Die Elixiere des Teufels

[This page by Nicole Sütterlin]

Die Elixiere des Teufels; The Devil’s Elixirs (1815-16)

Today, Die Elixiere des Teufels; The Devil’s Elixirs (1815-16) represents a canonical text within the corpus of Romanticism. Interestingly however, Hoffmann’s and German Romanticism’s only Gothic novel failed to properly impress contemporary German readers, whereas it met with great success in England after being translated in 1824. Only then did German critics realize that it offered far more than a trivial – and thrilling! – read, and started to turn an attentive eye to its complex poetics: its ambivalent combination of dream and reality, horror and humour, sanity and madness, and its topical psychological interest in the workings of the human psyche. Subsequent to its success in England, the novel – particularly its ingenious evocation of the Doppelgänger motif – also influenced the American writers Poe and Hawthorne.

In autobiographical first-person narrator mode, the Elixiere tell the fictional life story of the monk Medardus. The protagonist’s story begins as he enters a monastery in his teenage years and gives up his birth name Franz to become the monk Medardus. He is symbolically initiated into monkhood by the abbess, who will later turn out to have been his father’s lover. Medardus enters a Faustian pact with the devil by drinking from an elixir which gives him poetic inspiration and the power of rhetorical speech, a power which he doesn’t fail to exert especially on his female audience. Suddenly, the young monk starts to be tormented by sexual desires incompatible with monastic life. When he meets the beautiful Aurelie, he flees from the monastery in order to lead a covetous and criminal life, his movements governed by desire, coincidence, and fate. He travels through Germany and Italy, making many a strange encounter, surviving incarceration and violent attacks by a mysterious Doppelgänger, while himself engaging in brutal assault, rape and incestuous erotic relations with the virginal Aurelie and the voluptuous Euphemie, both of whom will eventually turn out to be related to him. Only after Aurelie has been murdered by Medardus’s Doppelgänger Viktorin does the death-bound monk find atonement and final peace in the monastery of his youth.

The Elixiere’s plot was strongly influenced by Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk (1796). Like Hoffmann’s Medardus, Lewis’ protagonist is a rhetorically versed monk who, torn between a virginal and a sensual ideal of the female, ends up committing incest and murder. Hoffmann’s story, however, goes far beyond Lewis’ Monk and the Gothic novel tradition in its structural complexity and in the psychological framework which motivates the plot. Hoffmann did not simply have an uncanny eye for the irrational and the subconscious, for the dark workings of desires, dreams and ecstatic delusions; he was also well-informed about topical contemporary psychology and psychiatry. Amongst other complexities, it is this psychological differentiation which raises the Elixiere above mere entertainment literature and makes it practically the first Gothic novel of its kind (its only predecessor in this respect being Schiller’s Der Geisterseher; The Ghost-Seer (1787-89)). The Doppelgänger motif, for example, is not merely a thrilling plot element but it is psychoanalytically charged, motivating the hero’s movements from a psychological rather than from a plot angle. Characteristically for Hoffmann, this motivation gains its suspense by means of an ongoing uncertainty: for about two thirds of the novel, the reader is made to be uncertain whether Medardus does indeed have a living double or whether the mysterious Doppelgänger and his eerie laugh are just figments of the monk’s overwrought imagination.

The Doppelgänger motif thus raises a question that is central to Hoffmann’s oeuvre: the question of identity. Is the Doppelgänger Viktorin a fantasy, pointing to the fact that Medardus’s personality is split to the point of madness? The monk is indeed tormented by the ‘seltsamsten Widersprüche in [s]einem Innern’; by ‘the weirdest contradictions within [him]self’:

Mein eignes Ich zum grausamen Spiel eines launenhaften Zufalls geworden, und in fremdartige Gestalten zerfliessend, schwamm ohne Halt wie in einem Meer all der Ereignisse, die wie tobende Wellen auf mich hineinbrausten. – Ich konnte mich selbst nicht wieder finden! – […] denn ich bin selbst Viktorin. Ich bin das, was ich scheine, und scheine das nicht, was ich bin, mir selbst ein unerklärlich Rätsel, bin ich entzweit mit meinem Ich!


My own self, having become the cruel game of a capricious coincidence, and dissolving into strange figures, swam anchorless in a sea of all the events which roared down on me like raving waves. – I could not find myself! – […] because I myself am Viktorin. I am that which I seem, and seem not what I am, an inexplicable puzzle to myself, I am disunited with my self!

