Effi Briest

  • Country in which the text is set
    Pomerania, Prussia
  • Featured locations
    Kessin – fictive Baltic Sea town based on Swinemünde
    Świnoujście Swinemünde (Kessin)
  • Impact

    The events of the novel take place in three locations. The first is Hohen-Cremmen, the Briest family estate in Brandenburg where Effi spends her happy childhood. This period comes to an end in the first five chapters, when the 17-year-old Effi accepts the marriage proposal of Baron von Instetten. The baron is 38, like Effi’s mother, whom he once courted unsuccessfully. The second setting is Kessin, a harbor town and spa on the Pomeranian Baltic coast, where Instetten has a high position in the civil service (chapters 6-22). In the sixth chapter Innstettin introduces his young wife (just as the author introduces the reader) to the seaside town that is to be her new home. The description of the town has a strongly symbolic character, just as the description of the Hohen-Cremmen estate does. However, while the cosmopolitan exotic character of the town is favorably contrasted with the narrow-minded outlook of the hinterland as well as the bigotry and rigid regional patriotism of the Prussian rural aristocracy, it is also presented from the outset as ambivalent, sinister and threatening. This aspect becomes more pronounced in the nineteenth chapter when Effi begins to succumb to the advances of notorious womanizer Major von Crampas. Effi subsequently experiences her move to Berlin—the novel’s third setting—due to her husband’s promotion as a liberation from self-estrangement and ostracism. Her enjoyment of Berlin’s social life (a period which also covers her stay at a health resort in Bad Ems) comes to an abrupt end when, after six years, Innstetten finds letters that reveal Effi’s infidelity. He kills Crampas in a duel and divorces his wife. Ostracized and isolated, Effi continues to live in Berlin for some years, falls ill and is taken back to Hohen-Cremmen by her parents. She dies soon after, finally reconciled to herself and the world.

    In his portrayal of Kessin and its inhabitants (17 chapters!) Fontane draws extensively on his own experience of Swinemünde (today Polish Swinoujście), where his father ran the apothecary and Fontane spent part of his childhood, from 1827 to 1832. Between 1892 and 1893 Fontane interrupted his work on Effi Briest to write the ‘autobiographical novel’ Meine Kinderjahre (My Childhood Days) as a means of liberating himself from this reality and coming to terms with it before investing it with the symbolism is acquires in his work.

    Literary scholar and Fontane expert Charlotte Jolles characterizes Effi Briest as “Fontane’s first really big success.” A literary critic writing in 1919 argued that with this novel Fontane had risen into the ranks of “world literature.” And when Thomas Mann held a lecture for Princeton students in 1940 on “The Art of the Novel” he argued that Effi Briest was central to understanding “Germany’s contribution to the European art of storytelling” in the nineteenth century and that Fontane had still to be given the recognition he deserved: “It is important to cite Theodor Fontane, at least one of whose highly differentiated late works, Effi Briest, is a European masterpiece — which is not to say that Europe and the world have paid much attention to it. Fontane is almost unknown outside Germany and is hardly read even in southern Germany and Switzerland.” Numerous translations since this time show how much Fontane’s status has changed.

    In 1974, a film version directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder was released, with Hanna Schygulla as Effi Briest. Three earlier German versions were made in 1939, 1955 and, for TV, in 1970. In 2009 German production company Constantin Film produced the book's fifth film and television incarnation, with European Film actress 2005 winner Julia Jentsch taking on the title character.

    Hans Peter Neureuter

  • Balticness

    In the novel, Kessin is presented as an “ideal-typical” coastal town characterized by the kind of liberalism and cosmopolitanism that Fontane associated with his model Swinemünde, where “there was a certain something about everything that one never saw in sleepy hinterland towns of four thousand inhabitants. There was no trace of the narrowness and restrictiveness of the small-town bourgeoisie” (Meine Kinderjahre, end of chapter 8). In addition, in the interlocutions, allusions and characteristics presented in novel it is possible to discern an ‘idea of north’ that, for Fontane, applies to the entire Baltic region.

  • Bibliographic information

    Theodor Fontane: Werke, Schriften und Briefe, edited by Walter Keitel and Helmuth Nürnberger, Section I: Sämtliche Romane, Erzählungen, Gedichte, Nachgelassenes, volume 4, Munich 1974: Effi Briest, chapter 6, p. 42-52; chapter 19, p. 152-162

  • Translations
    Language Year Translator
    Danish 1944 Carl V. Østergaard
    English 1966 William A. Cooper (abridged)
    English 1967 Douglas Parmée
    English 1995 Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers
    Estonian 1980 Lydia Riikoja
    Finnish 1924 J. Hollo
    Latvian 1970 Velta Balode
    Lithuanian 1971 Eugenija Vengriene
    Norwegian 1976 Lotte Holmboe
    Polish 1974 Izabela Czermakowa
    Russian 1960 Ju. Svetlanova, G. Egerman, T. Putincevoj
    Swedish 1902 / 1944 Ernst Lundquist
    Swedish 1986 Ernst Lundquist (rev. by Eva Liljegren)
  • Year of first publication
    Advance publication in Deutsche Rundschau, October 1894 to March 1895, first book edition 1895
  • Place of first publication
  • Link

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