Jeremias Gotthelf Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Jeremias Gotthelf 1797-1854

(Born Albert Bitzius) Swiss novelist, novella and short story writer, and nonfiction writer.

Jeremias Gotthelf is best known for realistic works of fiction depicting the lives of peasants and the lower classes in rural Switzerland. A pastor by trade and a reformer by choice, he used his stories to promote his social, political, and religious beliefs. While most of his works carried a moral purpose, Gotthelf also addressed the juxtaposition of developing technologies and old-word agriculture during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Biographical Information

Gotthelf was born in the village of Murten, part of the cantons of Bern and Freiburg. He was the son of Sigmund Bitzius, a pastor in the town, and his third wife, Elizabeth. Gotthelf learned first-hand about peasant life after the family moved to a farm near Utzensdorf in the canton of Bern. Gotthelf began his formal education in 1812 at a gymnasium in Bern; two years later, he entered Bern Academy. At school, Gotthelf showed a strong interest in literary subjects, earning a prize in 1816 for an essay on the distinction between classical and modern literature. In 1820 Gotthelf passed examinations to become a pastor, and for a short time he worked as a curate at his father's parish. The following year, he enrolled at the University of Göttingen in Germany, where he studied history, philosophy, and aesthetics. In 1824, Gotthelf returned to Switzerland and served as a curate in Herzogenbuchesee. He also became involved in a public debate over educational policies when he expressed his belief that schools should be open to all and that Christianity was best taught through education, not by preaching. Gotthelf was reassigned in 1829 when he was named curate of the Church of the Holy Spirit in the city of Bern. City life did not suit him, however, and he applied to serve in a rural community. In 1831 Gotthelf accepted the position of curate of Lützelflüh, becoming pastor the following year. He was appointed school commissioner for his parish in 1835, and the next year began writing fiction to disseminate his reformist ideals in the field of education. After the success of his first novel, Der Bauern-Spiegel oder Lebengeschichte des Jeremias Gotthelf: Von ihm selbst beschrieben (1836; The Peasants' Mirror; or, The Life History of Jeremias Gotthelf: Described by Himself,) Gotthelf adopted the name of the story's protagonist. The novel was set in rural Switzerland and emphasized the importance of the lower classes, initiating a narrative pattern that appeared in many of Gotthelf's subsequent works of fiction. In addition to his novels, novellas, and short stories, Gotthelf also wrote nonfiction that conveyed his reformist concerns, including Die Armennoth (1840; The Plight of the Poor,) which stressed the importance of making education available to all social classes and urging that material assistance be provided for the poor. In 1841, Gotthelf published the acclaimed novel, Wie Uli Knecht glücklich wird: Eine Gabe für Dienstboten und Meisterleute (Ulric the Farm Servant: A Story of the Bernese Lowlands). This work portrays the wayward life and the eventual moral and religious reform of its main character. During the mid-1840s, Gotthelf's fiction began to take on political overtones as he confronted the tension between traditional Christian values and the course of modern society, which remained in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. Gotthelf continued to write until shortly before his death in 1854.

Major Works

Critics often divide Gotthelf's works into three periods. Gotthelf's early phase is marked by explicit and simplistic handling of his reformist themes in contrast with the more subtle and artistic style of his later works. Indicative of this early phase is his first novel, The Peasants' Mirror; or, The Life History of Jeremias Gotthelf. In this work, the first-person narrator describes the losses and failures he suffers both as a struggling farmer and as a man, ultimately finding salvation and success by becoming a Christian and a writer. In relating the fictional Gotthelf's story, the author openly addresses social and political abuses of the time and reveals his populist sympathies by emphasizing the importance of the common people, rather than the aristocracy, to the future of society. The novels, novellas, and short stories of Gotthelf's second phase as a writer reveal that he became more skillful at adopting the techniques of storytelling to his didactic and reformist aims. Many critics consider Gotthelf's third novel, Ulric the Farm Servant, as one of his best works as well as an outstanding achievement in the genre of the peasant novel. The narrative focuses on a farmhand who leads a careless and selfish life but is ultimately reformed due to the influence of the farmer for whom he works. Praised for its detailed description of life in rural Switzerland during the early nineteenth century, the novel also depicts the hardships of the poor and the difficulties they encounter when attempting to better themselves. During his second literary phase, Gotthelf wrote one of his best known works, “Die schwarze Spinne” (“The Black Spider”) in Bilder und Sagen aus der Schweiz (1842-46; Images and Legends of Switzerland). This collection also contains the novel Geld und Geist oder die Versöhnung (Wealth and Welfare), which juxtaposes the lives of two farm families, one wealthy and materialistic and the other devoutly Christian. As with many of Gotthelf's works written during this phase, Wealth and Welfare is more inward looking than his earlier novels. The works of the last phase of Gotthelf's literary career document his dissatisfaction with Swiss governmental policies that he viewed as adversely affecting the lives of the poor and also reveal his general dismay over the course he perceived society to be taking at that time. In a representative work of this period, Der Geltstag oder Die Wirtschaft nach der neuen Mode (1845; The Bankruptcy; or, The Inn According to the Latest Fashion), Gotthelf describes the unhappy marriage of Eisi and her husband Steffan, an alcoholic whose drinking destroys their relationship and results in his death. Because of debts, all their possessions must be sold. Although Eisi finds temporary shelter with Steffan's godfather, she soon enters into another marriage that is no better than her first. Thematically, Gotthelf is taking issue in this novel with the divergence between Christianity and the secular world that he saw emerging during his lifetime. The idea that there is a negative tension between old and new, especially in terms of emerging technologies, is also emphasized in Gotthelf's later works, most prominently in Jakobs, des Handwerksgesellen, Wanderungen durch die Schwiez (1846-47; Jakob the Journeyman's Travels Through Switzerland) and Käthi die Großmutter oder Der wahre Weg durch jede Noth: Eine Erzählung für das Volk (1847; The Story of an Alpine Valley; or, Katie the Grandmother). The latter work highlights the dichotomy between the new industrial age and the traditional social order through the ordeals of the title character, Käthi, who is a spinner of flax for linen and a firm believer in Christianity. Because machines have been invented that can do the job Käthi once performed by hand, her ability to support herself in the future seems uncertain. However, her livelihood is ultimately secured as she locates customers that desire to have flax woven by hand. The affirmative ending of this novel notwithstanding, Gotthelf's works became more somber and negative toward the end of his life. An example of this tendency is Die Käserei in der Vehfreude: Eine Geschitchte aus der Schweiz (1850; Cheese-Making in the Vehfreude: A Story from Switzerland). This novel focuses on how a modern cheese factory affects the community of Vehreude, which had been linked with the traditional way of making cheese. Although the narrative features many elements that made Gotthelf's novels popular, including a detailed and realistic rendering of peasant life, its heavy-handed emphasis on social and political themes have caused it to be viewed as a gloomy screed inspired by what the author considered the detrimental effects of the Industrial Revolution.

Critical Reception

Critics have been divided in their characterization of Gotthelf as an author. Whereas some believe he was not particularly concerned with literary artistry, others find that the structure of his narratives—his clever use of frame stories, for example, as in “The Black Spider”—demonstrate how seriously he took his craft as a storyteller. A number of commentators classify Gotthelf as the first realistic novelist in German literature and as a writer who resembled the English novelist Charles Dickens in his concern with the meager existence of the poor. Most significantly, while some critics view Gotthelf as a regional Swiss writer who wrote to educate and entertain the lower classes of Switzerland, others find that his narratives transcend their time and place.