Effi Briest

[This page by Barbara Lester]

Effi Briest (1895)

Fontane set to work on Effi Briest, which was to become his best-known novel, a few days after his seventieth birthday. The inspiration for the work lay in real-life events which Fontane was made aware of in conversation with friends and through newspaper articles. According to these, the young aristocratic wife of an army officer had indulged in a scandalous affair with a friend of the family, a member of the judiciary. The husband, having gained knowledge of the affair, killed the male ‘culprit’ in a duel, which was already illegal in the 1880s but was generally condoned as an appropriate means of restoring the honour of the wronged party. This might be seen as a convenient way of avoiding personal decisions and taking responsibility for one’s actions. The husband was barely penalised and allowed to resume his career. Having fallen foul of the accepted moral code of the age, the woman in question later worked as a nurse to earn a living and lived to the ripe old age of ninety-nine.

Fontane turned the relatively meagre facts into the novel Effi Briest, which became a striking indictment of 19th-century Prussian society, where those who saw themselves and each other as willing participants in a code of honour and duty were, in fact, being constrained by a moral straitjacket that denied them vitality and vigour. Most of the players in this narrative can be said to have internalized the rules laid down by society and thus to have become complicit in the tragic events that are allowed to destroy the happiness of all those closely involved.

Effi von Briest, aged barely seventeen, is informed by her mother that Baron Geert von Innstetten, a former admirer and exact contemporary of her mother and a successful, handsome civil servant, has asked for her hand in marriage. It is clear that her mother expects the rather childlike girl to accept, since Innstetten represents a prestigious match and Effi is aware that the society in which she is anchored expects her to make the role of wife and mother the purpose of her life. Moreover, she belongs to a stratum of society in which the path to independence or any kind of self-sufficient status is barred to her. She is portrayed as a vivacious, somewhat capricious, entertaining and beautiful young woman, happiest in the company of her young friends and depicted as a ‘daughter of the air’. This powerful image, conjured up again and again by the narrator, is of Effi being most in her element when exercising on her swing, revelling in the feeling of freedom, flying through the air and, at the same time, aware of the danger inherent in such a pursuit, an enticing combination of thrills.

The reader is told that all serious matters concerning the marriage plans are dealt with by her mother. After her marriage Effi becomes an object of pride and of decorative value to the rather staid and, at times, didactic and manipulative Baron Innstetten. He is not above using ghost stories and frightening occurrences in the house that the newly married couple inhabit in a minor and very remote spa town on the shores of the Baltic, in order to keep Effi in check. He clearly lacks truly deep feelings and is devoid of any insight into the mind of his young bride. His position as a district administrator necessitates many absences from home. Effi, whose time is not adequately filled, despite having given birth to a child, experiences this as both frightening and conducive to feelings of emptiness. The narrator suggests vaguely that Innstetten, an extremely ambitious man, is at times summoned to the country house of Bismarck himself, who was the controlling political figure of the time. The ultimate destination for the Innstettens is to be Berlin, the heart of Wilhelmine Prussia.

Suffering from boredom and emotional neglect, Effi allows herself to conduct an affair with Major von Crampas, an ex-army officer, invalided out of active service, who is also unhappy in a stale marriage and greatly charmed by Effi, whom he perceives as a refreshing child of nature. His seductive behaviour and enticingly dangerous personality are not lost on Effi, but her involvement is merely a diversion for her, rather than love. The affair serves to counteract the social tedium and dearth of entertainment in Effi’s dull and all too provincial life. In due course, Innstetten is promoted to a considerably more elevated ministerial position in Berlin and the family moves to the capital. Life becomes more colourful, eventful, fulfilling and appropriate for Effi, now in her mid-twenties and more beautiful and accomplished than ever. The character traits which have singled her out all her life now truly come to the fore and allow her to play a successful role in society. To describe her mental state as happy would be overstating the reality, but the privileges of her life are clearly sufficient for her to settle into contentment.

The narrator obliquely suggests that Effi is unable to conceive further children as the love engendered in the Innstetten household is rather too sterile, lacking true warmth and thus not conducive to life-giving impulses. In Effi’s absence at a fashionable spa, known for its powers of curing gynaecological problems, her husband accidentally discovers some old love letters written during her affair on the shores of the Baltic. These, quite forgotten by Effi, had been relegated to the realm of insignificance in her mind.

