The Blue Flower

In the middle of The Blue Flower, almost buried within many dialogues in this historical novel, the main character, poet Fritz von Hardenberg, makes the following comment: “If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching.” While this statement is directed at the story Fritz is developing during the course of the novel, a cryptic tale of the Blue Flower, it also applies to Penelope Fitzgerald’s narrative about the poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, who adopted the name Novalis, meaning “clearer of new land,” and his relentless pursuit of adolescent Sophie von Kühn. This narrative opens with finding—finding the main character returning from college to his home in a small German town—and ends with searching—searching for the meaning of the Blue Flower. Between these two points is a story of a tortured love affair, the meaning of art, the role of women in late eighteenth century Germany, and the irrationality of love, to name a few of the themes intertwined in The Blue Flower.

The hero of this biographical novel is the German Romantic poet Novalis, referred to in this book as Fritz, born in 1772, the second of eleven children. Fritz’s father, an impoverished German gentleman, tries to support his family by running the prince’s salt mines in the small town of Weissenfels. A convert to the Herrenhut Brotherhood, a mystically oriented denomination, Freiherr von Hardenberg is a stern father who sends Fritz to the Brethren’s boarding school when he is ten in an effort to rid the young boy of his youthful romanticism. This early attempt to make Fritz a practical person fails.

Subsequent steps in Fritz’s education also fail to rid him of his fundamental romanticism. Attending universities in Jena, Leipzig, and Wittenberg, he studies history, philosophy, natural science, and law, all of which contribute to the mysticism with which he becomes associated. Fitzgerald populates this novel with real historical figures, such as the dramatist, poet, and historian Friedrich von Schiller and the philosopher Johann Fichte, who lecture at the universities Fritz attends, and Friedrich von Schlegel, Fritz’s fellow student, who would become the chief theoretician of the German Romantic movement. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe himself appears at the end of the novel, highlighting the historical significance of this exciting period in German intellectual life.

Needing to find a profession, Fritz is sent by his father to the home of a friend, Coelestin Just, a magistrate and tax inspector in the small Saxon town of Tennstedt. Boarding with the Justs, Fritz is introduced by Coelestin to Sophie von Kühn, whom he immediately worships and decides to pursue romantically, hoping to make her his wife. It seems of no importance that Sophie is only twelve years old when Fritz first sees her and that he is in his twenties. He is convinced that she is the object he must worship, and he manages to convince both Sophie’s stepfather and his own father that the marriage between them must happen.

Fritz’s irrational and relentless pursuit of Sophie puzzles most people, especially since Sophie is neither bright nor pretty. Fritz’s confidante Karoline Just is devastated that Fritz chooses Sophie and not her, and Fritz’s brother Erasmus goes from bemusement to his own form of irrational worship of Sophie. The lack of any logical explanation for Sophie’s magnetism is at the heart of this book, attesting the irrationality of love.

When Sophie dies at the age of fifteen from the tuberculosis that will also kill Erasmus one month later and then Fritz himself four years after the death of his brother, the unsettled and unsettling conclusion of the book leaves critical questions unanswered: What does Sophie, to whom Fritz refers as his Philosophy, mean? What does the Blue Flower, an image in the story Fritz is writing and about which he asks numerous people, mean? What is the meaning of various mysterious characters in the story, such as the demonic younger brother known as the Bernhard? If, as Romanticism posits, the search...

(The entire section is 1669 words.)