Christa Wolf Wolf, Christa (Vol. 150) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Christa Wolf 1929-

German novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Wolf's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 14, 29, and 58.

A highly respected East German literary figure during the Cold War, Wolf won international renown on both sides of the Iron Curtain as a politically committed artist and voice of moral conscience. Though tolerated by Communist authorities, Wolf probed the psychological difficulties of East German life, scrutinizing Germany's Nazi past, problems facing women in a male-dominated culture, and the estrangement of the individual under a rigid social order. In daring novels such as Nachdenken über Christa T. (1968; The Quest for Christa T.), Kindheitsmuster (1976; A Model Childhood), and Kassandra (1983; Cassandra), Wolf broke with state-sanctioned literary modes to present highly subjective accounts of repression and alienation, particularly as experienced by women, winning universal appeal and attracting the interest of Western feminists. However, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequent revelations that Wolf had briefly worked for Stasi, the East German secret police, she suddenly became a lightning rod for controversy; consequently, her reputation has suffered as critics question the moral—if not the literary—merit of her work.

Biographical Information

Wolf was born Christa Ihlenfeld in Landsberg an der Warthe, Germany (now Gorzow Wielkopolski, Poland), the daughter of a salesman. A teenager during the Second World War, she was a member of the Hitler Youth. In 1945 her family fled from the advancing Soviet army to the Mecklenburg area, in what would later become East Germany. Four years later, enthralled by the utopian promise of Marxism, Wolf joined the Socialist Unity party. She also began studying German literature at universities in Jena and Leipzig. In 1951 she married essayist Gerhard Wolf. After earning her degree in 1953, she began working as a researcher for the East German Writers' Union. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Wolf held various editorial positions, including one with the literary journal Neue Deutsche Literatur. For a time, she also worked in a boxcar factory. In 1961 she published her first book, Moskauer Novelle (Moscow Novella), and the following year began writing full-time. Two years later she published Der geteilte Himmel (1963; Divided Heaven), for which she won East Germany's prestigious Heinrich Man Prize for literature. Divided Heaven also won great praise in West Germany—a rare achievement for an East German writer. During the next several years, she completed a book of essays, Lesen und Schreiben (1972; The Reader and the Writer); a film script, Till Eulenspiegel (1973), written with her husband; and a book of short stories, Unter den Linden (1974; Under the Linden). In 1974 Wolf traveled to the United States as the Max-Kade German Writer-in-Residence at Oberlin College, Ohio. In 1976 she signed an open letter protesting the East German government's mistreatment of writer Wolf Biermann, an action that resulted in her dismissal from the executive committee of the East German Writers' Union. The following year she was made a member of the German Academy for Language and Literature, a West German body. In 1979 she published a book of essays, Fortgesetzter Versuch, and the experimental novel Kein ort. Nirgends (No Place on Earth). She traveled to Greece in 1981, an experience that provided inspiration and material for the novel Cassandra, published two years later.

During the remainder of the 1980s, Wolf continued to collect honors. She won West Germany's most prestigious literary award, the Georg Büchner Prize, in 1980, was named a member of the European Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1984, became an honorary fellow of the Modern Language Association in 1985, and won East Germany's National Prize of the First Class for her novel Störfall (1987; Accidents: A Day's News). She also published a collection of essays, Die Dimension des Autors (1987; The Author's Dimension), and another novel, Sömmerstuck (1989). With the reunification of Germany—an event Wolf ardently opposed—the path of Wolf's career took a sudden turn. Soon after the Berlin Wall fell, Wolf published Was bleibt (1990; What Remains), a collection whose title story embroiled the author in a heated public controversy over her role in the former East Germany. The controversy soon erupted into a complete reappraisal of Wolf's entire catalog, intensified in 1993 after Wolf admitted that she had briefly worked for Stasi. Though shaken by an onslaught of ad hominem attacks in the popular press, and even relocating to California for a time, Wolf responded to charges against her in works such as Auf dem Weg nach Tabou (1994; Parting from Phantoms), a collection of essays tracing her development as a writer, and Medea (1996), a revision of Greek mythology.

