Gottfried Keller’s prose sparkles with a robust, generous goodwill and a delightful irony; the fertile imagination evident in his work was unexcelled in the second half of the nineteenth century in German. Although his literary settings are almost exclusively Swiss, he succeeded in giving them a significance and poignancy that saved him from being merely a regional writer. He did have a strongly didactic bent, but this rarely dominates a fiction that bubbles with rare warmth and luxuriates in concrete detail. The term “poetic realist” is particularly applicable to Keller, as he was concerned with the boundary between the imaginary and the actual, between appearance and reality.
In Keller’s fictive world, there is evil—or, at least, human weakness and inconsistency—and this sometimes lead to tragedy, but taken as a whole, his writings exude faith in humankind and joy in life. This faith and joy manifest themselves most clearly in his humor, which Walter Benjamin says is as much at home in this world as Homer’s was among the gods. It is a sovereign humor in which author and reader are able to see characters and situations bathed in a golden light of aesthetic enjoyment. Even when Keller exercises moral judgment over his characters, he still, as a poet, affirms them and refuses to give up on them entirely.
Even though Keller believed in no life after death, he was not overwhelmed, as was his contemporary Theodor Storm, by the transitory and ephemeral quality of life. Drawing some of his optimism perhaps from faith in the democratic institutions of his homeland, he continued to insist on the worth of the human tragicomedy. Herein perhaps lies one of the reasons Keller’s work has not won through to ultimate greatness. As Ernst Alker has suggested, it remains too much tied to the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, the underlying tone became one of threatened or real chaos. It was probably Storm, after all, with his brooding awareness of the vanity of existence, who presaged the coming age. Keller’s humanism at its fullest, though based on the materialism espoused by Feuerbach, seeks, as Emil Ermatinger has noted, to be in touch with the ethics of Immanuel Kant and at the same time to take a joy in the senses as did Goethe. In the light of two world wars and under the threat of a third, even more horrible one, the twentieth century had a difficult time sustaining that buoyancy.
In spite of this shortcoming, either in Keller or, more likely, in modern-day readers, his works still have great appeal. This is true of the novel Green Henry, which exists in two versions and is clearly autobiographical. This bildungsroman was first published in 1854-1855, written in both the first and the third person. Keller rewrote it entirely in the first person, changing the sequence to chronological, and reissued it in the authorized version of 1879-1880. The latter loses something in youthful freshness, but it gains in order and balance. Both versions are printed and read today, the later one being given preference and thus forming the basis for the following analysis.
Green Henry Lee gets his name from wearing almost exclusively green clothing, made from that of his father, who dies while Henry is still young. The father had been a successful stonemason, but, still, mother and son are left with the bare minimum of income. In a difficult childhood, which reflects Keller’s own, Henry is sent first to a school for poor children, where he is one of the best dressed, and then to a middle school, where he cuts a much less imposing figure. In order to secure the pocket money that he feels he needs to keep up with his classmates and to prove his self-importance, he raids his savings bank. Upon discovering this, his mother is deeply troubled and wonders what is to become of him. She is unable to understand the rich imaginative gifts of a child who is regarded as taciturn and stubborn. His informal education, received in the home of a neighboring junk and antiques dealer, speaks far more to his requirements. There Henry hears of human failure and exultation, of occult science, of gods and goddesses, and of a whole universe that somehow seems missing in his formal schooling. The conflict between Henry’s fantasy and reality, a theme throughout the novel, causes the boy no end of troubles, finally resulting in his expulsion from school at age fourteen for taking part, mainly out of sheer exuberance, in a student demonstration.
Perplexed as to what to do with his life, he decides to become a landscape painter, a decision that he announces on a visit to his family’s ancestral village. There he also feels the first stirrings of an ideal, ethereal love for Anna, daughter of a retired schoolmaster, and later the first, innocent rush of sexual desire for Judith, a young woman living in the village. The village is, in addition, the scene of his first acquaintance with the atheism of Ludwig Feuerbach, as propounded by a new, young village schoolmaster. Henry finds himself, as a result, opposed to Christianity and allows himself to be confirmed in the Church only to spare his mother’s feelings.
His education as an artist is first undertaken by the hack Habersaat, from whom Henry learns little in two years, and next by the gifted Römer, who has studied painting in France and Italy and whose tutelage proves more fruitful. From reading the works of Goethe, Henry learns a love and appreciation for all that exists, an attitude he tries to incorporate into his painting. After Römer’s departure for Paris, under circumstances that leave Henry feeling guilty, the latter sets out for Munich to further his studies, funded by a small inheritance from his father. Before he leaves, he witnesses the premature death of Anna and the departure of Judith for the United States.
