Theodor Storm Essay - Critical Essays


Theodor Storm’s importance for the history of the novella lies in his fusion of the objective reality of the Holstein-Friesland milieu and people with the most intimate physical and spiritual dimensions of subjective experience. No single aesthetic program or formal theory governs all of his creations. His early stories are an outgrowth of artistic attitudes that shaped his lyric poetry. Gradually, he progressed to a more resolutenarrative technique in a psychological penetration of human problems, arriving finally at the clearly defined conception of the novella as a genre that informed his mature works. To be sure, there are characteristics of style and theme that are common to most of his prose writings. From Immensee through The Rider on the White Horse, a constant longing for the past accompanies a feeling of loss. The uncertainty of life, a plaintive yearning for immortality, an emphasis on transitoriness and death as the final end of humankind—all combine to give his fiction its unique atmosphere. There is an obvious focus on the family as the context for illumination of the dissonance between the course of isolated lives and the history of bourgeois society, the pain of humankind’s power and impotence in the temporal state, the dreamworld of youth and the resignation of the old. Despite these constants, however, a valid picture of Storm’s epic production is achieved only in the understanding that his narratives vary distinctly in tone, direction, mood, and statement with the identifiable stages in his literary development.

In his introduction to the anthology Hausbuch aus deutschen Dichtern seit Claudius (1870; house book, consisting of German poets since Claudius), Storm presented his poetic creed. This outline of his basic approach to poetry also effectively circumscribes the fundamental artistic concerns that influenced the writing of his early novellas. Storm believed that the work of literature should have the power to touch the reader directly, unreflectively. To accomplish this goal, it must appeal to the senses. Application of this principle to his prose writings yielded lyric mood pictures of situations imbued with the flow of feeling rather than the dynamics of active drama. Modeled to some extent on the works of the late Romantics, Immensee and other narratives of the period exhibit a musical lyricism that is quite absent from the stories written after the author’s return from exile.

In contrast to the sharp objectivity of realism, Storm’s earliest stories are characterized by an indefinite blurring of style and representation of life. At the same time, a clear tendency toward sensitive inwardness is present in the aestheticizing of past reality and penetration of the private sphere of bourgeois existence in idyllic portraits of static powerlessness. Poetic language is used to beautify that which is ugly while masking facts that are revealed only in spiritual assimilation and effect, inner suffering, quiet resignation, and temporary overcoming. More than anything else, these writings illustrate the author’s love for humanity’s inner world as a unique and final reality.

Beginning in the late 1850’s, Storm entered the second stage of his literary development. In novellas such as Im Schloss (in the castle) and Auf der Universität (at the university), he began to turn away from the mood sketches that he had been producing, experimenting with epic form while broadening his scope to explore the personal implications of humankind’s struggle with fate in confrontation with a variety of social problems: class tensions, religious bigotry, individual isolation, and erotic conflicts. The prose tales of this period are characterized by subtler psychological insights and greater realism. The dramatic element comes to hold its own against the lyric dimension.

As he broke with the lyric novella, Storm generated new theoretical ideas concerning the nature of his chosen genre. Structure and form now had greater import. He demanded of himself polished organization of scenes while employing with greater mastery the technical possibilities of the novella. Aspects of epic integration broke through the classical structure of his portraits of feeling, and significant changes in content-orientation occurred. Instead of still lifes in which things weigh more heavily than persons, novelistic conflicts and their explanations became prominent. Portrayal of the family in its destruction, a microcosmic revelation of the cracks and tears in the fabric of middle-class life, enabled Storm to work out more sharply than before the social basis of his characters’ struggles while strengthening his criticism of the patricians, the new bourgeoisie, and residual feudalism. Increased consciousness of the importance of strict form and dramatic moment for the art of the novella led ultimately to the concrete formalization of novella theory that molded his best works.

An essay that appears in his collected works under the title “Vorrede aus dem Jahre 1881” (preface from the year 1881) contains Storm’s formalization of the ideas that governed his approach to the novella during his mature years. In that treatise, he made his famous pronouncement that the novella is the sister of the drama and the strictest kind of prose literature. He saw the novella as resembling dramatic art in the following ways: Like theater, the novella deals with the deepest problems of human life. Both literary forms are organized around a central conflict that demands the exclusion of everything superfluous for the sake of artistic unity.

During the final segment of his career, stress of dramatic conflict and stringency of form led Storm to create powerful novellas that are best described as fate tragedies, the most successful of which are his historical chronicles. Aquis submersus and A Chapter in the History of Grieshuus are excellent examples of this type of story, with their terse style, strength of action and plot, and plastic imagery. Not all the tragic novellas, however, focus on the past. Between 1870 and 1880, Storm also wrote a variety of tales about contemporary situations. Hans and Heinz Kirch is typical of a series of bourgeois portraits that focus on problems such as the clash between industry and craft or the tension between art and practical trade. Family tableaus and love idylls are included among the works of this group. The most striking of all of Storm’s late novellas combine the dimension of history with deep penetration of physical and psychological reality in the subjective interpretation of human conflict with the irrational part of life. These components combine in The Rider on the White Horse to raise the author’s greatest masterpiece to the level of a profound statement concerning the fragile nature of human existence in the social context.

One of Storm’s most consistent themes is the human struggle with the lasting implications of ones own mortality and subjection to the ravages of time. Immensee, the first and most important novella of his lyric period, sets the pattern for later treatments of physical and spiritual transitoriness, in itsexposition of Reinhardt Werner’s nostalgic confrontation with the reality of his own lack of fulfillment.


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