugly, "mit [einem] grossen viereckigen, gelblichen Gesicht, in welchem Neid, Rachsucht und Schadenfreude über gebrochener Eitelkeit gelagert waren, wie Zigeuner um ein erloschenes Feuer." She is compared to a wild animal, a demon, a witch.
In Ursula, a story of the days of Zwingli, the "underworld" is the Anabaptist community, which is seen as a focus of dangerous anti-social trends; and the punished sinners—or perhaps the "demons"—are the self-styled prophets of this faith, who preach idleness and moral laxity to their gullible brethren. They are decked out in a variety of odd attributes and mannerisms. They have an odious, piercing stare; one of them has a shrill voice, arched eyebrows, cold, clammy hands, is beardless, and wears a sacklike garment; while another has a swarthy complexion, rolling eyes, a drooping lower lip on which the devil might sit, and wears gaudy clothes and cheap jewelry. Their unwitting closeness to the infernal is symbolized in their playing cards, "deren Bilder von greulichem Getier: Affen, Katzen und Dämonen, teils unanständiger Art, zusammengesetzt waren, ohne übrigens von den Spielern genauer betrachtet zu werden." The "prophets" and their families are finally shown in a grotesque scene of utter degradation; impoverished and ragged, they play with makeshift toys and pretend to be children. One of them, an old man with a long white beard, crouches on the floor building a toy wagon, babbling asthmatic baby-talk; another toddles about in an improvised kiddie-car, sucking a rattle; and a third lies on a pallet and futilely attempts to put his big toe in his mouth.
In Der Narr auf Manegg the type of the "demon" is well represented by the "Fool," Buz Falätscher, the last descendant of the once-powerful Manesse family. There are no specific underworld-motifs, unless we include the rocky, landslide-ridden chasm where the Fool makes his home. He stands for the decline of the family and, what is more, directly embodies the principles of decay, discontinuity, and barrenness. He is "eine dürre Gestalt"; his garment is made of many otter-skins sewn together; his eyes have a predatory glint; and his face, which trembles constantly, seems to be made up of many separate segments. It is impossible to determine his age; his movements are erratic. The evils of decay and discontinuity seem to merge with that of senselessness or nothingness in his symbolic attributes. The townspeople regard him as "ein Sinnbild . . . der Nichtigkeit aller Dinge," and his latter days are spent in composing weird, incomprehensible poetry. The characteristic fearsome and ludicrous aspects are quite prominent in the Fool, but they are developed in sequence. At first he is a farcical figure, but he later becomes a decidedly sinister one. His fate shows the compulsive harshness with which Keller treats his "demons"; he is frightened to death by a party of fantastically disguised carnival celebrants who set fire to his dwelling.
Among other isolated occurrences of the "demon" type, the three scoundrelly relatives in Die arme Baronin are of interest in that their demonism is graphically demonstrated through the device of pageantry. They first appear as ragged vagrant musicians, playing horrible discords on their ruined instruments. Later they are subjected to a curious and appropriate punishment for their wickedness. They are made to take part in a wine festival, dressed as wine-corrupting devils (i.e., agents of barrenness and decay) with goatskin suits, horns, tails, and blackened faces.
Pageantry also helps introduce the "demons" encountered, surprisingly enough, in Martin Salander, a work scarcely noted for visionary flights of fancy. They are the two rather disquieting tattered clowns with huge false noses who, in their boisterous, frantic buffoonery at the wedding celebration, dramatize in a mysterious way the shallow nature and near-demonic ambiguity of the unscrupulous Weidelich twins.
The "demon" type is approached from the side of humor and caricature (but with the familiar sinister motifs) in the figure of Kätter Ambach, the vain, empty-headed bluestocking in Die missbrauchten Liebesbriefe. She has a long torso set upon extremely short legs, and her jaw is so large that it makes the rest of her head seem like a tiny house resting upon an enormous pedestal. This jaw is like a huge instrument for crushing food, and her tremendous feats of eating border on the uncanny. She disrupts the order of a household by moving the furniture about and cutting up the drapes to form strange, jagged banners; and the erotic menace, too, is represented in her shameless "Karessieren."
Some very curious "demons" appear in the "legend" Die Jungfrau als Ritter, namely, "Guhl der Geschwinde" and "Maus der Zahllose," the knights battled by the Virgin Mary in a tourney. "Guhl der Geschwinde" has a black mustache with silver bells hanging from its tips; he rides about his opponents like a whirlwind, seeking to blind them with a shining, varicolored shield. "Maus der Zahllose" wears an enormous cloak, made of a thousand mouse skins; he has long, braided strands of hair, tied with dainty ribbons, growing out of his nostrils. The "demons" again suffer a characteristic defeat. The one has his mustache cut off, while the other is beaten until his mouse-cloak disintegrates and darkens the air, amid the laughter of the spectators.
Keller mentions in a letter that he had a political allegory in mind here, with the strange knights representing France and Russia, respectively. These unexpectedly "realistic" matters undoubtedly served as the initial stimulus for the episode, but it is clear that they have been translated into the elemental symbol language common to all the grotesque passages. This is why the episode stands out even in a "legendary" background. The same menacing traits here ascribed to the foreigner—restless, erratic motion, false splendor, and verminous evil—appear in other "demons," whether in fantastic or realistic, humorous or grimly serious contexts, and their basic nature must not be overlooked.
These examples are not intended to establish Keller as a "Groteskdichter"; he produces no full-scale flowering of the grotesque such as we find in the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann and other authors of the first decades of the nineteenth century. Neither does he possess the embittered feeling of disorientation peculiar to this turbulent earlier epoch, for which all life is continually on the verge of the grotesque. Yet the grotesque element in Keller's works, while hardly overpowering, is nevertheless curiously persistent, and, for an author largely devoted to the ideals of order and stability, plentiful enough. It does not seem to represent aimless whimsy, since it contains consistently recurring symbolic features which have to do with quite serious and ominous things. [The author expounds in a footnote: The "demon" figures are especially consistent in their symbolic attributes. Three motifs are almost always present: the color black (signifying dirt and disgrace, the infernal, and perhaps nothingness; there are also racial overtones, as noted); constant, erratic, or drastic movement (restlessness, instability); and rags and tatters (vagabond life, poverty, disorder; the motif occurs in Heinrich's dreams). Other occasional characteristics are a piercing glance, the carrying of weapons, and music or dancing.] The grotesque passages, further, are aligned in a systematic way with the moral forces at work in Keller's writing, in that they take as their focal point some threat to the prevailing system of ideals. Indeed, almost every treatment of profoundly negative themes in Keller's work shows some measure of grotesqueness. The two phenomena go hand in hand, and both are consistently and peculiarly set apart from the realm of common experience.
Keller's world is not a homogeneous picture of reality, but rather one composed of morally and socially determined strata. We have observed how the superstructure of normal, orderly existence occasionally dissolves to reveal an "underworld"—a term appropriate in both its social and mythological-religious meanings, since the world of vagrants and nonrespectable people acquires uncanny overtones and is made into a kind of Hell or Hades. Whether the "underworld" is a weird purgatory for foolish sinners or a stronghold of active forces of chaos, grotesqueness seems to be its indispensable attribute. The reasons for this are manifold.
First, the themes dealt with in the "underworld" episodes probably coincide with unconscious or reluctantly-contemplated anxieties on the author's part. It has been suggested that the grotesque plays a fundamental role in the formulation and relief of such anxieties and is dependent on them for whatever vividness and spontaneity it may possess. But there are also broader implications. Keller's "demons" are to a large extent those of a whole epoch, as are his methods of confining and coping with them. His stratified cosmos is shared by many of his contemporaries and is, indeed, almost specific for the fiction of the middle of the nineteenth century. This universality can be claimed, further, for the grotesqueness of the "underworld" and the habit of incorporating the anti-ideal in a grotesque, symbolic demon-figure. The pattern is approached now from the humorous, now from the sinister side, but the results are much the same. We find it in such prosaic writers as Gustav Freytag (e.g. his Veitel Itzig in Soll und Haben) and in one so averse to dissonance and devoid of jocosity as Stifter, who ventures into the chaos-world in Turmalin. Storm proves himself master of the grotesque in Bulemanns Haus and Der Herr Etatsrat and even theorizes about its use; and the presence of the pattern in such writers as Hermann Kurz, Friedrich Theodor Vischer, and Jeremías Gotthelf is not surprising. Nor is the pattern confined to German literature. Dickens's villains are consistently grotesque, and Hawthorne furnishes us with an excellent example of the "underworld" (here in the form of catacombs) and the "demon" (his term) in The Marble Faun.
