Lawrence M. Washington and Ida H. Washington (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: "The Several Aspects of Fire in Achim von Arnim's Der tolle Invalide" in German Quarterly, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, November, 1964, pp. 498-505.
[In the following essay, the Washingtons trace the fire imagery in Der tolle Invalide, noting that Arnim presents both [n]atural and supernatural aspects of fire" in the novella.]
In reading Achim von Arnim's Novelle, Der tolle Invalide, one is soon aware of the frequent occurrence of the word "Feuer" and related expressions. This seems at first to be merely clever word play, but a closer inspection shows that the various aspects of fire are so intimately connected with the events and characters of the story that they reflect the basic structure of the Novelle.
Fire is an unusually complex motif because it is so rich in connotative associations. From the earliest mention in primitive mythology, man has endowed fire with both natural and supernatural significance. He has sought it for its positive creative potentialities and has, at the same time, feared its destructive powers. Fire has thus come to represent symbolically things as various as home, love, heavenly grace, and on the other hand, war, hatred, and eternal damnation.
Arnim's awareness of the basic complexity of his motif is evident in the opening scene of the narrative. Count Dürande, the elderly commander of disabled veterans at Marseilles, is shown complaining of two kinds of coldness. The penetrating dampness of the October air makes him shiver physically, while the thoughtless gaiety of people in the street on their way to a ball chills him psychologically with a sense of being left out of social affairs ("einsam frierend"). To overcome his physical discomfort, the old commander shoves fuel onto the fire on his hearth, using his wooden leg as a poker. In addition to its warming effect, the fire also inspires his imagination by calling to mind his favorite hobby, fireworks. Dürande becomes so absorbed in daydreams that he forgets the danger inherent in the flames and fails to notice when his wooden leg catches fire: "In der Freude des Gelingens, wie er schon alles strahlen, sausen, prasseln, dann wieder alles in stiller Grösse leuchten sah, hatte er . . . nicht bemerkt, dass sein hölzernes Bein Feuer gefangen hatte und schon um ein Dritteil abgebrannt war."
At this point, a young woman who has been waiting to speak to Dürande rushes forward and tries to smother his flaming leg with her apron, but this also ignites. The commander's shouts bring help, and the fires are quickly put out with a bucket of water.
Though fire has played a multiple role in this first incident, its activity has been concentrated on a natural plane. It has shown itself a physical and psychological comforter, but at the same time dangerous as a seductive fascinator and potential destroyer when out of control. Fire in its physical manifestation is opposed by a natural enemy, water, which extinguishes it.
A further significance of fire is suggested in Arnim's charming description of olive leaves burning like love-sick hearts in the hearth: "Die knisternde Flamme ist mit dem grünen Laube wie durchflochten, halb brennend, halb grünend erscheinen die Blätter wie verliebte Herzen." This is the inner fire of love and has a dual potentiality: it is either life-giving ("grünend") or destructive ("brennend"). The twofold significance of love is reiterated in the young woman's story. Rosalie opens her plea for understanding of her wounded husband Francoeur by stating that her love is the cause of all his trouble: "Meine Liebe trägt die Schuld von allem dem Unglück, -ich habe meinen Mann unglücklich gemacht und nicht jene Wunde; meine Liebe hat den Teufel in ihn gebracht und plagt ihn und verwirrt seine Sinne." By linking her love with the devil's influence, Arnim extends the scope of fire into the realm of the supernatural.
It is a characteristic of supernatural realities that they can be perceived in the realm of ordinary experience only by their outward and visible effects. Fire and light are such visible signs for Arnim, who uses them to show the presence of the invisible forces of evil and good.
Fire is used to indicate supernatural evil where Rosalie describes her meeting with Francoeur and her mother's subsequent discovery of their affection. Her mother curses them and appears to emit flame with her words: "als ob eine Flamme aus ihrem Halse brenne." When Rosalie laughs hysterically, her mother exults: "Hörst du, der Teufel lacht schon aus dir!" The devil, the man of fire and personification of evil, takes possession of Rosalie and her life at this time. When Francoeur and Rosalie are married, the priest exhorts him to share the burden of her troubles, even her mother's curse, and Rosalie notices that the effect of the curse is then half lost. Shortly thereafter, Francoeur begins to experience an aversion to the church and to all religious matters and reports an inexplicable compulsion to curse them, "einen so heftigen Zorn und Wilder-willen gegen Geistliche, Kirchen und heilige Bilder dass er ihnen fluchen müsse, und wisse nicht, warum." He seeks to dispel his blasphemous thoughts through wild activity, but his pranks and conflict with authority only emphasize more clearly the abnormal condition of his mind and spirit. This continues even after Rosalie is freed from the devil's influence through the birth of her child. She becomes the constant opponent of evil, meeting wild behavior with calmness, hatred and jealousy with love and constancy.
Though Rosalie has grown up in the midst of immorality, she is untouched by her sordid surroundings, and she seems to Francoeur in the hospital to be wearing a halo, "Heiligenschein," about her head. When she tries to explain this as the effect of her bonnet, he responds that the halo comes from her eyes.
The term "Teufel" has quite different significance for Rosalie and Count Dürande. For her, the devil is a real being whose power over her husband is responsible for his wildness and her misery. The count, however, is sure that Rosalie, as a German girl, could not possibly understand a Frenchman, for the French are all by nature somewhat devilish: "Die Frau liebt ihn, aber sie ist eine Deutsche und versteht keinen Franzosen; ein Franzose hat immer den Teufel im Leibe!" Thus, for Count Dürande, "Teufel" may be essentially synonymous with rascal, a person of extraordinary mischief and inventiveness; "Ein Teufelskerl" is his exclamation on first hearing of Francoeur's attack on the retreating general. The two interpretations lead to basically different ways of dealing with Francoeur's aberrations in behavior. While Rosalie shudders at each new deed of her husband, the count is delighted with his daring and entrusts him with responsibility for explosives and dangerous weapons. Dürande doubts his interpretation of Francoeur's behavior only for an instant, when he asks him: "Aber Euch plagt doch nicht der Teufel, und Ihr...
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