Major Works

Although Wolf's essays and short stories constitute an important part of her work, her literary reputation rests squarely with her novels, in which she elaborates upon the central moral and social themes that have preoccupied her throughout her career. Divided Heaven is narrated by Rita, a woman recovering from a recent, unspecified accident, who recounts the story of a failed love affair. Rita is an idealistic young education student from the country who firmly believes in the promise of socialism. Her lover, however, is a cynical urbanite who flees to West Germany to advance his career, assuming that Rita will follow. She chooses not to, and then suffers her “accident”—interpreted in the West as a suicide attempt (a taboo subject in East German literature) and an indictment of the East German state. In contrast, Rita's allegiance to the East was viewed by East German critics as a vindication of the state. Using the 1961 construction of the Berlin Wall as a backdrop for Rita's narration, Wolf imbues the novel's themes of division and separation with political urgency. The Quest for Christa T. is narrated by an unnamed young woman whose friend Christa T., a failed writer, has just died of leukemia. While combing through Christa's papers in an effort to make sense of her friend's life, the narrator discovers that Christa felt completely estranged from society and believed that, as a result, her literary pursuits were futile. Frustrated, Christa became a housewife, but found no refuge in what she felt was a banal existence. Ultimately, the narrator discovers that Christa's difficulty involved finding an appropriate way to be an individual—an “I”—in a society in which the collective “we” is all important. A Model Childhood is a largely autobiographical novel in which Wolf confronts her own—and Germany's—Nazi past. The heart of the narrative concerns the visit of a woman named Nelly to the town in which she grew up. During the course of the visit Nelly tells her daughter, Lenka, about daily life under Nazi rule and how ordinary people gradually acquiesced to Nazi brutality through self-absorption and political indifference. In this way Wolf emphasizes the importance of the individual's responsibility to remain engaged in society.

Wolf's next novel, No Place on Earth, was a radical departure from her previous works. Forsaking any semblance of realism, socialist or otherwise, she wrote of a fictional meeting of two nineteenth-century Romantic writers, poet Karoline von Günderrode and playwright Heinrich von Kleist—both of whom committed suicide. The two share their idealistic dreams of an artists' utopia, but also their sense of alienation from society—feelings shared by Christa T. in Wolf's earlier novel. Written immediately after Wolf's dismissal from the executive committee of the Writers' Union, the frustrations expressed in this novel also reflect Wolf's own. Wolf revisited the themes of social responsibility and frustrated isolation in her next novel, Cassandra, also one of her most overtly feminist works. Wolf's reinterpretation of the Greek myth begins with the shunned prophetess Cassandra in a Greek prison, recounting her part in the last disastrous days of the Trojan war. Wolf casts Cassandra as a lone voice of reason pitted against the arrogant Trojan military elite, who are too sure of their own power to heed her dire warnings. Wolf's mistrust of entrenched power also pervades Accident, a novel that relates the events of a single day in the life of its female narrator—a day during which her beloved brother undergoes surgery to remove a brain tumor and during which an accident occurs at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, a mere thousand miles away from the narrator's home. The narrator's simple account of her day's activities—gardening, listening to the radio, walking to the post office—take on apocalyptic significance as she alternately yearns for good news about her brother's health and fears catastrophic news about the nuclear accident. While highlighting the obvious hazards of nuclear technology, the novel warns against blind faith in technology in general, which Wolf views as a serious affliction of modern civilization. Wolf returned to Greek mythology in Medea, her first novel following her public condemnation during the early 1990s. The novel rehabilitates Medea, who in the best-known version of the mythic story was a sorceress who murdered her own children as a means of taking revenge on her unfaithful husband. Wolf's version—told in eleven monologues delivered by six characters—is a complex tale of palace intrigue and political conspiracy in which Medea is innocent—her children were murdered by political rivals—yet she is powerless to clear her name and thus remains at the mercy of her corrupt enemies. Suggestive of Wolf's own vilification in the press, the novel is a meditation on the dangers of power and the elusive nature of truth.