It is clear that, by Keller's time, the grotesque has come to play a new role in literature—a role quite different from that which it played earlier in the century, but one almost indispensable to the writing of the time. It is a widespread device for dealing with the residue of the demonic, of nothingness and chaos, which can no longer be presented as a bona fide aspect of existence proper and has gravitated to the nether regions. The evils of the age have become fantastic bugbears, standing apart from ordinary experience and rendered at once weirdly frightening and ludicrously remote by their grotesque distortion. Thus, the meaning of the grotesque for the age mirrors its origin in the individual psyche; it is a disarming of the demonic through laughter.
This mechanism may operate with varying degrees of conscious intent and psychological depth and with the demonic and ludicrous phases alternately stressed. In Keller's case, we are often aware of a quite purposeful process of caricature in which infringers of the humanitarian ideal are made ridiculous through their distorted appearance and foolish action. This is a "punishment through laughter" which sometimes verges on brutality and is quite different from the tolerant acceptance of life's vicissitudes which usually comes to mind when Keller's "humor" is mentioned. The grotesqueness arises here when the underlying menace of the ridiculed object is strongly emphasized (the usual source of grotesqueness in caricature), when the sadistic impulse inherent in the process is plainly objectified, or when in general some element of demonic fear is injected into the product. This pattern is evident, e.g., in the case of the comb makers, the Anabaptists, Kätter Ambach, and the scoundrelly relatives in Die arme Baronin. In other cases, however (e.g. Schafürli, the Manegg Fool, the Black Fiddler), direct caricature is less in evidence; the outlandish personages are regarded, not with sovereign amusement, but with something rather approaching awe, and a grotesquery of more primitive origin prevails.
But whatever the context and outward form of the grotesque passages, we may be sure that their persistent images have disquieting thoughts as their nuclei. These "menaces" are not always immediately apparent, since they are partly disguised and are presented in symbolic form. Some of them have been identified; they range from the tendencies toward eroticism and violence within the mind, to the negative forces viewed more as a part of the cosmic scheme of things: death, decay, chaos, barrenness, and senselessness. A "menace" which seems to be specific for the age is that of "restlessness" (as exemplified in the Black Fiddler). We are thus able to illuminate somewhat the obverse side of Keller's world: the thought of death and transiency underlying his supposedly indefatigable love of life and the spectres of chaos and senselessness haunting his ordered and meaningful world. Although Keller is not one to dwell on such unconstructive things, we see that his suppression of them entails constant effort and vigilance—a finding which might apply to many authors of the period.
There is significance for our evaluation of Keller's work not only in the content of the grotesque passages, but also in the manner in which this content is presented. The frequent reference to "demons" and "underworlds" shows that we are dealing with a marked departure from "realism" (i.e., the creation of plausible, normal situations and characters). To be sure, there is no invocation of a romantic spirit-world. The outlandish personages and scenes are, on the whole, definitely fixed in time and place and concretely described; but their fantastic character nevertheless persists. The basically "unreal" nature of the passages sometimes contrasts strongly with the surrounding realistic context (most strikingly in Dietegen); and, even when the device of pageantry is used to motivate the contrast, we feel that the pageant constitutes a world subject to its own laws and transcending the prosaic realm.
Two things are striking about this departure from realism. First, its direction is that of symbol and myth. The exigencies of real-life narrative are abandoned, and an intensified symbolic structure of universal significance is presented. "Windows" are formed, through which we view directly an elemental conflict of forces. In the second place, the passages have a primitive dramatic quality about them. Their essence is pageantry and "show." Characters who betray the ideal may act out their folly in an absurd charade; or a "demon" may be vanquished in the manner of the medieval miracle play, with ritual overtones. A composite of the various scenes of the latter type would show the following sequence of events: the "demon" suddenly appears, as if conjured up; he asserts his nature through characteristic action (e.g., music-making or dancing); and, if the process is carried to completion, he is identified, exposed, and defeated.
Keller's "unwritten comedy" thus proves to have some aspects of a Divine Comedy. In these outbursts of dramatic and symbolic art he seems to be groping for a new medium, a myth language which would express the dynamics of the cosmos without having recourse to the prosaic encumbrances of the prevailing style. As in almost any grotesque art of this time, there are some motifs reminiscent of Hoffmannesque romanticism; but what is more striking is the foreshadowing of the Expressionism of a few decades hence, with its abstract figures and its preoccupation with "Grotesken."
The grotesque element in Keller's work thus emerges as far more than the result of idiosyncrasy or "baroque" humor. It has a vital function in Keller's private world, where it is a potent source of colorful, elemental imagery. Moreover, it serves as an index to the undercurrents in Keller's world and, by implication, in the order-dominated age which he represents. Stylistically, and perhaps in other ways too, it presages the time to come, when the demonic, however successfully suppressed, will again rise to claim its due.
Walther Hahn (essay date 1961)
SOURCE: "The Motif of Play in Gottfried Keller's Noveilen," in German Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1, January, 1961, pp. 50-7.
[In the following excerpt, Hahn determines the importance of humor and playfulness in Keller's work, concluding that it is integral to the objective and honest nature of his short fiction.]
Keller's tales are so fascinating and captivating partly because of the ease with which they seem to have been written. This ease manifests itself not only in the overall composition of Keller's stories and in the way he depicts his characters, but above all in certain episodes and events which are basically playful and humorous. Keller has often been praised for his humor and witty irony, and his well-known diminutives are an external expression of this fundamental characteristic. It is worthwhile to take a closer look at the playful situations in Keller's writings in order to develop a deeper understanding of his manner of composition, of his artistic technique.
The ease of Keller's style can be seen clearly in his story Der Land vogt von Greifensee which, in Keller's own words, he conceived as a "Hauptspass." . . . However, the final version is more than mere fun. By a series of carefully placed hints and allusions, either open or hidden, Keller leaves no doubt about the fundamental concept of his story. The whole tale—the frame as well as the different love affairs which Salomon Landolt tells his housekeeper in a very pleasant and amusing way—is, so it seems, sheer playfulness per se. That is evident at the end when the Landvogt apologizes for the "frevle Spiel" he has permitted himself with his former sweethearts. The reason for planning the reunion of the women the Landvogt once loved is very natural. There is nothing artificial about the unexpected meeting with one of his former sweethearts, which makes the Landvogt recall his former love affairs and also plan a reunion. In deep amusement the Landvogt rubs his hands in anticipation of this event, and as we read this we can well imagine the pleasure which Keller took in creating and developing this playful and comical tale. Keller is, as it were, a little god who keeps himself aloof from the events he is going to direct and yet puts his whole heart into them at the same time. Thus he manages to preserve a higher standpoint from which he amusedly looks down upon his own creatures. In other words, Keller stands above the subject matter, and that enables him to make full use of his artistic powers. He neither moralizes nor endeavors to persuade his reader, but merely presents him with the facts of the story. The ease of Keller's technique of composition and of his style is due in large part to his characteristic objectivity.
By inserting again and again playful or humorous situations Keller does not allow the reader to forget the original idea of a "Hauptspass." When Salomon Landolt joins Bodmer's entourage he leads the men's group in such a way that they repeatedly meet a procession of girls among whom there is also Figura Leu, his sweetheart. Another scene which is characteristic of the gaiety dominating the Novelle occurs during the summer festival held on Solomon Gessner's country estate. Without Landolt's noticing it Figura Leu pins a mirror to his back and then dances behind him performing pantomimes and at the same time looking at herself in the mirror. These and other situations which give the story its fundamental mood simultaneously characterize the figures and thereby have a deeper, a symbolical meaning, too. It is for this reason that we may speak of a motif in which there is harmony of concreteness and symbolism. By presenting again and again playful events, also by using the expression "Spiel" and related terms, Keller is able to give his story its peculiar character. This element of playfulness is revealed in Landolt's series of love affairs, for while considering marriage, he is really never serious about it and merely plays with the idea.
