Theodor Fontane Essay - Critical Essays


Theodor Fontane’s novels may be divided into three categories, according to their subject matter: first, novels dealing with the conflicts arising from class distinctions, frequently involving a young nobleman and a girl from the lower classes; second, novels about marriage, in all cases involving adultery; and third, vast epic panoramas of Prussian society with diffuse plots, skillfully depicted settings, and carefully nuanced utterances by large numbers of characters. This third category includes Fontane’s earliest novel, Before the Storm, and The Stechlin.

A Suitable Match

Turning to a detailed consideration of the first category, one should look first at A Suitable Match and Stine. The plot of A Suitable Match centers on a love affair between Botho von Rienäcker, an officer of the Prussian nobility, and Lene, a seamstress. Botho is eventually induced by family considerations to marry a rich young woman of his own class. Lene also gets married to an honest man, a Pietist recently returned from America. Fontane uses this simple plot to create realistic yet subtle portraits, not only of the twoprotagonists but also of the two social strata that they represent.

Particularly notable in the novel is Fontane’s treatment of dialogue. The first two chapters take place in and around a nursery and vegetable farm where Lene, her mother, and Mr. and Mrs. Dörr (the owners of the nursery) live. It is early summer, and “Baron Botho” often visits Lene and spends parts of his evenings in Mrs. Dörr’s kitchen, drinking apple cider and conversing with his friends. In these conversations, the characters reveal themselves as not only individuals but also types who share their attitudes and circumstances with many other members of their class. The conversations in Mrs. Dörr’s kitchen are juxtaposed with the one among Botho, his uncle, and another young nobleman. They meet in an exclusive Berlin restaurant (whose decor is as carefully described as Mrs. Dörr’s kitchen), they drink Chablis, and most of their conversation is concerned with contemporary society and politics. Only at one point does Botho’s uncle touch upon the critical issue at hand—when he says that Botho is “practically committed” (“Du bist doch so gut wie gebunden”).

This incident is a good example of Fontane’s seemingly effortless artistry, because, later on, during a moment of supreme happiness, Lene ties a bunch of flowers with a strand of her own hair. As she gives the flowers to Botho, she uses almost the same words “Now you are tied [committed to me]” (“Nun bist du gebunden”). The irony of the matter is that Botho is committed to marry a young noblewoman, and when his mother insists that he honor that commitment, he obeys. When a fellow officer asks Botho for his advice in a similar matter, Botho stoutly defends the existing class distinctions and advises his friend to terminate his relationship with the young bourgeoisie in question. A few years later, however—when he decides to burn a packet of letters that Lene had once written to him, as well as the withered bunch of flowers—he realizes that he still is and always will be “tied” to her.

In A Suitable Match, existing social conventions are portrayed as of paramount importance. When they conflict with individual happiness, Botho’s happiness must be subordinated to them. The fact that life goes on passably well is adumbrated by Mrs. Dörr in the first chapter. This fact is also demonstrated through the Pietist’s account of his first meeting with Lene and through the narrator’s account of Botho’s marriage.


The conflict between social conventions and personal happiness is accentuated and rendered more poignant by the tragic conclusion of Stine. The main plot of this novel concerns a love affair between a young girl of the working class and a young count. Stine and Waldemar (the two young people) meet during a supper party arranged by Stine’s sister Pauline but paid for by Pauline’s lover, an aging count who is Waldemar’s uncle. Pauline’s way of life—specifically, her total financial dependence on the Count—constitutes an important secondary action of this novel. Accounts of Pauline’s present and past life are skillfully interwoven in the narration, and the reader learns that she is a widow with a dependent child who simply cannot make ends meet without the Count’s financial help—without, in fact, selling herself to him. When Stine first speaks to Waldemar alone, she makes it clear to him that she prefers a life of poverty to the kind of life her sister leads. Later, Waldemar offers to marry her and to immigrate to America with her, but she refuses and explains to him that the difference between their social classes would preclude any kind of permanent happiness for them. Thereupon, Waldemar, who has been unable to obtain his uncle’s support for this marriage, commits suicide. Thus, Waldemar dies because all the people who surround him (including his beloved) tell him that a Count cannot marry a working-class girl, that class distinctions are insuperable barriers.

