The story line of The Quest for Christa T. does not develop in a linear fashion but follows the narrator’s rummaging through the box of papers left behind by Christa T. In this way, the reader gets a glimpse of Christa T. as a sixteen-year-old, a glimpse of her as a child in her native village, writing prose. There is a flash forward to her last days before she dies, then a reconstruction of her life as a student. Each memory is triggered by a piece of writing—a poem, a diary entry in Christa T.’s little brown notebook, notes on receipts and household accounts—and is fleshed out by the narrator’s own memory as well as imaginary conversations with people. The novel’s multilayered structure is not readily accessible. A purposeful vagueness about narrative time and a constant interchanging of narrative perspective further underscore the novel’s complexity. Yet it is these dramatic devices that make for the richness of the novel.
The novel begins with the epitaph “This coming to oneself—what is it?,” a quotation from Johannes R. Becher, cultural minister of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that summarizes the theme of the novel: the question of individual self-actualization (realization) within a socialist state or “the difficulty in saying ‘I’” in a society insisting upon a collective “we.” Although on one level the novel serves as a personal elegy for a childhood friend, The Quest for Christa T. can be read on another level as a critical development of early GDR history, of the kind that cannot be found in official textbooks. The author not only tells the tale of the friendship of two women but also chronicles the life of the generation born in the 1930’s, Wolf’s own generation. She addresses those who, liberated from fascism after the war, immediately and enthusiastically began building the socialist state without coming to terms with the past. With The Quest for Christa T., Wolf issues a plea for learning from one’s mistakes by remembering instead of ignoring one’s history.
That the GDR has not dealt adequately with its past is exemplified throughout the novel through key episodes in which Christa T.’s own sensitivity and struggle to come to terms with reality confront the coldness and violence of her surroundings. Increasingly, she finds that personal feelings and considerations are no longer important to the development of the new socialist state. This is especially evident in the case of Günter, who, during his test class in front of his peers and the headmistress Frau Mrosow, was to “demonstrate the superiority of social motives over personal ones as exemplified by Ferdinand’s conduct in Schiller’s play Love and Intrigue.” After passionately advocating the sanctity of love in front of his bewildered students, he is punished as “an example of what happens to a man who falls under the spell of subjectivism.”
Against this tendency away from subjectivity and consciousness, toward reason and technical progress, Wolf sets a heroine who, through her individuality and skepticism, quietly rebels. Christa T. rebels in the choice of her thesis topic, “The narrator Theodor Storm,” which she approaches not scientifically but in order to find the premises for her own artistic ability and to decide “how, if at all, one can realize oneself in a work of art,” a position clearly opposed to the demands upon a writer to help stimulate and further the material production process within the socialist state. Here again, she defies the unwritten rules of behavior of the new socialist citizen. In 1955, Christa T. arrives at a costume party dressed as Sophie La Roche (with Justus...
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dressed as Lord Seymour), a highly romantic and sentimental writer of the eighteenth century, and insists on portraying La Roche’s character Fräulein von Sternheim, who leads a loving yet utterly boring bourgeois country life with her lover Lord Seymour. Then Christa T. shocks her friends by announcing her plans to build her own house and is accused of wanting to become a “property owner.” All these acts depict her difficulty in conforming to the demands of her times. The true message of what it takes to be a citizen in this new world is delivered to her in 1960 by one of her former students—now a doctor—who explains that he has made a discovery that has finally put his mind to rest: “The essence of health is adaptation or conformity. . . . This means that at all times conformity is the means of survival: adaptation, conformity at any price.” Clearly, Christa T. has never learned to be healthy in this sense, and it is this illness of nonconformity that eventually causes her death.