Critical Reception

Before the controversy of the early 1990s, critical assessment of Wolf and her work was overwhelmingly positive. She was regarded as a preeminent East German writer, as well as one of the finest postwar European writers, for her utopian ideals and penetrating critiques of postwar Germany, its patriarchal conceptions of truth and identity, and the alienation of modern techno-industrial life. While her complex narratives, replete with multilayered authorial perspectives and explorations of subjectivity, attracted notice for their postmodern quality, her vivid evocations of conflicted female self-identity and psychological crisis won the admiration of feminist scholars. Her critical reputation, especially as supported by Divided Heaven, The Quest for Christa T., A Model Childhood, and Cassandra, extended to both sides of the ideological divide between communism and capitalism. In East Germany, however, her acclaim came somewhat grudgingly. Officially she was recognized as a masterful writer, but her sometimes harsh criticism of life in East Germany meant that her acceptance was always tentative. Only Wolf's obvious devotion to socialist ideals kept her from facing official sanctions and total censorship. Her critical acceptance in West Germany was much more solid, with critics on the right commending her for admonishing the East German government, and critics on the left admiring her for standing up to a totalitarian regime while retaining her socialist ideals. In the eyes of many, Wolf was the ideal dissident writer. Moreover, she was seen in the West as a person of great moral authority who was willing to deal with difficult political and social issues in an honest manner, with the goal of improving the quality of human life.

All of this changed, however, with the fall of East Germany and Wolf's 1990 publication of “What Remains,” a story originally written in 1979 in which Wolf chronicles the slow, grinding horror of a day in the life of a writer under Stasi surveillance. Critics writing for conservative German newspapers considered the delayed publication an act of cowardice, contending that Wolf should have published the story in 1979, when it may have served a political purpose. Likewise, critics on the left considered Wolf's failure to publish the story sooner a betrayal of her dissident standing. Critics on both sides agreed that Wolf's actions were a dishonest attempt to portray herself as a political victim, and soon they were questioning whether she had ever been anything but a puppet of the East German state. Wolf's vaunted moral authority was thus undermined, and she was called on to atone for her misdeeds. The revelation three years later that Wolf had been an informer for Stasi between 1959 and 1962 further reinforced all the worst opinions. Wolf, however, was never without supporters, including Nobel laureate Günter Grass, who noted that Wolf's collaboration was essentially trivial, especially when viewed in contrast with extensive Stasi files outlining a decades-long campaign against her. Furthermore, though Wolf was the focus of the critical attacks, she was not the only East German writer to undergo harsh scrutiny in the early 1990s. Indeed, what came to be known as the “Wolf Case” was nothing short of a complete reappraisal of East German literature, a critical project of paramount importance in a Germany still very self-conscious of its recent reunification. In fact, some of Wolf's supporters claimed that the attacks on her were an effort on the part of German conservatives to strip the last traces of relevance from East German socialism, which they considered a threat. While the difficult cultural merging of the former East Germany and West Germany slowly proceeds, Wolf's place in contemporary German literature remains uncertain. As critics repeatedly note, any discussion of East German literature must take politics into account, especially in the case of Wolf, whose complex artistic and political commitments are inextricably connected. Yet none but the most vituperative of Wolf's critics has suggested that her purely literary gifts—her prose, her narrative technique, her subtle treatment of profound themes—are anything less than impressive.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Moskauer Novelle [Moscow Novella] (novella) 1961

Der geteilte Himmel [Divided Heaven: A Novel of Germany Today] (novel) 1963

Nachdenken über Christa T. [The Quest for Christa T.] (novel) 1968

*Lesen und Schreiben: Aufsätze und Betrachtungen [The Reader and the Writer: Essays, Sketches, Memories] (essays) 1972

Till Eulenspiegel: Erzählung für den Film [with Gerhard Wolf] (screenplay) 1973

Unter den Linden: Drei unwahrscheinliche Geschichten [Under the Linden Tree: Three Improbable Stories] (short stories) 1974


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Sneja Gunew (essay date March 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Christa Wolf,” in Meanjin, Vol. 44, No. 1, March, 1985, pp. 100–109.

[In the following essay, Gunew discusses Wolf's humanist perspective, her studies of collective memory, and the social construction of identity, particularly female identity, in A Model Childhood, Cassandra, and other works.]

For Margrit Braun and Hansi Foks, and for Christa W. who almost came to Australia.

My major interest was to try to find out where it actually started—this appalling split between people and society? When did the division of labor influence people so decisively that literature...

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Linda Schelbitzki Pickle (essay date Spring 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Christa Wolf's Cassandra: Parallels to Feminism in the West,” in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Spring, 1987, pp. 149–57.

[In the following essay, Pickle examines Wolf's feminist perspective in Cassandra and notes both similarities and differences between Wolf and feminist writers in the West.]

