[This page by Barbara Lester with Patricia Howe]

Theodor Fontane (1819-1898)


Fontane was born in 1819 in Neuruppin, Brandenburg, in the heart of Prussia. His family was of Huguenot origin, but, despite his affectionate awareness of his heritage, he was primarily a man of his era and at heart a Prussian writer. His pharmacist father’s financial ineptitude necessitated several moves, so that the young Fontane never benefited from the kind of formal education he so greatly valued, the absence of which he later saw as a great shortcoming in his development. Having endured a spell as an apprentice pharmacist, he gave this up in 1843 as too tedious. Instead, he tried his hand at writing, as a result of which he and his wife Emilie, who was also of Huguenot descent, and their numerous children (of whom several died in infancy) experienced considerable financial insecurity.

From 1844 to 1865 Fontane was a member of a literary society ‘Tunnel über der Spree’. He took an active interest in the political upheavals leading to the March 1848 Revolution in the German-speaking territories, the aim of which was to achieve a measure of democracy. He first became known as a writer of ballads, often inspired by Prussian history or contemporary events. He also wrote essays on literary topics and political commentary. In 1851 he was employed by the newly founded ‘Zentralstelle für Preßangelegenheiten’; (Central Bureau for Press Affairs), which was intended to influence the German press in favour of Prussia. In the summer of 1852 and again from 1855-59, the Zentralstelle sent him to London as correspondent for the semi-official Preußische Zeitung (Prussian Newspaper), reporting on conditions in Britain and on British reactions to political and economic developments in Prussia. Fontane’s years in London in the 1850s and his travels in Britain, especially to Scotland, were largely to his liking and produced several works, such as Ein Sommer in London; A Summer in London (1854) and Jenseits des Tweed; Beyond the Tweed (1860). In 1859 he was recalled to Berlin where from 1860, despite his liberal leanings, he wrote for the conservative Neue Preußische Kreuz-Zeitung, until in 1870 he moved to the more liberal Vossische Zeitung. He worked as a war correspondent in Prussia’s wars with Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870-71). Germany did not achieve unification until 1871, after the Franco-Prussian War.

Fontane’s most outstanding work of the 1860s and 1870s was the Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg; Wanderings through the March of Brandenburg, originally published in five volumes (1862; 1863; 1873; 1882; 1889), an historical and literary journey through the province of Brandenburg. It was only relatively late in life that Fontane turned to the writing of novels, the first one being Vor dem Sturm; Before the Storm (1878) set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

This was followed by Grete Minde (1880); Ellernklipp (1881); L’Adultera and Schach von Wuthenow, both of which appeared in 1882, but dated 1883; Graf Petöfy (1884); Unterm Birnbaum; Under the Pear Tree (1885); Cécile (1887); Stine (1890); Quitt, which appeared in 1890, dated 1891; and Unwiederbringlich (1891) (translated as Beyond Recall (1964) and more recently as No Way Back (2010)). His best known novel is Effi Briest (1895).

Fontane’s so-called Berlin novels, set mainly in the Prussian capital, include:

L’Adultera (1882)

Irrungen, Wirrungen (1888); variously translated as Trials and Tribulations (1917), A Suitable Match (1968), Entanglements (1986), Delusions, Confusions (1989), and most recently as On Tangled Paths (2010)

Frau Jenny Treibel (1892; dated 1893)

Effi Briest (1895)

Die Poggenpuhls; The Poggenpuhl Family (1896)

Mathilde Möhring (1906, unfinished)

These novels focus mainly on the female protagonists, whose lives were largely circumscribed and often blighted by what, in Chapter 27 of Effi Briest, is called ‘jenes Gesellschafts-Etwas’, ‘that social something’, the code by which members of the Junker class, in particular, were expected to live. He acknowledges, however, that men, too, were victims of an extremely strict set of societal constraints.

