Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Patterns of Childhood was published in the German Democratic Republic within weeks after Wolf, along with her husband and ten other prominent East German writers, protested publicly against the expulsion of the controversial songwriter and poet Wolf Biermann from the country. Despite the fact that she was looked upon with official disfavor, Patterns of Childhood was received positively by the critics in her country, and the first edition of sixty thousand sold out within two months. Her third novel, it represented a departure from Der geteilte Himmel (1963; Divided Heaven, 1965) and Nachdenken uber Christa T. (1968; The Quest for Christa T., 1970), both of which dealt with contemporary problems in the German Democratic Republic. Wolf next investigated the problems of self and authenticity in the context of German Romanticism in Kein Ort: Nirgends (1979; No Place on Earth, 1982) and of Greek myth and feminist theory in Voraussetzungen einer Erzahlung: “Kassandra” and Kassandra (1983; Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays, 1984). Storfall (1987; breakdown) is her report of a day in April, 1986, when news of the Chernobyl reactor disaster reached her at the same time her brother was undergoing an operation for brain cancer.

More than other recent memoirs and fiction dealing with the Fascist period, Patterns of Childhood achieves the formal richness and thought-provoking depth of such postwar masterpieces as Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus (1947; English translation, 1948), Gunter Grass’s Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1961), and Heinrich Boll’s Gruppenbild mit Dame (1971; Group Portrait with Lady, 1973). In the German Democratic Republic, only the dramatist Heiner Muller has dealt so uncompromisingly with the remnants of Fascism in the present. Critics have repeatedly compared Wolf’s novel to Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich’s psychological study, The Incapacity to Mourn (1977), in which they uncovered many of the same taboos and behavior patterns in West German society.