This point is rather significant, because an essential and immanent factor of play is its "as-if ' nature. Playing is a situation of make-believe which temporarily replaces actual reality. This characteristic of play is nowhere impaired in the Landvogt story which, on the whole, is the delightful presentation of a game conceived and carried out by Landolt—or, shall we say, by Keller. The keynote of this Novelle is a genuine cheerfulness which is, however, not without earnestness. Keller's objective aloofness permits his creative ability to move in complete freedom (geistige Freiheit), and that enables him to create this basic impression of cheerfulness.
The same mood combined with earnestness prevails in the Sinngedicht which is an amusing intellectual and emotional contest between Reinhard and Lucie. It may be noted that the idea of contest is merely a variation of playing. Reinhard, glancing through Lessing's edition of Logau's epigrams, hits upon the epigram which starts the sequence of events in this cycle of stories:
Wie willst du weisse Lillien zu roten Rosen machen?
Küss eine weisse Galathee: sie wird errötend lachen.
The little poem strikes Reinhard as being a very funny idea, and he decides to test its truth. Reinhard's first attempts must necessarily fail, since he has not yet become aware of what the epigram actually implies. He is merely having fun with the custom collector's daughter, the parson's daughter and the "stupid maiden." Consequently, the mood in this part of the Sinngedicht is playful and carefree. In his manner of presenting the first three chapters of the plot Keller again reveals his own creative joy and superior mastery. Actually Keller aims to present to his reader a very serious problem that is very dear to him. This is manifest in the earnest undertone beneath the cheerful and pleasant surface of the introductory parts. However, in order to make his story more attractive, to give it a more objective quality, he creates the impression of personal detachment and therefore is able to look at and evaluate all the aspects of the problem in question. Thus Keller toys with and turns around his theme and the manner in which it is to be presented.
The gallant epigram constitutes a challenge to Reinhard, and one is tempted here to interpret his experiments as a sort of game. Yet in the unfolding of the plot the interpretation of the epigram changes from a carefree attitude to one of personal obligation. Reinhard ultimately knows no higher goal than to find the person in whom the condition of simultaneous laughing and blushing is fulfilled. The epigram which was at first only interpreted in a playful and carefree manner is given a much deeper meaning, for blushing and laughing are, in the final analysis, merely symbols for genuine modesty and inner freedom.
The Sinngedicht may superficially create an impression of playful amusement. However, it essentially deals with the problems of harmonious personality and marriage. The perfect balance of playful elements and earnestness gives the Sinngedicht its power of attraction.
The frame story, as well as the inserted ones, is intermingled with playful and sometimes even comical and grotesque events. Reinhard and Lucie joyfully enter their contest. Both, as it were, test each other, and by their complete and unreserved participation in this intellectual and emotional duel they disclose their true characters. At the same time, however, Keller's own personality as an artist and human being is revealed. In spite of his personal interest in the problem he creates the illusion of being aloof and detached (heiteres Darüberstehen and geistige Freiheit). Creating an illusion, a world of make-believe, is, however, an essential quality of playing.
There is hardly any Novelle in Keller's writings that does not show some playful situations, and Keller skillfully employs a variety of them. The conversion of prostitutes is a kind of sport for the monk Vitalis, a contest which finally results in Vitalis' getting caught in the web of marriage. By pretending to be a prostitute—an act of playing—Jole gives again evidence of the temporary, assumed reality which is so essential for true playfulness. Pankraz' sulking is only a self-conscious game revealing his extreme egotism. In Dietegen Küngolt feels an uncontrollable desire to dominate all the young men around her, and she wants to do that just for the fun of it. Züs Bünzlin plays a well-calculated game with the three combmakers, which Keller compares with the skill of a virtuoso who knows how to play several instruments at the same time. In some instances Keller himself develops a playful mood when describing such situations and is simply carried away by this impulse. This usually happens when Keller wants to ridicule ideas and attitudes that he actually detested. But the fact remains that Keller thoroughly enjoyed depicting such scenes, although they occasionally contain grim and sarcastic elements. All this can best be seen in events such as the description of the cruel, ridiculous and grotesque procession in which the brothers of the "poor baroness" are forced to participate. The same mood on Keller's part is evident in the combmakers' race. The combmakers are never playing; they premeditate and calculate the smallest details of their lives The combmakers never feel unrestrained, never let themselves go. For Keller, however, playing is a part of human life, and consequently he condemns such humorless, unplayful individuals like the combmakers. The real players in this particular incident are rather the Seldwylians and Keller himself who seize upon the opportunity to have some fun and to ridicule the participants.
The structural function of the motif of play is very evident when Keller employs it at the focal or turning point of a story as he does in Kleider machen Leute. In this tale events slowly but definitely move toward a climax which is depicted by Keller in the form of a play. The Seldwylians, having mysteriously shown up at the inn where Wenzel's and Nettchen's engagement is to be celebrated, offer to entertain the people of Goldach. And now the play unfolds in two acts under the headings "Leute machen Kleider" and "Kleider machen Leute." At first the actors from Seldwyla strictly adhere to the essential nature of a play. They create a world of make-believe for the Goldach people; the reader of the story, to be sure, is aware of the transparent character of this performance. This fact, however, makes the whole incident all the more delightful. Although the Seldwylians know quite well that they are only performing what has actually happened, they put their whole hearts into the performance and thereby reveal their true natures in complete and uninhibited inner freedom. By creating a world of make-believe they simultaneously expose the tailor who has similarly led an assumed existence as a count. The complete turn in the plot is brought about within the play itself. The temporary irreality which is so essential to a play is replaced by actual reality. The last actor, Wenzel's last employer, stops in front of the engaged couple, shakes Wenzel's hand and thereby exposes the latter completely. This change of events is described so vividly and convincingly that at the end of the play not one of the Goldach people doubts the truth of what they have just witnessed. It is noteworthy that here the motif of play is again an appropriate means for Keller to reveal a person's true character. From now on the tailor only appears as his true self.
The motif of play, when used at the turning point, has retrospective and anticipatory qualities. It puts in nuce what has been demonstrated before in a more elaborate manner—in this case, the contrast between appearance and reality (Schein und Sein)—and it foreshadows the path of the remaining events. It is this structural feature which gives the motif its paramount significance for the understanding of the whole story.
Keller attempts to obtain the same results in his last work Martin Salander. Yet here he fails miserably. The reason simply is that in this novel Keller is no longer able to keep himself aloof from the subject matter. His personal involvement is too evident. He merely repeats in almost the same words what he already told before. Keller no longer writes as his poetic intuition inspires him, but rather as his cool determining and moralizing reflection dictates. However, a piece of art is the result of detached objectivity (geistige Freiheit). The motif, which in general is distinguished by a perfect balance of concrete and symbolical elements, is thereby devaluated to a simple metaphor or allegory which does not enkindle the reader's imagination.
Another variation of Keller's usage of the play motif is dancing which is, like playing, a form of self-expression. In this instance Keller especially shows deep insight into human psychology. It has already been shown that Keller manages to convey a person's true and original character to his reader by means of the motif of play. In other words, when playing, a person can be unrestricted and uninhibited; he moves and acts in complete inner freedom and therefore reveals his genuine character traits. Dancing, then, is another situation which allows Keller to prove this point. It is, however, significant to note that he is also aware of the possibility that dancing—and every other play—may result in the revelation of something quite opposite from inner freedom. There are several instances in Keller's stories which show people so obsessed by the desire to dance, to express and enjoy themselves that they are no longer masters of the situation but rather are dominated by it. As soon as this stage is reached, playing loses its carefree character; it becomes a passion which holds the concerned person in its grip and possesses him. Play as an obsession lacks the quality of inner freedom and reveals a person's characteristics which normally exist in him only in a latent form. Yet here, too, obsession at least partly brings a person's true character to the surface.
The last pleasure Sali and Vrenchen fully enjoy before meeting their tragic end is the dance in the "Paradiesgärtlein." Once more they show what they are really like. Also the group of outcasts is characterized by the way they dance. They swing around in a dreamlike fashion and seem to be in all the corners of the room at the same time, thereby indicating that they have no home in which to settle down. Musa is so uninhibited that instead of praying she dances before the altar of the Holy Virgin. On the other hand, Hans Schafiirli's obsessive passion for Küngolt is clearly demonstrated in his grotesque dance with her, which looks like something drawn from a fairy tale. Here the motif not only serves the purpose of characterizing people properly, but also that of giving the situation an appropriate atmosphere. Keller knows how to describe such scenes vividly and convincingly.
