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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 436

Effi Briest is an 1895 realist novel written by German novelist and poet Theodor Fontane. It tells the tragic story of a young Prussian girl named Effi Briest, who marries a German aristocrat who is twenty-one years her senior. After that, her life takes a turn for the worse, as...

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Effi Briest is an 1895 realist novel written by German novelist and poet Theodor Fontane. It tells the tragic story of a young Prussian girl named Effi Briest, who marries a German aristocrat who is twenty-one years her senior. After that, her life takes a turn for the worse, as she loses her innocence and her childlike free-spiritedness, her family, her health, and her husband and daughter.

The novel opens in Hohen-Cremmen, the hometown of the seventeen-year-old happy and naive Effi Briest. Attracted to wealth and social status, she agrees to marry Baron Geert von Innstetten—a thirty-eight-year-old politician and former suitor of her mother, Louise. Soon, the wedding preparations begin, and the pair moves to Kessin. At first, Effi is excited that she is finally able to leave her small hometown and live where the wealthy people live; however, her excitement slowly begins to die down, and she becomes extremely lonely and miserable. Her husband is often abroad, traveling for work, and leaves Effi all alone. Intimidated by her isolation, she begins a short-lived love affair with Major Crampas—a political rival of Baron von Innstetten, despite him also being a married man.

After some time, Effi gives birth to a daughter—Annie, and the family moves to Berlin. In the first few months, everything seems to be fine and well. However, one day, the Baron finds Effi’s letters to Major Crampas. Infuriated by his wife’s unfaithfulness, the Baron kills the Major in a duel, and decides to divorce Effi, taking sole custody of their daughter. Effi’s parents take his side and disown Effi, telling her that they refuse to be close with someone who brought shame and dishonor on the family.

Several years later, as Effi learns to adapt to a new life yet again, she meets her daughter and tries to get close to her, only to discover that her ex-husband has brainwashed Annie into thinking that her mother is a bad person. Realizing that she cannot change Annie’s opinion, Effi decides to stop trying to repair their broken relationship.

Soon after that incident, Effi’s health slowly begins to deteriorate, and she falls into a deep depression. When they see that their daughter has developed a "nervous disorder," the Briests decide to take Effi back home and care for her. In the end, she asks her mother to write a letter to the Baron in her name, expressing her regrets, her forgiveness, her yearning for love and reconciliation, and her acceptance of her fate. At her death bed, Effi asks her parents to bury her with her maiden name.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1038

Effi von Briest is sixteen years old when her mother cheerfully announces that Baron von Innstetten has asked for her hand in marriage. Effi had seen Innstetten only once, but she knows he had wanted to marry her mother years before. During a time when Baron von Innstetten was absent for a long period, her mother married Effi’s father, Ritterschaftsrat von Briest, for he seemed too good a match to give up. Since then Innstetten has become a government official with a promising future.

Half an hour earlier, Effi was sitting on a swing enjoying her happy childhood. Now she is to be a bride, and in a few weeks, she will be the wife of an important government official. After the excitement of the preparations, the wedding, and a honeymoon trip to Italy, the couple arrives in Kessin, a small town on the Baltic Sea. At first, Effi finds her new surroundings interesting, but soon she begins to feel uncomfortable in the strange house, which was formerly owned by a seafaring captain; his relics and souvenirs give the place a bizarre character. A stuffed shark, stories about the captain’s mysterious Chinese servant, and a mentally ill maidservant, who sits in the kitchen with a black chicken on her lap, give Effi nightmares, and she claims that she hears noises in an unoccupied upstairs room. Innstetten is considerate toward his young wife and never fails to show his devotion. A practical man, however, he pays no attention to Effi’s tales of supernatural happenings in the house. He is convinced that his wife’s childish imagination will soon calm down.

After having paid the obligatory social visits to the local aristocracy, Effi realizes that she will not find friends in that circle. The first friend she makes is the town apothecary. Her second friend is Roswitha, her maid, whom she meets in the graveyard where the girl is grieving for the loss of her former mistress. Effi is pregnant and needs a maid. Once she learns that Roswitha is Catholic, she is convinced that Roswitha’s faith will conquer the unexplained noises in the house. Roswitha never hears ghosts, and her straightforward manner is a relief from the formal stiffness of Effi’s social world. The birth of her daughter, Annie, gives Effi new activities, but she continues to be bored in Kessin.

The new military commander in Kessin, Major von Crampas, is another addition to Effi’s social world. The major’s carefree behavior and witty conversation are quite a contrast to the well-disciplined and formal Innstetten, but the two men respect each other and become friends. Crampas often visits the Innstetten home, and he and Effi ride horses along the seashore and participate in community plays. Effi soon realizes the danger of this situation and tries to avoid him. During a sleigh ride, Crampas oversteps the boundaries of friendship.

One day, Innstetten informs Effi that he has been promoted to a new post in a Berlin ministry, a position that will take them to Berlin. Effi is happy to leave the strange house, the boring people, and above all Crampas, for their relationship, although they keep it secret, increasingly burdens her conscience. Innstetten notices Effi’s great joy when he tells her about the transfer to Berlin, and he feels guilty for not having considered leaving sooner.

In Berlin, Innstetten makes a special effort to provide her with a cheerful house and an enjoyable social life. Though Innstetten’s duties at the ministry keep them from spending much time together, the years in Berlin are happy ones until Effi is sent to a spa at Ems to recuperate after an illness. Innstetten and Annie remain in Berlin. One day, when Annie falls and cuts her forehead, Roswitha searches through Effi’s belongings to find a bandage. When Innstetten thereupon tries to restore order in Effi’s room, he finds a bundle of love letters from Crampas, written six years earlier. Innstetten does what he considers his duty regardless of his personal feelings: He calls a friend to make the necessary arrangements for a duel with Crampas. Although his friend points out that the letters are more than six years old, Innstetten, who would prefer to pardon Effi, decides to go through with the duel because he feels the insult to his honor is not diminished by time. The two men fight near Kessin, and Crampas is fatally shot.

While these events take place, Effi is still in the Rhine country, wondering why Innstetten’s daily letters have ceased. Finally, a letter from her mother informs her of the duel and of the pending divorce. Innstetten is given custody of Annie. The Briest family is willing to assist Effi financially, but it refuses to allow her to return home. Heartbroken, she goes back to Berlin, where she lives in a small apartment, a social outcast. Only Roswitha remains faithful to her.

Effi’s health declines. Once she accidentally sees Annie leaving school, but she avoids meeting the child. Finally, moved by a desire to see her daughter again, Effi requests legal permission to have Annie visit her. When Annie arrives at the apartment, however, she gives only evasive and well-rehearsed answers. Discouraged, Effi sends the child home without the hope of seeing her again. Soon after this, Effi’s health declines severely. Her doctor reports her condition to her parents, hinting that their continued rejection could mean her death. When she is finally permitted to return home, her health does improve. Aside from her parents and the local minister, however, Effi has no friends or social intercourse. Roswitha, concerned for her mistress’s loneliness, writes to Innstetten asking him to give Effi the family dog. Innstetten is glad to fulfill her desire. He is extremely successful in the ministry, but none of his promotions lessens the pain in his heart, for he still loves Effi.

After a beautiful summer at her parents’ home, Effi dies. In her last conversation with her mother, she asks Frau von Briest to tell Innstetten that he did the only correct thing possible for him. She wants to die as Effi Briest, for she did not honor her married name.

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