Home > 19th Century, Classics, Fontane Theodor, German Literature, Novel > Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

November 21, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane. 1894

I’ve read Effi Briest for the German Lit Month but I didn’t follow the readalong and answer the questions; I wanted to write a review.

Effi Briest was published in 1894 and is Fontane’s last book. At the beginning of the novel, Effi is 17. She lives with her parents and is chatting animatedly with her friends in the garden. She’s telling them that she’s just met Innstetten who used to be in love with her mother but wasn’t rich enough to marry her at the time. Instetten is 37, has never been married and is a Landrat, a civil servant. He’s currently appointed in Kessin, in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Now Effi has to get prepared as he’s coming to their house. When she comes home, she discovers that Innstetten proposed and they’re engaged. She has met him for the first time the day before.

After a short trip to Berlin to organize the wedding, they are promptly married and Effi moves into Innstetten’s house in Kessin. The house is decorated in a bizarre fashion; Effi is uncomfortable. The upper floor is empty but for a drawing of a Chinaman, who’s supposed to be the ghost of the house. Innstetten makes it a good thing to have a ghost; it’s chic; like having a distinguished butler.

Kessin is a small town and Effi fails to make interesting acquaintances. The only one is an old man, Gieshübler. Innstetten is ambitious and often leaves her alone to travel for work or to attend receptions at the court. She’s left alone and lonely. She is soon expecting a baby and her little Annie is born on July 3rd, the summer after their wedding. Motherhood doesn’t bring more happiness and Effi is bored until the Crampas moves into town. Frau Crampas is a bear and won’t be the friend Effi needs. So only Crampas will get acquainted with the Innstettens. Crampas is over forty, a womanizer who quickly starts flirting with Effi.

I let you imagine what will happen.

We are here on the same path as with Madame Bovary: a young woman, with an ill-matched husband, bored, who falls into the hands of a skilled seducer. But Effi and Emma only have their initials in common. I have to say I prefer Effi to Emma. Emma is foolish and in a way makes her own bed. She’s also guiltier as she actually sleeps with Rodolphe. Effi is a lot more intelligent and insightful.

So it came about that she, who by nature was frank and open, accustomed herself more and more to play an underhand part. At times she was startled at the ease with which she could do it. Only in one respect she remained unchanged–she saw everything clearly and glossed nothing.

Some compare Effi to Anna Karenina; I don’t remember it well-enough to comment on that.

Effi is a pure victim of the German society. At the beginning of the book, she’s full of life, running, joking, playing with girl-friends. Her engagement switches her off. It’s the end of innocence, she has to be serious. But as Rimbaud pointed out “On n’est pas sérieux, quand on a dix-sept ans”. Innstetten has the manners of a rigid teacher; it’s as if he whistled the end of playtime. Effi takes things as they come, she dutifully obeys her parents. She has her opinion about about marriage, though:

“Yes, I think so, too, mama. But just imagine–and I am almost ashamed to say it–I am not so very much in favor of what is called a model married life.”

“That is just like you. And now tell me, pray, what are you really in favor of?”

“I am–well, I am in favor of like and like and naturally also of tenderness and love. And if tenderness and love are out of the question, because, as papa says, love is after all only fiddle-faddle, which I, however, do not believe, well, then I am in favor of wealth and an aristocratic house, a really aristocratic one, to which Prince Frederick Charles will come for an elk or grouse hunt, or where the old Emperor will call and have a gracious word for every lady, even for the younger ones. And then when we are in Berlin I am for court balls and gala performances at the Opera, with seats always close by the grand central box.”

“Do you say that out of pure sauciness and caprice?”

“No, mama, I am fully in earnest. Love comes first, but right after love come splendor and honor, and then comes amusement–yes, amusement, always something new, always something to make me laugh or weep. The thing I cannot endure is ennui.”

