Monday, 28 September 2015

On Prussia's male code of honour during the Wilhelmine period, as displayed in Theodor Fontane's Effi Briest (1894)

Fontane’s oeuvre is located in an interesting position with regards to Western literary history: a little late for Austenian histrionics, a little early for modernism’s all-consuming doubts, whilst his own highly subtle, highly selective brand of 19th century realism sits somewhere between the two. Yet still more noticeably, his work Effi Briest (1894/5) is contemporary or ‘of its time’ in one major aspect, and that is the social backdrop of the questions he addresses.
The book is rooted in the very specific Prussia of this period. It is little wonder that a nation born out of victories against the Danes, the Austrians, and finally in the Franco-Prussian War (1871) – indeed, formed in, by and through a success that was primarily military rather than economic – should place such an emphasis on the importance of military might. Such imagery dominates the novel’s canvas: we hear of the Rathenowers, the local hussars, who are regular visitors to the von Briest estate; Effi recalls playing on the knee of a colonel as a child; and throughout life at Kessin the question of soldiers’ outposts remains an important one (e.g. it symbolises for Effi how much of a backwater it is – ‘es soll ja keinen Garnison haben’). Battles such as Fehrbellin, Rathenow, Waterloo and for that matter more recent triumphs like Königgrätz and Sedan are directly or indirectly mentioned in the texts several times. This is not window-dressing, since Fontane ‘maintained that if there was anything superfluous at all, then it was a flaw’ (Chambers). Rather, it is a consciously built sequence of images with which Fontane hopes to convey the significant entrenchment of military life and values on not only the customs of the aristocracy, but also of the bourgeoisie.
The male code of honour is one such crucial element of Effi Briest – indeed, perhaps the axis around which Fontane’s machinery pivots. Schneider and others have made the case that the work is less an ‘Ehenbruch-roman’ such as Anna Karenina with which it is often compared, and more of an ‘Ehren-roman’. The novel finds significance and drama less in the adultery as such, but the social fallout and the aftermath, and the questions which are left dangling in its wake, not to mention the pressures it places on individuals. Men were expected to be soldierly, to have affairs outside of marriage, and to suffer no slight or blemish to their reputation of honour; and though duelling was technically illegal it was still widely practised, the upper class thus maintaining their self-respect outside the law.
With this important context in mind, then, we must examine the effects such an honour code as on the novel’s principal characters of Effi and Innstetten. Though some might place the emergence of the code as a key element of the narrative at Chapter 27, when Innstetten first discovers the affair, it could be argued that right from the opening scenes we are encouraged as readers to engage with its customs and demands. Crucially, by marrying the daughter of the woman who he loved, Innstetten is mastering his former humiliation, and overcoming humiliation is the backbone of the code. He longs to possess an ‘exact replica’ of Luise von Brelling, the only woman in his life thus far; we get only glimpses of his past but read ‘das ganze Soldatenleben überhaupt muß ihn damals wie verleidet gewesen sein’, which is why he throws himself into the life of the civil service ‘mit einem wahren Beireifer’. The slight to his reputation – if not exactly his honour – is in his eyes amended by choosing a younger, more malleable wife, one he can quite easily shape (‘a wife of extreme plasticity is essential’ – Garland). Little matter that she seems rebellious, non-conformist even, for he is confident in his own character that, as Crampas puts it, ‘er operiert nämlich erzieherisch, ist der geborene Pädagog’. His military discipline, so long a part of the Prussian psyche and arguably stretching back to Wilhelm I and the tenets of Pietism such that distinguished Prussia as the most assiduous state in Europe, means he feels sure he can dominate his wife in the acceptable male fashion.
The dilemma which is visible at the start is that Effi is not in truth the dominated type. ‘Kampf und Widerstand sind nicht ihre Sache’, states her mother, but she is mistaking an undeveloped character for a weak one. The sailor’s collar that she wears, the erotic visions she emphatically describes with their ‘japanesischer Bettschirm…Kranichschnabel…rotem Schein’, the expectations she brings to marriage, none of them speak of the wife he is expecting. Fontane allows us a rare insight to Innstetten’s mind at this early stage, as we hear of his brief perturbation at the possible irreconcilability of their natures (‘war es ihm beständig, als ware der kleine Hergang doch mehr als ein bloßer Zufall gewesen’) – but then it is dismissed. Thus the author establishes the incompatibility of this supposed ‘Musterpaar’, an incompatibility which can only prove disastrous given the honour code within which men are supposed to move.
There can be little doubt that Effi is a victim of this code. The actions taken by Innstetten toward the latter half of the novel result in the death of her erstwhile lover and her own exclusion from society, not to mention her overwhelming sense of guilt and her bitterness toward both husband and child. It would be not improper to suggest that she is ruined by Innstetten’s actions. Of course, she is also ruined by her own actions, and we must proceed cautiously, since Fontane gives more weight to the moment of deciding how the affair should be approached than he does to the affair itself. Yet ‘der arme Effi’ certainly suffers under the restrictiveness of this code. The letter she receives from her mother is perhaps the most moving evidence of this: ‘du wirst einsam leben’, we read. Still more crucial: ‘die Welt, in der du gelebt hast, wird dir verschlossen sein’ and the parents she has loved write of ‘unsere Verurteiling deines Tuns’. The paradisiac garden of youth in which the reader is meant to recall her, dressed in girlish clothes, at the opening of the novel: that is no more. The Garden of Eden parallels are obvious; if Effi is quite clearly Eve, then Crampas represents the sinful, wily seduction of the serpent.
