Gustav Freytag Essay - Critical Essays

Freytag, Gustav


Gustav Freytag 1816-1895

German novelist, journalist, playwright, and cultural historian.

As a journalist and supporter of the progressive liberal movement, Freytag is considered a key figure in nineteenth-century German nationalism. However, he is best known for his 1855 novel Soll und Haben (Debit and Credit), that examines commercial enterprises and celebrates middle class virtues. Freytag is of interest today mainly because of the disparity between his phenomenal popularity as a novelist from his own time until well into the twentieth century, and his complete dismissal from the literary canon both inside and outside Germany since World War II. Because of the perceived anti-Semitism in his novels, scholars today consider Freytag's work indefensible and embarrassing.

Biographical Information

Freytag was born in Silesia, in 1816. His father, Gottlob Ferdinand Freytag, was a doctor and the mayor of Kreuzburg, and his mother, Henriette Albertine Zebe, was the daughter of a clergyman. He was educated at the gymnasium in Öls, where he excelled in Latin and Greek and was awarded a diploma in 1835. Freytag then studied philology at the University of Breslau and both philology and literature in Berlin. He returned to Breslau as a lecturer in grammar and literature where he taught until 1843 when he was denied promotion to full professor. Freytag left teaching the following year. During this period Freytag produced a book of poetry, several historical dramas, and a libretto.

In 1847 Freytag, after a visit to Leipzig, relocated to Dresden and married Emilie Scholz, a wealthy aristocrat. He eventually returned to Leipzig, and after the purchase of a summer home in Siebleben, divided his time between the two locations. Freytag established a partnership with the literary journalist Julian Schmidt as owners and editors of the journal Die Grenzboten (The Border Messengers). With the magazine as his forum, Freytag became a strong supporter of German unification that would include Prussia but exclude Austria, and an advocate of the literary aesthetics associated with the English realist novel. He believed that the 1848 Revolution would result in a transfer of power from the aristocracy to the middle class, but was deeply disappointed in the actual results, particularly the street violence that followed. As Eda Sagarra reports, these events “convinced Freytag, as it did many other middle-class German liberals, that the threat to the new political and social order in Germany came, not from the princes, but from the ‘radical elements.’” In 1855 Freytag produced his most famous novel Soll und Haben, a work on the world of commerce, and followed it several years later with his novel of academic life Die verlorene Handschrift (1865; The Lost Manuscript). In both texts, Freytag championed the cause of the middle class and praised its superior moral virtues.

Freytag continued to write over the next two decades, producing a five-volume social history of Germany, a biography, and a six-volume series of historical novels. In 1881, he moved from Leipzig to Wiesbaden and published his memoirs and a short work on Martin Luther. After the loss of a son to diphtheria in 1884, Freytag's wife was committed to an asylum. The couple divorced in 1890 and Freytag married Anna Götzel Strakosch the following year. Freytag died in Wiesbaden in 1895 of an inflammation of the lungs.

Major Works

Freytag's best-known work is the liberal, nationalist novel Soll und Haben, a popular if not critical success that continued to sell well throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Through its hero, young Anton Wohlfahrt, the novel contrasts middle class and aristocracy, German and Jew, and German and Pole—valuing the first term of the opposition over the second in all three cases.

With his friend Julian Schmidt, Freytag gained ownership of the journal Die Grenzboten, in which the two advocated literary realism and optimism. Both men shared an admiration for the novels of Walter Scott and Charles Dickens. Freytag was intensely interested in the structure of the novel, a concern that drew Schmidt's admiration. For the most part, Schmidt was responsible for the critical theory that appeared in Die Grenzboten, while Freytag contributed concrete examples. Soll und Haben was, in fact, intended as a prime example of the theoretical recommendations that appeared in the journal.

In 1865, Freytag published his second novel Die verlorene Handschrift about a pair of university professors who travel in search of a lost manuscript attributed to Tacitus. Once again, Freytag celebrated through his characters the values and virtues of the middle class in contrast to the ruthlessness and vice he associated with the aristocracy.

Freytag also produced several plays, among them Der Gelehrte (1858; The Student), a one act tragedy; Die Valentine (1847; Madame Valentine) and Graf Waldemar (1850; Count Waldemar), two socio-political plays in which the nobility is represented as arrogant and frivolous; and Die Fabier (1859; The Fabians), often unfavorably compared to Shakespeare's Coriolanus. In addition, Freytag wrote two comedies: Die Brautfahrt oder Kunst von der Rose (1844; The Bridal Journey) on the courtship of Emperor Maximilian and Maria of Burgundy; and his most successful play, Die Journalisten (1854; The Journalists), involving the writing staffs of two competing newspapers, one progressive, the other reactionary.

Freytag's other major works include his memoirs, biographies, and most notably a five-volume history of German social and cultural life, Bilder aus der deutschen Vergangenheit (1859-63; Pictures of German Life), and its fictional counterpart Die Ahnen (1872-1880; The Ancestors), a six-volume series of historical novels that follows a German family's progress from the fourth century to Freytag's own time.

