Gottfried Keller Essay - Keller, Gottfried

Keller, Gottfried


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

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

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Further Reading


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.)