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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1817

First published: Soll und Haben, 1855 (English translation, 1893)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Locale: Eastern Germany and Poland

Principal Characters:

Anton Wohlfart, an intelligent, industrious middle-class German

T. O. Schroter, Anton Wohlfart’s employer

Sabine Schroter ,...

(The entire section contains 1817 words.)

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First published: Soll und Haben, 1855 (English translation, 1893)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Locale: Eastern Germany and Poland

Principal Characters:

Anton Wohlfart, an intelligent, industrious middle-class German

T. O. Schroter, Anton Wohlfart’s employer

Sabine Schroter, T. O. Schroter’s young sister

Fritz von Fink, an Americanized German and Wohlfart’s friend

Eugen von Rothsattel, a German nobleman

Lenore von Rothsattel, the baron’s beautiful daughter

Hirsch Ehrenthal, a Jewish usurer

Veitel Itzig, a rascally former schoolmate of Anton Wohlfart

The Story:

Upon the death of his father, an accountant, Anton Wohlfart, a very young man, traveled to the capital of his province in eastern Germany. In the city, he found employment in the mercantile establishment of T. O. Schroter, an industrious and honorable German businessman. During his journey, Wohlfart encountered two people who were later to play an important part in his life. He wandered accidentally onto the estate of Baron von Rothsattel, whose beautiful daughter Lenore made a lasting impression on the boy. He also met Veitel Itzig, a young Jew who had been a former schoolmate, making his way to the city to seek his fortune.

An industrious, intelligent, and personable young man, Anton Wohlfart soon made a place for himself among his fellow workers and in the esteem of his employer. Among the other clerks in the firm was Fritz von Fink, a young Americanized German whose sense of industry and honor had been warped by a stay in New York City. Von Fink became a friend of Wohlfart despite differences in social standing and the escapades into which von Fink led Wohlfart, sometimes to Wohlfart’s embarrassment and chagrin.

In the meantime, Baron von Rothsattel, who had little talent for managing his estates or business, was led to accept the advice of Hirsch Ehrenthal, an unscrupulous Jewish usurer and businessman who plotted the baron’s financial ruin so that he might buy up his estates at a fraction of their value. Ehrenthal, who had persuaded the baron to mortgage his estates in order to purchase lands in Poland and to build a factory to extract sugar from beets, depended on the baron’s lack of business acumen to ruin him, with a little help from Ehrenthal on the way. Ehrenthal did not realize at the time that Itzig, whom he had employed, was also plotting to acquire the baron’s estates by a dishonest manipulation of documents and the knowledge he had of Ehrenthal’s affairs. Itzig was coached in his scheme by a drunken lawyer who also hoped to make some profit from the nobleman’s ruin.

Fritz von Fink finally decided to return to America to take over the affairs of a wealthy uncle who had recently died. Before he left, he proposed marriage to Sabine Schroter, Wohlfart’s employer’s sister, but the young woman refused the nobleman’s offer. Shortly after his departure, revolt broke out in the nearby provinces of Poland. In order to prevent business losses and reestablish his affairs there, Schroter bravely entered Poland, accompanied by Wohlfart. During their stay, Wohlfart saved his employer’s life, winning his and his sister’s gratitude. Because of his employer’s trust, Wohlfart was left in Poland for many months as the firm’s agent, to reorganize the business of the company. He returned to Germany to be honored by his employer and given a position of considerable responsibility. During his stay in Poland, he had met Eugen von Rothsattel, the baron’s son, who proved to be a gallant but impractical young man. Because of his admiration for the young nobleman and his romantic regard for Lenore von Rothsattel, Wohlfart had lent a large sum of money to Eugen.

As time passed, the financial affairs of Baron von Rothsattel became worse and worse; falling deeper into debt, the nobleman gave personal notes and mortgages to Ehrenthal and the other usurers who were his accomplices. When the baron thought himself on the edge of ruin, a ray of hope appeared when Ehrenthal’s son, an upright and noble-hearted young man, tried to persuade his father to give up dishonest gains and let the baron keep his family estates. The young man was ill, however, and he died before he was able to influence his father’s actions. On the night of his death, a casket filled with important documents was stolen from Ehrenthal’s office by Itzig’s accomplice.

The baron became desperate and attempted suicide. He failed in this, but the blast of the pistol blinded him. In desperation, Lenore von Rothsattel appealed to Wohlfart to become her father’s agent. After much soul-searching, the young man agreed, although his departure from Schroter’s firm made his employer angry and opened a breach between the two men. Schroter felt that the nobility, who constantly proved their inability to manage their affairs, should be allowed to ruin themselves and so lose their place of influence in German culture.

