Adelbert von Chamisso Essay - Critical Essays

Chamisso, Adelbert von


Adelbert von Chamisso 1781–1838

(Born Louis Charles Adelaide. Also known as Adalbert.) French-born German poet, novelist, travel-writer, linguist, and botanist.

Chamisso was a noted German lyric poet who is generally remembered for his classic novel Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte (1814; The Wonderful History of Peter Schlemihl). Taking its title from the Yiddish word schlemihl—which denotes an unlucky or simple person—Peter Schlemihl is ostensibly a Märchen, or fairy tale; although scholars consider it a work of serious fiction. The story follows Schlemihl as he enters into a deal with the devil, exchanging his shadow for a purse of endless wealth. The work is generally seen as a social satire with elements of fantasy, allegory, and confessional autobiography. In addition to Peter Schlemihl, Chamisso also composed a number of popular poems, including those of his song-cycle Frauenliebe und Leben, and a travel journal, Reise um die Welt mit der Romanzoffischen Entdeckungs-Expedition, that is numbered among the finest of the nineteenth century.

Biographical Information

Chamisso was born in Château de Boncourt, France, in 1781. As a youth, he fled with his family to Prussia in order to avoid the social turmoil of the French Revolution. Chamisso adopted German as his new tongue, and subsequently wrote all of his mature works in this language. He joined the Prussian army in 1798 and served for the next eight years. While still in the military, he helped create the Nordsternbund, a group of Romantic poets in Berlin, and between 1804 and 1806 co-edited the society's journal Musenalmanach, in which were published several of his earliest poems. Over the next several years, Chamisso returned to France and later participated in the literary salons of Madame de Staël at Geneva and Coppet. He returned to Berlin in 1812 and focused on the study of botany, which he had begun at Coppet. Taking advantage of a period of leisure in 1813, he began to write his novel Peter Schlemihl and published it the following year. In 1815 Chamisso embarked on a scientific voyage around the world aboard a Russian ship under the direction of Captain Otto von Kotzebue. Engaged as a botanist on the vessel, Chamisso recorded his experiences in diary form and later published these journals as Reise um die Welt.

After returning to Europe, Chamisso accepted a post as curator at the Berlin Botanical Gardens, serving there until his death in 1838.

Major Works

Chamisso's most read and studied work, Peter Schlemihl, presents the story of a man who naively makes a contract with the devil. An exile newly arrived in Germany, Schlemihl encounters a confidence man clad all in gray. This man, the devil in disguise, impresses Schlemihl with a magical purse, from which he draws a seemingly limitless number of valuable objects. He ensnares Schlemihl by offering the purse in exchange for the man's shadow, something he points out is clearly of no value. Schlemihl agrees to the trade. Initially delighted with his easily attained wealth, Schlemihl finds himself ostracized from society because of his eerie lack of a shade. He sinks into a deep despair that lasts for a year and a day, until the devil reappears and offers to return the shadow if Schlemihl will sign away his soul. Able to evade the devil's trickery and keep his soul, Schlemihl nevertheless remains alienated from society at the novel's end. His fortunate acquisition of some magical boots in the final segment of the story, however, offers him a measure of contentment. Using the boots, Schlemihl finds he can traverse a distance of seven leagues in a single step, allowing him to exist outside of society while satisfying his wanderlust and interest in botanical study. Among Chamisso's other works, his terza rima poem "Salas y Gomez," inspired by the cliffs of the Pacific island of that name, plays upon the motif of Robinson Crusoe, as its narrator imagines a lone shipwreck survivor on the desolate rock. "Die alte Waschfrau" ("The Old Washerwoman") is generally considered Chamisso's most popular poem, and features the humble laundress figure that would become a stock character in German literature of the nineteenth century. In the travelogue Reise um die Welt, Chamisso recounts his journey by sea across the globe through a series of anecdotes, many of them humorous. In particular, he notes the idyllic splendor of the South Pacific islands, and praises the unspoiled lives and fascinating art of the Pacific islanders. His remaining works include a study of Hawaiian grammar entitled Über die Hawaiische Sprache and several essays on botany.

