[This page by Joanna Raisbeck]
Karoline von Günderrode (1780-1806)
Karoline von Günderrode is one of the most intellectually challenging female writers of the late eighteenth century, and ranks among other talented female writers of her generation, such as Therese Huber, Sophie Mereau, and Caroline Auguste Fischer. But the reception of Karoline von Günderrode as a Romantic writer has long been overshadowed by biographism, namely by her attractive biography and dramatic suicide. Bettine von Arnim’s partially fictionalised account of her correspondence and friendship with Günderrode, Die Günderode (1840), indeed encouraged a biographical approach. When interpreted as the direct result of being rejected by her married lover, Friedrich Creuzer, Günderrode’s death – by stabbing herself on the banks of the Rhine – seems to encapsulate the quintessential tragic suicide from unrequited love.
Günderrode was born in Hanau in 1780, the eldest of six children and the daughter of a councillor to the court in Karlsruhe. After the premature death of her father and subsequent financial difficulties within the family, from 1799 onwards Günderrode resided officially in a ‘Damenstift’ in Frankfurt (a convent of sorts for impoverished aristocratic women). Her literary work – the collections Gedichte und Phantasien [Poems and Fantasies] (1804), Poetische Fragmente [Poetic Fragments] (1805) and the fragmentary and posthumous Melete (1806) as well as the dramas Nikator, Udohla and the short prose piece Geschichte eines Brahminen [Story of a Brahmin] – forsakes the genre conventionally associated with female writers at the time, the disparagingly titled Frauenroman [‘women’s novel’]. Günderrode’s literary production impresses, particularly in Melete, through its formal and thematic variety and engagement with intellectual and philosophical ideas, ranging from Kant, Schiller, Rousseau, Herder, Fichte, Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis to the Naturphilosophie [Nature philosophy] of Schelling and Steffens.
Traditionally Günderrode has been perceived as a talented poet predominantly dealing with the themes of love, death, and myth, but equally female agency has been the subject of critical attention with regard to the short play Hildgund. This is a result of the feminist revival of interest in Günderrode, which was spearheaded by Christa Wolf. Wolf published a selection of Günderrode’s writing and letters in the volume Der Schatten eines Traumes [The Shadow of a Dream] (1981) in addition to Kein Ort. Nirgends [No Place on Earth] (1979), which imagines a fictive meeting between Heinrich von Kleist and Günderrode.
Other prominent themes in Günderrode’s work include the quest for knowledge and the limitations of human knowledge-seeking. Such quests are frequently situated or find their endpoint in the ‘Orient’, which encompasses the Near East, Egypt through to India, and is linked to the traditional trope of Oriental wisdom. The material associated with the Egyptian mysteries at the Temple of Sais recurs throughout her work and Günderrode thereby both taps into and develops a tradition which originated in Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride, and one which garnered increased attention through Schiller’s lectures Die Sendung Moses [Moses’s Mission] (1790). A corollary of the theme of knowledge-seeking is the broader problem of human agency, which is specifically explored in the play Magie und Schicksal [Magic and Fate].
One primary feature of Günderrode’s treatment of Oriental material is the move towards cultural syncreticism, so that, in the case of ‘Die Malabarischen Witwen’, Western philosophical or religious ideas overlap with Hindu cultural practices. This problematic yet highly accomplished sonnet depicts Hindu satī, the ritual burning of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres, where self-immolation is motivated by a fundamentally Christian ideal of absolute, transcendent love. The sonnet culminates in consummation in a double sense: of the vaporising of the lovers’ bodies in the flames and their erotic union in death, and thus a paradoxical unity is created by dissolution.
Translations of selected letters and ‘Einstens lebt ich süßes Leben’ ‘Ein apokaliptisches Fragment’, ‘Die einzige Klage’, as ‘Once a Dulcet Life Was Mine’, ‘Apocalyptical Fragment’, and ‘The Prime Lament’, in Jeannine Blackwell, Susanne Zantop (eds.), Bitter Healing: German Women Writers from 1700 to 1830: an anthology (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990)
Further Reading in English
Barbara Becker-Cantarino, ‘The “New Mythology”: Myth and Death in Karoline von Günderrode’s Literary Work’, in Women and Death 3: Women's Representations of Death in German Culture since 1500, ed. by Claire Bielby and Anna Richards (Rochester NY, 2010), pp. 51-70
Steve D. Martinson, ‘“...aus dem Schiffbruch des irdischen Lebens”: The Literature of Karoline von Günderrode and Early German Romantic and Idealist Philosophy’, German Studies Review 28:2 (May 2005), 303-26
Further Reading in German
Barbara Becker-Cantarino, Schriftstellerinnen der Romantik: Epoche – Werk – Wirkung, Arbeitsbücher zur Literaturgeschichte (Munich, 2000)
Helga Dormann, Die Kunst des inneren Sinns: Mythisierung der inneren und äußeren Natur im Werk Karoline von Günderrodes (Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 2004)
Dagmar von Gersdorff, »Die Erde ist mir Heimat nicht geworden«. Das Leben der Karoline von Günderrode (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 2001)
Markus Hille, Karoline von Günderrode (Rowohlt: Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1999)
K. F. Hilliard, ‘Orient und Mythos: Karoline von Günderrode’, in Frauen: MitSprechen – MitSchreiben. Beiträge zur literatur- und sprachwissenschaftlichen Frauenforschung, ed. by Marianne Henn and Britta Hufeisen, Stuttgarter Arbeiten zur Germanistik, 349 (Stuttgart: Akademischer Verlag Hans-Dieter Heinz, 1997), pp. 244-55
Helene M. Kastinger Riley, Die weibliche Muse: Sechs Essays über künstlerisch schaffende Frauen in der Goethezeit (Columbus, SC, 1987)
Lucia Maria Licher, Mein Leben in einer bleibenden Form aussprechen: Umrisse einer Ästhetik im Werk Karoline von Günderrodes (1780-1806), Beiträge zur neueren Literaturgeschichte, Dritte Folge, 150 (Heidelberg: Winter, 1996)
Web Links in German
Includes 64 poems by Günderrode
‘Sich zu verstellen war ihre Sache nicht’. Anlässlich des Todestages von Karoline von Günderrode am 26. Juli