Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1212
Lilly Czepanek was fourteen years old when her temperamental father, a music master, disappeared from home. The girl and her mother became destitute, but they looked forward every day to Czepanek’s return since he had left behind his cherished musical composition, The Song of Songs , around which the entire...
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- Critical Essays
Lilly Czepanek was fourteen years old when her temperamental father, a music master, disappeared from home. The girl and her mother became destitute, but they looked forward every day to Czepanek’s return since he had left behind his cherished musical composition, The Song of Songs, around which the entire family had built its hopes for success.
Lilly grew into an attractive young woman. She attended school to prepare herself for a career as a governess. Meanwhile Mrs. Czepanek’s mind deteriorated, and she projected mad schemes to regain her social position. One day, in a fit of rage, she attacked Lilly with a bread knife and was subsequently committed to an asylum. Lilly, now alone, took a job as a clerk in the circulating library of Mrs. Asmussen; she assuaged her loneliness by reading voraciously. During this time, she admired a high-minded young student, Fritz Redlich, who spurned her because he misunderstood her overtures of friendship.
Mrs. Asmussen’s two worldly daughters, home after having failed to find their fortunes elsewhere, coached Lilly in the ways of catching a man. Lieutenant von Prell, attached to the local regiment, came to the library, saw Lilly, and was overwhelmed by her simple charm. His visit was followed by the visits of many young officers and men of fashion of the town. The sisters, Lona and Mi, were jealous of Lilly and hated her for her ability to attract men without even venturing out of the Asmussen house.
When Colonel von Mertzbach, the commander of the regiment, offered Lilly a job as his secretary and reader in order to save her from such sordid surroundings, she declined because she was suspicious of his intentions. She received dozens of fine Christmas gifts from the colonel, but she returned them all. At the colonel’s request, Lilly went to his quarters, where he proposed marriage after revealing his passion for her. Seeing a chance for freedom and luxury, Lilly accepted and became his wife. Soon she discovered, however, that the colonel had only a physical attraction for her and that she was little more than his chattel. Their wedding trip to Italy was interrupted when the colonel, who was extremely jealous, saw Lilly take a passive interest in a young man who shared their compartment.
The couple went to East Prussia to the colonel’s castle. The colonel, retired from military service, devoted his time to molding Lilly into an aristocratic Junker lady, and in this task he was assisted by the housekeeper, Miss von Schwertfeger.
Von Prell, who had resigned his commission, was now employed on the estate of his former commanding officer. He taught Lilly to ride, and on one of their jaunts together into the countryside, she surrendered herself to him. Having access to the castle, he made his way to her room secretly at night. One night the colonel returned home unexpectedly from one of his frequent trips to the nearby town and almost surprised the two together. Miss von Schwertfeger covered up Lilly’s infidelity, however, and later told her mistress that she hated von Mertzbach because he had forced her for years to be a party to mad orgies which had taken place in the castle. She nevertheless forbade any further relations between Lilly and von Prell.
Later Lilly, hearing that von Prell was philandering in the town, went to his lodge. The colonel discovered them together and ordered Lilly off the estate. She went to Berlin; von Prell went to the United States.
Lilly, now divorced, assisted a maker of lamp shades. When she became proficient in the trade, she opened her own shop. When her business venture proved unsuccessful, she went to Dehnicke, a friend of von Prell, who was a bronze statuary manufacturer and who, von Prell had assured her, would help any friend of his. To escape Dehnicke’s attentions, Lilly left him and went to Kellermann, a glass painter, whom Dehnicke recommended to her. Kellermann made advances, but Lilly immediately made him understand that she was there only to learn glass painting. As she produced transparencies, Dehnicke took them and acted as her agent in selling them. One day, Dehnicke gave Lilly a large check drawn on an American bank and sent to her, he said, by von Prell. With her new wealth, Lilly was able to establish her studio in a fine apartment in a decent part of the city. Soon, however, she lost interest in her transparencies and began to live as Dehnicke’s creature. She toured the bronze factory but was barred from entering one small storeroom.
Lilly, now virtually a prisoner in the luxurious surroundings provided by Dehnicke, grew morose and melancholy. She and Dehnicke attended an elaborate carnival at Kellermann’s studio. There she learned that not one of her transparencies had sold and that the forbidden storeroom in the factory was their repository.
One day Dehnicke, a bachelor and very much under the influence of his mother, announced to Lilly that at his mother’s insistence he intended to marry an heiress. Lilly, confused and helpless, yielded herself to Kellermann. Dehnicke, however, gave up the heiress and returned to Lilly; their old way of life was resumed. Still Lilly grew more lonely and waited for the one man in her life to appear.
After several years in Berlin, Lilly again met Fritz Redlich. Seeing that the former student was a failure and in extreme poverty, she prepared to dedicate her life to regenerating him. She fed and clothed him, made him a frequent guest at her table, and finally secured for him a position as tutor in another part of Germany. Still misunderstanding her interest in him, Fritz refused to have dinner with her the night before he was to leave for his new job.
Lilly next met Konrad Rennschmidt, a young student of art history. There was an immediate sympathy between the two, and Lilly knew what she thought was real happiness at last. Because Konrad did not know all the true facts of Lilly’s past, she told him many lies in her frantic desire to keep his friendship. At last she surrendered herself to Konrad and drifted away from Dehnicke, whose mother still had hopes that her son would marry well.
Konrad had a rich uncle who came to Berlin to meet Lilly when he heard that his nephew planned to marry her. The old uncle, an adventurer of sorts, tricked Lilly into disclosing her true tortured and fallen soul to him. Sure that Lilly would do Konrad no good and that his family and friends would not accept her, he persuaded Lilly never to see Konrad again.
Having never been essentially evil and seeing little hope of happiness in her life, Lilly attempted to throw herself in the River Spree after her last great disappointment, but she failed even in that attempt. She did, however, throw THE SONG OF SONGS into the river. For years she had guarded the musical composition as a symbol of all that was fine and good in life. At last, when his mother had resigned herself to the inevitable, Dehnicke again asked Lilly to marry him. She accepted. It seemed to her by this time that Dehnicke was her fate.