Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

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.

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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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