Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 965
Effi Briest is Theodor Fontane’s masterpiece. Surprised at how easily it came to him, he compared it to a psychogram. Based loosely on an actual case, the novel treats sensational topics, including adultery and a duel, but in his tolerant, nonjudgmental stance, Fontane keeps a discreet narrative distance from intimate scenes.
The main theme of the novel, death, is pervasive and eclipses individual incidents. By the end of the novel Effi’s death seems inevitable. It is her fate, the accumulation of myriad factors beyond her control. Her inclinations, circumstances, and surroundings combine so that the reader, with Fontane, can only say “Poor Effi.”
Effi is a remarkably passive and detached heroine. The plot is advanced not so much by what she does as by what is done to her. The opening scene of Effi playing in the garden with her friends shows her as a carefree child, quite unprepared for the arranged marriage her mother springs on her. As she stands trembling before Innstetten, her friend Hertha calls to her from outside, “Effi, come.” Even Innstetten finds the call fraught with meaning, as if Effi is being called away from him to finish her childhood. In the original German edition, these words are given even more weight when near the end of the book Effi’s father says exactly the same thing when he calls her to come home. Effi feels at home only in her parents’ manor house in Hohen-Cremmen and thinks of herself to the end as Effi Briest, her parents’ child, and not as Innstetten’s wife.
If violence is done to Effi, figuratively speaking, by interrupting her childhood, then violence is also done to her by moving her as a bride into the very house in Kessin where the previous bride had met with a mysterious end, leaving the house haunted by the ghost of a Chinese man who had presumably been her secret lover. The ghost bodes ill for Effi. It links the house with adultery and death, and it is the point of contention that widens the gap in communication between Effi and Innstetten. Effi wants to move out, but Innstetten is insensitive and insists they stay.
Fontane was a master at writing dialogue and often manages to convey as much through what is not said as through what is said. One such dialogue, at the beginning of chapter 20, reveals that the rift between Effi and Innstetten is beyond repair. After arranging to have Effi ride home from a party with Crampas, who is known to have had illicit affairs, Innstetten expresses suspicion of Effi in their conversation the following morning. Crampas had, in fact, availed himself of the opportunity to make advances, but Effi discloses none of this to her husband and finds herself defending Crampas as the perfect gentleman. The dialogue shows that Effi’s loyalty has shifted from Innstetten to Crampas.
It is also through dialogue that Fontane illustrates the rift between Effi and her only child, Annie. Showing rare initiative, Effi arranges for the child to visit her and promises herself much from the meeting. Effi loves nothing more than a good chat, but she despairs when she is confronted with a rigid, uncommunicative little girl who answers like a parrot, repeating the phrase: “Oh yes, if I may.” This one effort convinces her of the futility of establishing any sort of meaningful relationship with her daughter. It is another nail in Effi’s coffin.
A close reading of the novel reveals that Effi is doomed from the start. Apparently incidental details reinforce one another, forming an artistic web of references to the forces that contribute to her demise. Hertha is not just the girl who calls out to Effi from the garden. In chapter 24, Effi and Innstetten visit Lake Hertha, the site of ancient rites of Hertha worship, which involved sacrificial victims. Seen in this light, the call from Hertha can be interpreted as the call to death, not a good omen at the moment of betrothal. Fontane introduces the topic of adultery as early as the opening scene with Effi and Hertha in which the girls ceremoniously drown discarded gooseberry skins, commenting that in days gone by unfaithful wives were given the same treatment. How ingenious of Fontane to have Effi visit Lake Hertha as an alternative to visiting a town called Crampas. She turns aside from adultery only to face death.
Indeed, it becomes increasingly apparent that Hertha’s seemingly harmless call is the more sinister of Effi’s two options on that opening day. The choice is between Innstetten, who is indoors, and Hertha, who is outdoors in the fresh air. Effi’s mother has already remarked that Effi should always be in the air. Initially, it seems that by going with Innstetten Effi has made the wrong choice, a choice that leads to adultery and ignominy. When her father finally sends his two-word telegram: “Effi, come,” the reader would like to think that this would take her life back to the point where she heard those words from Hertha, thus undoing the unhappy marriage and letting Effi take the other option back into her parents’ garden where she belongs. Ironically, this is just where she does belong. When she spends the autumn nights sitting at her window, the night air kills her and she is buried in the garden.
The associations built up around Hertha exemplify the exceptionally rich texture of Effi Briest. Written when Fontane was over seventy, the novel reflects the wise realization that there is seldom a simple explanation. Life is extraordinarily complex. For those who would seek a single cause for Effi’s decline and death, Fontane speaks through her father in the closing words of the novel: “That is too big a subject.”