Gottfried Keller, Die Leute von Seldwyla (The People of Seldwyla)


Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1982


“A collection of short stories, written down rather easily,” that was Gottfried Keller himself referred to his 1856 work “Die Leute von Seldwlya” (translates as “The People of Seldwyla”). The location of Seldwyla is revealed to the reader early in the book. It is a wonderful, sunny place somewhere in Switzerland. The disposition of the people living in Seldwyla is just as sunny. Always in a playful mood, they take things lightly. Hard and tedious work is not their cup of tea. Where others hole the purse strings, the typical Seldwyla citizen prefers to spend his money generously, live on credit and dabble in gambling.

Certainly such a carefree life is only for the young. The Seldwyla resident in middle age, on the other hand, is bankrupt and learns the hard way how to earn a livelihood.


In his most famous work, Gottfried Keller, born in Zurich in 1819, describes in a satirical manner the life and activities of bourgeois people in a bourgeois town. Highly entertaining, the individual stories illuminate how the people of Seldwyla strive for economic well-being, even if they constantly let their easy-going nature get in the way.


“Kleider machen Leute” (“Clothes Make the Man”) is also a well-known part of the collection of short stories. It revolves around the Silesian tailor Wenzel Strapinski, who had lost work and wage in Seldwyla. When he arrives in the town of Goldach with his carriage and distinguished clothes, he is believed to be a Polish count and treated accordingly. It’s only at his own engagement ceremony that some people from Seldwyla finally recognize him. His revenge, however, is sweet: With the fortune of his wife, he establishes a dressmaker’s workshop and makes his resentful fellow citizens pay a pretty penny for their clothes.


For this novella, one of the most famous of German-language literature to this day, Keller could draw upon his own experiences. His announcement that he intended to cause a sensation in Berlin was not backed up with action. Although he, who was to become the most influential writer of 19th-century Switzerland, might have felt the same way as the afore-mentioned imposter upon his discovery, the message of his work goes much further: The “Swiss Homer” turns out to both blunt and topical in his critical assessment of people being all too willing to let themselves be fooled by appearances and status symbols.


Annika Backe

Signet Sunflower Foundation