Theodor Fontane, Effi Briest
Published by Diogenes, 1997
She is a girl from a well-reputed house, seventeen years old, young and playful. He is thirty-eight, a baron, serious and away on business quite often. No wonder Effi Briest does not enjoy her arranged marriage to Baron Instetten all that much. She is bored, the house is big and empty and she is feeling lonely. This all changes when the charming Major von Crampas comes to Kessin and immediately takes a liking to Effi. Their friendship is bound to cause problems. The two start an affair and even though they manage to end their relationship after a while, Instetten still finds out about them through old letters and feels pressured to take action.
Theodor Fontane (1819-1898), who originally worked as a pharmacist, used the last year of his life to capture the society of the German Empire in his novels. His works, which are described as poetic realism in literary criticism, use varied narrative styles to create a perceptive but not judgmental image of the rigid Prussian moral code. Fontane thus shows the messy situation, Effi, Insetten and Crampas find themselves in, without taking a specific side.
This is left entirely to the reader. Since the first publication of "Effi Briest" starting in 1894, the novel has often been discussed, especially in literary criticism. Literary motifs like the swing set, the Chinese man or the round bed, but also the changing narrative perspectives, have been emphasised repeatedly. Fontane's work also had a strong impact on Thomas Mann's writing, whose domestic novel "Buddenbrooks" was substantially inspired by Fontane.
But it is not just art and academia that are fascinated by Effi's fate until this day. The novel has been read in schools for decades in order to give the students a better understanding of the late 19th century and demonstrate various writing methods. And although generations of pupils reportedly had to "trudge" through the book, you can still see teenagers getting carried away by Effi's tragic fate and have heated discussions in the classroom about who had the moral high ground. After all, that is the most exciting thing about Fontane's novel: It creates a scenario, in which all actions of the individual characters are understandable, but could all be dismissed as morally wrong because they do not fit into the prevalent system of rules that is too tightly knit.
Effi Briest still prompts its readers to seriously reflect on the rigidity of our society. The novel still works today, because nothing has really changed in regards to predetermined relationship patterns. For instance, the question if an affair can be justified by the constant absence of one partner and how this should be dealt with could still be asked nowadays, just like it could be asked with Instetten and Effi. Thus, even over one hundred years later, this literary classic still confronts us with the question: Are the categories and moral codes we once agreed upon still applicable in a postmodern age or is it time to rethink some things?