Places Discussed

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*East Prussia

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*East Prussia. Province in the extreme northeastern part of Germany that bordered on Russia when the novel was written and extended to the Baltic Sea. (It was divided between Poland and Russia after World War II.) Primarily agricultural, the province had only one large city, Königsberg, its capital. Hermann Sudermann was intimately familiar with the area, and his novel offers realistic descriptions of its landscape, its seasons, and its rituals, which included the observance of midsummer night.

Mussainen

Mussainen (moos-SI-nen). Poor farmhouse of the Meyerhofer family in a fictional village in an outlying region of Germany. The house is located on a moor some distance beyond the village, perhaps to emphasize its remoteness. After having been abandoned by its former owner, it is in desolate condition, and its new residents, the Meyerhofers, are too poor to afford anything better. The Meyerhofers are in dire circumstances; the father does not work regularly and squanders his meager resources on financial speculations and alcohol. The mother is physically and emotionally frail and is completely dominated by her husband. Of their five children, only Paul cares about the farm. It is he who rebuilds it after it is burned down by a disgruntled farmhand. At the end of the novel Paul himself burns the house down to distract his father, who is about to set a nearby estate, Helenenthal, on fire to avenge his eviction by the estate’s new owner.

There seems to be a curse on Mussainen, though not explicitly uttered. An allegorical figure, Dame Care—in the meaning of worry, concern, or anxiety—hovers over the mother and Paul, an apparition in gray who personifies misfortune and who appears at crucial moments, but only to those two figures. Perhaps they are being tested because, as the deeper figures, they are capable of love, selflessness, and humility. The mother dies in the prospect of a better life for her son, and Paul is released from Dame Care by a loving woman. This explanation conforms to the many fairy-tale allusions in the text: The humble suitor finally wins the princess.

A more worldly explanation of the house’s evident curse may be that it is haunted because the father does not fulfill his obligations. The Meyerhofers are forced to move into the house because of his mismanagement. A complicating factor is the impending machine age that invades this house and, by extension, this pastoral region. Max Meyerhofer, Paul’s father, acquires a steam engine, which he keeps in a shed next to his house, to help him harvest the peat on his land; however, it is not in working condition. After Paul repairs it, it crushes the flute that his beloved has given him to encourage his self-expression and musical talent—a victory of mechanization over art. After Paul burns down Mussainen, he feels free for the first time in his life, as he has no possessions left to worry about.

Helenenthal

Helenenthal (heh-LEE-nen-thawl). Grand estate in the same fictional East Prussian village as Mussainen. It is bought by a wealthy man named Douglas after Meyerhofer can no longer afford to keep it. Meyerhofer’s resentment of Douglas for dislodging him leads to the climax of the story—his thwarted attempt to set Helenenthal afire and the destruction of his own home. A major theme of the novel is the relationship between the two families, which is basically socioeconomic. Forced to move to Mussainen, the Meyerhofers can still see Helenenthal from their new home. While remaining physically near, its social distance is great.

Helenenthal is an elaborate, fenced-in property with numerous buildings, a large garden, and a white house, in which Paul was born. To him this house is “the lost paradise,” mainly because he admires Elsbeth, the daughter of the house, whom he is too shy to approach. He abandons a garden party at Helenenthal, to which Elsbeth has invited him, because he feels uncomfortable in society. Ironically, Paul ultimately inherits Helenenthal when he marries Elsbeth—an unconvincingly happy ending to the novel.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 248

Bithell, Jethro. Modern German Literature, 1880-1950. London: Methuen, 1959. Brief sketch of Sudermann’s career that concentrates on the dramas. Illustrates linkages between Dame Care and the writer’s later works. Concludes that the novel is a Bildungsroman that praises the value of hard work.

Dukes, Ashley. Modern Dramatists. 1912. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1967. Brief sketch of Sudermann’s accomplishments as a dramatist. Useful for understanding the author’s concerns about social conditions, which influenced both his dramas and his fiction, including Dame Care.

Hale, Edward Everett. Dramatists of Today. New York: Henry Holt, 1905. Examines Sudermann’s career in the context of other popular playwrights. Much of the discussion centers on his dramas, for which Sudermann is chiefly noted. Also examines his motives and interests and the styles that influenced him and led to his writing Dame Care.

Mainland, W. F. “Hermann Sudermann.” In German Men of Letters, edited by Alex Natan. Vol. 2. London: Oswald Wolff, 1963. Surveys Sudermann’s accomplishments and notes how his popularity as a dramatist led to a revival of interest in his novels, which were written during the early years of his career. Briefly comments on the themes in Dame Care.

Phelps, William Lyon. Essays on Modern Novelists. New York: Macmillan, 1918. Includes a chapter on Sudermann’s novels. Uses his works as examples for highlighting strengths and weaknesses of late nineteenth century German fiction. Praises Dame Care for its structural unity and its qualities of realism, calling it “an anatomy of melancholy.”

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Critical Essays