Academic journal article German Quarterly

Masculinity, male friendship, and the paranoid logic of honor in Theodor Fontane's Effi briest

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Masculinity, male friendship, and the paranoid logic of honor in Theodor Fontane's Effi briest

Article excerpt

Though Effi Briest has been labeled an "Eheroman" (Miiller-Seidel) or even "Ehebruchroman" (Grawe), it might well be called an "Ehrenroman," for it belongs to a long German literary tradition of commenting on the practice of dueling. The two issues are intimately intertwined in the novel since marital problems seem to lead inexorably to a duel. Published in 1894/95, Effi Briest tells the story of the title character's arranged marriage to the significantly older Geert von Innstetten, a promising Prussian bureaucrat, who had courted Effi's mother unsuccessfully during their youth. A few years of ter Innstetten and Effi marry, Effi has an affair with Major von Crampas, Innstetten's friend and former comrade. The question of honor is raised explicitly when Innstetten accidentally discovers love letters from Crampas to Effi and thus learns of the affair more than six years after it occurred. He summons his friend and colleague Geheimrat von Wullersdorf to second him, and the two discuss whether Innstetten must duel Crampas and divorce Effi. Though Wullersdorf initially remains skeptical, he eventually agrees to participate, but not before denouncing the practice of dueling as "Gotzendienst." As the novel makes clear, the costs of the duel are high: Crampas dies on the "field of honor," Effi, divorced and sick, suffers social and emotional isolation until her parents open their home to her (shortly before her death), and Innstetten is left emotionally empty, morally bankrupt and spiritually fractured, despite the promotion he receives following the duel. With its uncompromisingly tragic outcome, Effi Briest has been called Fontane's "darkest work" (Swales 123).

Because Innstetten challenges Crampas to a duel and banishes Effi from society, the critical reception of the novel has tended to ascribe responsibility for the tragic outcome to Innstetten, while Effi is viewed as either "appallingly victimized" (Krause 122) or "schuldig-unschuldig" (Schafarschik 121). Quick to cite Wulersdorffs charge of "idol worship" in order to dismiss honor as "a superstitious belief" (Subiotto 143), critics usually understand Innstetten's decision to duel as a sign of his conformity to archaic social conventions or as a rational calculation in accord with his coldness toward Effi and his use of the ghost story as an "Angstapparat aus Kall" (17: 283).1 Social strictures placed upon Effi and women like her (see Grawe, Fontane 95-97 and Kempf 102-- 04) gave husbands extraordinary social and legal rights to resolve extramarital affairs to their advantage. But feminist critiques also tend to attribute blame for the affair and subsequent duel to Innstetten's character, especially his supposed lack of "capacity to love" (Greenberg 778) or a masochistic disposition (Boschenstein). One critic has gone so far as to suggest that Innstetten's sexual repression extends to "masterminding" Effi's adultery with Crampas (Hotho-Jackson 271).

Unfortunately, these attributions of individual responsibility to Innstetten betray numerous conceptual problems. First, assigning individual blame for the marriage's failure overlooks the novel's fundamental skepticism toward the institution of marriage, which seems designed to make characters aware of the "dubiousness and futility" of deep, romantic attachments (Devine 548). Second, most assessments of the failed marriage reproduce a false opposition of seemingly immutable gender differences: the irrational, emotional and "natural" qualities of Effi versus the rational, calculating and social orientation of Innstetten. Such contrasts reify gender differences cast by heterosexual norms rather than probe how the characters' gender might operate differently in the novel. The long-held perception of Effi as an idealized and aestheticized figure of womanly resignation relies on normative and restrictive constructions of femininity and ignores the extent to which her motivations-- especially her unconventional erotic interests-remain incompatible with bourgeois expectations of femininity. …

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