Die Ermordung einer Butterblume; The Murder of a Buttercup

[This page by Michael Navratil]

Die Ermordung einer Butterblume; The Murder of a Buttercup (1913)

‘Die Ermordung einer Butterblume’; ‘The Murder of a Buttercup’ is a short story by Alfred Döblin, published in 1913 in Döblin’s first short story collection of the same title. The story deals with the aberrant psychological development of a businessman who believes himself to be haunted by a buttercup he ‘murdered’ during a stroll in the forest. Döblin’s short story is considered one of the seminal prose texts of early Expressionism.

Businessman Michael Fischer takes a walk in the environs of a small city. When his walking stick gets entangled in some weeds, he falls into a tantrum and attacks the plants with his stick. Afterwards he is convinced that he has killed a buttercup whose name he assumes to be Ellen. Fischer fears that he may be prosecuted for his murder, hunted down by the trees of the forest, or even drowned by the flower’s blood. After he returns to his home, the preoccupation with the beheaded buttercup continues. He opens a bank account for the flower and starts sacrificing food and drink for her. One day, back in the forest, Fischer wonders whether the flowers surrounding him might not be Ellen’s daughters and whether his crime might be avenged if he started nursing one of them. He digs out one of the flowers and takes it home. But when he returns from work one day, his maid tells him that she accidentally broke the flowerpot and threw out both the shards and the weed. Exuberantly happy, Michael Fischer makes his way back to the forest, feeling free to murder as many flowers and animals as he pleases.

‘Die Ermordung einer Butterblume’; ‘The Murder of a Buttercup’ explores the psychic reality of a member of the Wilhelmine bourgeoisie driven by compulsions and psychoses. The relation with the imagined buttercup oscillates between emotional attraction and repulsion as well as guilt and hate and is closely intertwined with questions of sexuality, power and authority. Some hints in the text suggest that the buttercup is a maternal figure, thus associating Michael Fischer’s murder with the matricide of Orestes in Greek tragedy as well as with Freudian theories. Another prominent topic of the short story is the dichotomy between nature and culture.

In his story, Döblin, a psychiatrist himself, draws on the psychopathological knowledge of his day. The text, however, does not offer an exhaustive psychological analysis of its protagonist but rather gives an entirely personal and not necessarily plausible account of Michael Fischer’s thoughts, fears and visions. With its preference of the inner over the outer world, its focus on violence and sexuality, its experimental modes of narration and its raw imagery it marks a transition from literary topics and techniques of the Fin de Siècle to an Expressionist aesthetic.

Further Reading in English

Michael J. Cowan, ‘“Die Tücke des Körpers”: Taming the nervous body in Alfred Döblin’s “Die Ermordung einer Butterblume” and “Die Tänzerin und der Leib”’, Seminar 43:4 (2007), 482-98

Heidi Thomann Tewarson, ‘Döblin’s early collection of stories, “Die Ermordung einer Butterblume”: toward a modernist aesthetic’, in Roland Dollinger (ed.), A Companion to the Works of Alfred Döblin (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2004), pp. 23-54

Further Reading in German

Stephanie Catani, ‘Die Geburt des “Döblinismus” aus dem Geist des Fin de Siècle: Döblins frühe Erzählungen im Spannungsfeld von Ästhetik, Poetik und Medizin’, in Steffan Davies, Ernest Schonfield (eds.), Alfred Döblin: Paradigms of Modernism (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009), pp. 28-45

Christine Kanz, ‘Emotionen und Geschlechterstereotype in Alfred Döblins Novelle “Die Ermordung einer Butterblume”, Internationales Alfred Döblin-Kolloquium (2002), pp. 31-54

Reiner Marx, ‘Literatur und Zwangsneurose: eine Gegenübertragungs-Improvisation zu Alfred Döblins früher Erzählung “Die Ermordung einer Butterblume”’, Internationales Alfred-Döblin Kolloquium (1997), pp. 49-60

Georg Reuchlein, ‘“Man lerne von der Psychiatrie”, Literatur, Psychologie und Psychopathologie in Alfred Döblins “Berliner Programm” und “Die Ermordung einer Butterblume”, Jahrbuch für internationale Germanistik 23:1 (1991), 10-68

Thomas Wolf, Die Dimension der Natur im Frühwerk Alfred Döblins (Regensburg: Roderer, 1993)