The Jew's Beech (Die Judenbuche) by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, 1842
THE JEW'S BEECH (Die Judenbuche)
by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, 1842
Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's The Jew's Beech (Die Judenbuche) is brilliantly constructed with apparent artlessness on a platform of paradoxes. It is a tale that from start to finish holds the attention of the reader and that leaves him confronted with searching questions. The setting is an impoverished village in a hilly, wooded district of Westphalia near Paderborn. Although there are several graphic descriptions, especially of open-air scenes and of rural merrymaking, the narrator does not dwell on picturesque features that might appeal to the casual traveler. Instead, he focuses on old-fashioned ways of settling disputes that were followed in the early eighteenth century, before a centralized legal system with regular procedures was imposed. Mention of these matters, like a short poem on the theme of not being overly hasty in judgment when we all might fall, sets a moral perspective to the story.
Like many characters in nineteenth-century literature, the protagonist Friedrich Mergel can be seen as the wretched product of heredity and circumstance. His father Hermann was a drunken ne'er-do-well who had driven his first wife to an early grave and who did not mend his ways after marrying Margret Semmler, a decent woman in her 40s who was quite mistaken in supposing that she could reform the brutal man. In midwinter, when Friedrich, their only child, is nine, Hermann is brought home dead from the forest, where his body had been found under a tree. The misfortune strikes all the harder because the boy had heard mysterious knockings outside the night before but was told to disregard them. There are uncanny elements, too, when Margret's brother Franz takes Friedrich under his wing, bringing him into contact with Johannes Niemand (Nobody), his unkempt, half-starved illegitimate son who bears a disturbing physical likeness to his cousin.
The region is notorious for poaching and also for timber theft. There is a great demand for the logs that are floated down to the sea for use in shipbuilding, and the owners of the forests complain not only of the loss of mature timber but also of the wanton damage to young trees that is a consequence of reckless felling. Even Margret, for all her talk of morality and her habits of Catholic observance, cannot find it in her heart to condemn those who break the law and take what they regard as unjustly withheld from them by the rich. Thus, it is no surprise that Franz apparently has no difficulty persuading Friedrich to act as a lookout while woodland crimes are being committed. When doing so for the Blue Smocks, a particularly well-organized gang of timber thieves, Friedrich is approached by the forester Brandis seeking information. Following an exchange of barbed remarks, Friedrich sends him the wrong way, and shortly afterward Brandis is killed with an ax blow. Friedrich is the obvious suspect, but he has little difficulty in establishing an alibi at the inexpertly conducted enquiry.
Perhaps to compensate for the lowly esteem in which he is held, Friedrich grows to be something of a dandy and show-off. At a village wedding he cannot resist prancing about, and after Johannes has been caught trying to steal butter, Friedrich attempts to salvage the situation by ostentatiously checking the time on his silver watch. The stratagem fails when Aaron the Jew arrives to claim payment. Shortly afterward, as storms rage, Aaron's body is discovered. Friedrich is again the prime suspect, and when he flees, it is taken as proof of his guilt. Because the local squire appears to make no progress in bringing the culprit to book, the Jews of the area band together and purchase the beech tree under which Aaron was found dead. On its bark they carve an inscription in Hebrew that no one in the village can decipher.
Time passes, with nothing much happening except that the squire finds that there are reasons to conclude that Friedrich did not, in fact, commit the murder. Then, 28 years after the event, a frail, elderly man arrives at Christmas. After a while the villagers come to think that they can identify him as Johannes. He tells of fleeing with Friedrich and serving with him in war, only for them both to be captured by the Turks and held as slaves until his friend died. This is only half the truth, however.
Given charitable employment as a messenger, Johannes habitually avoids crossing the forest, but one day he does so. Shortly afterward, his half-rotten corpse is found hanging from the branches of the beech the Jews had bought. The squire, putting two and two together, identifies the dead man as Friedrich and gives orders for the burial of his body not in consecrated ground but in the knacker's midden. Only now does the narrator disclose the Hebrew inscription on the beech, "If thou drawest nigh, thy fate shall be like that thou didst mete out to me."
An intriguing tale of crime, remorse, and punishment, The Jew's Beech is all the more powerful because there is not, as in most detective stories, a simple relationship between the puzzling events. While natural phenomena add a layer of significance by hinting that the whole cosmos is put out of joint by evil, the explanations that emerge never quite account for all of the events. Everything, the reader feels, is interconnected, but just how remains a mystery. If the village on the one hand and the forest on the other emerge as potent images of two contrasting ways of life, the great symbol is, of course, the Jew's beech. It stands amid the felled trees with what for most readers is an inscrutable inscription that is all but effaced over the years as nature repairs the bark, until in the end the old curse is fulfilled. The tree may be seen as a more realistic rendering of the statue of Mitys that, according to Aristotle in Book 9 of the Poetics, fell and crushed his murderer. Commentators sometimes lay store on the fact that when the story was first published, in sixteen installments in Georg von Cotta's Morgenblatt für gebildete Leser (Morning Newspaper for Educated Readers), it was the paper's editor, Hermann Hauf, who proposed calling the work The Jew's Beech. His suggestion was apposite, but, whether highlighted in the title or not, the symbolism would still capture the imagination and lodge in the memory.
The mode of narration adds another dimension to The Jew's Beech. At the outset the narrator appears omniscient, setting the scene with moralizing comments and recounting events involving different individuals and groups of people. It soon becomes clear, however, that the narrator is external to the characters, witnessing their actions and reporting what they say or do but not penetrating their minds to tell the reader of their thoughts or motivations. In this way the narrator, though in possession of the facts, leaves it to the reader to make whatever sense of the events seems to fit the enigmatic facts.
As well as being an outstanding work of the poetic-realist tradition, with its closely observed country setting and with characters who are largely shaped by it, The Jew's Beech may also be seen as a highly successful example of the German Novelle. The basis of this striking and powerfully tragic story rests in historical reality that was, in fact, recorded in an earlier nonfiction work by Droste-Hülshoff's uncle. The tale is presented to readers through a framework that carries them back from the present to the past. The way the narrative skips across the decades serves the function of maintaining a single, essential focus on Friedrich, and, within the realistic context of people and their everyday lives in rural Germany, one towering symbol dominates the tale, linking personal fates with the greater patterns of enduring nature.