Poor Effi, boredom is exactly what she’ll get as entertainment doesn’t agree with Innstetten. He’s a good but righteous man. He’s kind and amiable; he’s fond of his wife but he’s not a lover. He treats her as an enjoyable and precious object. He’s only interested in his career in the stupidest way. In a French novel, Innstetten would have taken his pretty young wife with him to attend parties, socialize and make himself known. She would have been an asset; they could have worked as a team. Here, he works hard to succeed, which leads him to leave Effi behind and he does get promoted on merit, which always takes more time than getting promoted through playing with politics.

The society seems military; people surrender to rigid social rules, there’s no space for individuality. Think that this story is contemporary to Jude The Obscure, What Maisie Knew or La Bête humaine. The novel is like a tragedy by Racine: duty and society are more important than happiness and individual needs. I wouldn’t have wanted to live in that society; it’s so up tied; rigorous, it lacks warmth. Men and women are blindly obedient to duty and social conventions. In a way, Innstetten is also a victim of his education; he doesn’t act according to his heart but according to what he was taught to be right.

On the psychological side, there’s this thing about Innstetten being Frau von Briest’s ex-lover. I couldn’t help thinking of Freud. What are Innstetten’s motives in marrying Effi? Catching up with the daughter? Taking revenge? The old physician in Berlin claims that Effi looks exactly like her mother at her age. They barely knew each other when they got engaged; he didn’t love her. He just chose a wife the same way he would have chosen a horse or a dog, according to her breeding, upon her mother’s qualities. Why did Fontane add this detail at the beginning of the book? Effi Briest is a naturalist book; Zola is mentioned in the novel. Zola relies on heredity as a back bone of Les Rougon-Macquart. Does Fontane want to show that despite heredity, Effi IS NOT like her mother? The mother should have married Innstetten; they’re made in the same wood but he and Effi are an ill-matched couple.

Some things puzzled me in the novel. I didn’t quite understand the role of the Chinaman story. Is it to prove that women are weak creatures with poor nerves? Is it to illustrate Innstetten’s character? Is it “natural” for a German book, as part of the culture? The absence of gossip in Kessin also surprised me. Innstetten never knew. Why? Was it because people didn’t like him enough to tell him? Was it because people feared his reaction and protected Effi? Or is it because there was nothing to gossip about?

Fontane’s style is sometimes rigid too but with hints of his sense of humor, like here:

Innstetten actually wrote every day, as he had promised. The thing that made the receipt of his letters particularly pleasurable was the circumstance that he expected in return only one very short letter every week.

The dialogues can be very witty. But as soon as it comes to feelings love or bodily topics, he refrains. Was it dangerous to write about adultery at the time? Did he fear censorship? He’s a wonderful writer but full of restraint.

I’m used to reading foreign books but the culture here was unexpectedly far from my own. I come from a part of France with a strong German culture and for example, the descriptions of Christmases in Kessin reminded me of home. Is it because I’m not used to reading German literature? But I didn’t feel that alieness when I discovered Dutch literature in June. Really, I can’t nail the reason why I feel like this. I’m all brain with that book. It’s extremely well-written but really predictable. When you’ve read French classics, there’s a taste of déjà vu. I was wondering who would be the lover and had guessed the ending. I enjoyed reading it though, it’s an excellent book. Highly recommended.

Other reviews: Tom, from A Common Reader, Iris from Iris on books and participants following the rules of the readalong



  1. November 21, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    I throughyl enjoyed Effi Briest too when I read it. I know what you mean about an alien quality to a book, and I agree that Effi Briest doesn’t have it. There’s a film version if you’re interested, and Caroline posted the other day that there’s a remake that I know I’ll watch.

    I too found the marriage more than a bit peculiar since Innstetten wanted the mother initially, so the match starts off being unhealthy right from the beginning.

    I’m reading Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her and one of the marriages in the book isn’t exactly arranged but there is no small degree of pressure and coercion.


    • November 21, 2011 at 5:19 pm

      I did find it alien, different from British and French literature, that I know better. When I read Max Havelaar, the culture was different too but I didn’t find it strange. Or perhaps I just didn’t expect something so different in a country so close to home. I suppose the culture is linked to religion.

