Nana's courtesans lead Paris into moral decay and the country's subsequent defeat by the Prussian army, in Effi Briest, we see the imminent decline of Bismark's Prussia for exactly the opposite reasons.
Set in the 1880's we are confronted with a culture deeply entrenched in Prussian ideology, "a mixture of militarism, Lutheranism, loyalty to state and king, order, ambition and obedience, the Kantian ethic of doing one's duty and Hegelian apotheosis of the state- a combination of elements which Fontane regarded highly critically and to which he attributes the essential responsibility for Effi's destruction."(Fontane, Theodor. Effi Briest. Ed. Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers. 1995)
Geert Instetten is a 38 year old bachelor who, after spending the last twenty years diligently working for crown and country, has finally arrived at the point in his career where his status as Landrat would be greatly improved by a wife from a proper family. It is time for him to get married, so he packs a bag and heads to the home of his childhood sweetheart to ask for the hand of her 17 year old daughter.
In contrast to Geert's calculating propriety is Effi, a nature loving free spirited tom-boy racing around the backyard in a toga. Effi is playing with her three friends, none of which are quite in the same social strata as the Briest's, but as the daughters of schoolmasters and rectors there is no impropriety in their friendship. Hulda is described as "while more ladylike than the other two, she was also boring and conceited, a lymphatic blonde with somewhat protuberant eyes that somehow always seemed to be searching for something."
As the quartet plays languidly in the late morning sun, they decide to have a mock burial for the gooseberry skins they have been collecting and slowly make a funereal procession to the pond. As Effi solemnly intones the litany she remembers something:
"Hertha, your guilt is now consigned to the deep,' said Effi, 'oh and that reminds me, this is how they used to drown poor unfortunate women, from boats like this, for infidelity of course."
Thus we have the first foreshadowing of what is to come...although technically their downfall is inscribed within our protagonists names themselves, Effi, (according to the wonderful introduction by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers) is an echo of Eve; the implication being that her fall from grace and removal from the idyllic garden, in which we find her in the opening scene, is imminent and predestined. "'Geert' not only means 'a tall slender stem' as old Breist remarks, but also a 'switch', an instrument of punishment and control." (p. xii)
And so from the beginning their roles are written for them and the conflict begun. Effi, the wild spirit, that represents nature must either be controlled by pragmatism and culture, that her much older husband represents or fight back against his austere orderliness but in doing so risk losing everything.
According to HR and HC there is some debate about whether or not Fontane is subtle and intriguing as he spins his narrative web or a bit heavy handed. I tend to agree with the 'heavy handed' camp. Just so we don't lose sight of the fact that Effi is a young inexperienced virginal maiden, there are about a million references to the 'Virginia creeper' ie. virgin's vine, ie. wild wine "suggesting both freedom and Dionysian pleasure," (p. x) that separate the wild maiden surrounded by nature and the sitting room in which Instetten has begun the formalities of asking for Effi's hand in marriage.
"Instetten nodded mechanically in agreement, but his mind was scarcely on these matters as he glanced repeatedly in a kind of fascination at the Virginia creeper climbing up the window to which Briest had just alluded, and as he dwelt on this it was as if he saw the golden red heads of the girls again among the tendrils, and heard once more their 'Come back Effi.'"
While perhaps a bit on the wild native side, Effi is not without ambition of her own, and this match, although initially surprising is accepted in due course with little hesitancy. In a discussion with her girlfriends regarding whether this Geert is the 'right one' or not Effi replies:
"Of course he's the right one. You don't understand these things Hertha. Anybody is the right one. Provided he is an aristocrat and has a position and good looks, naturally."
And so begins their life of matrimony. They move to a provincial town, Kessin, where Geert is the highest member of society/only member of society. Part of societal ambition is being able to show off your position in society and Effi is disappointed with her lack of peers. She is cooped up in a little house, no more than a cottage, complete with it's own ghost of a chinaman that haunts the upper levels, an old maid that sits in a chair rocking a black hen and specimens from hunting exhibitions made by the former occupant hanging from the ceiling. When Effi asks to make changes to the decor, Geert is gentlemanly intractable, he likes the decor the way it is. While not unkind, Geert believes since he is confident in his love for Effi that there is no need to make a big show of it/any show of it. But for a young idealistic 17 year old ready and willing to pour out a heart full of passion, this just isn't quite enough, and it pains her that her marriage lacks marks of devotion or encouragement or even little attentions.
Within the year Effi has begun another transition, that of motherhood, and with Geert constantly on the road running hither and thither at the behest of Bismark, Effi's cocoon of solitude becomes unbearably snug.
Eventually the Crampas family moves to town. Crampas is an old soldier buddy of Geerts with a reputation for being a ladies man and a jealous wife of the 'ball and chain' type constantly supervising his extracurricular activities.
In a letter to her mother, Effi describes Crampas as "apparently a man who has had many affairs, a ladies man, which I always find ridiculous, and I would find it ridiculous on this occasion too, if he hadn't had a duel with one of his comrades for just that sort of reason."
GA! It's all so out in the open. We're only half way through the book and everything is unraveling before our eyes. Here is the ridiculous man, who is going to ridiculously insert himself into Effi's affections and although he's already fought a duel once before with a comrade, he is destined to fight another.
