by Friedrich de laMotte Fouqué

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The Plot

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Undine is the story of a water-spirit’s quest for a soul, of the stringent conditions that subsequently apply to her remaining in the human world, and of the tragedy that overtakes her, then her husband, as a result of his unfaithfulness in marriage. An old fisherman and his wife live in their cottage by a lake, separated from the city by a dark forest filled with frightening specters. Late in life, they have a daughter, but she apparently drowns. Shortly afterward, a richly dressed child called Undine appears, soaking wet, at their door.

When Undine is eighteen years old, water-spirits lead two visitors to the cottage, then create a storm to keep them there. One of the visitors, a knight named Huldbrand of Ringstetten, falls in love with Undine. The other visitor, Father Heilmann, marries them.

After the wedding night, Undine is transformed because she has acquired a human soul. She reveals her true nature as a water-spirit to her husband, who chooses to remain with her. On their way back to the city, a tall man in white appears to them in the forest and wishes to talk to the bride. It is Uncle Kühleborn, the most powerful water-spirit in the region. Undine no longer wants anything to do with him. Huldbrand draws his sword to protect her, and Kühleborn turns into a torrent of water, telling Huldbrand always to guard his wife that well.

In the city, the only person who is not happy that Huldbrand has reappeared with an exquisite bride is Bertalda, the foster daughter of a wealthy duke. Undine and Bertalda quickly become friends, and the married couple propose to take Bertalda with them to their castle at the source of the Danube. This unwise decision causes Kühleborn to appear again, as a tall man who talks to Undine, then disappears into a fountain.

Huldbrand and Undine take Bertalda along to Ringstetten Castle, where frightening specters begin to appear. Undine, recognizing the work of Kühleborn, has the castle fountain covered with a stone slab to close over her relatives’ entry point. She also warns Huldbrand never to be angry with her on or near water.

When the three are on a holiday trip along the Danube, water-spirits appear on all sides as hideous specters. Eventually, they snatch a gold chain that Bertalda thoughtlessly dangles in the water. When Undine offers a beautiful coral necklace as a substitute, Huldbrand angrily flings it into the water, telling Undine that she and her relatives should leave the mortals at peace. Undine vanishes over the edge of the boat, telling Huldbrand to be loyal to her.

Soon Huldbrand marries Bertalda, but the marriage is not consummated. Bertalda has the fountain uncovered, and a white column of water rises, turning into a specter resembling Undine. She kisses Huldbrand, and he dies.

At his burial, she turns into a little spring that almost encircles the knight’s grave. In this way, Undine folds her arms forever around the man she loves.

Places Discussed

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Fisherman’s hut

Fisherman’s hut. Hut in which the knight Sir Huldbrand meets and eventually marries the water spirit Undine; situated between the wild forest and the lake that provides his living. By virtue of her adoption by the fisherman, Undine is already removed from her true place, but while she and Huldbrand remain there, she is still connected to the lake and the various streams that feed into it. Of all the dwellings featured in the story, this is the one which best preserves a symbolic balance between nature and culture; however, the precariousness of...

(This entire section contains 682 words.)

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that balance is reflected in hectic weather and unruly surges of the streams. Furthermore, it represents a state of being that has already been surpassed. It is significant that when Bertalda tries to return to the hut, she cannot make her way through the Black Valley; she has to be rescued by Huldbrand and returned to the relative safety of Ringstetten.


*Vienna. “Imperial city” to which Huldbrand initially takes his bride. The city is not immediately identified as Vienna—the Austrian capital of the so-called Holy Roman Empire in the era in which the story is set—nor is the river on which it stands clearly identified as the Danube. Friedrich de la Motte-Fouqué’s decision to situate the story more specifically appears to have been made when he was partway through writing it.

In the novel, the city lies on the far side of the forest from the fisherman’s hut. Although Huldbrand and Undine are entertained there by the duke and duchess, neither of them really belongs there—nor, indeed, does Bertalda, who is the fisherman’s daughter, rather than the duke’s. The names Vienna and Danube are not used in the story until Huldbrand and Bertalda, having become close again, decide to take a trip downriver from Ringstetten. They never actually reach the city, however, because Huldbrand breaks the condition imposed upon his marriage to Undine, which results in her being carried away by—and dissolved into—the river. The implication of the decision to visit Vienna after Bertalda’s attempt to return to the fisherman’s hut has been thwarted is that it is in great cities, far more than in isolated havens such as Ringstetten, that civilized folk really belong.

Castle of Ringstetten

Castle of Ringstetten. Huldbrand’s home, situated in the mountains of Swabia, in close proximity to the stormy wilderness but strongly fortified against it. It has a natural fountain in the center of its courtyard that supplies the castle with water until Undine—fearing that the fountain will serve as a conduit for her meddlesome uncle Kühleborn—has it sealed up, symbolically reinforcing the castle’s isolation from its surroundings. It is in the castle that Huldbrand marries, fatefully, for the second time; he is buried in a nearby hamlet, to whose churchyard all his ancestors had been consigned. The stream that springs up to bathe his tomb—a new incarnation of Undine—is thus permitted to avoid the castle itself.

Black Valley

Black Valley. Depression in the mountains not far from Ringstetten, named for the gloom cast upon its depths by the shadow of the pine forest on its slopes. It is there that Bertalda gets lost while trying to find her way back to her “true” home and is nearly destroyed by the elemental forces. Kühleborn’s interference is, however, counterproductive, prompting the rescue that brings Huldbrand and Bertalda together. This location re-emphasizes the depth and darkness of the gulf that separates humans from nature; even the stream flowing through the valley is black, with none of Undine’s symbolic beauty. Not only is it not a homely place, but it is not even a route through which one might safely pass in trying to reach home. No matter how nostalgic Undine may seem, therefore, it is no lament for a lost Golden Age. On the contrary, it is a celebration of the triumph of civilization over the wilderness, and of human artifice and ingenuity over the wayward and treacherous elements.


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Gosse, Edmund. “La Motte Fouqué: A Critical Study.” In Undine, by Friedrich de la Motte-Fouqué. London: Lawrence and Bullen, 1896. Gosse’s translation is perhaps the best of several English versions; his prefatory essay discusses the sources and reception of the work.

Green, David. “Keats and La Motte Fouqué’s Undine.” Delaware Notes 27 (1954): 34-48. Discusses the influence of Undine on John Keats’s Lamia (1820) and other poems involving supernatural women.

Hoppe, Manfred K. E. “Friedrich de La Motte Fouqué.” In Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and Horror, edited by Everett F. Bleiler. New York: Scribner’s, 1985. The essay contains an elaborate discussion of Undine, connecting its femme fatale theme to Fouqué’s own experiences.

Lillyman, W. J. “Fouqué’s Undine.” Studies in Romanticism 10 (1971): 94-104. Provides a careful dissection of the text.

Mornin, Edward. “Some Patriotic Novels and Tales by de La Motte Fouqué.” Seminar 11 (1975): 141-156. Places Undine and other works by Fouqué in the political context of German Romanticism and German nationalism.


Critical Essays