In the workbook-diary she kept while writing her novel Cassandra, the East German writer Christa Wolf called the tale a “roman à clef” (264).1 What is encoded in this work? Cassandra, the scorned prophetess, is stripped of the tragic, mythic elements associated with her in the Western cultural...

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Anna K. Kuhn (essay date 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Introduction: Setting the Context,” in Christa Wolf's Utopian Vision: From Marxism to Feminism, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 1–19.

[In the following essay, Kuhn discusses Wolf's critical reception and provides an overview of her complex identity as an East German female writer, drawing attention to her interrelated political, feminist, literary, and personal perspectives.]

In the twenty-six years since her emergence as a writer of imaginative literature, Christa Wolf has become one of the leading figures of German letters and the foremost female voice of the German-speaking world. Inherently political, her writing is both subtle and subversive....

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Wes Blomster (review date Spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Ansprachen, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 2, Spring, 1989, p. 304.

[In the following review, Blomster offers a positive assessment of Ansprachen.]

When Gerhart Hauptmann and Thomas Mann—the two major literary representatives of Germany in the first half of this century—celebrated their sixtieth birthdays, each had received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Such Olympian heights are less easily scaled by today's writers, and when Christa Wolf turns sixty this year (i.e., 1989), she will look upon an assembly of significant yet comparatively minor prizes. Still, Ansprachen, a modest volume of eight brief “addresses”—two...

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Melissa Benn (review date 14 April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Contemplating Chernobyl,” in New Statesman and Society, April 14, 1989, p. 35.

[In the following review, Benn offers a positive assessment of Accident.]

A first spring day in 1986 and a writer is giving herself the day off. This, a day when her beloved brother is undergoing a risky brain operation, and the consequences of Chernobyl are beginning to filter through East German television, radio, papers. The writer broods constantly on the madness of the nuclear age—on the statistics of danger of contamination as a result of Chernobyl, on an article she has read about “Faustian” young men working on Star Wars technology in California who have become so...

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Richard Eder (review date 4 June 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Morning Becomes Radioactive,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 4, 1989, pp. 3, 16.

[In the following review, Eder offers a positive assessment of Accident.]

It is three years since the nuclear catastrophe at the Chernobyl power station in the Ukraine, and already, for most of us, it has gone from a universal portent to an affair conveniently left to worry specialists. Our memory's half-life is so much shorter than strontium's.

Christa Wolf, one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary German literature, forbids us to forget. That is all very well; the half-life of forbidding is the shortest of all. Except that Wolf is a great...

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Nikki Lee Manos (review date Summer 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Blade of Time,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 4, No. 4, Summer, 1989, p. 34.

[In the following review, Manos offers a positive assessment of The Fourth Dimension and Accident.]

Christa Wolf, a citizen of the German Democratic Republic, has achieved international status as one of the leading visionary women writers of our time. Indeed, in her deeply personal, highly experimental novels, notably Cassandra, The Quest for Christa T., A Model Childhood, and No Place on Earth, she appears to have answered in advance the recent call by feminist critics for women writers to forge narrative strategies independent of the male-dominated...

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Wes Blomster (review date Autumn 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Sommerstück, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 4, Autumn, 1989, p. 674.

[In the following review, Blomster offers a mixed assessment of Sommerstück.]

Sommerstück, a loosely woven recollection of an idyllic Mecklenburg summer, is Christa Wolf's 1987 reworking of sketches made in 1982 and 1983; they are in part a by-product of Kein ort. Nirgends (see WLT 53:4, p. 671), which she wrote several years earlier. Although the author concludes her new work with the customary disclaimer about the actuality of persons and events depicted, there is much here that invites autobiographical decoding. Indeed, the book is clearly...

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Wes Blomster (review date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Gesammelte Erzählungen, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 2, Spring, 1990, p. 303.

[In the following review, Blomster discusses the value of the content in Gesammelte Erzählungen.]

“One has to have attended Christa Wolf's readings in the GDR to realize how her moral authority has grown with the years,” wrote Marlies Menge in Die Zeit in the days following the catastrophic fortieth-anniversary celebration in the author's homeland. “Questions are put to her not as an author but as a prophet.” Read in the light of current events, the seven short narratives collected in Gesammelte Erzählungen (they were written...