The motif of play, then, is a very important building stone in Keller's stories. It is an essential part of his writings. We cannot imagine them without the idea of play or without a playful poet who is able to raise himself into a playful mood even when personal interest is present. This playfulness on Keller's side does not exclude the presence of problems and ideas vitally important to him. Yet the fact remains that he preferred to present these problems and ideas in an amusing and pleasant manner. It is in this way that he achieves objective art. For this reason it is justified to say that this motif, because of its manifold symbolic implications, is one of Keller's most important artistic tools. Furthermore, this motif can hardly be underestimated in its value in interpreting the theme of truthfulness in Keller's works, because his figures very frequently exhibit their true and original natures only when they are playing. Finally, Keller reveals his own nature by employing so widely the motif of play. His humor and friendly, witty irony are integral elements of his total artistic personality.
J. M. Lindsay (essay date 1968)
SOURCE: Gottfried Keller: Life and Works, Oswald Wolff Publishers, 1968, 258 p.
[In the following excerpt, Lindsay examines stylistic and thematic elements of the short fiction comprising Sieben Legenden and Das Sinngedicht.]
Although not published till 1871, the Legends originated during Keller's days in Berlin, where he read Legends of the Saints [Ludwig Theobul Kosegarten, Legenden, 1804] published in 1804 by Ludwig Theobul Kosegarten, a Protestant minister from the island of Rügen. Kosegarten hoped that his legends would be a success among German Catholics, and he dedicated them to the Emperor, without having first of all ensured that the Papists would be willing to accept this unsolicited gift. In fact, the Austrian religious censors forbade his legends. It is difficult to see why they objected to the work. Kosegarten blindly and uncritically accepts the strange and miraculous events described in his sources. He states that he has not altered the stories, except for abridging some of them, and has endeavoured to render them in a straightforward and readily comprehensible style. Some of the legends are in verse, some in prose, and all proclaim the need to mortify the flesh and reflect the same underlying conviction that this world is a vale of tears, therefore the Christian should keep his eyes firmly focused on the world to come. Kosegarten states that the profession of the Christian faith often makes life difficult. He quotes from the sayings of Jesus and the apostles in this sense; discussing the vexed question of celibacy, he quotes the Apostle Paul's authority that the unmarried state is the more conducive to holiness. (Albert Leitzmann, in his edition of the sources of Keller's Legends, tells us that Kosegarten was unhappily married!) Kosegarten, as a confirmed laudator temporis acti, gives numerous examples of the greater readiness to obey difficult commandments of Jesus and the Apostles which had obtained in primitive Christian and mediaeval times. "This piety is foreign to our age," he says regretfully. He hopes his legends will lead people to return to the simple faith of long ago. His legends are quite uncritically chosen, and while some among them memorably express spiritual truths, others make it clear that during the Christian Middle Ages there was often a very wide cleavage between religion and morality. We are sometimes asked to applaud actions which though performed by Christian saints can scarcely be interpreted as moral. Perhaps this was the reason why the Catholic clerics refused to allow Kosegarten's legends to circulate in Austria. They would have been damaging to the Christian cause if anyone had been expected to take them seriously. In a nutshell, Kosegarten was a simple and naïve soul, whose motley collection of traditional legendary material from many sources widely separated in time and place lacked artistry and a morally discriminating point of view.
Though they seemed an unpromising source for Keller to turn to, the legends provided him with two things. Some of these traditional themes were well adapted to the treatment of topics then exercising his mind; the situations in which the heroes of the legends found themselves could be used to describe under a poetic veil Keller's situation. The heterogeneous collection of legends all advocated the maximum mortification of the flesh and wherever possible the suppression of man's natural desires in the interest of his eternal welfare. Keller disagreed sharply with the traditional Christian belief in the necessity for asceticism. He tells us in his introduction that when he read Kosegarten's legends he suspected more than once that the Christian legends were adaptations of profane stories. He was trying to recapture the spirit of the originals from behind the ecclesiastical corruptions of them which Kosegarten reproduced, and in the process of doing this he sometimes had to alter the drift of the story and make it point a very different moral from that of Kosegarten.
Apart from Kosegarten, the experience which underlies the Sieben Legenden is Keller's love for Betty Tendering. More than one incident from Keller's love story has been incorporated with little modification in one or other of these stories. In addition to these two central strands, the Legenden incorporate many minor incidents from Keller's life and air various prejudices of their author.
The story of Eugenia, as told by Keller, is not very different in its outward action from Kosegarten's version. His Eugenia, a young bluestocking in ancient Alexandria, tries, in the conceit of the educated woman, to deny her femininity and causes distress to herself and unpleasant complications for others until her true nature asserts itself under the stress of events and makes her glad to admit to being a woman again.
Eugenia's excessive interest in intellectual pursuits seems dangerous to Keller, who indeed prefixed the whole legend with a stern verse from the Book of Deuteronomy about women who wear men's clothes and men who wear women's clothes. From spending all her energies on philosophical disputation, Eugenia progresses by natural stages to thinking that this activity is more important than marriage, which must be relegated to a secondary place in her life. Having all along placed excessive emphasis on predominantly masculine pursuits, Eugenia invades even the most private territory of the religious male and by becoming abbot of a monastery reaches as it were the absolute summit of achievement for a woman of her temperament. Here she is in a completely false position, and the comparatively trivial incident of the lecherous widow's attack on the abbot's virtue is only one of the unfortunate results of Eugenia's masculine ambitions.
The trend of Eugenia is plain. Keller has no patience with Eugenia's bluestocking aspirations or with her Christian asceticism. A healthy and beautiful young woman should marry the man she wants and should not be too slow to say yes once she has made up her mind. Eugenia's misguided insistence on her superior rights as an intellectual woman nearly costs her her life's happiness, and her brief glory as an ornament of the Alexandrian schools and as abbot of a monastery is irrelevant, even damaging to her proper function of becoming a wife and mother. Apart from the danger to her own happiness and that of Aquilinus, Eugenia turns her two Hyacinths into emasculated little prigs and exposes the wretched widow to a temptation which proves too strong for her. On all counts it would have been better for Eugenia to say yes in the first place.
To make it quite clear that he disapproves of Eugenia's behaviour, Keller uses the first three paragraphs of his legend for an open expression of his views on women who want to play a masculine role in life. The first paragraph states as a general proposition that women who indulge in masculine activities tend to proceed to the total disavowal of their sex, down to wearing men's clothes and completely concealing the fact that they are women. Though Keller takes his example from ancient Alexandria, he does not think any better of women of his own day who behave like Eugenia. This attitude emerges plainly from fairly numerous passages in his works.
Die Jungfrau und der Teufel The Virgin and the Devil
Keller here takes a traditional tale and, while still following the outline of its action closely, changes and ennobles its morality. In Kosegarten's legend the knight was by divine intervention redeemed from the consequences of his folly. Keller thinks this is quite wrong, and Gebizo in his version does not receive divine sanction for his irresponsibility.
Kosegarten's legend tells of a wealthy knight who delights in making ostentatious gifts and enjoys the reputation of being a public benefactor on a vast scale. Presently he finds that he has squandered his whole substance on charity and has nothing left but his good and beautiful wife. Now the devil appears and in return for his wife promises him inexhaustible wealth, so that he may continue to endow churches and monasteries and entertain generously. The knight finds in the place the devil has mentioned quantities of gold and silver. He repays his mortgages, starts to build palaces and churches, and cuts a fine figure as a generous and noble patron of the arts. On the appointed day he tells his wife to come out riding with him to an undisclosed destination and without other attendance. The poor lady is afraid, and on the way begs leave to enter a little chapel and say a prayer to the Virgin. As she prays the Virgin descends from above the altar, assumes the form and clothes of the lady, and makes the latter fall into a deep slumber. Then the Virgin joins the husband who is waiting outside. When they reach the rendezvous the devil is immediately aware of the presence of the Holy Virgin, and abusing the knight for his supposed deceit, trembles at the aspect of the Virgin. She banishes the devil to his proper place, telling him never to molest her protégée further. There is no conflict in Kosegarten's legend; the devil immediately recognises the superior heavenly power and does as he is bidden. The Virgin now turns to the knight and instructs him to return to the chapel, where he will find his lady still sleeping. He must get rid of all the riches the devil has bestowed on him and mend his ways. Having thoroughly upbraided him the Virgin leaves the Knight, who carries out her instructions. Along with his wife the knight returns home, gets rid of all the devil's treasure and lives happily ever after. In due course the couple enjoy greater happiness and riches than ever before, for which they are very properly grateful to the Virgin.