But first, a break in the narrative trajectory and Effi makes her way home with her new little precious cargo, Annie, and finds herself once again, and a year later, in the garden of her parents' estate. Still a young girl, but now with responsibilities almost too taxing, she seeks a respite in the quiet normalcy of her girlfriends who now envy her her position and wealth as the young Baroness Instetten. But Effi is still a wild, untamable colt and spends long afternoons swinging...?
"...best of all she had enjoyed standing on the swing as it flew through the air, just as in the old days, and the feeling 'now I'm going to fall' had given her a strange tingling sensation, a shudder of sweet danger."
Once again, Geert is absent. Throughout the whole summer he fails to take the short trip to Hohen-Cremmen and is instead entirely devoted to his job and subsequent endless duties. Effi finds his absence disheartening and a little chink in her armor, right above the heart, is pried just a little wider.
Upon her return to Kessin, Effi finds herself more and more in the company of Major Crampas in what, at first, are completely innocent circumstances. But then as Effi takes long walks alone, her absence seems to be pregnant with indiscernible meaning. One day, upon her return to the stable yard, Effi catches her nursemaid Roswitha chatting up the married stable man and gives her a bit of a chewing out, and we have a feeling that the pot is calling the kettle black. Her lack of patience with Roswitha's professed innocence is a bit much and she harshly tells her that if she's banking on the stableman's sick wife to die and leave him an amiable widower, she's waiting in vain, the sick tend to live the longest, and that wife with her black hen will probably cast a hex or a pox or something on Roswitha in the meantime.
Thankfully, Geert is eventually promoted and at just the right moment Effi makes her escape to Berlin. For a moment we breath a sigh of relief, thinking Effi has dodged a bullet and has miraculously escaped with her virtue intact.
6 years pass and the Instettens have settled into their new more cosmopolitan life. After the birth of Annie, Effi has found herself frequently ill with only the type of sickness that strikes the protagonists of 19th century literature. Unable to have more children, the Instetten line is at risk for extinction, but all is not completely lost. Effi takes long treatments at different German spas to work on her weak health and here we find her, at a treatment center in Ems chatting with a fellow patient Frau Zwicker. Effi, now 25, is still the innocent and asks this older more experienced woman her opinion on foreign literature, in particular Nana, was it really so dreadful?
"My dear Baroness, what do you mean, dreadful? There are much worse things than that.' She also seemed inclined, Effi concluded her letter, 'to tell me all about these "worse things". But I wouldn't let her, because I know you think the immorality of our times derives from such things as these and you're probably right."
I'm not sure what Frua Zwicker could mean by "worse things than that" as reading Nana in the 21st century was still at times a bit shocking, although I am a bit of an innocent prude myself...but the point is while France is embroiled in gratuitous prostitution, Prussians won't even read the book or discuss it's contents afraid that might lead to moral decay.
It is at this exact point, while Effi is at the spa in Ems, there is a moment of frenzy involving Annie falling down stairs and hitting her head and a quick decision to break open Effi's desk to find something to wrap on her head (?) A package of old letters are discovered, wrapped with a single red thread.
After ascertaining whether or not Annie's case is dire, and deciding it's not, Geert turns his attention to the packet of incriminating letters and to his horror finds evidence of his wife's infidelity with none other than that ridiculous old Major Crampas! Immediately Geert calls a friend and asks him to be his second and without delay they make their way to Kessin to challenge the Major to a duel.
For a moment there is the slightest hesitation. It has been 6 years since they left Kessin, His wife was 17 and perhaps entitled to a momentary lapse in judgment? And besides, Geert feels little resentment or bitterness...but his duty compels him onward.
"We're not just individuals, we're part of a larger whole and we must constantly have regard for that larger whole, we're dependent on it, beyond a doubt...wherever men live together, something has been established thats's just there, and it's a code we've become accustomed to judging everything by, ourselves as well as others...The world is as it is, and things don't take the course we want, they take the course other people want. All the pompous stuff you hear from some people about "divine justice" is nonsense of course, there's no such thing, quite the reverse: this cult of honor of ours is a form of idolatry, but as long as we have idols we have to worship them."
And so, Geert challenges the Major to a duel that ends fatally for the Major. Effi is sent a missive, telling her that her husband is filing for divorce and without a moment to say good bye to her daughter or pick up personal items from home, her life as Baroness Innstetten is over. Her parents agree to give her a small stipend to live on, but they are hesitant about having her return home, knowing that would ruin their social lives. Effi spends a few years living in essentially a garret, until news of her poor health reaches her parents and they finally decide to take their miscreant daughter home, where her health, with moments of improvement, gradually declines and she is destined to end her days in the garden, forever Effi Briest, untamed and true to herself/her nature at the cost of everything else.
In Nana there is no question that Parisian society is morally decayed and on the brink of it's ruin, but in Effi Briest the imminent ruin is a bit more subtle. At first glance it seems like Geert's intrenched morals are what will save Prussian society- they are incorruptible! But slowly we realize, that it is the cult of honor that propels Geert forward, not his feelings of justice or morality. "Innstetten's final, impotent recognition of the hollowness of his establishment principles coupled with the dying out of his family name prefigures the inevitable demise of an antiquated social and political construct. Fontane agrees with Charlotte Bronte: conventionality is not morality." (p.xi)
His duty to society is inflexible and demanding and he is willing to sacrifice the hope of an heir at the altar of culture and ambition.
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