Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The characters are Reinhard Werner, portrayed both as an old and a young man; his childhood love, Elisabeth; and his friend, Erich, whom Elisabeth later marries. Her mother also figures prominently in the plot. In this Romantic novel, the characters are not particularly well developed. Instead, they serve more to advance the author’s themes, primarily longing for lost youth.
The story largely consists of the reminiscences of Reinhard, now an elderly academic and writer. When he and Elisabeth were children, they were inseparable. They wandered the countryside near their homes, gathering wild strawberries, and he told her fairy tales and other stories. Reinhard recalls those days as a blissful idyll. He gives Elizabeth a linnet (type of bird). He is a sensitive, poetic person; after he went away to school, he sporadically sent her verses. When he goes back home to see her, they discuss why he had not written more. After their final break, he still pines for Elisabeth and keeps her picture on his wall.
Elisabeth is a “dainty,” brown-eyed, sweet-tempered girl five years younger than Reinhard; she grows up into a docile young woman. Despite her love for Reinhard, she agrees to the match her mother recommends with Erich, who comes from a wealthy family. She sends a book and other gifts to Reinhard at school. After she and Erich marry, they live with her mother at his family estate at Immensee. The last time Elisabeth sees Reinhard, following her marriage, she becomes upset. After they walk together in the woods, she states simply that he will never return.
Erich is identified only as Reinhard’s friend and former schoolmate. Elisabeth’s mother says he is a “very nice, sensible young man” who has given Elisabeth a canary and has taken over one of his father’s estates. The reader meets him at his estate when Reinhard visits, after he has already married Elisabeth. Described as having plain features but looking cheerful, he tells his old school chum, “I have won the great prize” in marrying her. He also tries to make Reinhard welcome in his home.
Elisabeth’s mother, also unnamed, is a practical, rather insensitive woman who thinks ahead of her daughter’s future security. She encourages Elisabeth to marry Erich. When Reinhard comes home from school, she tells Elisabeth he has changed and is “not so nice” as he used to be. When he visits after the marriage, she is cordial and polite to him.