Heidi takes place in the Swiss Alps and in nearby Germany, most particularly Frankfurt. The time is the late 1800s, when public opinion and traditional morality dominate daily life. On Heidi's mountain, the setting is pastoral in the literal sense, home to a shepherd and goats and filled with abundant flowers, broad meadows, gentle winds, ancient fir trees, and heavy snows. Sunrises and sunsets are always noticed and celebrated, especially by Heidi and her grandfather. Nothing is ever taken for granted.
The wildness of the place often frightens away city visitors. Upon returning Heidi to the mountain, for example, Sebastian lets her go on alone from the Mayenfield train station, "glad of having no tiring and dangerous journey on foot before him." Transportation is difficult, to be sure, for after the train journey comes a ride in a cart or on horseback, then a steep climb up the footpath from Dorfli. Inaccessible as it is, the mountain richly rewards those hardy souls who make the effort to visit it. From it Heidi receives her strength; away from it she grows pale and weak. The good doctor from Frankfurt and Clara each discover there a life-giving potion to heal their emotional and physical ills. The simple, natural diet of bread, cheese, goat's milk, and occasional meat, coupled with the mountain air, promotes good appetite, sound sleep, and emotional well-being.
In Frankfurt, life is much less rustic, and the book depicts in some...
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Spyri followed the literary conventions of the late nineteenth century in a number of ways. She depicted an invalid and an orphan in many of her stories, Heidi included. These stock characters were expected to serve the didactic purpose of depicting death as a "release from earthly misery" and to help convey a spiritual message. Spyri's books manage to be both didactic and imaginative. She has been compared favorably to other noted writers of her time: to Louisa May Alcott for her development of female characters, to Robert Louis Stevenson for her setting and plot, and to Hans Christian Andersen for her treatment of death and spirituality.
Interspersed in the narrative of Spyri's story are frequent lyrical passages. These convey Heidi's overwhelming joy at being alive and at the beauty of the world around her. Light imagery prevails throughout the story, as manifested in the dazzling light of the mountain sunrises, sunsets, and sparkling stars, all of which are admired and described in vivid color and detail. Clara, who has never seen the sky or the stars before, is entranced to be able to watch the heavens from her bed.
Glowing images also celebrate abstract forms of light, such as the light of joy, peace, faith, and understanding. Even the blind grandmother finds that Heidi's exuberance and the hymns she reads "often make it so bright for her that she is quite happy again." The original religious verses that Heidi reads reveal Spyri's...
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Heidi is in many ways a religious book. It espouses no particular dogma but most definitely reflects Spyri's background as a devout Christian. All is controlled by a loving God who knows what is best for his subjects, even when they do not. Prayer is encouraged as the answer to life's troubles and frustrations, and the book teaches that one must remember not only to ask God for help with troubles but also to thank him for blessings. The characters' greatest happiness comes from helping others, thereby dramatizing the golden rule. The book makes clear that forgiveness is always at hand for those who are truly sorry. In addition, the book promotes honesty, humility, and appreciation of nature's beauty.
Heidi is an old-fashioned story, and the solutions to Heidi's problems and concerns may sometimes seem too easy and simplistic to today's readers. But because these characters' problems are universal, the book should prompt discussion of how today's youth can and should deal with similar problems. Certainly the dangers of blindly following public opinion, the need for love, and the necessity of handling disappointment are very real concerns for young people today. Those critics who have accused the book of being outdated, too didactic, too sentimental, or too unrealistic ignore its treatment of concerns that continue to trouble young people of today.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why do the townspeople fear the Alm Uncle? Why does Heidi not fear him?
2. The grandmother is permanently blind, yet Heidi manages to bring her light. Explain the various ways in which she does this.
3. How is Heidi's year in Frankfurt a positive experience for her? What does she gain from being there?
4. Grandfather wishes to keep Heidi at home rather than send her to school because at home "she is safe and will learn nothing evil." What does he wish to protect her from? Is his caution justified?
5. As Heidi gets ready to go home to her grandfather, she is careful to wear her red shawl and old straw hat, and she leaves her feathered hat behind at Brigitta's house. Why is what she wears so important to her? What does the book have to say about the significance of clothing?
6. Heidi's favorite story, given to her by Grandmamma Sesemann, is about a shepherd. She loves the picture because it reminds her of home, but she loves the tale too. What is the story? Why is it important to the theme of the book? Think about her reading it to her grandfather as you consider its significance.
7. When the grandfather and Heidi appear at church for the first time, the pastor tells him, "Neighbor, you went into the right church before you came to mine." What does he mean?
8. Peter is Heidi's friend, and yet, in a number of ways, he is not a particularly attractive character. What are his strengths...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Explore the meaning and importance of light in the book. Some of its forms are concrete while others are abstract.
2. Contrast the various elements of Heidi's home—the fir trees, the goats, the house itself, the sky, the flowers, the great bird—with Clara's home in the city of Frankfurt. What general patterns are revealed in these specific differences?
3. Grandmamma Sesemann tells Heidi that even when her prayers seem to be ignored, God is still listening. She assures Heidi that "God is a good father to us all, and knows better than we do what is good for us. If we ask Him for something that is not good for us, He does not give it, but something better still, if only we continue to pray earnestly and do not run away and lose our trust in Him." Discuss the extent to which this is proven true or false by events of the book. Think not only of Heidi's requests but of those of other characters as well.
4. Learning to read is a major milestone for Heidi and Peter, and reading is presented as something very special in this book. Why is reading so important? To whom does it bring the most benefit? Think of all the characters in discussing the value of books and reading.
5. Grandfather feels most people put too much weight on appearances rather than on realities. Is he correct? Use the characters and events of this book to support your answer.
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Although Johanna Spyri wrote perhaps fifty children's stories in all, no other book has enjoyed the success of Heidi, which was a best seller from the moment of its first publication in Germany in 1880. She set all her stories in the lands she knew best—mainly Switzerland, but also France, Germany, and northern Italy. After Heidi, her first full length book, she wrote others about Swiss mountain inhabitants. Some of the best known of these are Children of the Alps; Gritli's Children; Cornelli; Dora; Mazli; Moni, the Goat Boy; and Eueli, the Little Singer. All were written in German and later translated into English.
Because of its enduring popularity, Heidi was a natural candidate for movie adaptations and children's theater productions. Each of these dramatizations imposed its own interpretation on Spyri's beloved story, exaggerating character traits, intensifying dramatic scenes, sometimes even altering the story line. The 1937 movie starring Shirley Temple in the title role is the classic production. The movie remains fairly true to the original, although Fraulein Rottenmeier becomes considerably more evil as she deliberately tries to keep Clara bound to her wheelchair for her own personal gain, and Heidi's return to her grandfather is made considerably more poignant by having him search the streets of Frankfurt to find her. Other movies of Heidi include a Swiss production in 1954, said to be one of the better...
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For Further Reference
Eaton, Anne Thaxter. "Widening Horizons, 1840-1890." In A Critical History of Children's Literature, edited by Cornelia Meigs. New York: Macmillan, 1953. This book includes a good brief discussion of the appeal of Heidi.
Eayrs, Catherine. "Johanna Spyri." In Writers for Children: Critical Studies of Major Authors Since the Seventeenth Century, edited by Jane M. Bingham. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988. This article provides a good biography of Spyri, along with an analysis of her style, autobiographical elements in her writing, cultural and historical background, and reception by critics.
"Heidi—or the Story of a Juvenile Best Seller." Publisher's Weekly (July 5,...
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