Critical Reception

Chamisso claimed that he wrote Peter Schlemihl in order to amuse the children of his friend Eduard Hitzig, and in part out of boredom. Thomas Mann and others since have observed that the romantic novel, though appealing to children, was intended for more sophisticated audiences as well. This assessment has been supported by a number of scholars who have endeavored to unravel the ambiguities of the novel. While stressing its symbolic nature, most commentators have avoided allegorical explanations of the work. Many have focused on the motif of Schlemihl's lost shadow, which has inspired various interpretations, including readings that it is a metaphor for Schlemihl's status as an exile alienated from society. Critics have also commented on the protagonist's pretensions to wealth and social esteem in the work. Psychoanalytic assessments have been forwarded, and the story has been read as a kind of cautionary tale related to material greed and to the pitfalls of business dealings in general. Other studies have perceived Schlemihl as a disinterested scholar who values solitary contemplation over social contact. Overall, modern commentators, while disagreeing on specific interpretations, have lauded the depth of Chamisso's social insight and the complexity of his narrative technique and characterization in Peter Schlemihl. Likewise, many critics of Chamisso's collected writings have acknowledged his significant contributions to nineteenth-century German lyric poetry and travel-writing.

Principal Works

Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte [The Wonderful History of Peter Schlemihl ] (novel) 1814

Das Schloß Boncourt (poetry) 1927

Frauenliebe und Leben (poetry) 1830

Gesammelte Werke. 6 vols, (novel, travel writing, and poetry) 1836

Reise um die Welt mit der Romanzoffischen Entdeckungs-Expedition (travel writing) 1836

Über die Hawaiische Sprache (linguistics) 1837


Thomas Mann (essay date 1911)

SOURCE: "Chamisso," in Essays of Three Decades, trans. by H. T. Lowe-Porter, Alfred A. Knopf, 1948, pp. 241-58.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1911, Mann surveys Chamisso's life and writings, concentrating on his novel Peter Schlemihl, which he calls "one of the most charming youthful works in German literature."]

Among our schoolbooks was one that stood out from all the rest. On the outside it looked dry and forbidding, like any textbook. But within it gave of its contents with lovely human charm. Actually, strange as it may seem, it was an amusing book, full from cover to cover of delightful things which got our interest straightway, with no...

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Hermann J. Weigand (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "Peter Schlemihl" in Surveys and Soundings in European Literature, Princeton University Press, 1966, pp 208-22.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1965, Weigand offers a thematic analysis of Peter Schlemihl, interpreting the work as a tongue-in-cheek satire on "salesmanship and business ethics."]

Peter Schlemihl, an immortal classic that charmed the reading public of Europe and America on its first appearance a century and a half ago, is the story of a man who got involved with the devil by selling him his shadow. That so great a poet as Hugo von Hofmannsthal nevertheless chose to omit it from his collection, Deutsche...

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Paul Neumarkt (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Chamisso's Peter Schlemihl," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XVII, Nos. 2 and 3, 1967, pp. 120-27.

[In the following essay, Neumarkt interprets Peter Schlemihl as an introverted personality type with repressed extrovert tendencies.]

Chamisso's novel Peter Schlemihl has remained a literary delight ever since Chamisso conceived the idea that a man's shadow was not necessarily an epiphenomenon tied up with the existence of the human personality but rather a possession to be taken care of, tended, cherished; a possession, above all, capable of being lost. An, individual may "lose his shadow" in many parts of the world, probably quite...

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Niklaus R. Schweizer (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: A Poet Among Explorers: Chamisso in the South Seas, Herbert Lang. 1973, pp. 13-18, 27-46.

[In the following excerpt, Schweizer recounts Chamisso's experiences, recorded in poetry and prose, concerning his voyage to the South Seas.]

