No Place on Earth

by Christa Wolf

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771

Wolf’s text has been read in various ways: as historical fiction, a biographical study, a critique of patriarchal culture, a portrayal of the artist, a utopian parable, and a veiled autobiographical sketch of Wolf’s apprehension as a writer in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, of her sense of disorientation in a period of transition. No Place on Earth appeared simultaneously in East and West Germany and was received quite differently. While West Germans read it as an expression of discomfort with the role of the writer in her socialist society, East Germans interpreted it as reclaiming the once-rejected Romantic era as a part of the nation’s cultural heritage on the one hand and as an admonition of materialism on the other.

No Place on Earth is often considered the first radical departure from Wolf’s socialist-realist roots, which is characterized by a linear, authorial depiction of objective reality. Beyond the objective reflection of reality, other earmarks of socialist realism are national orientation and a positive hero. Beginning with Nachdenken über Christa T. (1968; The Quest for Christa T., 1970) and Kindheitsmuster (1976; A Model Childhood, 1980), one can observe a noticeable shift in Wolf’s work from an outward (or objective) to an inner (or subjective) authenticity. In keeping with Wolf’s insistence on subjective authenticity, this work focuses less on action, which is virtually nonexistent, but rather on the penetration of the inner worlds of the two writers, Günderrode and Kleist.

The form of the narration transgresses traditional generic boundaries. It displays both elements of historical realistic fiction and biographical and autobiographical elements. During the time span in which Wolf was involved in writing this text, she was simultaneously working on a biographical introduction to an edition of Günderrode’s works. In the introduction, entitled “Shadow of a Dream,” Wolf follows the conventions of biography presenting the life of Günderrode in a linear narration of chronologically ordered life events. Her focus is on the tension between Günderrode’s narrowly defined role as a woman in her contemporary society and her obligation to her talent. Wolf allows Günderrode to emerge on her own, from her life and work. No Place on Earth, however, creates a complicated account of the interconnectedness of the fates of the two protagonists, with each other and with the people and the world around them. Thus Wolf abandons linear narration from the outset and dispenses with the question of fictionality by referring to a “legend that suits us” and by evoking fairy-tale motifs: “You precursors, feet bleeding.” The more literal translation of the German, “blood in the shoes,” makes the connection to the fairy tale “Cinderella” more apparent: In the version of the tale by the Brothers Grimm, the evil stepsisters mutilate their feet in order to fit them into the Prince’s slipper.

Not only are the boundaries between legend or fairy tale and “truth” or reality blurred, but so is temporality in its traditional separation of past, present, and future: “The wicked spoor left in time’s wake as it flees us.” This opening sentence sets the tone for this narrative experiment focusing on interconnectedness. Dismissing traditional firm boundaries and fixed categories, the narrator blends the voices and interior monologues of the protagonists into a conversation and inner dialogue. Using the narrative technique of interior monologue, the narrator blends the protagonists’ narrative voices into a dialogue while adding her own, expanding it into an imaginary conversation. The reader cannot readily ascertain which character is speaking, or whether the voice is in fact the narrator speaking in the present. Short on plot and rich in dialogue, the narrative technique not only suspends the distinction between the levels of time and space and the boundaries of the characters but also alters the generic definition of prose and drama. These border crossings make problematic categorized views of history, schemata of understanding that determine the comprehension of the events experienced. They explore the connection of the actual world to words, images, and dreams.

As such, the novella constantly explores the interaction between poetry and reality. The title itself names the problem. In the original German title, the words Kein Ort: Nirgends give a dictionary definition of the term “utopia,” which literally means “no place.” Readers are invited to examine the existence of such nonplaces in their conception of reality and, at the same time, to refuse the acceptance of the limits of perception that the various intellectual frameworks establish as final. One of these categories that readers are invited to reexamine is gender and its relationship to rationality or instrumental reason.

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