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Elise Marks (essay date Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Alienation of ‘I’: Christa Wolf and Militarism,” in Mosaic, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 73–85.

[In the following essay, Marks discusses the conflicted and oppressive social environment of Wolf's youth in Nazi Germany and examines its literary expression in A Model Childhood and Cassandra.]

In 1938, witnessing the rise of Fascism and the threat of a second world war, Virginia Woolf wrote Three Guineas to answer the question, “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” (3). War, Woolf argues, is only a symptom of the competitive, dominating drive fundamental to patriarchal society; it is the rivalry inherent in business,...

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Wes Blomster (review date Winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Was bleibt and Reden im Herbst, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 1, Winter, 1991, p. 111.

[In the following review, Blomster discusses the critical reception of Was bleibt.]

Christa Wolf might have subtitled Was bleibt “Ein Tag in dem Leben einer DDR-Schriftstellerin,” for in the brief narrative she tells of the close observation by the East German secret police to which she was subjected in 1979 as a result of her stand on the expatriation of her colleague Wolf Biermann. The work is remarkable for the almost unmediated account it gives of wiretapping, break-ins, and the attempt to undermine a public reading that Wolf...

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Martin Jay (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Force Fields: Who's Afraid of Christa Wolf? Thoughts on the Dynamics of Cultural Subversion,” in Salmagundi, No. 92, Fall, 1991, pp. 44–53.

[In the following essay, Jay discusses public criticism of Wolf stemming from the publication of Was bleibt and allegations of her complicity with the former East German government.]


“Why not?,” asked our driver, as he jumped the curb and drove his little Trabant onto the thin strip of paved road between the still forbidding outer ramparts of what since 1961 had been known simply as “The Wall.” It was now July, 1990, eight months after it had been breached and the city it...

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Myra Love (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘A Little Susceptible to the Supernatural?’: On Christa Wolf,” in Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies in German Literature and Culture, edited by Jeanette Clausen and Sara Friedrichsmeyer, University of Nebraska Press, 1991, pp. 1–22.

[In the following essay, Love identifies aspects of psychic experience and intuitive understanding in Wolf's writings that challenge and transcend the Western concept of rationality.]

I see what is beneath me, what is above me,
what men say is-not …

(H. D., “The Flowering of the Rod”)


In first setting out to write this essay, I...

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Renate Voris (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Hysteric and the Mimic: Reading Christa Wolf's The Quest for Christa T.,” in Writing the Woman Artist: Essays on Poetics, Politics, and Portraiture, edited by Suzanne W. Jones, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, pp. 233–58.

[In the following essay, Voris examines the construction of female self-identity and aspects of alienation in The Quest for Christa T., drawing attention to the representation of women as creative agents—both biologically and intellectually—and the narrative's appropriation of bildungsroman literary conventions.]

But for this reason I fancy that I am seeing myself lying in the coffin, and...

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Catherine Hutchinson (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Case of Christa Wolf,” in Cross Currents: A Yearbook of Central European Culture, No. 11, edited by Ladislav Matejka, Yale University Press, 1992, pp. 9–22.

[In the following essay, Hutchinson presents an overview of Wolf's literary reputation and ongoing critical controversy surrounding the publication of What Remains.]

Six months after the opening of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the East German government, an anxious little story called What Remains was published in Germany.1 In this slender volume Christa Wolf describes her life under the surveillance of the state security police in East Germany. Written in the late...

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Evelyn Juers (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Who's Afraid of Christa Wolf?,” in Cambridge Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 3, 1992, pp. 213–21.

[In the following essay, Juers discusses Wolf's concept of “subjective authenticity” and her abiding moral authority as a critic and author despite controversy surrounding Was bleibt.]

The title of Christa Wolf's latest work, Was bleibt, is conspicuously without a question mark—that form of punctuation, or as she has deployed it in her writing, anti-punctuation, which has become a significant feature of her literary signature. ‘Was bleibt’ could mean ‘what remains’ in the sense of ‘what remains to be done,’ or more pitifully, ‘what...

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Myra N. Love (essay date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Crisis of East German Socialism: Christa Wolf and the Critique of Economic Rationality,” in Monatshefte, Vol. 84, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 59–73.