Fontane’s last completed novel stages a fascinating debate between the old and the new, i.e. between the outgoing 19th century and the technological and political modernity of the 20th century:

Der Stechlin; The Stechlin (1898; dated 1899)

Genre and Narrative Technique

Fontane is one of the key exponents of 19th-century German realism, and is considered more internationally significant than his German language rivals Gustav Freytag, Gottfried Keller, Wilhelm Raabe, and Theodor Storm. His realism differed greatly from the French naturalism of Émile Zola. Whilst Zola regards material circumstances as the prime factors shaping human destiny, Fontane focuses on the relationships between the individual and society, and depicts marriage as merely a social institution. Fontane’s realism can be described as ‘impressionistic’ and ‘poetic’. There is an enigmatic quality to his narrative works, steeped in symbolic and veiled references to his characters’ motivation and conduct. His own thoughts on literature and the novel are contained in his letters and his reviews of the works of other writers. For example, on 2 July 1894 he wrote to Friedrich Stephany: ‘Love stories in their terrible similarity are essentially boring... but the societal ethos, the mores of the day, the hidden and dangerous political aspects which these things have... this is what interests me so very much.’ In a letter of 1 February 1894 to Georg Friedlaender he expresses his thoughts on the nature of authorship: ‘Goethe had fair copies of his things put in front of him nine times, and, if the latest version still wasn’t good enough, even more often. And that was Goethe! Anyone who writes down his verses and expects to find them immediately good enough to present to the world, will not amount to much. Only those who are deeply aware of their short-comings, can go on developing.’ Contemporary writers whose works he reviewed, not always favourably, include Gustav Freytag (1816-1895), Gottfried Keller (1819-1890), Theodor Storm (1817-1888) and Wilhelm Raabe (1831-1910). During almost two decades, during which he served as a theatre critic for the Vossische Zeitung, he wrote almost eight hundred reviews, reviewing, for example, performances of Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell (19 August 1870), Gerhart Hauptmann’s Vor Sonnenaufgang; Before Sunrise (20 October 1889) and Karl Gutzkow’s Der Gefangene von Metz; The Prisoner of Metz (12 January 1871).

The narrative strategies Fontane employs in his works are carefully constructed dialogue and telling description. Dialogue allows the characters to paint a picture of themselves by their utterances, their style, the language they use in their dealings with life and society, allied to humour and irony, which act as distancing devices. Their problems are located within everyday life, and thus they are not portrayed as heroic figures. They are not often shown in the execution of their work, whatever their occupation may be, but as husbands and wives, guests at parties, lovers or friends. While the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeois play central roles in individual novels, members of the exploited proletariat are rarely mentioned, and the squalor, brutality or illness found in their lives are omitted or only vaguely hinted at, sanitized by the poetic nature of Fontane’s writing, which endeavours to draw a veil over such troublesome conditions. This applies equally to the theme of sexuality, in keeping with late 19th-century sensibilities.

Fontane also excels in detailed descriptions of houses, furnishings and rooms, the realistic backdrop to the lives he analyses. These descriptions are used as indications of the mentality, status, changing fortunes or character of the protagonists.

One of the narrative devices used by Fontane is that of prefiguration, namely remarks, incidents or stories designed to foreshadow later developments, preparing the reader early on for subsequent events of significance. Their function and those of often repeated leitmotifs are usually only fully understood later in the novel.

Social and Political Thought

Fontane manages to remain ambiguous towards those he appears to hold responsible for the anachronistic political and social conditions in Wilhelminian Germany. The aristocratic Junkers, with their wealth derived from vast estates in the eastern provinces, are beginning to be eclipsed by the newly wealthy middle classes, a result of rapidly increasing industrialization and the ensuing international trade, which underpinned later, even more militaristic attitudes and desired colonial expansion. Fontane welcomes political rejuvenation and the change in the position of the nobility but, at the same time, recognizes the aristocracy as socially superior and appears to value the social and political stability provided by the status quo. It is left to the reader to reach conclusions as to the balance between these two conflicting views. There is, however, a letter to Georg Friedlaender (6 May 1895) in which he says ‘My hatred of everything which gets in the way of the new era is ever increasing; the possibility, probability even, that the victory of the new will have to be preceded by a terrible battle, cannot deter me from wishing for this victory.’ Yet the plight of the working classes, newly urbanised and often exploited, barely figures in Fontane’s works, despite statements by him that the future would lie with the Fourth Estate.

In general, Fontane is not polemical in his approach to contemporary social and political issues but he covertly raises questions to which answers cannot readily be found. He may be seen as a chronicler of Prussia in the second half of the 19th century, commenting on an age of transition from the revered, established values of Old Prussia to an era in which substance gives way both to hollow forms of conduct, and to technological and social development.

