Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024

Maria Magdalena was the first bourgeois tragedy in German literature in which all the characters belonged to the lower middle class. Previous bourgeois tragedies had derived their momentum from conflict between the upper and lower classes. For example, a lower-class girl might be seduced and then abandoned by an upper-class lover. Friedrich Hebbel, however, has shown that “one need only be human to have a fate and in certain circumstances a terrible fate.”

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Written in prose instead of verse, Maria Magdalena is the germinal point in the emergence of modern realist drama. As Hebbel points out in his preface, previous authors made mistakes in writing the dialogue of the common people, either giving them beautiful speeches that made them appear as “bewitched princes and princesses” or making them appear so woodenly stupid that it was surprising they could manage to say anything. Hebbel avoids both extremes and lets his characters speak naturally and convincingly.

While introducing the realist style, Hebbel still observed the three unities required by classical drama: the unities of time, place, and action. Maria Magdalena takes place within a few days, the encounters are mainly in Anthony’s house, and the action centers on Clara’s dilemma.

Clara is the main tragic figure in the play. Under duress, she submits to the sexual demands of Leonard, a member of her own class, but is subsequently jilted by him. Rather than bring shame on the family by having an illegitimate child, she commits suicide. The real tragedy, though, lies in the narrow bourgeois mentality that permits no exception to its notion of correctness.

Clara has reached an age where it is no longer acceptable for her to be single. The pressure on her to marry is made evident at the beginning of the drama in her mother’s conversation and costume. In a masterful dramatic touch, Hebbel has the mother ask Clara pointedly about Leonard while wearing her own wedding dress. The theme of marriage is presented with strong visual reinforcement.

Significantly, Clara’s thoughts are not so much of marriage as of self-sacrifice. Her ideal church scene, described in her closing monologue of act 1, scene 3, was enacted by a little Roman Catholic girl who had been given the first cherries of the year. Rather than eating them, she carried them to the altar as an offering. This vivid image of the cherries that are not eaten foreshadows the drastic fate of Clara and her child. She sacrifices herself to make sure that her family will not be disgraced.

Hebbel’s economy of style ensures that every image enhances a major theme. Marriage is suggested by the wedding dress; self-sacrifice, by the cherries. Likewise, death is suggested by the grave digger. In an uncanny touch, the grave he is digging turns out to be for Clara’s mother. Her death in turn foreshadows the trio of deaths at the end of the drama: Leonard, Friedrich, and Clara all meet violent ends. Repeated mention of wells and water creates a resonance of expectation in the audience for the circumstances of Clara’s death.

The most widely used image in Maria Magdalena is the snake, which connotes deception and evil. Leonard is generally perceived as a snake because of his duplicity. He readily reveals his machinations and actually uses the snake image to describe himself. He says to Clara, “You be harmless as a dove, my sweet, and I’ll be sly as a snake.” Clara later uses the image in a way that stresses Leonard’s predatory nature: “I thank you as I would a serpent that had wound itself about me and then suddenly let me go to prey on something else.” Leonard, however, is not the only snake in the drama. Hebbel expands his application of the image to include the malicious gossips so dreaded by Anthony. In Friedrich’s dying speech he says, “All you thought about was the tongues that would hiss—but not about the worthless snakes they belonged to.”

Like Friedrich, many critics place the blame entirely on Anthony, the illiterate, self-righteous father who could tolerate anything but shame. It was his petty bourgeois values and threat of suicide that drove Clara to despair. However, in addition to depicting the destructive side of those values, Hebbel suggests by omission that the reaction Anthony anticipated on the part of the neighbors was grossly exaggerated. Society is not as much to blame as one might think. The neighbors, in fact, say nothing. They are conspicuously absent from the drama. Any influence they exert on Anthony’s family is purely in Anthony’s imagination; he is concerned with the insubstantial. The pastor tells Anthony that he is accountable for no one but himself and that it is “unchristian pride” that makes him want to accept responsibility for his adult son. Yet Anthony persists in his authoritarian and judgmental approach to his own children. Only in the title of the drama does Hebbel suggest the truly Christian alternative of forgiveness. The biblical reference in the title to Mary Magdalen, the fallen woman in need of forgiveness, exemplifies Hebbel’s technique of influencing the audience directly without working through the medium of the players.

While it is tempting to follow Friedrich’s lead and blame Anthony, one cannot ignore the complexity of the characters and oversimplify the action. Friedrich himself is not guiltless. Although loving Clara since childhood, he did not stay in touch with her during his student years, and, at the crucial moment, gave priority to dueling with Leonard rather than to comforting Clara. Leonard, the supposed blackguard, is also not completely guilty. Seen in his own right, he did have cause to be jealous and to be unenthusiastic about Clara’s joyless description of married life. He was also properly disappointed that her dowry had disappeared and wary of the scandal surrounding her brother. As in real life, the distinctions are blurred between good and bad, right and wrong.

For such a short drama, Maria Magdalena has a tremendous impact. It is thought-provoking and masterfully written, with every detail essential to the whole. Hebbel introduced realism with consummate artistry.

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