Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 356

Effi Briest is a novel by German writer Theodor Fontane. The style of the novel's prose is realism, and the story depicts the realistic dynamics of a marriage in the nineteenth century. The novel's story is from the perspective of a woman, the titular character. She is a seventeen-year-old girl—considered...

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Effi Briest is a novel by German writer Theodor Fontane. The style of the novel's prose is realism, and the story depicts the realistic dynamics of a marriage in the nineteenth century. The novel's story is from the perspective of a woman, the titular character. She is a seventeen-year-old girl—considered an adult woman in Europe during this period—who is married off to a 38-year-old man named Baron Geert von Innstettenman who once tried to court her mother. The Baron was dissuaded from pursuing his courtship of Effi's mother many years before because he was of low status. Now, Geert is a Baron and is a member of the upper class. What's interesting about the baron and Effi's arrangement is that it seems as if he is trying to use Effi as a proxy for Effi's mother.

Effi is the literal and figurative extension of her mother. Not only does marrying Effi bring the baron closer to his former flame, but it is a subliminal attack on Effi's mother and her family, who once treated him poorly—a sort of revenge. The other interesting aspect is that Effi is obsessed with social ranking and being of high status, a quality she inherited from her family. This is also a continuation of the baron and Effi's mother's relationship, in which the daughter ends up marrying the wealthy, high-class version of Geert after he was rejected for being the opposite before. An affair that Effi conducts behind Geert's back is what ultimately leads to her fall from grace—with Geert, with society, with her daughter, with her own parents, and, more importantly to her, with the upper class.

When Effi dies after suffering years of depression and nervous breakdowns, her mother realizes that it was social forces that led to Effi's fate, but she does not address it explicitly. This is because she knows that they are all trapped in the social constructs of the period. Both mother and daughter were unable to form a full relationship with a man—in this case, the same man—because of the pressure to put social status above everything else.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 754

Hohen-Cremmen

Hohen-Cremmen (HOH-uhn KREHM-uhn). Large country estate in the Mark Brandenburg region of northeastern Germany whose manor house has belonged to the Briest family since the early seventeenth century. The manor house is covered in ivy, has parklike grounds, a pond, a swing, and colorful flowerbeds. It borders on the churchyard wall, and its pastor is an important mentor to young Effi von Briest. The Briests live securely in the comfort of inherited wealth. Effi’s father need only concern himself with grain prices and can otherwise take long walks through the fields and enjoy his magnificent surroundings.

An early sign that modern life is passing the Briests by is the sound of a modern through-train half a mile away. A change in the grounds at the end of the novel sends a similar message. When Effi dies, her parents remove the sundial from the circular flowerbed and replace it with her gravestone. Her time has run out, as has the time of the landed gentry with their large country estates.

Kessin

Kessin. Small German port in Pomerania on the Baltic Sea. Elements of the fictional town of Kessin are modeled on Theodor Fontane’s memories of Swinemünde, where he lived as a boy. The lodgings that Effi’s new husband, Baron von Innstetten, rents are nothing more than two rooms on the main floor of an old-fashioned framework house formerly owned by a sea captain. In some ways, it seems as if the former inhabitants are still present. Hanging from the ceiling in the front hall are the captain’s model ship in full sail, a stuffed shark, and a crocodile. However, the effect of these unusual objects is negligible in comparison with the apparent presence of restless spirits who make the upper floor uninhabitable for Effi, who hears sounds of gowns sweeping across the floor and learns that the captain’s niece disappeared from there on her wedding night.

Kessin is a port of call that is busy with tourists in the summer season and all but deserted in the winter. In contrast to Hohen-Cremmen, Kessin does not have an influential and respected pastor. The provincial narrow-mindedness of the place is illustrated by its residents’ treatment of their last pastor, who was harassed to an early death for suggesting that the sea captain’s Chinese servant be granted a churchyard burial. Now it seems that the ghost of the Chinese man, who danced with the niece, remains in the house.

Natural and supernatural dangers abound in Effi’s Kessin home. The upper floor of the house is haunted, and the lower floor houses a crazed coachman’s wife with a black hen on her lap. There is a shipwreck off the coast, and carriages narrowly avert getting sucked into a type of quicksand. Effi feels so vulnerable and threatened in Kessin that she wishes she were hidden by a protective wall of snow. The place leaves its mark on her.

*Berlin

*Berlin. Capital of Germany to which Baron von Innstetten takes Effi when he is promoted to section head of a ministry department. There, they choose to live in one of the tall new Keith Street houses that is divided into several apartments. The still-damp plaster they find when they move in seems to signify an auspicious new beginning. However, six years later the past resurfaces to ruin Effi’s marriage. Fontane portrays Berlin as a fickle society in which friendships are superficial and contingent on a rigid moral code. After Effi is divorced, only her elderly physician and her maidservant attend to her, and her church is of no help. Furthermore, as Effi’s husband discovers, the famous Berlin opera and other cultural diversions are inadequate substitutes for meaningful human contact. It is an interesting coincidence that Koniggratzer Street, where Effi lives in ignominy after her divorce, not only effectively allows her to disappear within the large metropolis, but also itself has disappeared from the map of Berlin.

Fontane himself lived in Berlin, and his descriptions of the central part of the city are still accurate, thanks to the Germans’ restoration of the re-united Berlin as closely as possible to its pre-1945 configuration. Dorotheen Street, for example, which the East Germans renamed Clara Zetkin Street, is once again Dorotheen Street. It is easy to trace Effi’s route from the Friedrichs Street train station to Dorotheen Street to Schadow Street, and to locate Keith Street just southwest of the Tiergarten. It remains one of the better areas of the city.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 244

Greenberg, Valerie D. “The Resistance of Effi Briest: An (Un)told Tale.” PMLA 103, no. 5 (October, 1988): 770-782. A revisionist interpretation of the novel as Effi’s struggle for liberation. A close reading of Effi’s last remarks to her mother reveals that each point can be read in opposition to its surface meaning.

Riechel, Donald C. “Effi Briest and the Calendar of Fate.” Germanic Review 48, no. 3 (May, 1973): 189-211. Points out that the narrative structure and content of Effi Briest are informed by Fontane’s autumnal sense of the existence and influence of an order inaccessible to reason.

Subiotto, Frances M. “The Ghost in Effi Briest.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 21 (1985): 137-150. Analyzes the ghost as a metaphor for all that is absent: suitable living quarters, action, love, and opportunities for women in Prussian society. Sees Effi Briest as a paradigm of the solitary state of the individual.

Turner, David. “Theodor Fontane: Effi Briest.” In The Monster in the Mirror, edited by D. A. Williams. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1978. Examines Effi Briest in the context of contemporary European literature. Discusses what makes Fontane’s treatment of the subject matter realistic, as well as his accurate detail and skillful use of leitmotivs and symbols.

Zwiebel, William L. Theodor Fontane. New York: Twayne, 1992. Contains a concise summary of important critical observations on the genesis of Effi Briest, the four narrative sections, the role of predestination, Fontane’s criticism of Prussian society, and the function of the ghost.

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