There are several small but significant differences between Keller's legend and Kosegarten. For Keller the knight's extravagant giving merely shows him to have an irresponsible disregard for the administration of his property. For Gebizo, charity is not a salutary exercise of the heart but a grandiose sport in which he participates only in order to enjoy an inflated reputation for munificence. Such charity does nothing for the recipient, but weakens his moral fibre and encourages him to sponge. In Kosegarten's legend the knight's excessive charity is regarded as a very slight fault, but Keller takes a serious view of it.
In Keller's story, after the Virgin has made known her identity to the devil, a fierce struggle develops between her and her abductor. In Kosegarten, the Virgin's victory over the fiend is taken for granted, but in Keller the pair are fairly evenly matched. The Virgin would like to drag the devil with her and chain him to a doorpost in heaven as a laughing-stock for the redeemed, but he is too strong and she is obliged to come to terms with him and extract a promise that he will no longer molest the Lady Bertrade. Then the Virgin "somewhat weary" returns to her chapel, while the fiend, also the worse for wear, withdraws to his own place. Keller's knight loses his way after delivering his wife to the devil and falls down a cliff, where he dashes out his brains on a stone. Thus Keller punishes him very severely; in Kosegarten the knight receives a stiff reprimand but is soon back in celestial favour and, as if to show that bygones are bygones, the Virgin heaps worldly wealth on the couple. Keller is a far sterner moralist than Kosegarten; Gebizo must die, for he has gravely offended against natural law and common decency.
Keller also lingers longer over the description of the devil and his accoutrements than Kosegarten. His devil seems to represent unbridled sensuality; his rose garden, invisible nightingale and erotic tableaux vivants combine with the dissatisfied expression of his mouth and eyes to give an inkling of the delights he has to offer. He is powerful, too; in Keller's story the Virgin has to struggle with him might and main; Keller recognises, in other words, that an unbridled appetite is a serious threat to man's happiness and security.
Keller's Bertrade is both good and beautiful; when Gebizo falls on evil days she stands by him and, fortified by genuine religious faith, remains cheerful. In the days of his prosperity she delights his guests, radiating warmth and light wherever she goes. Nevertheless Gebizo abandons her without a thought. Bertrade enjoys the special protection and blessing of heaven because she is so exactly what in Keller's view a woman ought to be. Perhaps that is why she is allowed to keep Gebizo's ill-gotten wealth, as compensation for having put up with an unsatisfactory husband for so long, and perhaps that is why in the next legend the Virgin makes the provision of a new husband for Bertrade her special concern.
Die Jungfrau als Ritter The Virgin as Knight
This legend contains a large element of almost direct confession, for Zendelwald's behaviour towards Bertrade reflects Keller's love for Betty Tendering. Zendelwald, the only son of a widow, truly loves Bertrade, but because of his poverty and her wealth, does not dare prefer his suit. Zendelwald is recognisably a blood brother of Keller or Pankraz; while possessed of a lively imagination, he suffers from a tendency to perform great deeds and think great thoughts only in imagination. Though he has reason to believe that Bertrade thinks kindly of him, Zendelwald will not bestir himself. His mother, herself an energetic and determined person, cannot understand his reluctance, and urges him to go and try his luck in the tournament. By allowing Zendelwald to enjoy the support and help of the Virgin Mary, Keller is really allowing himself poetic compensation for the disappointments of his own life. Just as Zendelwald dreams of great triumphs which he has not the energy and resolution to achieve in real life, Keller does the very same thing by writing the legend.
His Virgin forms an interesting character study. She is a regular matchmaker, who not only does not oppose the natural desire of Bertrade and Zendelwald to marry, but actually goes out of her way to ensure that they can do so. According to Keller, a man's or woman's natural desire to marry was made for gratification, and a benign heavenly power would, so far from wishing to hinder such gratification, surely do everything possible to encourage it. Keller's Virgin is a thoroughly engaging and human personality. There is a priceless moment when, on her way to the great contest which is to decide Bertrade's fate, she comes across something which looks like "the tail end of a snake" peeping out of the undergrowth. Realising it is the devil, she lets her horse give a little sideways kick, whereupon the Evil One retires hastily with a yelp of pain.
While this legend breathes the spirit of the Renaissance and of modern humanism rather than that of mediaeval Christendom, there is nothing specifically anti-Christian about the point of view behind it. Even Keller's conception of the Virgin as a rather mischievous and enterprising mother figure who will go to considerable lengths to further the interests of her children does not seem so very unorthodox.
Die Jungfrau und die Nonne The Virgin and the Nun
The moral of this story does not differ from that of the others in the series. Keller here vigorously upholds the values of family life and even biological fulfilment and evidently thinks them preferable to the unnatural austerity of life in a nunnery. This message emerges clearly from the conclusion of the legend when Beatrix's sons are all crowned with oak leaves as a sign of their acceptability to the Virgin as offerings.
Die Jungfrau und die Nonne stresses the need for a woman to fulfil herself in the role for which she is destined by nature. As a young girl Beatrix is perfectly happy to serve the Virgin as sacristan of the nunnery. When she reaches full maturity, however, she is filled with a longing to see the world, which quickly crystallises into the wish to be possessed by the first personable man who comes her way. At first Beatrix and Wonnebold are drawn together only by passion, but Beatrix soon develops a loyalty and hankering after security which makes her return to Wonnebold even though he is quite unworthy of her. He is so affected by her dependence on him and her obviously genuine affection for him that he willingly takes her to be his wife. Many years later when Beatrix returns to the nunnery she discovers that Heaven has in fact lent its sanction to what she imagined was a wrong action on her part, though she could not help performing it. In other words, while it is perfectly in order for a woman to devote herself to other interests before and after her period of child-bearing and family rearing, the central part of her life is intended for these purposes, and only a misguided asceticism would make her want to use it for anything else.
This story is quite enchantingly told; the figure of the nun, unable to still her worldly longings, leaving her cloister on a moonlit June night, waiting by the spring till the sun rose, and as she sits by the spring beholding the splendid knight Wonnebold—this name is surely one of Keller's most pleasing inventions—could easily become a figure of fun, but somehow Keller's irony remains gentle and tactful, and we remain in sympathy with her and the knight. The frivolous game of dice that almost destroys their relationship causes the reader some anxious moments, but Beatrix's loyalty to her unfaithful protector ensures our sympathy with her. The little copse of beech trees where Beatrix tricks Wonnebold's gambling opponent out of his winnings is most agreeably described, and indeed Nature forms a delicate backcloth to the whole action of this story. The final scene in which Wonnebold, "der eiserne Greis" approaches the altar with his eight young warriors, who look like angels in armour and cause the nuns to become confused in their music making, is unforgettable.
Der schlimm-heilige Vitalis Bad Saint Vitalis
The theme and moral tendency of this legend resemble those of the preceding one. St Vitalis, who has devoted his whole life to the rescuing of prostitutes, whenever possible placing his converts in nunneries, is persuaded by Iole's feminine intrigues that renunciation and religious asceticism are not the life for him, but that a strong, energetic and single-minded person like him is ideally cut out for a husband and father.
From the beginning, this eighth century Alexandrian monk appears to behave oddly. Although he has never touched a woman he likes to give the impression that he sleeps with the prostitutes whom he frequents. He forbids the girls whom he manages to convert to reveal that he spends his time with them in prayer and moral exhortations, and as a result he has the reputation of being a moral reprobate. Approaches have been made to the Bishop with a view to having him unfrocked, but he neither abandons his work nor tries to avoid giving offence to other people. He positively enjoys his underserved bad reputation. Perhaps this aspect of his character suggests that he is not really dedicated to the work of rescuing prostitutes after all but secretly hankers after woman's love, possibly without himself realising it. Therefore we ought not to be too surprised by Vitalis' sudden decision that he prefers domesticity to the religious life.
The earlier part of this story follows closely the account of the Life of St Vitalis in the Golden Legend (see, e.g. French edition by Teodor de Wyzewa, Paris, 1925, pp. 108-109). But the strong and beautiful red-haired harlot, for whose soul Vitalis wrestles in vain, as well as Iole herself, were invented by Keller. Keller makes St Vitalis into a renegade, from the point of view of the church, and slants the whole story so that the reader may agree that the monk has acted correctly in quitting his unnatural life for the pleasures of married life.
