Dame Care is an outstanding example of German Romanticism, a style colored by a kind of world-sadness, completely rural settings, and a sentimental tone. Dame Care covers a wide span of years in its action, but it is gracefully concise without being abrupt. Hermann Sudermann exhibits a paternal sympathy for his characters; perhaps his greatest gift is his understanding of all classes of people.
The novel is an extraordinary study of a human being who becomes trapped by circumstances into sacrificing his life to his family. With great subtlety and psychological penetration, Sudermann portrays the gradual development of Paul’s conviction that his life must be the way it is. Paul longs to be selfish but can never bear to shirk responsibility. He knows that people take advantage of him, but he cannot deny help to those who need him. Sudermann poignantly describes the plight of this conscientious young man, carefully avoiding sentimentality or falseness of tone. He captures the right sympathetic note as he writes about Paul, and the novel’s style is even and restrained throughout, allowing the events to produce the emotional reaction.
Fairy tales form a background for the story of Paul’s growing up and subsequent bondage. They are the only frame of reference young Paul has, as he tries to comprehend the dark and mysterious world. It is natural that he should think of Elsbeth Douglas in the white house as a fairy princess far above him. The subtle, tender, slowly maturing relationship between Paul and Elsbeth is related by the author with a mastery of nuance and suggestion; the mutual pain that the two young people experience is never made melodramatic or false, although their situation might seem to be that of a romantic melodrama.
The power of selfishness is hauntingly dramatized in the book, as Paul’s family convinces him that he must live apart from the joys of ordinary mortals. All he can do, he tells Elsbeth, is watch over the happiness of others and make them as happy as possible. After the final catastrophe, however, he realizes that nobody has appreciated his sacrifices, nobody has noticed that he has given away his own happiness. People who take do so without concerning themselves about those who must do the giving.
Sudermann shows as much skill with scenes of action as he does with psychological analysis. The dramatic moment when Paul saves his father’s life and establishes himself as master of the farm is brilliantly rendered; the two fires that destroy the farm are described with vivid, vigorous prose. The countryside around the farms and village is pictured clearly, with concise, yet poetic, descriptions.
Sudermann is as successful at bringing to life the minor characters as he is the major ones; Paul’s selfish and self-centered brothers and sisters and guilt-tormented, half-mad father are particularly well done. Elsbeth Meyerhofer, Paul’s mother, might have become a cliché figure, the long-suffering wife, but she is portrayed with a sensitive and subtle understanding that makes her a genuine human being; her suffering is completely understandable and therefore pitiable. Many of the characters are unlikable, and often the story is painful to read, but it is, thanks to the author’s great skill, completely engrossing from beginning to end. Dame Care presents a stark but realistic view of human nature, alleviated only by the decency of a few rare individuals.