Academic journal article German Quarterly

Shades of Melancholy in Gabriele Reuter's Aus guter Familie1

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Shades of Melancholy in Gabriele Reuter's Aus guter Familie1

Article excerpt

Gabriele Reuter (1859-1941) published over thirty works of prose fiction between the years of 1888 and 1937, many of which were acclaimed as "psychological novels" by her readers and reviewers.2 Moreover, although Reuter insisted in her autobiography that she was no fan of psychoanalysis,3 Sigmund Freud asserted that her best-selling novel of 1895, Aus guter Familie,4 offered unique insight into the origins of neuroses.5 Such contemporary opinions attest to Reuter's overall talents as writer, keen observer of human nature, and critic of the middle class in Wilhelminian Germany. Yet Freud was right to single out Aus guter Familie for its psychological insights. According to its subtitle, the novel recounts the Leidensgeschichte eines Mädchens, the tale of the suffering and sorrows of an unmarried "girl," Agathe Heidling, whose teenage fantasies and artistic sensibility give way in young adulthood to a series of psychosomatic illnesses and breakdowns. These afflictions result in two years in various nerve clinics, and ultimately, in Agathe's loss of her memory, her sense of individuality, and her desires.

When addressing Agathe's medical and psychological condition, secondary literature has generally offered the diagnosis of hysteria,6 and it is indisputable that Agathe represses her sexual desire and displays the physicalization of emotion typical of hysterics. Yet the focus on hysteria provides neither a sufficient account of Agathe's persistent sadness and feelings of guilt, nor an adequate explanation for the symbolic meaning attached to her mood states and for her drastic decline at the end of the novel. These aspects are better understood when viewed through the lens of melancholy, a term whose referent over the centuries has ranged from a mood state, to a temperament, to an illness or mood disorder. As a mood state, melancholy's main characteristics include temporary sadness, heavy spirits, and pensive reflection or contemplation. The melancholic temperament, in contrast, refers to a general disposition towards melancholy that, at various times, has been positively associated with artistic creativity.7 Lastly, in the case of the illness, often called melancholia, melancholic features become debilitating and are attributed to somatic or psychodynamic causes.8

Building on prior investigations into Reuter's work, this article illustrates how notions of melancholy as a temperament and as an illness are at work in the novel's attempt to account for and give meaning to Agathe Heidling's mood states. If one reads the novel as an illness narrative, the depictions of Agathe's sadness and final breakdown closely parallel descriptions of the functional illness melancholia as described by Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Emanuel Mendel in the final quarter of the 19th century. At the same time, the novel tentatively inserts Agathe into the affirmative tradition of the male artist whose melancholic temperament allows him to see more clearly than others. Finally, in its search for explanations for Agathe's inability to develop her talents, Aus guter Familie anticipates Freud's essay, "Trauer und Melancholie" (1915-1917), which posits the conscience and feelings of loss as the psychodynamic causes of melancholia. Naomi Schor has argued that different forms of melancholy "constantly intertwine, and cannot, should not be separated" (3). By engaging with the multiple, often-conflicting meanings of melancholy in circulation around 1900, Aus guter Familie explores both the redemptive and the pathological aspects of sadness and loss as experienced by middle-class women in Wilhelminian Germany. In so doing, the novel engages with contemporary scientific discourses without accepting their implied determinism, and it posits the potential for women's artistic sensibility and talent while investigating those factors that stand in the way of their development.

As readers familiar with Reuter's works know, she drew many of her psychological insights from her own life. …

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