Iole, like Nettchen in Kleider machen Leute, is one of Keller's enterprising and determined young women, who, almost without immodesty, can bend to their wishes the men whom they have selected for husbands. Keller does successfully point the contrast between the brazen carnality of the whore and the legitimate feminine wiles of Iole, who still blushes at her own daring in pretending to be worse than she is. Nevertheless, one cannot sympathise quite so fully with Vitalis and Iole as with Beatrix in Die Jungfrau und die Nonne. Vitalis forsakes a worthwhile and socially as well as religiously desirable mission for the pursuit of his own comfort and the gratification of Iole's whim. Beatrix, a nun who has temporarily lost her vocation, feels the pull of an irresistible natural force calling her to fulfil her destiny as a woman, and the Virgin's acceptance of her offering at the end of the day shows that she has not misinterpreted the will of God. The story of Vitalis is much more uncompromising; the Virgin who seems to smile on him when he decides to return for the last time to talk Iole out of her love for him is a statue of Juno, the Roman protectress of matrimony, which has been adopted by the new religion. The statue seems to smile on him, but he cannot be certain that the smile is not merely caused by a cloud-effect and he is anyway hardly an impartial judge in his own case. Beatrix in fact changes her life's course from strength, Vitalis from weakness.
Beatrix goes back to the cloister with her faith still intact after fulfilling her obligations towards her womanhood, but the uxorious Vitalis is not permitted by Iole to return to the fold.
Dorotheas Blumenkörbchen Dorothy's Flower Basket
Perhaps Keller felt that the last story did not ring true or was at any rate far removed from his own experience. Vitalis enjoys the love and wealth of which he himself remained deprived. Altogether, Vitalis takes a rather rosy view of the fulfilments which life can offer, and we are puzzled by the thoroughness with which the saint changes the course of his life.
Dorotheas Blumenkörbchen redresses the balance. In case we should imagine that the story of Vitalis reflects an average situation, Keller offers for our consideration this much sterner and less comforting account of the fortunes of St Dorothy and Theophilus. Here the poetic imagination penetrates near the truth about life and love, and indeed Keller veers sympathetically towards Christianity. However, there is nothing specifically anti-Christian in the Sieben Legenden, except insofar as Keller freely attacks those aspects of traditional Christian doctrine and practice which he considers to be contrary to nature and good sense.
At first Dorothea displays no saintly characteristics. The daughter of cultured and intelligent parents in Pontus Euxinus who have embraced the Christian faith, she loves the Governor's secretary, Theophilus, who also loves her, but cannot find the courage to propose to her, although she gives him all the encouragement she decently can. She is also loved by the Roman Governor, Fabricius, but does not encourage him at all. A slight misunderstanding between Theophilus and herself causes an estrangement between the two lovers. Unhappily for them, Fabricius chooses this moment to renew his suit and when Dorothea will not have him he takes his revenge by persecuting her for her faith.
Theophilus, the Secretary, is a very typical hero of Keller's works. A cultured and sensitive youth, he has a difficult boyhood behind him and remains rather moody, suspicious and secretive, although he is well thought of by his superiors. And so he hangs back and refuses to make the most of his opportunities with Dorothea. The accidental breaking of her vase is by no means out of character, and Dorothea would have been a saint—which she had not yet become—if she had not been annoyed with him. His prolonged sulks after Dorothea's scolding indicate his kinship with Pankraz and others of Keller's heroes.
Dorothea somehow acquires the strength of martyrdom along with her Christian faith. It is of course unlikely that she would have taken much interest in religion if things had been right between her and Theophilus. And it is even possible to argue that it is the thought that relations with Theophilus have improved that makes martyrdom tolerable for her. For both the lovers the thought of a shared death as Christian martyrs is sweeter far than continuance in the wretched misunderstanding which had arisen between them.
The arrival of the little angel from Dorothea with the basket of flowers and fruit is beautifully narrated. The angel has all the conventional angelic attributes, golden curly hair, a star-covered garment and dazzingly white, naked feet. As he hands the basket containing flowers and fruit to Theophilus he asks "Have you got a proper hold of it?" and vanishes.
The description of the reunion of the lovers is rather unexpected:
And so Theophilus was united with Dorothea on that very day. With the calm regard of the blessed she received him; like two doves which, separated by a storm, have found one another again and first of all fly in wide circles around their home, the united lovers winged their way hand in hand, swiftly, swiftly and without resting in the outermost rings of heaven, freed from all earthly gravity, and yet themselves. Then they separated in play and lost one another in the broad infinity, while each of them knew where the other tarried and what he was thinking, and along with him comprehended every creature and every living thing in sweet love. Then they sought one another again in growing longing that knew no pain and no impatience; they found one another and continued their pilgrimage united or rested in contemplation of themselves and beheld the near and distant places of the infinite world. But on one occasion they penetrated in most blissful oblivion too near the crystal house of the Holy Trinity and went in; there they lost consciousness and fell asleep like twins beneath their mother's heart, and they are probably still sleeping, unless they have been able to get out again meantime.
The passage just quoted with its Dante-like flavour and its beautiful imagery is a rarity in Keller's works. Perhaps Keller was only amusing himself by playing with Christian conceits in which he did not believe, but that hauntingly lovely conclusion rather suggests the opposite. The love which Dorothea and Theophilus feel for one another has been purified and simplified by renunciation and disappointment on earth; the moment early in the story which determined that they should not marry has only served to increase their love for one another. Dorothea's love has endured beyond the grave and drawn Theophilus after her, and in death they are united. The sentence about the crystal house of the Holy Trinity is not easy to explain, and in particular it is hard to say why at this moment, not before, they lose consciousness and sleep "like twins beneath the heart of their mother." But Keller does not exclude the possibility that they may have re-awakened and come to full consciousness again. He cannot believe that the power of love which has done so much for Theophilus and Dorothea can ever utterly perish.
The motto from Francis Ludwig Blosius prefixed to this story has great significance: "But to lose oneself in this way is rather to find oneself." Dorothea is being untrue to herself when she turns from Theophilus to seek comfort in religion; she cannot have him on earth on the terms on which she wants him. Equally Theophilus betrays his own deepest feelings when he allows his diffidence and pride to make him abandon Dorothea after breaking her vase. But their love cannot be destroyed by the momentary tactlessness and misunderstandings of the lovers; it must endure, surmounting even death. Life will often demand renunciation, and unfortunately human minds, even those most in sympathy with one another, can never communicate properly. The story of Dorothea and Theophilus calls in question Keller's earlier pronouncements on the finality of death; the union which the lovers achieve in heaven is better and fuller than anything they had anticipated.
As always in Keller there are some pictorially memorable moments; after the lovers' quarrel Dorothea watches "the slender figure (of Theophilus) disappear, gathering his white toga to himself and inclining his black curly head to one side, as if in far-ranging thoughts." Meanwhile, Nature remains unmoved and "the waves of the silvery sea beat slowly and gently against the marble steps of the shore." Then Dorothea picks up the pieces of her vase and goes to hide them in her room.
At one point in the story a strong hint of irony concerning Christian belief is apparent; Dorothea speaks longingly of her heavenly bridgegroom "who will take her to his gleaming breast and hand her the rose of eternal life, etc." The etc. has a very ironical ring in this context.
A passage in Gregorius Dialogi 4, 17, tells of the poor maiden, Musa, to whom the Virgin appears one night and promises that if she refrains from dancing, levity and play on earth, she will join for ever in heavenly dancing and joys. Thereupon the maiden refrains from all frivolity and does penance, and on the thirtieth day the Virgin comes to take her to heaven where she can dance for ever.
Keller describes the descent of King David towards Musa from the altar very effectively. King David is a regal personage in a purple robe, wearing a golden crown and with a black beard tinged with grey. Their dance together while the little angels above the choir stalls play delightfully on different instruments is pure enjoyment, but this is still not the heavenly dance music which the King now proceeds to demonstrate. Now and only now Musa is convinced that she should refrain from dancing for the rest of her life if this is the condition of dancing in heaven for ever.