Even though the Doppelgänger eventually turns out to be real – he is Medardus’s half-brother and part of a dizzyingly intricate, incestuous bloodline that goes back generations – the reader has already been so sensitized to the psychological implications of the Doppelgänger motif that the question of identity remains deeply problematic.

Characteristically for Hoffmann and the Romantic tradition, the narrative composition of the Elixiere is such as to offer multiple perspectives. The main story is framed by a fictitious editor’s preface which introduces the novel as a transcription from a barely readable manuscript (cf. the novel’s full title: Die Elixiere des Teufels. Nachgelassene Papiere des Bruders Medardus, eines Kapuziners; The Devil’s Elixirs. Posthumous Writings by Brother Medardus, a Capuchin), and later this transcription will turn out to have been the incomplete translation of an Italian text. Thus the authenticity of Medardus’s story becomes highly problematic, and this structural complexity beautifully mirrors Medardus’s complex identity. The identity problematic is also reflected in the novel’s cyclical structure (monastery – world – monastery), i.e. in its favouring of repetition over forward movement. The Elixiere is thus not a Bildungsroman, as scholars have sometimes maintained, i.e. it is not a novel which depicts the gradual, successful forming of the hero’s identity, but rather a novel in which the hero’s identity becomes increasingly diffuse. It is not simply a Schauerroman either. While it offers a thrilling story of incestuous love and murderous obsession, its motifs and its intricate form also raise questions that testify to Hoffmann’s astute awareness of specifically modern problematics as well as his high skill as a writer.

German Edition

E.T.A. Hoffmann, Die Elixiere des Teufels. Werke 1814-1816. Ed. by Hartmut Steinecke and Gerhard Allroggen (Frankfurt a.M.: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 2007)

Further Reading in English

Kenneth G. Negus, ‘The Family Tree in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Die Elixiere des Teufels’, in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 73:1 (1958), 516-20

Christopher R. Clason, ‘Narrative Teasing: Withholding Closure in Hoffmann’s Elixiere des Teufels’, Colloquia Germanica: Internationale Zeitschrift für Germanistik 42:1 (2009), 81-92

Christine Lehleiter, ‘On Genealogy: Biology, Religion, and Aesthetics in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Elixiere des Teufels (1815/16) and Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia (1794-96)’, The German Quarterly 84:1 (2011), 41-60

Dennis F. Mahoney, ‘Double into Doppelgänger: The Genesis of the Doppelgänger-Motif in the Novels of Jean Paul and E. T. A. Hoffmann’, Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 4:1-2 (1983), 54-63

Andrew J. Webber, The Doppelgänger. Double Visions in German Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), Chapter 3: ‘Hoffmann’s Chronic Dualisms’, pp. 113-94

Further Reading in German

Maximilian Bergengruen, ‘Der Weg allen Blutes. Vererbung in E.T.A. Hoffmanns Die Elixiere des Teufels’, in Bernd Auerochs und Dirk von Petersdorff (eds.), Einheit der Romantik? Zur Transformation frühromantischer Konzepte im 19. Jahrhundert (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2009), pp. 149-72

Walter Hinderer, ‘Die poetische Psychoanalyse in E.T.A. Hoffmanns Roman Die Elixiere des Teufels’, in Gerhard Neumann et al. (eds.), Hoffmanneske Geschichte. Zu einer Literaturwissenschaft als Kulturwissenschaft (Würzburg: Königshausen and Neumann, 2005), pp. 43-76

Detlef Kremer, ‘Die Elixiere des Teufels. Das Phantom der Familie oder die Metamorphosen des Mönchs’, in Günter Saße (ed.), Interpretationen. E.T.A. Hoffmann: Romane und Erzählungen (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2004), pp. 75-95

Wolfgang Nehring, ‘Gothic Novel und Schauerroman, Tradition und Innovation in Hoffmanns Die Elixiere des Teufels’, Hoffmann-Jahrbuch 1 (1992/93), 36-47

Nicholas Saul, ‘Experimentelle Selbsterfahrung und Selbstdestruktion: Anatomie des Ichs in der literarischen Moderne’, in Silvio Vietta und Dirk Kemper (eds.), Ästhetische Moderne in Europa. Grundzüge und Problemzusammenhänge seit der Romantik (Munich: Fink, 1998), pp. 321-42

Hartmut Steinecke, ‘Kommentar‘, in: E.T.A. Hoffmann, Werke 1814-1816, Bd. 2/2, ed. by H.S. (Frankfurt a.M.: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1988), pp. 566-75

Gerhard Weinholz, Psychologie und Soziologie in E.T.A. Hoffmanns Roman „Die Elixiere des Teufels“ (Essen: Blaue Eule, 1990)

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