      It made me think of A Slight Misunderstanding though it’s very different in the tone. The common point is a miserable marriage between two people who shouldn’t be married to one another but who aren’t bad. Just very ill-matched.

      What did you think about the Chinaman thing? I really wonder why Fontane chose that peculiar beginning for their marriage. It sounds ancient, like widow queens marrying the new king, something like that. Or twisted, unhealthy, as you say. I can’t help thinking Balzac would have written an affair between the mother and the son-in-law. Now that I think of it, it brings me back to Greek tragedies. And I already thought of Racine. Maybe that’s the alien feeling: Greek tragedy strings in a European novel of the 19thC.

      I still have to read Caroline’s and other participants’ takes on it, I didn’t want to read anyone else’s thoughts before writing the review. I didn’t even read the questions. Now I’m free to have a look at other reviews.


  2. November 21, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    Emma, the affair was really consumated, in the carriage probably already. And later when she wnet for walks and was never found by Roswitha. When I think of Kleist and how outspoke he is a bout sexuality I don’t think this alien qulaity you mention is German, it’s very Fontane. He is a master because a lot is hidden. The construction, the foreshadowing, its all so incredibly well done. I didn’t even think it was lacking feeling, only it isn’t explicit.
    I think to fully understand one would have to read much more about it.
    He incorporated such a lot, it’s alos deeply rooted in the setting. Prussia, that’s the society but an incredible landscape too wirh marshes that can swallow you. wild storms than can drown you and the heavy snows just like Russia.
    I’m very curious to watch the movie but have been warned through some reviews that they changed much more than just Effi’s age and color of hair. The film maker is a woman.
    I did see Effi like the girl in the movie and the mother is an excellent choice. Instetten is a bit too good looking but I think it is said he is good looking in the book as well.


    • November 21, 2011 at 8:12 pm

      I guessed it was during the walks and because she felt so guilty but honestly I wasn’t sure. It’s never said and they were so attached to tiny rules that even writing and receiving letters seemed a big enough crime.

      I don’t think that hiding so much makes of him a master. Flaubert is a master. “Et elle s’abandonna”. Four words and you know that Emma and Rodolphe have sex. No details, just a short sentence. All this reserve prevented me from wholly loving the book. It didn’t reach me even if I’m not especially fond of big declarations and minute descriptions of feelings.

      What you mention about the lanscape is interesting. If the book had been written at the beginning of the 19thC, the writer, influenced by the Romantic atmosphere in literature would have taken more advantage of it.


      • November 21, 2011 at 8:18 pm

        I didn’t mean he was a master for hiding the affair, just in general, there is a whole subtext and a pattern under everything. But in Flaubert as well.
        I was moved because I felt for her but I wasn’t touched on a deep emotional and personal level. Sounds like a contradiction but it isn’t.


        • November 21, 2011 at 8:49 pm

          I thought the style a bit cold but beautiful. There’s a sort of wall of words, I don’t know how to say it. The text doesn’t show feelings and in a way it represents well the atmosphere of the society. Does he always write like this or is it special for this book?

          I pitied her too but I wasn’t touched as I’ve been by Maisie’s fate in What Maisie Knew. This one upset me. Effi Briest didn’t.


  3. November 22, 2011 at 12:32 am

    Fontane is the writer who brought Flaubert’s techniques into German literature. He was often criticized (by Germans) as “too French.”

    The Chinaman and the crocodile, and the use of landscape, are more “German,” in the tradition of novella writers like Theodor Storm, a master of mixing uncanny elements into an otherwise realistic story.

    In the “German Flaubert,” sense, yes, to my knowledge Fontane always writes like this.


    • November 22, 2011 at 9:47 am

      Thanks, I’m really new to German literature.
      It didn’t feel French to me but I can see the Flaubert connection or filiation.