Innstetten now virtually becomes society’s behavioural puppet, whose strings are inexorably pulled by the prevailing ethos with its strict code of honour. He feels impelled, against his real instinct and his wish to maintain the sufficiently agreeable status quo of his marriage, to satisfy the sacred rules of conduct expected of members of his class by challenging Effi’s former lover, Major von Crampas, to a duel. The duel results in Crampas’s death. Henceforth Effi, in line with the legally sanctioned procedures in such matters in an age in which women were not granted equal rights or sympathetic tolerance, is cast out of her previous life. She is punished by being forbidden access to her daughter and ostracized by polite society. She is deemed to have forfeited any chance of happiness and is even denied a return to her much loved parental home. It becomes apparent that her parents, though extremely loving on a human level, are also in thrall to the code that, in Chapter 27, Innstetten calls ‘jenes […] Gesellschafts-Etwas’; ‘that social something’, and initially they fail to break free from its powerful hold.

Time passes for Effi in undiminished misery; ailments overwhelm her and even the much longed-for, and eventually permitted visit by her little daughter, who mortifies her feverishly eager mother by responding like a trained automaton, has the effect of making her despair even deeper. Her concerned physician, Dr Rummschüttel, succeeds in persuading her hitherto unforgiving parents to take her back to the home that was her only true place of happiness. She eventually succumbs to tuberculosis and dies at peace with herself and even with the husband who so harshly cut her off from the world into which he had once so gladly and proudly catapulted her. In conversations with his closest friend, Innstetten acknowledges that he has been fundamentally changed; he voices regret and even finds himself unable to take pleasure in further professional advancement.

In her last days, Effi is aware of having transgressed and is conscious of her own culpability. She now achieves a high degree of acceptance of her impending death and at the end gains insight into the ossified code of virtue and honour demanded by society. She realizes that Innstetten is a small-minded, career-driven and emotionally impoverished individual, who is also clearly a product of his upbringing and environment. Thus she feels able to forgive him. In one of the last exchanges with her mother, she acknowledges generously that he acted in the only way possible for one who ‘had much that is good in his nature and was as noble as someone can be who is without real love’ (‘Denn er hatte viel Gutes in seiner Natur und war so edel, wie jemand sein kann, der ohne rechte Liebe ist’, Chapter 36). This enables her to make her peace with the world and to die calmly, having insisted on drawing in a few more deep breaths whilst exposed to the night air and looking up at the invitingly beckoning stars.

Finally, it is left to the parents to entertain the suspicion that, perhaps, blame might also be laid at their door for having married off their beloved, but immature, daughter at too young an age and for not having impressed on her a more rigid code of conduct, which might have enabled such a free spirit as Effi to bend to and absorb the rules of a cruelly unforgiving society, rules, which the author may be implying and the modern reader may infer, were made by men and largely favourable to them.

One can easily identify one of Fontane’s narrative techniques throughout the story, in evidence for example in occasional dialogue between Effi’s parents. Father Briest is shown to favour an incomplete refrain, for example the words ‘das ist ein weites Feld’ (inadequately translated as perhaps ‘this is a field too broad/far’); this is better understood as indicating that he is faced at times with situations too complex for his understanding and which present him with the imponderables of life. This leaves him unable to draw his own conclusions and far from able to offer solutions to intractable conundrums. This leaves the reader free to speculate on the underlying intention of the author or at least to recognize a common need in all of us to shelter behind well-worn phrases, clichés and bland utterances denoting helplessness on being exposed to unpalatable events or challenges. Father Briest’s repeated phrase, running through the story like a thread, has entered the German language and are quoted often to serve just such purposes for all.

English Translation

Theodor Fontane, Effi Briest, trans. by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers (London: Angel Books, 1995; Penguin, 2000)

Further Reading in English

Alan Bance, Theodor Fontane: The Major Novels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), Chapter 3 on Ellernklipp and Effi Briest

Russell A. Berman, ‘Effi Briest and the End of Realism’, in A Companion to German Realism 1848-1900, ed. by Todd Kontje (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2002), pp. 339-64

Kenneth S. Calhoon, ‘Alchemies of Distraction: James’s Portrait of a Lady and Fontane’s Effi Briest’, Arcadia 34:1 (1999), 90-113

Katharina Adeline Engler-Coldren, ‘On the “Right Measure” in Effi Briest: Ethics and Aesthetics of the Prosaic’, in Fontane in the Twenty-First Century, ed. by John B. Lyon and Brian Tucker (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2019), pp. 121-41

Barbara Everett, ‘Night Air: Effi Briest and other Novels by Fontane’, in Theodor Fontane and the European Context: Literature, Culture and Society in Prussia and Europe, ed. by Patricia Howe and Helen Chambers (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001), pp. 85-94

Glen A. Guidry, ‘Myth and Ritual in Fontane’s Effi Briest’, Germanic Review 59 (1984), 19-25