[In the following essay, Love discusses Marxist conceptions of work and economic ideology in East Germany, drawing attention to Wolf's criticism of modern industrial society for its alienating effect on individuals.]

Wir mochten ihn nicht, diesen Kapitalismus mit seiner sozialen Ungerechtigkeit, mit seinen perfekten Mechanismen, mit seiner rücksichtslosen Effektivität.

—Helga Königsdorf1

As the mass media reported the...

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Dieter Saalmann (essay date Fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘We Erect Our Structure in the Imagination Before We Erect it in Reality’ (Karl Marx, Das Kapital): Postmodern Reflections on Christa Wolf,” in Germanic Review, Vol. LXVII, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 159–66.

[In the following essay, Saalmann examines postmodern elements of Wolf's writings, particularly aspects of self-consciousness and indeterminacy, that foreshadow—and perhaps anticipate—the fall of the Berlin Wall and the elimination of binary distinctions between East and West Germany.]

Until the Wende, or turning point, of 1989, West and East Germany functioned as models of putatively unshakable identities dependent upon schemes of...

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Grace Paley (essay date 5 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Quest for Christa W.,” in Nation, April 5, 1993, pp. 454–57.

[In the following essay, Paley recounts her personal admiration for Wolf, as well as a meeting with the author, and provides an overview of Wolf's career and writings.]

About ten or twelve years ago I visited my friend Marianne Frisch in West Berlin. I asked her if I could somehow meet the writer Christa Wolf. Yes, they were friends, Marianne said, and took me by way of Checkpoint Charlie through the Wall past the taciturn, well, hostile guards into that other country, the German Democratic Republic.

Christa Wolf is the second writer I've ever sought out; the first was W....

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Melissa Benn (review date 23 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Rebel within a Cause,” in New Statesman and Society, April 23, 1993, pp. 29–30.

[In the following review of What Remains and The Writer's Dimension, Benn defends Wolf against public condemnation for her socialist beliefs.]

Angry citizens may have pulled Lenin from his plinth in an orgy of symbolic fury, but the reputations of far more subtle figures have suffered in the post-communist reckoning. Most saddening, perhaps, are the attacks currently directed at the east German novelist and essayist Christa Wolf. Before 1989, Wolf occupied an ambiguous but unique position of prominence both within the GDR and the west; since 1989 she has been...

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Richard Eder (review date 25 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dance of the Marionettes,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 25, 1993, pp. 3, 17.

[In the following mixed review of What Remains, Eder discusses Wolf's unique stye of prose.]

It seems impossible right now to write about Christa Wolf's What Remains without writing about Christa Wolf. The author of such luminous accounts of the human spirit as Cassandra and The Quest for Christa T. admitted earlier this year that for three years, three decades ago, she was an informant for the East German security police. She gave them her impressions of the political postures of various fellow-writers and other information about her...

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Michael Hofmann (review date 27 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “In the Doghouse,” in London Review of Books, May 27, 1993, pp. 13–14.

[In the following review of What Remains and The Writer's Dimension, Hofmann acknowledges Wolf's complicated political commitments and literary context, but is critical of what he considers her naive utopianism and her decision to publish What Remains.]

In the wall-month of November 1989 I translated two pieces from an anthology of East German writing for the magazine, Granta, which in the end didn't use either of them. (These things happen.) One of them was by Christa Wolf, an extract, I think, from her book Sommerstück. It was just two pages long, nothing...

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Gertrude Postl (essay date Summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Silencing of a Voice: Christa Wolf, Cassandra, and the German Unification,”1 in Differences, Vol. 5, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 92–115.

[In the following essay, Postl examines Wolf's attempt to reconcile socialist ideals with Western-style postmodern feminist concerns.]

In the early summer of 1990, four months before the German reunification, a little book was published in Germany, initiating a heated debate not only about the political integrity of its author but also about the role of literature in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), the inter-relatedness of writing and politics, and the status of German intellectuals in...

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Wilson Quarterly (review date Summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of What Remains and The Author's Dimension, in Wilson Quarterly, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 90–91.

[In the following review of What Remains and The Author's Dimension, the critic finds Wolf's writings “dated” and tainted by her collaboration with East German authorities.]