  4. November 22, 2011 at 8:17 am

    The Chinaman was a bit of a red herring (or crocodile!), but I think his assumed relationship with the Captain’s daughter is supposed to foreshadow Effi’s liaison – and I think we can assume that there was a physical relationship. It was a good move on Fontane’s part to leave the reader in doubt as to the extent of the betrayal – the film versions are a little more forthright (the 2009 version, judging from the trailer, looks explicit!).


    • November 22, 2011 at 10:39 am

      I don’t know if it’s just my being ignorant or if Fontane isn’t widely known in France, but I didn’t know the plot before reading the book. (you know, for classics, you usually know what to expect). But it was clear from the start that she would have an affair. I kept looking for the character who would be the lover until Crampas steps in.

      I wonder if Fontane could have been more explicit without facing censorship.


  5. November 22, 2011 at 11:16 am

    Thanks for the mention of my own review. I really enjoyed this book and I think I was surprised to find it so engrossing. Fontane really captures the youthfulness of Effie when she was married off and today we would feel that the poor girl was bound to end up in trouble due to having to cope with heavy responsibilities and also loneliness.

    The world of German East Prussia has disappeared forever and it was interesting to read a book located there. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of that part of the world as I have read at least two books of history describing the terrible conflicts that led to the annihilation of the German culture in that region.

    I suspect the topic was quite explosive at the time and in some ways the book is quite modern in its outlook – in that poor Effie finds some sort of redemption (although in death!).


    • November 22, 2011 at 12:51 pm

      I really enjoyed it too. Effie is so alive at the beginning, chatting, moving. The change of life is terrible: she lives her family and friends, ends up in a small town where she knows nobody and her husband is always travelling. One could be depressed with less than that.
      As I mentionned somewhere else, for me, Effie is what Elizabeth Bennet would have become if she had blindly followed her mother’s wish and had married Mr Collins.

      Interesting comment about East Prussia. I wasn’t aware of that at all. Thanks.


  6. November 28, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    I certainly wasn’t aware of the plot of this one, or anything beside the title in fact.

    The issue of Instetten marrying his old flame’s daughter immediately struck me as creepy. It feels instinctively wrong, and would I suspect have felt pretty iffy to people of the time just as much.

    The thing I cannot endure is ennui. That whole paragraph is powerful, but that particularly so. She would like love, but would at least settle for amusement.

    I found your description of it as coldly beautiful intriguing. It does sound like something I should be checking out. I don’t know Briest’s work at all, and need to read more Zola, Flaubert and Balzac. But then there’s so much I need to read more of. Still, this definitely intrigues. I’ll look into translations.

    Otherwise, sorry for commenting so late. Pressure at work has meant I have a massive backlog of interesting reviews that I’m very slowly working through. I rather selfishly hope that not too many of them entice me. A review backlog is one thing, but it would be good if my reading backlog didn’t grow similarly. I fear, however, that it shall.


    • November 28, 2011 at 4:27 pm

      You’d like Effi Briest a lot. All the bloggers who read it this month wrote positive reviews. Plus you love Madame Bovary.
      This book is like the Skylark phenomenon, a great discovery.

      On your backlog, don’t apologize. I know you have job with long hours and I’m already glad that you care enough of these reviews to spend time here.

      I have a question now that I’ve read Lermontov: why is your blog named Pechorin’s Journal?


      • December 1, 2011 at 5:20 pm

        I’ve noticed the universal praise. The Skylark comparison is a nice one. It’s marvellous when one discovers these wonders, perhaps well known elsewhere but unknown to us.

        Regarding Pechorin;s Journal there’s no great magic to it. It’s a slightly obscure reference to a book I love. I also have registered, but haven’t done much with, Of Love and Hunger which is another book I love. One has to call a blog something, and that’s what struck me at the time I was making it. I’m happy with it, but there’s no particular significance ultimately.


        • December 1, 2011 at 5:37 pm

          OK, thanks for the answer. Having read it, I understand why you love the novel.


  1. November 24, 2011 at 9:32 pm
  2. November 27, 2011 at 10:18 pm
  3. November 30, 2011 at 10:13 am

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