The description of the saint's assumption is very pleasingly narrated, almost as if it were taken straight from a genuine church legend. Musa has had herself dressed in a dazzling white wedding dress for the moment of her death. She lies with hands sedately folded and smilingly awaits the glad hour. The autumnal leaves are falling, but suddenly the sighing of the wind changes to heavenly music, the trees are again clad in young greenery, flowers and fruit trees are in full bloom and the saint's face is haloed in rosy pink. The chain at her ankle snaps, the heavens are opened and King David comes on a cloud with his cherubic musicians to fetch her. For a second or so those left on earth see vistas of blessed spirits dancing in heaven; King David and Musa join the glad throng, then the heavens close and it is again autumn on earth, the wind is blowing and the trees are bare.
This particular legend seems to point in two directions. Till Musa ascends into heaven Keller follows his sources closely but embellishes them with his poetic fancy, especially in the account of King David's demonstration to Musa of the delights of heavenly music and dancing. The account of Musa's assumption into heaven seems absolutely authentic mediaeval legend, too. The whole of this first part of the story seems to advocate renunciation and abstention from the joys of the flesh in favour of later celestial rewards. The ending, however, in which the Muses turn all heaven upside down with their expressive and nostalgic song about the joys of earth points in a different direction. Keller seems to be saying that if the Muses are at best uncomfortable guests in the Christian heaven, it is no place for him, too high a price is exacted for eternal bliss.
From the point of view of the critic, the question must be asked: Why use legends for the purpose of opposing Christian asceticism or preaching the fulfilment of the life of the senses? And the further question arises: does the attempt come off? Has Keller produced an artistically satisfying set of stories with enough common background, sufficiently similar underlying assumptions to justify grouping them together in cyclical form?
The answer to the first question must be that it is just as legitimate to use a legend to illustrate one moral point of view as another, and that the story even gains additional piquancy if its moral tendency is the opposite from that which is to be expected. Keller was well aware of this factor, which he even specifically mentions in his introduction. He also makes the point there that underlying the ecclesiastical legends there seem to be traces of a more secular narrative art. His matchmaking Virgin, for instance, is not so utterly different from the Virgin of some Italian legends.
Most readers would agree that Keller's Legends are one of his best artistic successes. The neatness and daintiness of the form, the absence of extraneous material, the ironically simulated naivety and the charming elements of nature description, the beautifully narrated miracles, all play their part in achieving this success. From this little volume a particular view of the author's personality emerges; he is evidently well-read, cultured, tolerant, ironical, he strongly resists the masochistic strain in some Christian teaching. As always in Keller's works the author is omniscient and paternalistic, even occasionally patronising towards his characters.
The Legends do not form a cycle in the sense that they are linked directly with one another or to a framework. However, a single common view of life informs them all; man should not spurn the natural satisfaction of his appetites, which is healthier and more pleasing to heaven than danying them. Also, the Legends are written in a fairly homogeneous style, which has much in common with that of the most simply and economically related of real Christian legends; it is an almost unadorned prose, but the occasional ornamentation is restrained and effective, and the special moments of fulfilment stand out because of their comparative rarity. The occasional crudenesses or lapses from taste which disfigure Die Leute von Seldwyla no longer appear; the artist has become more mature and more refined in the interval since his last published work appeared nearly twenty years before the Legends. . . .
In Das Sinngedicht Keller took up a theme dear to his heart and dwelt upon it with greater depth and concentration than ever before. The relationship between the sexes had often engaged his attention in the past, but here he explores the subject systematically and from the different points of view of man and woman. Written before it became generally fashionable to talk of a war between man and woman, the book is largely concerned with the fundamental antagonism between the sexes. Keller was well aware of this, and the reader constantly perceives "nature red in tooth and claw" behind the civilized conversations and sophisticated but always tendentious story-telling. This tale—with illustrations—of the courtship of two gifted people is told with great delicacy and finesse by an author who, having lost all illusions about the nature of love and marriage retains goodwill towards his fellow men and women.
As early as 1851 Keller noted on a piece of paper: "Variations on Logau's epigram: Wie willst du weiâe Lilien usw?" On the same sheet are jottings about two of the Sinngedicht stories, Regine and Die arme Baronin. Four years later he asked Franz Duncker, the publisher, if he would undertake the publication of a volume of short stories with a narrative framework. The collection was to be entitled Galatea. The work as originally conceived was also to have contained the Sieben Legenden, but by 1871 Keller had decided that these formed a distinctive unit by themselves, and they were separately published. Keller's unfulfilled obligation to write Galatea kept casting a cloud over his otherwise cheerful and lively correspondence with Lina Duncker. As he told Adolf Exner in 1881 the first seventy pages of Das Sinngedicht were written in Berlin in 1855. After his return to Switzerland Keller neglected Das Sinngedicht and tried to wriggle out of the obligation to complete it; in 1860 Duncker refused to accept Der Apotheker von Chamounix in lieu of the Galatea stories. Even in the mid-1870s Duncker still tried to persuade Keller to finish Galatea, but although Keller's interest in the project had revived, he was resolved to entrust the book to another publisher. Keller knew that Duncker's business had been going downhill and preferred to ensure that the work went to a leading publisher. Therefore he repaid to Franz Duncker the advance which he had already received and was then free to dispose of the work elsewhere.
The Novellen first appeared in the Deutsche Rundschau from January to May 1881 under the title Das Sinngedicht. The book edition containing as an additional item the story of Lucia's youthful infatuation with her cousin Leodegar was not published till the following autumn. . . .
Among the distinguishing features of this cycle of Novellen are its leisurely pace and careful construction. Basic assumptions of Das Sinngedicht are aristocratic standards of conduct, a sophisticated yet generous ideal of the cultivated individual and a reserved but free manner of life. The milieu is no longer the petty bourgeois world of small tradesmen, shopkeepers and publicans; we are here moving among leisured members of the upper classes. Keller never discusses directly the social position of his characters, but this becomes clear from the surroundings in which we find them and from their evident freedom to spend their time as they prefer.
Corresponding to the change in milieu as compared with Keller's earlier works is the development which has taken place in his style. Our earlier observations have shown that he liked to load his pages with descriptive detail, sometimes almost to the point where there was a risk of allowing descriptive passages to assume a life of their own. This tendency could even on occasion disrupt the narrative economy of a Novelle. Also he liked to use occasional outré metaphors and similes, which had the effect of startling the reader into paying closer attention. Compared with the style of Die Leute von Seldwyla that of the present work seems spare, economical, restrained; it is lucid, formal, rather severe. Certain familiar idiosyncrasies persist; he still prefers "welcher" to "der" as a relative pronoun, and there are traces of Kanzleisprache. Indirect speech occurs more frequently than one might expect, but in general Das Sinngedicht shows a polished and uniform style.
Das Sinngedicht does not demand in any crude or superficial way woman's "emancipation," in which Keller did not believe. Nevertheless, Lucie often adopts feminist and emancipated attitudes. In this respect perhaps she reflects Keller's acquaintance with intellectual women in the Berlin salons during the 1850s. The Sinngedicht does embody a conception of life in which each of the sexes has a separate but equally important place. It is perhaps worth while recording that Lucie is more nearly self-sufficient without Reinhart than he is without her; her way of life is more reasonable and satisfying than his. The work reflects both Christian and Goethean thinking about the place of man and woman as partners in marriage.
When we read of the sophisticated, yet modest and enjoyable pattern of existence which Lucie has evolved for herself, we may think for a moment of life in the Rosenhaus in Stifter's Nachsommer, yet Keller does not labour the point of the leisurely, full, ordered, gracious existence. He leaves more to the reader's imagination, he is not so ruthlessly encyclopaedic as his Austrian contemporary. His economically sketched background is sufficient, and we are grateful to him for leaving us part of the task of imaginative reconstruction to do ourselves.
Keller fully realises the difficulties involved in the marriage of unequals. He thinks, however, that these may be overcome as long as the more sophisticated, freer partner—in the cases of Don Correa and Regine it is the man, but it need not be—is prepared to watch over, love and protect the less worldly-wise. A man who merely seeks sensation and novelty, like the Rousseau-tinged M. de Vallormes in Die Berlocken, may expect the shallow cult of the primitive to lead to discomfiture and ridicule. The redskin girl uses the Frenchman's infatuation in furtherance of her own ends.