Valerie D. Greenberg, ‘The resistance of Effi Briest: an (un)told tale’, Publications of the Modern Language Association 103 (1988), 770-82

Brian Holbeche, ‘Innstetten’s ‘Geschichte mit Entsagung’ and its significance in Fontane’s Effi Briest’, German Life and Letters 41 (1987), 21-32

Sabine Hotho-Jackson, ‘“Dazu muß man selber intakt sein”: Innstetten and the portrayal of a male mind in Fontane’s Effi Briest’, Forum for Modern Language Studies 32 (1996), 264-76

Patricia Howe, ‘“Ewige Dauer zwischen so viel Beweglichem”. Aspects of the Eheroman’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 57 (1987), 19-38

Patricia Howe, ‘Manly Men and Womanly Women: Aesthetics and Gender in Fontane’s Effi Briest and Der Stechlin’, in From Goethe to Gide: Feminism, Aesthetics and the French and German Literary Canon 1770-1936, ed. by Mary Orr and Lesley Sharpe (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2005), pp. 129-44

Patricia Howe, ‘William Dean Howells’s Indian Summer and Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest: Forms and Phases of the Realist Novel’, Modern Language Review 102:1 (2007), 125-38

Edith H. Krause, ‘Desire and Denial: Fontane’s Effi Briest’, The Germanic Review 74:2 (1999), 117-29

Edith H. Krause, ‘Effi’s Endgame’, Oxford German Studies 32 (2003), 155-83

Edith H. Krause, ‘Domesticity, Eccentricity, and the Problems of Self-Making: The Suffering Protagonists in Theodore Fontane’s Effi Briest and Leopoldo Alas’s La Regenta’, Seminar 44:4 (2008), 414-32

Michael Minden, ‘Effi Briest and “die historische Stunde des Takts”’, Modern Language Review 76 (1981), 869-79

Michael Minden, ‘Realism versus Poetry: Theodor Fontane, Effi Briest’, in The German Novel in the Twentieth Century: Beyond Realism, ed. by David Midgley (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993), pp. 18-29

Debra N. Prager, Orienting the Self: The German Literary Encounter with the Eastern Other (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2014), Chapter 4 on Effi Briest, pp. 189-219

Stanley Radcliffe, Fontane: Effi Briest (London: Grant & Cutler, 1986)

Jeffrey Schneider, ‘Masculinity, Male Friendship, and the Paranoid Logic of Honor in Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest’, The German Quarterly 75:3 (2002), 265-81

Sara Shostak, ‘The Trauma of Separation: Public and Private Realms in Effi Briest’, in New Approaches to Theodor Fontane: Cultural Codes in Flux, ed. by Marion Doebeling (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 2000), pp. 51-67

Frances M. Subiotto, ‘The Ghost in Effi Briest’, Forum for Modern Language Studies 21 (1985), 137-50

Erika Swales, ‘Private Mythologies and Public Unease: On Fontane’s Effi Briest’, Modern Language Review 75 (1980), 114-123

Josef Thanner, ‘Symbol and function of the symbol in Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest’, Monatshefte 57 (1965), 187-92

Nicole Thesz, ‘Marie Nathusius’ Elisabeth and Fontane’s Effi Briest: Mental Illness and Marital Discord in the “Century of Nerves”’, The German Quarterly 83:1 (2010), 19-37

Reinhard H. Thum, ‘Symbol, Motif and Leitmotif in Fontane’s Effi Briest’, Germanic Review 54 (1979), 115-24

Brian Tucker, ‘Performing Boredom in Effi Briest: On the Effects of Narrative Speed’, The German Quarterly 80:2 (2007), 185-200

John Walker, ‘Theodor Fontane: Effi Briest – Realism, Empathy, and Identity’, in John Walker, The Truth of Realism: A Reassessment of the German Novel 1830-1900 (London: Legenda/MHRA, 2011), pp. 125-47

Charlotte Woodford, ‘Fontane, Effi Briest’, in Landmarks in the German Novel (1), ed. by Peter Hutchinson (Bern: Peter Lang, 2007), pp. 83-98

Holly A. Yanacek, ‘Nasty Women: Female Anger as Moral Judgement in Grete Minde and Effi Briest’, in Fontane in the Twenty-First Century, ed. by John B. Lyon and Brian Tucker (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2019), pp. 31-47

Further Reading in German

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

Wolfgang Matz, Die Kunst des Ehebruchs. Emma, Anna, Effi und ihre Männer (Wallstein: Göttingen, 2014)

Web Link


Effi Briest in German; click on a word for the English translation