Further Reading in English

James N. Bade, Fontane’s Landscapes (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2009)

Alan Bance, Theodor Fontane: The Major Novels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982)

Alan Bance, ‘Fontane and the Notion of Progress’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 57 (1988), 1-18

Peter James Bowman, ‘Fontane and the Programmatic Realists: Contrasting Theories of the Novel’, Modern Language Review 103:1 (2008), 129-42

Helen Chambers, The Changing Image of Theodor Fontane (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1997)

Gordon A. Craig, Theodor Fontane: Literature and History in the Bismarck Reich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)

Marion Doebeling (ed.), New Approaches to Theodor Fontane: Cultural Codes in Flux (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 2000)

Erich Heller, In the Age of Prose: Literary and Philosophical Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), Chapter 13 on Theodor Fontane

Henry Garland, The Berlin Novels of Theodor Fontane (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980)

Patricia Howe and Helen Chambers (eds.), Theodor Fontane and the European Context: Literature, Culture and Society in Prussia and Europe (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001)

David S. Johnson, ‘The Democratization of Leisure and the Modernities of Space and Place in Theodor Fontane’s Berlin Novels’, The German Quarterly 84 (2011), 61-79

John B. Lyon and Brian Tucker (eds.), Fontane in the Twenty-First Century (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2019)

Georg Lukács, ‘The Later Fontane’ [1950], in Lukács, German Realists in the Nineteenth Century, trans. by Jeremy Gaines and Paul Keast, ed. by Rodney Livingstone (London: Libris, 1993), pp. 283-333

Petra S. McGillen, The Fontane Workshop (London: Bloomsbury, 2019)

Helena Ragg-Kirkby, ‘“Alles ist wie Opferstätte”: Society and Sacrifice in the Works of Theodor Fontane’, Oxford German Studies 29 (2000), 95-130

A. R. Robinson, Theodor Fontane: An Introduction to the Man and his Work (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1976)

Petra A. Spies. ‘Creative Machine: The Media History of Theodor Fontane’s Library Network and Reading Practices’, Germanic Review 87:1 (2012), 72-90

J. P. Stern, Re-Interpretations: Seven Studies in Nineteenth-Century German Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)

J. P. Stern, Idylls and Realities: Studies in Nineteenth-Century German Literature (London: Methuen, 1971), Chapter 8 on Theodor Fontane

Brian Tucker und John B. Lyon (eds.), Colloquia Germanica 52:1-2 (2020), special issue on Theodor Fontane

Michael James White, Space in Theodor Fontane’s Works: Theme and Poetic Function (London: MHRA/IGRS, 2012)

Further Reading in German

Andrew Cusack and Michael White (eds.), Der Fontane-Ton: Stil im Werk Theodor Fontanes, Schriften der Theodor Fontane Gesellschaft 13 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2021)

Gerhart von Graevenitz, Theodor Fontane: ängstliche Moderne. Über das Imaginäre (Konstanz: Konstanz University Press, 2014)

Christian Grawe & Helmuth Nürnberger (eds.), Fontane-Handbuch (Stuttgart: Kröner, 2000)

Charlotte Jolles, Fontane und die Politik (Berlin: Aufbau, 1983)

Charlotte Jolles, Theodor Fontane, 4th edition (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1993)

Thomas Mann, ‘Der alte Fontane’ [1910], in Theodor Fontane, ed. by Wolfgang Preisendanz, Wege der Forschung, 381 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1973)

Hans-Heinrich Reuter, Fontane, 2 vols (Munich: Nymphenburger, 1968)

Martin Swales, ‘Möglichkeiten und Grenzen des Fontaneschen Realismus’, in Text und Kritik: Theodor Fontane, ed. by H. L. Arnold (Munich, 1989), pp. 75-87

Web Links in German

International Theodor Fontane Society; membership includes subscription to Fontane-Blätter and Mitteilungen der Fontane Gesellschaft

Theodor Fontane Archive in Potsdam

Online critical edition of Fontane’s notebooks

Theodor Fontane, Große Brandenburger Ausgabe (GBA)