Adelbert von Chamisso Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.