These stories and essays by the former East Germany's most famous writer arrive here under a cloud: the recent revelation that from 1959 to 1962 Wolf was an Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (I.M.), an informal collaborator for the East German secret police, the dreaded Stasi. Suddenly Christa Wolf, who was once considered her country's...

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D. J. Enright (review date 2 July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Bruised Loyalty,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 2, 1993, p. 11.

[In the following review, Enright offers a mixed assessment of What Remains and The Writer's Dimension.]

“Our uprising appears to have come years too late,” Christa Wolf lamented when receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Hildesheim (West Germany) in January 1990. That is, it should have come before things had grown too bad to be redeemed, and abuses of power had discredited the values in whose name the abuses were committed. No suggestion here that the values in any way condoned, let alone created, the abuses. In itself the East German uprising was fine, but...

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Nikki Lee Manos (review date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Woman-Centered Politics of Peace,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 61–62.

[In the following review, Manos offers a favorable assessment of What Remains and The Author's Dimension.]

When I first read The Quest for Christa T., I knew that Christa Wolf was presenting a notion of the self that I could identify with as a woman, that underscored the forces, within as well as without, that combine so effortlessly to discount our individual quests for self-fulfillment. Wolf assigns her narrator in Christa T. a seemingly impossible task: to return her dead friend to a living presence by reconsidering memories of Christa T....

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Nancy Derr (essay date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Last Word: Christa Wolf—Moral Force or Farce?,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 63–64.

[In the following essay, Derr discusses Wolf's literary career and her future as a writer after drawing public condemnation for her admitted collaboration with East German authorities.]

As mother, wife, and avowed Marxist, Christa Wolf is one of Germany's best-known living writers. Literary darling of the former East German government, Wolf had an apartment in Berlin, a summer house, and the freedom to travel anywhere. She was a vocal critic of German unification to the very end. But with the collapse of the East, the publication of her short...

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Robert Phillips (review date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Five Women and One Man,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 765–72.

[In the following excerpt, Phillips judges What Remains to be “an uneven volume,” but concludes that it is a welcome collection of Wolf's short fiction.]

When The Quest for Christa T. was published in 1970, I recall discussing with friends the brilliance of this new “girl” writing in Germany. Her jacket photograph seemed to depict a teenager. It is with some surprise one realizes that Christa Wolf is sixty-four today, the author of seven books, and that the new photographs resemble Golda Meir. What Remains purports to collect her short...

(The entire section is 760 words.)

Robert Sayre and Michael Löwy (essay date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Romanticism as a Feminist Vision: The Quest of Christa Wolf,” in New German Critique, No. 64, Winter, 1995, pp. 105–34.

[In the following essay, Sayre and Löwy discuss the connections between nineteenth-century Romanticism and Wolf's feminist and anti-capitalist perspective.]

Few modern authors have given such powerful expression to the “elective affinity” between Romanticism and feminism as Christa Wolf.1 When we refer to her as a Romantic writer, we not only take into account her explicit interest in the German Romantic tradition of the early nineteenth century, but also—and above all—her own Romantic worldview...

(The entire section is 11824 words.)

Mona Knapp (review date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Auf dem Weg nach Tabou, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 579–80.

[In the following review, Knapp offers a mixed assessment of Auf dem Weg nach Tabou.]

Christa Wolf describes her ideal form of writing as a mixture of subjectivity and objectivity, in which her personal encounters and literary efforts are recorded simultaneously. Accordingly, the collection Auf dem Weg nach Tabou mixes diverse levels of experience, often leaving the reader to sort out the relevance of one to the other, and to establish the boundaries between the writer's private and public spheres.

These twenty-eight minor...

(The entire section is 559 words.)

Peter Graves (review date 4 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Scapegoat, not a Sorceress,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 4, 1996, p. 17.

[In the following review of Medea, Graves finds Wolf's reinterpretation of the myth “too neat” and ultimately “unpersuasive.”]

If, as Claude Lévi-Strauss contended, a myth is properly defined as consisting of all its versions, then the dominant image of Medea which has come down to posterity, that of the murderer of her own children, may seem distinctly partial. It is derived, of course, from Euripides’ Medea, where the heroine slays her two sons in an act of fearful vengeance against Jason, her husband, for his unfaithfulness with the daughter of...

(The entire section is 1056 words.)

Christian Grawe (review date Winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Medea, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, pp. 142–43.