Critical Reception

Modern scholarship on Freytag in English focuses on the contrast between his success in his own time and his almost complete obscurity today. Most criticism concentrates on the novel Soll und Haben, which was enormously popular at the time it was written and for many decades afterward. It received mixed reviews by critics; Schmidt praised it, but English reviewers panned it as an imitation of Dickens, and many German critics regarded it as “too prosaic.” Many critics found that the novels emphasized concerns that were quickly losing relevance in the mid-nineteenth century. Yet Soll und Haben's phenomenal success with the German public is well documented as it went through printing after printing and was often presented as a confirmation gift to young German boys. Curiously, despite its anti-Semitism, it was also given to young Jewish boys as a bar mitzvah gift throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The book has been derided and neglected since World War II, as its overt anti-Semitism has become an embarrassment for modern Germans. Jeffrey L. Sammons (1969) denies that Freytag was anti-Semitic in that “he did not hate the Jews, nor would he have advocated persecution of them.” But Freytag is today known as an anti-Semitic writer in part because, as Sammons points out, he was “a liberal individualist who placed the responsibility for the condition of the Jews not on the society that oppressed them but squarely on the Jews themselves.” Sagarra agrees that Freytag's record on Jews is mixed since he had many Jewish friends and, in fact, was married to a Jew. He wrote in defense of Jews in his literary journal and joined a group opposing anti-Semitism in 1890. Still, according to Sagarra, Soll und Haben has a “justly deserved reputation as a major document in the history of anti-Semitism in Germany,” largely based on the negative stereotypes associated with virtually every Jewish character in the novel.

Although Freytag wrote several plays, only one, The Journalists, has continued to merit critical attention. As for the others, Martin Schutze, writing in 1913, suggested that even then the individualism advocated in most of Freytag's extremely doctrinaire dramas was outdated. According to Schutze, “The individual, in modern literature, is represented as an organic and integral part of the whole social structure. The early mid-nineteenth century individualism seems to us blind, empty, and fatuous.” Freytag's major work outlining his dramatic theory Die Technik des Dramas (1863; The Technique of the Drama), has fared no better, although it earned him an international reputation at the time of its publication. Schutze claims that the text “attained an immediate fame and has to a certain extent maintained for nearly two generations its position as a standard text book of dramatic construction.” Still, Schutze acknowledges that the work did not survive the changing aesthetic climate brought about, in part, by Zola's essays on naturalism some fifteen years later. According to Schutze, “Freytag, an empiricist, like Aristotle in a larger measure, undertook, at the close of an era in the moral and aesthetic history of mankind, to fit a dramatic theory to ideas that had already received their cues for their final exits.” Freytag's theory of the drama, as well as his plays, were outdated by the end of the nineteenth century.

Principal Works

Die Brautfahrt oder Kunst von der Rose: Lustspiel in fünf Akten [The Bridal Journey] (play) 1844

In Breslau: Gedichte (poetry) 1845

Die Valentine: Schauspiel in fünf Aufzügen [Madame Valentine] (play) 1847

Graf Waldemar: Schauspiel in fünf Akten [Count Waldemar] (play) 1850

Die Journalisten: Lustspiel in vier Akten [The Journalists] (play) 1854

Soll und Haben [Debit and Credit] 2 vols. (novel) 1855

Die Gelehrte [The Student] (play) 1858

Die Fabier: Trauerspiel in fünf Acten [The Fabians] (play) 1859

Bilder aus der deutschen Vergangenheit [Pictures of German Life in the XVth, XVIth, XVIIth, XVIIIth, and XIXth Centuries] 4 vols. (social history) 1859-63

Die Technik des Dramas [The Technique of the Drama] (essay) 1863

Die verlorene Handschrift: Roman in fünf Buchern [The Lost Manuscript: A Novel] 3 vols. (novel) 1865

Die Ahnen: Roman [The Ancestors] 6 vols. (historical novels) 1872-1880

Doktor Luther: Eine Schilderung [Martin Luther] (biography) 1883

Gesammelte Werke [Complete Works] 22 vols. (memoirs, essays, novels, plays, biographies) 1887-1888


Martin Schutze (essay date 1913)

SOURCE: Shutze, Martin. “Gustav Freytag, Theorist of the Drama and Playwright.” The Drama: A Quarterly Review of Dramatic Literature, no. 9 (February 1913): 3-28.

[In the following essay, Schutze examines Freytag's plays and his theoretical text, The Technique of the Drama, claiming that Freytag's works were outdated by the end of the nineteenth century.]

Less than two generations separate us from the dramatic and dramaturgic activity of Gustav Freytag, which extends from 1841 to 1863, the year of his Technique of the Drama, and yet it is almost impossible even now to bridge the gap. Freytag, an empiricist, like Aristotle in a larger measure,...