The ennui into which she falls as a result of becoming a social pariah is bitter and difficult to bear. In the context of the honour code, she knows her place and is aware of her guilt (‘ihrer Schuld war sie sich wohl bewusst’), and yet this doesn’t prevent a kind of rebellion against this established conventionality (‘sie sagte sich, [Innstetten] hatte Recht und noch einmal und noch einmal und zuletzt hatte er doch Unrecht’). She has never been particularly guided by principles and yet here she is the ultimate victim of principle – ‘das, was hart für Ihr Herz ist, das halt [Innstetten] für richtig’. The further blow is of course the fact that her own child is closed to her. At any suggestion of intimacy, the retort comes back ‘O gewiss, wenn ich darf’. Though Annie is not bound by the code as such, her husband’s iron grip on principle – again, the sign of a disciplined mind formed by his army years – allows yet more heart-ache to fester. She becomes still more vehement in her opposition to Innstetten and his code, opining ‘weil er klein ist, ist er grausam’. We might be led into thinking this is the author’s view – certainly, Fontane seemed to think the honour code as having a petty basis – and yet Effi Briest is a subtler, less polemic view of reality.
To extend the Garden of Eden metaphor a little further, what is interesting about the author’s presentation of reality here, however, and a major departure from the biblical tale, is that God too appears to get the rap: ‘God’ here being he of principle who challenges and takes on the serpent. Innstetten is a man ‘nicht nach Stimmungen und Laune, sondern nach Grundsätzen handelt’ – principles in which Effi herself admits to being completely devoid. He is a man’s man, the epitome of soldierhood, variously described as ‘soldatisch’ and ‘von militärischer Haltung’. A hard-working civil servant condemned as a ‘Karrieremacher’, we know he is soaked in Prussian uprightness and conventional to a fault. He is explicitly bound to the state of unchanging in the words ‘solange wir noch Männer haben wie Baron Innstetten…so lange geht es noch, so lange hält unser altes Preußen noch’. Certainly, the reaction he gives to the inevitability of a duel is a conservative one: ‘weil es trotzdem sein muss’ – there is no way around it; it must be confronted. His musing on what makes society implies a worldview that accepts the order of things as it stands: ‘aber freilich, wer kann was Neues sagen!’ The choice he makes is in keeping with the honour code – he challenges Crampas; they duel; Crampas is killed; Innstetten retains custody of the child and his wife is ostracised from decent society. In every respect, in the eyes of the ‘Gesellschafts-Etwas’, the glue of tradition and social mores that binds society together, Innstetten has done exactly what is required of him.
Yet in Fontane’s compassionate, non-judgmental novel, we are also made to feel pity for Innstetten. He too is a slave to the ‘tyrannisierende Gesellschafts-Etwas’, much as Effi is. It tyrannises him and other men like him much as they are compelled to tyrannise their wives, because it must, because it cannot fail to do so. To base a code of honour along a military discipline means ‘there can be no conclusively rational basis’ either for determining whether or not someone’s honour has been impugned, or ‘for either fighting or not fighting a duel’ (Schneider). This has been identified as the ‘paranoid logic of honour’: if one can conceive angst as to whether one’s honour has been insulted, or if one has doubts about whether a duel is necessary, the conclusion must be the same: it has been insulted, and a duel is necessary, in case others see you as failing to uphold your honour. This is Innstetten’s fear in his consultation with Wüllersdorf – ‘weil dieser Mitwisser da ist, kann ich nicht mehr zurück’. Once his wife’s case is known to another, the Verjährung matters little – he must carry it through, however little appetite for revenge he may have. Not only does this feeling of entrapment, of awful necessity, make him more pitiable in our eyes, but the author’s presentation of Innstetten after the affair itself is not one of a villain or a malevolent figure, but another victim. ‘Er maß [since Crampas’ death] mit anderem Maße, sah alles anders an’ – too late, he has recognised the empty hollowness of the code he has so slavishly pursued, and seen that it’s not the only measure of life’s worth. He realises that perhaps he could have happiness, but that it has eluded him, and that the honour code – in some way he doesn’t quite understand – has influenced this: ‘dass es ein Glück gebe, dass er es gehabt, aber dass er es nicht mehr habe und nicht mehr haben könne’.
There are no ‘sides’ to Fontane’s story, no heroes and villains. Rather the Wilhelmine code of honour is something lamentable, indeed terrifying, which has been institutionalised in all the upper echelons of society and which acts upon each unwitting participant. Fontane understood that there can be no separating individuals – their stories and tragedies – with social questions, and his quest for radicalism in his later years led him to this work, his ‘darkest work’ (Swales) in that it holds up a mirror to society and says ultimately, not merely Effi and Innstetten but all, all are victims when the ‘Gesellschafts-Etwas’ at the heart of a culture is so incriminating, so paranoid, so loveless and so ruthless in its demands.


Chambers, Helen, Introduction, Effi Briest, Penguin Classics, 1995.
Fontane, Theodor, Effi Briest, Reclam, 2002.
Garland, Henry, The Berlin Novels of Theodor Fontane, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.
Schneider, Jeffrey, ‘Masculinity, Male Friendship and the Paranoid Logic of Honor in Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest’, The German Quarterly, Vol 75, Summer 2002, No 3.
Swales, Erika, ‘Private Mythologies and Public Unease: On Fontane’s Effi Briest’, Modern Language Review 75 (1980)
Wölfel, Kurt, ‘Nachwort’, Effi Briest, Reclam, 2002.

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