Wohlfart journeyed again to Poland to try to salvage the estate which the baron had acquired in that country. He found the estate in a dilapidated condition and the Poles decidedly incompetent and unfriendly. With the help of loyal German settlers in the area, Wohlfart managed to bring some order to the farms of the estate, to which the baron, his wife, and his daughter moved, knowing that the family estates in Germany were lost. After many months, Wohlfart managed to put the baron’s affairs in order; however, his efforts were lost on the baron, who had a misplaced sense of rank. Only Wohlfart’s regard for Lenore kept him in the position of responsibility after he had been repeatedly insulted.

When the revolutions of 1848 broke out, the troubles spread to the Polish provinces in which the von Rothsattel estate was located. Fortunately, Fritz von Fink appeared, and under his leadership, the estate was defended from the rebel depredations until help from a military force arrived on the scene. During this period, von Fink and Lenore discovered their love for each other. When danger was past, the baron’s resentment against Wohlfart exploded, and the young man was dismissed. The baroness, who realized what the young man had sacrificed for her family, spoke to him of her gratitude and asked him to try to straighten out their affairs with the usurers.

Returning to his home city, Wohlfart found a cordial welcome from his former employer’s sister, but a rather cool one from Schroter himself. Schroter feared that living with the nobility had spoiled the young man, and he still resented the fact that Wohlfart had left his firm. Through his own efforts and those of a detective, Wohlfart began to trace down the plots which had ruined Baron von Rothsattel. He was informed that Ehrenthal was not the real villain, and soon it appeared that Itzig had been the true culprit in the affair. When the broken-down lawyer who had been Itzig’s mentor learned of the investigations, he went to Itzig for money and a chance to leave Germany; he was the one who had stolen the baron’s documents, and he feared arrest. Itzig, driven by panic, drowned his accomplice. Just at the hour he was to marry Ehrenthal’s daughter, a beautiful woman and the usurer’s only heir, Itzig was told that the authorities were ready to arrest him. In his attempt to escape, Itzig was drowned at the place where he had murdered his accomplice. The documents were recovered, however, and the fortune and honor of Baron von Rothsattel were redeemed.

Having recovered the fortune of the baron’s family and overcome his sentimental regard for Lenore, Wohlfart decided to leave the city, for he believed that he had no future in the firm of T. O. Schroter. Before he left, however, he went to see Sabine Schroter, his employer’s sister, and the two young people confessed to each other that they were in love. The girl took the young man to her brother, who amazed Wohlfart by his warmth. Sabine revealed to Wohlfart that he was to marry her and become a partner in the firm, if that was his wish.

Critical Evaluation:

Gustav Freytag, a great champion of the German middle class, believed that Germans as a whole were better, more honorable, more stable people than other Europeans and that in the sober, industrious middle class lay the future greatness of his country. With the nobility, Freytag had little patience, portraying them, as he did in DEBIT AND CREDIT, as a group with little talent, little common sense, and an empty sense of honor. Of all Freytag’s work, both in drama and fiction, DEBIT AND CREDIT has received the highest praise as an example of the combination of the romance and the realistic social novel.

DEBIT AND CREDIT was one of the most popular German novels of the nineteenth century, enjoying high sales among that class whose virtues it glorifies, the solid German bourgeoisie. Perhaps the very absence of deeper artistic qualities which have led to its later neglect was responsible for its enthusiastic reception by the audience for which it was written. It presents an idealized view of German history and society, eschewing the flights of fancy typical of romantic literature but by no means wholly realistic in its view of German culture, which was far more complex and tension-filled than one might guess from the novel.

Anton Wohlfart is the very model of the industrious businessman, and the middle class is regarded as the representative of all that is best in German life. Freytag had been involved in the revolutionary movement of 1848 and was firmly committed to the cause of German unity under Prussian leadership, and to the exclusion of the various non-German groups which had become part of the German cultural sphere through incorporation into the Austrian Empire. This feeling of German superiority is clearly developed in the novel: Jews, Poles, and even Americans are regarded negatively, though not condemned as groups. It would be wrong to see the figure of Veitel Itzig as demonstrating anti-Semitism on Freytag’s part. The slight tendency toward caricature, derived from Charles Dickens’ character portraits, reflects Freytag’s desire to simplify and clarify the structure of his novel, especially through strong contrast.

Freytag began as a dramatist, and his novels all share something of the tight organization of a drama. His style strives for objectivity, excluding the realm of fantasy and illusion. Indeed, what he criticizes in the nobility, in the Poles, and in Itzig is precisely the tendency toward egocentricity, illusory values, and romantic longings. Wohlfart succeeds because of his objective concentration and dispassion. He does not strive beyond his class but steadfastly maintains his moderate and diligent way of life, representing for generations the ideal fulfillment of bourgeois values.

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