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T. E. Carter (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Carter, T. E. “Freytag's Soll und Haben: A Liberal National Manifesto as a Best-Seller.” German Life and Letters, n.s., XXI, no. 4 (July 1968): 320-29.

[In the following essay, Carter discusses the popularity of Soll und Haben and attributes its success to the novel's appeal to middle class concerns and its anticipation of German unification.]

Freytag's Soll und Haben appeared in 1855 and although it is still mentioned in the histories of literature, it is unlikely to have been read by the foreign Germanist or by the younger Germanist in Germany or in general by someone in the south of Germany. If we take it as literature, this implied...

(The entire section is 4510 words.)

Jeffrey L. Sammons (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Sammons, Jeffrey L. “The Evaluation of Freytag's Soll und Haben.German Life and Letters, n.s., XXII, no. 4 (July 1969): 315-24.

[In the following essay, Sammons explores Freytag's rhetorical strategies in an attempt to account for the spectacular success of the novel in its own time and its almost complete neglect today.]

It does not often happen, in that tradition of modern literary scholarship that is on the verge of becoming classical, that serious attention is turned to novels that in their time were spectacular best-sellers, but no longer have canonical status. Perhaps we should not always be so exclusive, particularly in the area of the...

(The entire section is 4515 words.)

Lionel Thomas (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Thomas, Lionel. “Bourgeois Attitudes: Gustav Freytag's Novels of Life in Nineteenth-Century Germany.” Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, XV, part III (June 1973): 59-74.

[In the following essay, Thomas assesses the realism of Freytag's novels Soll und Haben and Die verlorene Handschrift.]

In German narrative fiction of the nineteenth century there seems to be a clear distinction between best-sellers and works of lasting value. Such a distinction is not to be found in English literature where, for example, Dickens, a popular best-selling novelist of his time, has maintained his position as a literary giant today. The same...

(The entire section is 8917 words.)

Eda Sagarra (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Sagarra, Eda. “Jewish Emancipation in Nineteenth-Century Germany and the Stereotyping of the Jew in Gustav Freytag's Soll und Haben (1855).” In The Writer as Witness: Literature as Historical Evidence, edited by Tom Dunne, pp. 160–76. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Sagarra examines Freytag's treatment of the Jew in Soll und Haben, suggesting that the author was influential in the formation of German anti-Semitism in the second half of the nineteenth century.]

Gustav Freytag's best-selling novel has frequently been the object of critical attention both in Germany and abroad, particularly since George...

(The entire section is 7269 words.)

Daniel Fulda (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Fulda, Daniel. “Telling German History: Forms and Functions of the Historical Narrative Against the Background of the National Unifications.” In 1870/71-1989/90: German Unifcations and the Change of Literary Discourse, edited by Walter Pape, pp. 195–207. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Fulda discusses the historical writings of Freytag and their connection with German unification.]

When Gustav Freytag observed Prussian regiments during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, he involuntarily associated them with Teutonic hordes.1 This image gave him a sudden insight into that strange mixture of continuity and change which...

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Herbert W. Benario (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Benario, Herbert W. “Tacitus, Gustav Freytag, Mommsen.” Classical and Modern Literature, 20, no. 3 (spring 2000): 71-79.

[In the following essay, Benario suggests that Freytag's novel of academic life, Die Verlorene Handschrift, was inspired by the author's relationship with the scholars Theodor Mommsen and Moriz Haupt.]

A few years ago, Professor Géza Alföldy published a splendid article in which he reexamined an inscription from Rome and identified the honoree as the historian Tacitus. The title is cryptic; it is “Bricht der Schweigsame sein Schweigen? Eine Grabinschrift aus Rom.”1 I did not understand the significance of the first...

(The entire section is 3459 words.)

Irving Massey (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Massey, Irving. “Gustav Freytag and the Problem of Human Sacrifice.” In Philo-Semitism in Nineteenth-Century German Literature, pp. 87–96. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Massey examines Freytag's ambiguous treatment of Jews; his pro-Jewish sentiment in some of his non-fiction works is at odds with the anti-Semitic stereotypical characters in some of his novels.]

The case of Bartels, who, as I have mentioned above, was able to build a highly successful career as a German literary critic on his anti-Semitism, casts a long shadow. It is hard to read about the late careers of Freytag, of Raabe, or of Fontane without an...

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Further Reading


Matoni, Jürgen and Margaret Galler. Gustav Freytag: Bibliographie. Dülmen, Germany: Laumann, 1990, 171 p.

A bibliography of Freytag's works, written in German.

McInnes, E. “‘Die Poesie des Geschafts’: Social Analysis and Polemic in Freytag's Soll und Haben.” In Formen Realistischer Erzählkunst: Festschrift for Charlotte Jolles, edited by Jörg Thunecke, pp. 99–107. Nottingham: Sherwood Press, 1979.

Analyzes the popular appeal of the novel Soll und Haben, claiming that the work is nostalgic and conveyed to contemporary readers reassurance and escape from the anxieties associated...

(The entire section is 198 words.)