Hermann Sudermann belonged to the group of revolutionary young playwrights of the naturalist school who outraged traditionalists with their treatment of the most degraded and depraved aspects of human life in an absolutely uncompromising style. He was a rival of Gerhart Hauptmann in Berlin in the 1890’s, and his skill at theatrical effect brought him great success. His plays were performed as far away as Japan.
The aims and style of his dramatic work gave form to his prose works, of which The Song of Songs is one of the most respected. Its themes of relentless sexual and economic exploitation, of class conflict, and of the despair of lower-class life are typical of naturalism and represent a political protest as well as an artistic stance. Lilly experiences repeated assaults on her integrity, couched in various terms, but all turning upon her economic and sexual vulnerability. The Song of Songs, her father’s composition, represents the ideal realm of love and personal fulfillment which is denied to everyone in the novel, the exploiters as well as the exploited.
Sudermann, likewise, transferred the technique of the stage to the composition of the novel, suppressing the narrator and allowing the characters to speak for themselves. His dialogue is rich in realistic touches: dialect, idiosyncratic speech patterns, and the coarseness of the street. He attempts to capture the manifold variety of life in its richness, as Lilly passes from sphere to sphere, rising and falling in her quest for fulfillment. There is no explanation, judgment, or subjective evaluation by the author; his aim is to bring scenes to life in brevity and sharpness and to leave the response to the reader. Like all naturalists, however, he was quite clear about the response for which he strove: a recognition of the disillusion and desperation that darkens the lives of the masses and of their source in the unjust structure of society and the self-seeking of those who have power at their disposal.