In Munich, he becomes friends with the painters Lys and Erikson, both of whom eventually give up their art for a practical life, a course that Henry later follows. His art becomes more and more divorced from its Swiss roots, more abstract, until he is finally reduced to painting what looks like a giant spiderweb. He begins to attend lectures at the university, and he soon finds that he is more at home in discussion of history and philosophy, staying out late drinking, than he is among artists. He incurs debts, more than his self-sacrificing mother can send him money to pay, even though she mortgages her house.
A change of aspiration is indicated by Henry’s writing his autobiography and having it bound, an act that exhausts his last money. He resorts, perhaps as the result of divine inspiration, to selling his flute and finally his portfolio of drawings to a secondhand dealer. The death of his landlady reminds him of his old mother, from whom he has been away too long and who is pining to see him. Troubled by dreams, he sets out on foot for home but is soon sidetracked by a stay at the estate of Count Dietrich, who has bought his drawings from the junk dealer and who encourages Henry to do two more paintings, which are subsequently bought by his old friend, the now wealthy Erikson. In spite of the sale of the paintings and of his love for Dorothea, the adopted daughter of the count, Henry once again sets out for home, determined to give up his career in art. He arrives home right before his mother’s death. She is unable to speak, and he is filled with guilt at the thought of his neglect of her.
After his mother’s death, Henry sells the house, which, together with an inheritance he has received from the Munich junk dealer, leaves him enough money to live modestly but comfortably. He is not satisfied, however, because he has done nothing to earn the money. His years have been spent in self-preoccupation, for which he feels the need to atone. A year later, he receives a governmental post and still later becomes director of the administrative district, tasks to which he applies himself with a quiet, selfless efficiency. Inwardly, he is, however, sad and at times longs for death, until Judith returns from the United States to become his loyal, though somewhat distant, friend.
Green Henry cannot truly be said to be a novel of the development of a young artist, for the result of Henry’s maturation is his abandonment of his art. It is more the story of the development of the social consciousness and responsibility of a whimsical, somewhat withdrawn, and slightly selfish young man who is not without charm. The strength of the novel lies not only in Henry’s education to responsibility, for this theme is submerged for long stretches, but also in the texture, atmosphere, and incident that Keller creates along the way. The plethora of richly imagined minor characters and the brilliance in choice of descriptive detail, both of landscape and of people, lend to the work an air of festiveness. It is, in the words of Roy Pascal, a novel “thronging with things, with material, psychological and social reality.” In spite of its flaws of digression and a rather abstract ending, Green Henry remains the most important novel of the mid-nineteenth century in German.
A Village Romeo and Juliet
Keller’s next published work, in 1856, was the first volume of the cycle of novellas The People of Seldwyla, which is loosely held together by a frame. Seldwyla is an imaginary small town in which colorful, farcical characters live out their days in often self-deluded bliss. Although each novella can stand on its own, together they leave the impression of a human comedy of epic proportions, far exceeding the boundaries of small-town Switzerland. The novella from this cycle that has received the most critical attention is Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe (A Village Romeo and Juliet). Although it did not catch on when first published, in the years following 1874 it became hugely popular and has been a part of the standard Germancanon ever since. Keller based the work on a newspaper account of a drowned couple who had apparently spent the night floating downstream on a hay barge, relating the event to both William Shakespeare and the Swiss locale.
The novella opens in a scene of pastoral tranquillity. Two landed farmers near a village close to Seldwyla are plowing their fields, which lie on opposite sides of an abandoned one. Their children—a seven-year-old son, Sali Manz, and a five-year-old daughter, Vrenchen Marti—bring the farmers their meals in the fields. The children play on the overgrown, rocky middle field, which is encroached on by the fathers as each continues plowing past his own boundary line and cultivates a section of the abandoned one. Every year the middle field becomes smaller, more filled with stones, and wilder. The fathers’ greed causes the emerging love of their children to fall on stony ground, for when the field is finally auctioned off, a dispute arises between Manz, who buys the field, and Marti, who still claims an irregular section of it. They become bitter enemies, using every legal means to get back at each other, a quarrel that ultimately leads to the impoverishment of both. Their greed for land, of which Keller is more than a little critical, has been grist for the mill of Marxist critics in condemning the entire capitalist system, though Keller himself did not intend to go so far.
The farmers’ children, Sali and Vrenchen, still feel an affection for each other that comes to the fore as the raging fathers confront each other, years later, across a wooden footbridge. In physically separating their...
(The entire section is 4740 words.)