Theodor Fontane

The German author Theodor Fontane (1819-1898) was once famous for his ballads and lively travel accounts but is now best known for his realistic novels, which are usually set in Berlin.

Theodor Fontane born on Dec. 30, 1819, in Neu-Ruppin (Brandenburg). The son of an apothecary, he planned to follow in his father's footsteps but found the work uncongenial. Thereafter, he determined to pursue a literary career.

Two trips to England, one (1852) to study ballad origins and a longer sojourn (1855-1859) as an attaché of the Prussian embassy, were followed by an editorial appointment on a conservative Berlin newspaper, Kreuzzeitung, a post that Fontane held until 1870. The post made possible considerable travel, notably described in the Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg (4 vols., 1862-1882). As a correspondent during the Franco-Prussian War, he was captured and narrowly escaped execution as a spy. In the postwar period he became, and remained for nearly 20 years, the theater critic of the Vossische Zeitung in Berlin.

Late in life Fontane discovered the literary form most congenial to his talents and produced the series of novels that reflect his long-continued, analytical, and objective scrutiny of late-19th-century society.

His novels Vor dem Sturm (1878) and Schach von Wuthenow (1883) are historically oriented; others concentrate on contemporary social problems. Three novels, L'Adultera (1880), Cécile (1886), and Effi Briest (1895), concern adultery. In the latter two works the situation is resolved tragically; in L'Adultera a divorce, followed by the marriage of the lovers, restores the necessary social equilibrium. "Marriage is order," Fontane believed, and without preaching he demonstrates the inevitably unhappy consequence when this "law" is flouted.

Irrungen, Wirrungen (1887) treats the "misalliance" between a member of the nobility and a simple, good-hearted girl of the people whose affair must end, for they make the hard decision that social dictates of "duty" and "order" must prevail. Stine (1890) recapitulates a similar theme with tragic overtones. Frau Jenny Treibel (1892) gently satirizes bourgeois pretensions, while the late novel Der Stechlin (1897) is a sharply observed study of the Brandenburg nobility. Fontane died in Berlin on Sept. 28, 1898.

Fontane is no reformer but a mildly amused, somewhat reserved, and keen-eyed observer to whom "society" represents a manifestation of a principle of order. Though neither divinely nor naturally ordained, society still transcends the power of the individual to alter it; those who make an attempt do so at their peril. What has been called Fontane's "psychological naturalism" links the preceding tradition of poetic realism and the analytical approach so prominent in the 20th-century German novel.

Further Reading on Theodor Fontane

Kenneth Hayens, Theodor Fontane: A Critical Study (1920), is still useful. A perceptive analysis is in Roy Pascal, The German Novel: Studies (1956).

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