Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517
No Place on Earth presents the fictitious gathering of several of Germany’s leading Romantic writers and intellectuals at a country estate in June, 1804. Employing a technique of shifting narrative voices, the novel focuses on two writers from the Romantic period, Karoline von Günderrode and Heinrich von Kleist. While Kleist’s work would later become famous, Günderrode’s poetry would remain largely neglected until Christa Wolf published a collection of Günderrode’s writing, Die Schatten eines Traumes (1979), with an introductory essay that sheds light on both Günderrode’s and Wolf’s work. Wolf was working on the collection while writing this novel.
Both Kleist and Günderrode felt their talents went unrecognized and unappreciated in their own times, and both committed suicide shortly after this fictional meeting (Günderrode in 1806, Kleist in 1811). Wolf’s novel was also shaped by her frustration at the exile of dissident writer and singer Wolf Biermann from the GDR in 1976 and by her attraction to early German Romantic literature, despite the official GDR condemnation of it as dangerously subjective and irrational. All these factors coalesced in Wolf’s depiction of two early Romantic writers whose sensitive and intense emotions and idealistic beliefs put them at odds with their increasingly rational and materialist surroundings.
In their interior monologues and eventually their intense dialogue, Günderrode and Kleist reveal the conflicts engendered in individuals whose views do not match the culture and politics of the society in which they live. Their suicides are at least partly an indictment of a society which cannot usefully incorporate its own most creative and sensitive individuals. The parallels between this situation and Wolf’s own in East Germany in the late 1970’s are intensely evident.
The title No Place on Earth plays on the Greek word utopia, which literally translates to the words “no place.” Wolf’s “No place, no where” echoes the idea that a utopia is an idealized construction of what life might or should be, which exists in no place in the current world. The idea of utopia runs through many of Wolf’s works in which characters seek more just societies that respect individuals.
In this novel, both the male writer Kleist and the female poet Günderrode conceptualize such a utopia in which feeling would be valued as much as reason, and science would not be perverted into arid rationalizing and cold measurements, numbers, and dollars. The two characters can only fantasize about a society in which their value as creative individuals would be accepted and celebrated. The reality, however, is that both are alienated, misunderstood, and brutalized to such an extent that each commits suicide. “Utopia” thus remains literally “no place” for these two characters; they cannot find a society in which they can live.
The novel combines several of Wolf’s major themes, including the inability of society to productively incorporate some of its most creative individuals; societal repression, particularly of women; the overvaluing of that which can be measured and counted; and the inability of humankind to unify idealism and reality into a viable social order.
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