By and large justice prevails in the world of Das Sinngedicht. Salome and Drogo both get exactly what they deserve in one another, and the break-up of their engagement results naturally from the vacuity and irresponsibility of both partners. Regine's fate may seem tragic out of all proportion to Erwin Altenauer's fault, yet this is not so; although Erwin imagines he loves Regine, he really loves an ideal woman of his own imagination. Regine is perfectly capable of behaving creditably in the world of her adoption, but Erwin has no regard for her feelings and he destroys her by his selfishness. Don Correa marries his Zambo-Maria in the end, but only by the skin of his teeth, for like Erwin Altenauer he lays excessive stress on a proper education for wifehood. The humiliation which overtakes the rascally husband and brothers of Die arme Baronin is tempered by the fact that they go to begin a new life in America, a more modest but also more wholesome existence, made possible for them by Brandolf's generosity. We are clearly intended to accept cheerfully the summary execution of Donna Feniza Mayor and her accomplices. Yet the reader must feel that Correa's deception of Feniza Mayor as to his identity is largely responsible for the development of events. In the last story Lucia retains a legacy of her infatuation for her cousin in the Catholic faith which she holds without conviction yet cannot publicly abandon without drawing unfavourable attention to herself.
The whole conception of the cycle is somewhat artificial; the idea of the epigram sending the hero out on his search, and of Reinhart and Lucie sorting out their opinions on love and marriage by means of telling tendentious stories to one another sounds more like an intellectual or artistic exercise than like life. Matching the unreality of the conception we have the ideal remoteness of the beautiful house on the hill, the gentlemanliness of Reinhart, the aristocratic self-assurance, poise and highly idiosyncratic personal culture of Lucie. The occasional romantic traits found in Das Sinngedicht are introduced with self-conscious skill, and are never allowed to assume excessive importance.
Nowhere in Keller's works has he taken such trouble over the cyclic construction of a group of Novellen. The framework story of Reinhart's and Lucie's courtship is furthered stage by stage by the various Novellen, each of which illustrates a different aspect of the relationship between man and woman in love and marriage. The Novellen help to enlighten and purify the lovers' understanding of one another and of the respective functions of man and woman in marriage. Oddly enough physical passion is nowhere mentioned; indeed it scarcely ever appears in Keller's works after the original version of Der grüne Heinrich. The stories explore the effects of riches and poverty, differing religious beliefs, race and a person's general view of the world on marriage.
Reinhart relates three long Novellen, four if we regard Don Correa as two stories. The ghost story really forms part of the framework or at least is more directly connected with it than the other stories. Lucia's two Novellen are Salome and Die Berlocken. (Her confession of her love for Leodegar forms part of the framework, which in Das Sinngedicht is fully integrated with the rest of the cycle as an organic whole.) The earlier Novellen concern people known directly to the narrators, the later ones are based on literary sources.
Throughout the work Logau's epigram recurs as a Leitmotiv. All the women other than Lucie either laugh or blush on meeting Reinhart. Keller underlines the symbolism of the roses and lilies in various ways. When Reinhart first sees Lucie she is wearing white and sorting red roses; Lucie's maids blush and laugh, Hedwig (the baroness) has to learn to smile again, Zambo learns to smile as she gains confidence and so does Regine. In the last scene of all, of course, the demands of the epigram are fulfilled for the first time during the final embrace of Reinhart and Lucie.
In Keller's general view of the world a certain mellowing is noticeable. The Christian religion is treated less harshly than in earlier works, and in Die arme Baronin Hedwig's love for Brandolf is directly ascribed to divine influence. (Sie war jetzt vollkommen erstarkt und beweglich, aber immer besonnen und still waltend, und die helle Lebensfreude, die in ihr blühte, von der gleichen unsichtbaren Hand gebändigt und geordnet wie die Wucht der goldenen Ähren, die jetzt in tausend Garben auf den Feldern gebunden lagen.) Regine finds consolation in her prayers, the minister and his family near the beginning of Reinhart's quest are portrayed with gentle, almost affectionate irony, and in Don Correa one can readily distinguish between the genuine religious faith of the hero, who insists on Christian baptism for Zambo, and the spurious religion of Feniza Mayor and the devious practices of the Jesuits. Lucie's Catholic conversion is described with tact and respect. Perhaps more revealing than any of these superficial signs is the evidence of Keller's attitude towards marriage, in which charity and mutual forbearance are seen to be elements as indispensable as passion. The lasting reciprocal respect and consideration which Keller demands of ideal partners in marriage is constantly stressed. Inclination and impulse must be tempered and supplemented by long-suffering, patience and goodwill. "Love thy neighbour" is the golden rule for success in marriage. When the characters of the Novellen fail in this duty trouble overtakes them, but when they perform it properly their life is full and happy and their relations with the other sex good and untroubled.
Over and above the relationship between the sexes Das Sinngedicht is concerned, like so many of Keller's works, with the general question of how life should be lived. It constitutes in fact Keller's ripest wisdom and most advanced thinking on this topic, more artistically and elegantly presented than in any of his other works. It is no longer concerned with the more elementary aspects of human existence, with the first, fumbling steps of the boy and young man towards acceptable standards of social behaviour which at the same time satisfy his self-respect. It rather deals with the element of free choice in human conduct, with the deliberate cultivation of attitudes and activities which make life as fully as possible what it can be and ought to be. At the very centre of Keller's view of the good life lies a healthy and balanced relationship between man and woman, but this must never be allowed to crowd out or destroy the other positive aspects of human aspiration and behaviour; a lesson which both Reinhart and Lucie must learn is that each has before marriage cultivated a strong individuality with pronounced personal tastes and opinions. From the stories it definitely emerges that Keller does not wish to see the free individual personality sacrificed upon the altar of marriage. Reinhart must respect Lucie's right to follow her own interests and indulge her personal preferences, even if these sometimes seem to him highly unusual for a woman and perhaps rather at odds with his sense of the fitness of things; and similarly the man must also be allowed the right to live a life of his own within reasonable limits; Feniza Mayor's attitude to Don Correa is portrayed as quite indefensible.
The epigram itself is on the one hand a somewhat obscure injunction concerning the right way to seek a partner in marriage; but over and above this it is also a general rule about conduct in life as a whole. Sense must be ruled by modesty and restraint, which themselves constitute an embellishment of life, but to deny it altogether would be an impoverishment and wrong. However, other extreme attitudes must not be over-indulged either; Reinhart's one-track intellectual curiosity and Lucie's virginal arrogance are alike attributes which must yield in the long run to the more productive and less selfish scale of values represented in and by an ideal marriage.
Das Sinngedicht may be said to offer Keller's conscious and generous tribute to a somewhat more elevated, formal, even aristocratic pattern of existence than that in which he had grown up. The framework story possesses considerable importance from this point of view. It is evident from the care which Keller lavishes upon the description of Lucie's house and garden that he wishes us to applaud her style of life. We appreciate the size and elegance of the house and the courtyard with its great plane trees. We are glad to hear that Lucie thinks of her guest's comfort to the extent of putting flowers in his room and offering him wine and biscuits on arrival; we enjoy learning of her predilection for paintings by talented but obscure painters, and the knowledge that her taste is schooled on works by acknowledged masters like Poussin and Claude Lorrain gives us confidence in her ability to discriminate among her contemporary artists. Into this ideal setting Keller projects his vision of the good and civilised life, in which man and woman learn to curb and control the tensions which naturally arise between them and to find fruitful and productive outlets for potentially destructive forces. Keller wrote in the finale of Das Sinngedicht not of life as he had known it but as he would have wished it, and we cannot fail to see in this work his most carefully planned and most fully pondered, as well as his most delicately and delightfully presented commentary on life. Because Das Sinngedicht shows such careful and calculated construction, because Keller handles so many traditional motifs of literary art with such superb control and discrimination, because of the variety of narrative matter which he offers for our consideration, because of his lucid yet profound symbolism, because of the tolerance and charity which...
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Lindsay, J. M. Gottfried Keller: Life and Works. London: Osmond Wolff Publishers Ltd., 1968, 258 p.
Provides biographical and critical information on Keller's life and short fiction.
Clouser, Robin. "Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe: Keller's Variations upon Shakespeare." Journal of English and Germanic Philology LXXVII, No. 2 (April 1978): 161-82.
Praises Keller for successfully reworking the Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet.
Ellis, John M. "Keller: Die drei gerechten Kammacher." In Narration in the German Novelle: Theory and...
(The entire section is 493 words.)