When the Russian brig Rurik, Captain Otto von Kotzebue, sailed out of the harbor of Copenhagen on August 17, 1815, heading for the Bearing Strait and the hopeful discovery of the fabled Northeast Passage, a civilian of unusual qualities could be seen aboard. Adelbert von Chamisso, author of the intriguing Peter Schlemihl, had joined the expedition, financed by Count Romanzoff of Reval (Tallinn) in the capacity of an...

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Ralph Flores (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "The Lost Shadow of Peter Schlemihl," in The German Quarterly, Vol. XLVII, No. 4, November, 1974, pp. 567-84.

[In the following essay, Flores examines the magical and realistic elements of Peter Schlemihl, viewing the novel as a complex study of its protagonist's alienation from society.]

Critics have recognized Chamisso's Peter Schlemihls Wundersame Geschichte to be an odd work—one for which the categories of literary history and criticism may seem to be adequate, yet one which seems to elude those categories in a somewhat disturbing way. Most critics have noted that the work, like other Romantic tales, is mixed in its modality: it combines the...

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Martin Swales (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Mundane Magic: Some Observations on Chamisso's Peter Schlemihl," in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. XII, No. 3, July, 1976, pp 250-62.

[In the following essay, Swales investigates the ambiguous shadow motif of Peter Schlemihl "as the paradigm for that uncertain moral and social situation which the novel so brilliantly explores."]

By any standards, Peter Schlemihl is a most engaging story.1 On several occasions, Chamisso asserted that the work was originally written to amuse children, and its combination of verbal and situational humour leaves one in little doubt that it fulfils this purpose admirably. One wonders,...

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Irving Massey (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Singles and Doubles: Peter Schlemil" in The Gaping Pig: Literature and Metamorphosis, University of California Press, 1976, pp. 138-55.

[In the following essay, Massey begins by comparing Peter Schlemihl and Frankenstein, and continues by discussing the ways in which polarities and oppositional schemes operate in Chamisso's novel.]

Peter Schlemihl is a book that shows nemerous situational similarities to Frankenstein. Both books are tragedies of science; both involve doubles (in fact, Peter Schlemihl himself has at least two doubles—his shadow and the devil); both raise the question of what happens, or what should happen,...

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Colin Butler (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Hobson's Choice: A Note on Peter Schlemihl," in Monatshefte: Für Deutschen Unterricht, Deutsche Sprache und Literatur, Vol. LXIX, No. 1, Spring, 1977, pp 5-16.

[In the following essay, Butler summarizes some critical assessments of Peter Schlemihl, observing that despite its ambiguities the work is finally a fairy tale in which the protagonist finds contentment apart from society.]

Als ich mich ins Fremdenbuch einschrieb und im Monat Juli blätterte, fand ich auch den vielteuern Namen Adelbert von Chamisso, den Biographen des unsterblichen Schlemihl. Der Wirt erzählte mir: dieser Herr sei in einem unbeschreibbar schlechten...

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Marko Pavlyshyn (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Gold, Guilt and Scholarship: Adelbert von Chamisso's Peter Schlemihl, in The German Quarterly, Vol. LV, No. 1, January, 1982, pp. 49-63.'

[In the following essay, Pavlyshyn considers the ending of Peter Schlemihl and the implications of Schlemihl's role as a scientist who refuses to participate in society.]

Adelbert von Chamisso's Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte (written in 1813, published 1814) is one of the more frequently interpreted German prose texts of the early nineteenth century. Dörte Brockhagen's Forschungsbericht lists twenty-one studies of the work for the period 1945-76 alone.1 Since then, at least three new...

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Further Reading


Ampère, M. J. J. Review of Adalbert von Chamisso's Werke. The Foreign Quarterly Review XXXVI, No. LXXII (1845): 412-37.

Recounts Chamisso's life and examines selections from his best-known poems.

Bisson, L. A. "The First French Edition of Peter Schlemihl." In German Studies Presented to Professor H. G. Fiedler, M. V. O., pp. 26-32. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938.

Anecdotal account of Chamisso's relationship to his French publisher and a potential translator.


Atkins, Stuart. "Peter...

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