The reader is left with the impression that Waldemar is a victor of sorts, that the old caste system will not survive for long. Contemporary social conventions are attacked, not only by Waldemar but also by the Baron (a friend of Waldemar’s uncle to whom Waldemar first turns for help), who says that he is always happy to see someone breaking through the Krimskrams (nonsense) of class distinctions. Even Waldemar’s uncle admits that “the divine order of the world does not completely correspond to the calendar of the state and to the ranking list of society.” He goes even further and states that “at the present time” he and his ilk are still the beati possidentes (happy proprietors). He says to Waldemar, “Be a proprietor, and you are in the right.Why deprive ourselves of this possession andconjure up a future which may not benefit anyone, and certainly not us?” Statements such as this one, if read in conjunction with the accounts of Pauline’s precarious financial situation, add a considerable dimension of social criticism to the novel. It becomes clear to the reader that the opulence of the nobility is based on the low wages of the working class and on a total absence of a social security system for these people. It is, of course, no accident that Stine was written at a time when a comprehensive social security system was being debated in the Prussian parliament. (The social security law was finally passed in 1889.)

Jenny Treibel

In Stine as well as in A Suitable Match, politics is deftly subsumed in the actions and in the characterizations. That is not quite the case in Jenny Treibel, the most lighthearted work in the first category of Fontane’s novels. Again, the representatives of two social classes interact and mingle socially, but they cannot intermarry. In Jenny Treibel, however, the obstacle is not the insurmountable barrier of class distinction but the determination of one of the protagonists, Mrs. Jenny Treibel, a successful social climber.

In her youth, Jenny had been poor and idealistic and had had an affair with an equally poor and idealistic high school teacher named Schmidt. She had left him and married an industrialist. When the novel opens, Jenny rules over a substantial villa, over her husband, who is only a Kommerzienrat but who has higher political ambitions, and over her somewhat spineless son Leopold, who works in his father’s firm. Jenny’s older son has already married a suitably rich young woman from Hamburg. The other social circle consists mainly of Mr. Schmidt, his vivacious and intelligent daughter, Corinna, and his nephew, Marcell. During a supper party, Corinna flirts with the visiting British businessman, but only in order to attract Leopold’s attention. On the way home, she admits to Marcell that she intends to marry Leopold and live a life of luxury, come what may. Marcell is despondent because he loves her and hopes to marry her. Nevertheless, during an outing with both families and some mutual friends, Corinna contrives a sort of engagement to Leopold.

Leaving aside Mr. Treibel’s ill-starred political maneuvers, the comedy has two high points, both involving Jenny. In one encounter, she forbids Leopold to marry Corinna, and he refuses to obey her. In the other one, she tries to dissuade Corinna from her endeavor, and the latter refuses to relinquish her “rights” to Leopold. Yet, Jenny wins in the end: Her daughter-in-law conveniently has a sister who will receive a considerable dowry. Jenny invites this young woman to spend a few weeks in her house, and Leopold must at least be polite to her. Meanwhile, he writes letters to Corinna every day, assuring her of his love and steadfastness, but he does not go to see her. Some two weeks later, Marcell receives a tenured appointment as a teacher and is thus able to get married. At this point, Corinna is more than tired of Leopold’s letters and more than ready to accept Marcell.

The strength of the novel lies in the indulgent irony with which the various characters are depicted and the loving attention paid to details, lifestyles, food and drink, and nuances of speech. The novel’s subject matter is aptly summed up by Corinna when she says that she was not allowed to marry Leopold because she did not have a dowry that would have doubled the...

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