[In the following review, Grawe discusses Wolf's damaged literary reputation following Was bleibt and her implicit self-defense in Medea.]

Christa Wolf, formerly everybody's darling in both East and West Germany and a moral as well as a literary authority, was in an excellent position to play an important conciliatory role after the Wendé. Sadly, she failed to do this. In 1990 she published her ill-fated story Was bleibt (see WLT 65:1, p. 111) in which, many critics felt, she had seized upon the first opportunity to portray herself as a...

(The entire section is 754 words.)

Todd Gitlin (review date 3 November 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Velvet Prisons,” in Nation, November 3, 1997, pp. 28–30.

[In the following review of Parting from Phantoms, Gitlin discusses Wolf's despair over her condemnation in the popular press, her disdain for Western capitalism, and her efforts to come to terms with post-Cold War realities.]

Christa Wolf was arguably the most influential writer of a nation that no longer exists, the German Democratic Republic, where Soviet troops implanted a forty-four-year dictatorship to succeed the twelve-year catastrophe of the Thousand-Year Reich. In 1989, aged 60, this strong, subtle writer of melancholic conscience found herself suddenly released from dictatorship...

(The entire section is 1899 words.)

Margit Resch (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Reality Broken in Two,” in Understanding Christa Wolf: Returning Home to a Foreign Land, University of South Carolina Press, 1997, pp. 54–68.

[In the following essay, Resch examines the narrative structure, fictive techniques, and themes surrounding the invention of memory and identity in The Quest for Christa T.]

Christa Wolf did not think that The Quest for Christa T. fit the literary genre of the novel. Therefore, she asked that the label “novel” not be printed on the book cover. This is the first sign of an act of courageous defiance—creating a book that challenged the most sacred tenets of socialism and violated the essential principles...

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Jeffrey Herf (review date 20–27 July 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Good Old Bad Old Days,” in New Republic, July 20–27, 1998, pp. 38–40.

[In the following review, Herf discusses Wolf's disillusionment over the German reunification and criticizes Wolf's failure, or refusal, to acknowledge the inadequacies and transgressions of the former East German government.]

Though communism collapsed everywhere in Europe in 1989, the German Democratic Republic was the only one of the communist nation-states to disappear completely and become absorbed into another country, the Federal Republic of Germany. In the essays, the lectures, and the interviews collected in this book, Christa Wolf, the most prominent novelist and...

(The entire section is 2954 words.)

Susan Watkins (review date September–October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “An Allegory from Atlantis,” in New Left Review, No. 231, September–October, 1998, pp. 132–45.

[In the following review of Medea, Watkins provides an overview of Wolf's literary career, thematic preoccupations, and the complex political context of her work.]

She comes from a small, poor country in the East where the trees are hung with goatskin bags full of human bones, swinging in the breeze, to a western state so powerful, arrogant and rich that even the dead lie buried with food, jewellery and horses in their gorgeously furnished tombs; from a childhood full of secrets—‘but everything in Colchis was full of dark secrets’—to the...

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Helen King (review date 12 November 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “That Stupid Pelt,” in London Review of Books, November 12, 1998, pp. 20–21.

[In the following review of Medea, King compares and contrasts Wolf's reinterpretations of the Cassandra and Medea myths.]

Recent interpretations of Medea have tended to focus on issues of gender and race, portraying her either as a feminist challenging Jason's misogyny, or as a freedom fighter on behalf of the oppressed Colchian immigrants in Corinth. In what remains the best-known version of her myth, the one created by Euripides in 431 BC, her actions turn out to be as violent and tyrannical as those of her oppressors, as she kills her own children in a quest for...

(The entire section is 2708 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Buruma, Ian. “There's No Place Like Heimat.” New York Review of Books (20 December 1990): 34, 36–39, 42–43.

Buruma provides a critical overview of Patterns of Childhood, The Quest for Christa T., No Place on Earth, Cassandra, and The Fourth Dimension, as well as a discussion of the controversy surrounding Was bleibt.

Gewen, Barry. “Eastern Lights.” New Leader (15 October 1984): 13–14.

Gewen offers a mixed assessment of Cassandra, faulting the work for its heavy-handed feminist ideals.

Goozé, Marjanne E. “Finding a Place for Christa Wolf: Gendered...

(The entire section is 434 words.)