No Place on Earth

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Not named in the above list of characters is the narrator—effaced, yes, but a voice continually present, a sorceror’s voice, able to create shapes without bodies, present in no place, yet forming patterns on a stage in rhythmic movements tuned to a choreographer’s vision—ghosts of a courtship dance, specters of climax.

The ostensible themes, those that will be first noted by readers, are several: first, a Romantic agony springing from the poet’s inability to reconcile the imagined and the real, natural and human laws, emotion and reason, feeling and form, the subjective and the objective, Prometheus bound and unbound—those dualities both defining and entrapping Western man; second, a preoccupation with sex roles resulting from a culture’s inability to recognize that bodymate, soulmate, and mindmate are not necessarily exclusive of one another and causing for both men and women in the culture a crisis of body, soul, and mind; third, an existential treatise on life and death.

The novel is posited on a claim (a legend, it is said) that Heinrich von Kleist and Karoline von Günderrode met in June, 1804, at a literary gathering for tea and conversation. He is afflicted with an overly acute sense of hearing; she is hypersensitive to light. He, having abandoned an army career, failed in his effort to work as a civil servant, and eschewed his studies after reading Immanual Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781, Critique of Pure Reason); she, an impoverished gentlewoman, was forced by lack of funds to enter a convent for physical sustenance but pursued a vigorous program of self-education. He has recently burned a manuscript of a play; she has recently published a book of poems under a pseudonym. He was prepared by his education to expect women to be subservient and simple in mind and spirit; she was taught to allow herself to feel androgynous and to act out such a nature. They meet for a moment to talk, walk, and laugh before separating to follow their respective fates. Both commit suicide; she in 1806, and he in 1811.

The novel describes their tensions and conflicts, their differences and similarities, at a time before irony became a single valence pervading a worldview, at a time early in the last century when people still struggled to measure real life by an ideal, at a time before suicide became an acceptable alternative to nausea, before the Western world learned to live by relative measures. By contemporary standards, the anguish of these people over a metaphysical question seems almost quaint.

Not so quaint is their struggle with sexual roles—a struggle still all too real for the modern reader. “’Sometimes,’” Kleist says to Günderrode, “’I find it unendurable that nature has split the human being into man and woman.’” He admits it to her and makes himself vulnerable. He has been unable to live the role established for him; unable to love and marry; yet also unable to rid himself of the assumptions of his culture regarding the nature of women. “Should a woman have such a look about her? She makes Kleist uneasy.” Women, Kleist thinks, are a sex born for suffering. Women are not “placed under the law of having to achieve everything. . . .” She taunts him: “You were thinking: ’So clever, considering she’s only a woman.’” Günderrode appears to have allowed...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Christa Wolf’s prose text No Place on Earth describes an imaginary meeting between the poet and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist and the poet Karoline von Günderrode. Although the narrative of No Place on Earth makes references to a specific time and place and to historical figures, it is not a simple example of historical realism but a highly complex fictional integration of biographical and historical material. While the characters are historical, the event—the gathering for tea at Joseph Merten’s country estate—is described by the narrator as a “legend that suits us.” Prompted by a casual remark by Kleist’s biographer Eduard von Bülow that Kleist was said to have made Günderrode’s acquaintance, the novella centers on this speculative gathering.

Kleist has just suffered through a spiritual, intellectual, and artistic crisis; Günderrode also is at odds with society. By insisting on her calling as artist, she disregards the limits placed on her gender that confined women to the private sphere of the house. She publishes her works under a pseudonym which gives her some measure of freedom. Although Kleist realizes the restrictions that the gender system of his age placed on women, he seems, at times, almost envious of the lack of responsibility afforded to women. He believes that they have a greater measure of freedom because they are not under the social pressure to make a name for themselves by means of their...

(The entire section is 422 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

While Wolf portrays the fate of a woman who cannot develop within the constricted margins of her role prescribed by society and convention, at the same time she explores the roots of the fragmentation afflicting individuals and society in order to uncover the point at which the division of labor was internalized. She sees this as the intersection of two historical problems: the increasing exclusion of “sensibility” from the definition of what is essential and normative for society and, linked to this issue, the antithetical division of characteristics into masculine and feminine. Instrumental reason and rationality are part of the masculine sphere, whereas sensibility is relegated to the margins, to the feminine and private sphere. Thus all nonrational modes of experience, such as sensibility, intuition, and clairvoyance, are excluded from the public sphere, with its sense of identity rooted in separation, opposition, and conflict. The strength of this system is dependent on the inviolability of the boundary between itself and what it excludes; Wolf does not simply oppose the male and female principle. Furthermore, she refrains from celebrating women for their greater openness to cooperative and nonviolent methods of conflict resolution and problem-solving because of their relative underdevelopment of the separative ego. Instead, she creates a form of androgyny for her protagonists, Kleist and Günderrode. Both together represent the realm of ideas and of...

(The entire section is 419 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Buehler, George. The Death of Socialist Realism in the Novels of Christa Wolf. Frankfurt: Lang, 1984. This narrowly focused sociohistorical study delineates Wolf’s gradual departure from the formal and ideological prescripts of socialist realism.

Kuhn, Anna K. Christa Wolf’s Utopian Vision: From Marxism to Feminism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Presented from a feminist perspective, Kuhn’s text examines the ideological implications of Wolf’s utopian visions as they move gradually away from the Marxism realized in her early socialist-realist prose to her more formally complex artistic visions on feminist issues. This study is ideally complemented by Marilyn Sibley Fries’s collection and Myra Love’s monograph (below).

Library Journal. CVII, September 1, 1982, p. 1678.

Love, Myra N. Christa Wolf: Literature and the Conscience of History. New York: Lang, 1991. This study is less concerned with the historical context of Wolf’s writing than with the link between writing and the concept of subject. Love discusses Wolf’s writing subject as both self-asserting and self-exploratory. Furthermore, she also focuses on Wolf’s representations of issues such as war and peace in the nuclear age, the nature and possibilities for self-realization in contemporary industrial...

(The entire section is 406 words.)