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Christa Wolf's Patterns of Childhood is what we can call a fictional autobiography. In her book, she relates childhood memories but not through her own first-person voice; instead, she relates her childhood memories through the third-person narrations of a fictional character named Nelly Jordan. She also reflects on herself in the present using the second person. Wolf's purpose in writing the book was to give herself a chance to face the fact that, as a child growing up before and during World War II in what became East Germany, she was forced and brainwashed into being involved with the Nazi party. As the editor of Masterpieces of World Literature, Steven G. Kellman, phrases it, her book is a means for her to cope with the "trauma associated with growing up during the Hitler era" (eNotes, "Summary"). What's more, Wolf uses both second and third person because she has difficulty reconciling her present self "with the child that was molded during the Nazi period" (eNotes, "Summary"). We certainly see her moving back and forth between voices in chapters 4 and 5 as she uses her free-flow style to reflect on both her present and her past. As access to the text online is limited, below are a few ideas to help you get started with understanding the two chapters.
In chapter 4, we see her mixing reflections of Vietnam War peace talks and details of the Apollo 14 mission with flashbacks to her father. She even reflects, in second person, on a moment when, as an adult, she was hospitalized for hitting the back of her head very hard against an iron ledge. She even relays details of a frightening dream she had while recovering from her head injury before going back into Nelly's history.
In chapter 4, once back in Nelly's third-person voice, she vaguely reflects on a memory of going to the "emergency baptism" of her prematurely born cousin Manfred, Aunt Liesbeth's son (p. 73-74). Since she cannot remember for certain if she actually did attend the christening, she describes a series of clues that may or may not prove she was there, such as eating Whiskers Grandma's butter crumb cake, which her grandmother baked for all family occasions, so eating the cake isn't conclusive proof. She also recounts her family being embarrassed by a gypsy woman, who is actually Aunt Emmy, entering the room during the reception after the christening and insisting she read the family's palms. She further recollects that the gypsy dropped Uncle Alfons Radde's hand, the father of Manfred, after looking at it without even interpreting what she had read and refused to look at the hands of Aunt Liesbeth Radde and Dr. Leitner. The reader is never told explicitly in this chapter why the gypsy dropped Uncle Radde's hand and refused to look at the hands of Aunt Liesbeth and Dr. Leitner, but due to other clues, the reader can suspect the reason is because Aunt Liesbeth and Dr. Leitner are having an affair. The reader is, however, clearly told the gypsy refused to look at Dr. Leitner's hand because his fate is doomed as a Jew. However, the narrator further recounts in detail exactly what the gypsy explained to Dr. Leitner, when asked, as a means of giving him a warning:
You'll be wishing to go one of these day. And you'll be on your way. You'll become a wanderer. You'll have to want to go. You'll forget worrying about offspring. What does the Wandering Jew need a wife and child for? (p. 77-78)
Finally, the narrator also reflects on prejudices shown to Dr. Leitner in town and how eventually his medical practice was boycotted.
In chapter 5, still narrating in third person, she describes a time when Nelly dropped her five geranium pots out her bedroom window in a fit of rage over things she learned in school with respect to German lessons, especially capitalization. Among some of the details in this chapter that she relays are the fact her Uncle Emil took over an abandoned Jewish candy factory; a description of her German teacher in school, Herr Warsinski; and a description of saluting the Nazi flag in her school. She particularly reflects on many different things about Herr Warsinski, especially how she aimed to please him but always seemed to fail and the fact that he later committed suicide. Finally, she further reflects on other incidents from school, such as when Herr Warsinski tells the whole class that Nelly's mother donated clothes to Ella Busch's mother, and after that, Ella and her brothers tried to attack Nelly with stones embedded in snowballs.
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