Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 987
Christa Wolf (vawlf) is one of the most prominent novelists of the former East Germany. Born in the eastern part of Germany in what would later become Gorzów Wielkopolski, Poland, she joined the German Socialist Party at the age of twenty and was a student of German literature at the Universities of Jena and Leipzig from 1949 to 1953. Wolf married in 1951; she gave birth to a daughter in the following year and to a second daughter in 1956. She worked as a literary critic until 1959, then began living as an independent writer in East Berlin in 1962. She received numerous prestigious literary honors in both German nations. Wolf resigned from the Socialist Party in 1989 and later spoke out against reunification with West Germany. After the publication of What Remains in 1990, she was attacked by West German critics for loyalty to the Socialist party despite earlier East German attacks on her work.
Wolf’s writings are a creative and refreshing turn from the East German literature of the 1950’s, which was by and large dominated by the style of socialist realism, a programmatic literature dictated by the political and social goals of socialist society. Literary works were expected to provide positive models of behavior for the socialist individual—self-sacrifice for the group’s goals, for example—and any problematic themes, such as alienation within socialist society, were to be avoided. Wolf’s works began to examine difficult and even embarrassing issues of socialist society.
Wolf’s first major novel, Divided Heaven, suggests her commitment to the East German nation and its socialist program. Despite its somewhat immature, even trivial plot, the painful decision of the novel’s heroine, Rita, not to follow her lover to West Germany but to remain in the East with the factory workers’ brigade that she has come to know and trust exemplifies the kind of inner conflict that plagues some of Wolf’s later characters: a deeply felt commitment to the goals of the socialist country in which she believes, versus a personal need for individual fulfillment. This theme is continued in the innovatively written The Quest for Christa T., in which the narrator seeks to reconstruct from letters, notes, and personal memories the inner life of her recently deceased friend, the schoolteacher Christa T. The latter was a dedicated member of her society who believed in—but at times also honestly doubted the possibility of—the practical implementation of the socialist ideals of the equality and perfectibility of humankind. She was at the same time a staunch and romantic individualist who had her own wishes and desires in life. This dilemma—personal self-sacrifice for the good of the community versus the existential need for self-realization—seems to undermine Christa T.’s life and health and she succumbs to a fatal disease. Both these novels provoked a controversial reaction in East Germany, in response to the often explicit critique leveled at this socialist society, especially in its early years.
In the novel A Model Childhood Wolf continues her examination of East German society, namely its coming to terms with the country’s fascist past during the Nazi period. It is a strongly autobiographical novel that draws on Wolf’s own childhood years in National Socialist (Nazi) Germany. She suggests that many of the attitudes and stereotypes of this time have continued. The lyrical story No Place on Earth depicts a fictional meeting between two brilliant but tragic eighteenth century German Romantic writers, Heinrich von Kleist and Karoline von Günderode, who represent male and female attitudes in the society and literary culture of that era. Wolf’s narrative technique makes use of extensive quotations from these and other authors of the German Romantic period. These two characters illustrate, in part, the fundamental alienation of the writer-intellectual within society and the essential differences as well as complementary aspects between man and woman. The work also expresses a utopian wish for the equality and harmonious integration of conflicting social as well as gender relationships. In this text Wolf’s themes become more explicitly feminist as well as universalist.
Cassandra utilizes the figure of the prophetess and seer from the legendary Greek story of the siege of Troy in an exploration of both feminist and antiwar concerns. Within the decidedly patriarchal context of the Trojan War (fought over the possession of a woman), Cassandra—Priam’s daughter who was cursed by Apollo because she refused his love and who was killed by the invading Greeks—represents, to a degree, the fate of all women in history: to be manipulated by others (usually men). The novel, which is structured as a long monologue by Cassandra, seeks to lay open to rational discussion the patriarchal assumptions that distort the writing of history and promote the oppression of all peoples by equating aggression and possessiveness with visions of nature and the divine. These views also provoked controversy and heated debate within the East German society. Wolf returned to similar themes in her unexpectedly sympathetic and feminist retelling of the story of the Thracian sorceress Medea in her novel of the same name.
The “accident” of Wolf’s next novel, Accident: A Day’s News, refers to the April 26, 1986, meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Ukraine. The narrator, a middle-aged East German writer, must simultaneously deal with the meltdown and its implications and the brain surgery that her brother is undergoing in a distant hospital. Wolf asks what it means to be human in an increasingly technologically-driven society.
The novella What Remains, first written in 1979, revised in 1989, and published in 1990, is the apparently autobiographical account of Wolf’s surveillance by the East German government. Upon its publication she was condemned for not having published it earlier and for what was perceived as an attempt to claim status as a victim of the socialist government she had previously supported.
In addition to fiction Wolf has also written literary criticism and essays.
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