Fontane, Theodor

views updated May 21 2018


FONTANE, THEODOR (1819–1898), German novelist.

Theodor Fontane was born in Neuruppin (just northwest of Berlin) on 30 December 1819, and he died in Berlin on 20 September 1898. Best known for his novels Frau Jenny Treibel and Effi Briest, Fontane is considered by many as the greatest German novelist of the nineteenth century, even as the leading novelist writing in German between the death of Goethe and advent of Thomas Mann. In addition to novels and novellas, Fontane published poetry, war reportage, travel literature, and drama criticism.

Initially trained like his father as an apothecary, Fontane practiced pharmacy for only a few years. From an early age he knew he wanted to be a professional writer. An adherent of liberalism, Fontane found it difficult to support himself and his family after the Revolution of 1848. He left his family to become a correspondent for the Prussian Central Press Agency in London, remaining in England through most of the 1850s. Returning to Berlin in 1859, Fontane continued his career as a correspondent, covering firsthand the wars of German unification.

Although previously having published only several short stories and poems, Fontane produced his first major literary work, Gedichte (Poems), in 1851 and a collection of ballads, Männer und Helden (Men and heroes), which drew heavily on English and Scottish folk poetry in 1860. He also wrote travel literature at this time, which included his sojourns through the small towns and countryside of his native Brandenburg, the best-known of which is the four-volume Wanderungen durch dieMack Brandenburg (Journey through the Mark Brandenburg), published over the course of the 1860s and 1880s. Only when he achieved some financial security as a drama critic did Fontane devote himself entirely to literature.

Fontane did not write his first novel until he was fifty-eight. Vor dem Sturm (1879; Before the storm), considered a classic of historical fiction, presents a panorama of the years of German liberation from Napoleon. In all his later novels, he turned away from stories set in the past for the depiction of contemporary Prussian, and specifically Berlin, society. The decades of the 1880s and 1890s were very productive; Fontane turned out the novels for which he will always be remembered: L'Adutera (1882), Schach von Wuthenow (1883; Man of Honor), Irrungen, Wirrungen (1888), Stine (1890), Unwiederbringlich (1891), Frau Jenny Treibel (1893), Effi Briest (1895), and Der Stechlin (1898).

Fontane belongs to that broadly defined tradition of nineteenth-century realism, which aimed at the depiction of individuals of identifiable social origins within a specific time and place. In general Fontane's subject matter evolved from the portrayal of personal conflict of his early novels to the depiction of social milieux. His best novels combine the two. In Effi Briest, for instance, the setting emerges before the main action takes place. The conflict among individual characters is thus understood as the realization of more inclusive political, social, and ideological tensions. The distinctive nature of Fontan's realism is the result of interplay between foreground conflicts and background tensions.

As a novelist Fontane will always be remembered as the memorialist of nineteenth-century Berlin and Brandenburg. He exhibited a particular fondness for portraying the social code of the declining Prussian Junker class, with its mixture of horror, pride, and arrogance. Fontane most often set the Prussian aristocracy against the new, aggressive, but still insecure middle class that emerged as a result of the economic miracle of the early years of the new Reich. He did not simply pillory the vulgarity of the middle class; rather, he showed the inner conflicts within it, most often between the vulgar bourgeoisie of money and the vain bourgeoisie of education, between the Besitzbürgertum (the middle class by wealth) and the Bildungsbürgertum (the middle class by education—professionals). Yet, even this social opposition is not absolute. His educated middle class yearns after wealth just as the uneducated. Fontan's ability to integrate personal characteristics within social groups comes forth most clearly in his depiction of a wide range of minor characters, which are skillfully interlaced into the structure of his mature novels.

Once he found his subject matter and his genre, Fontane quickly developed a style all his own. Based on powers of observation and a deeply ingrained historical sense, this style is founded upon the anonymity of its author and his refusal to pass judgment on his characters and their actions. Fontane therefore is never moralizing or sarcastic and only rarely sentimental. In addition, he is not an omniscient author. He does not intrude into inner thoughts and motivations of his characters but lets them appear on their own and within their familiar and social situations. In this way, he allows his readers to come to their own judgments.

This style has been characterized as "perspectival" because it lets personalities emerge, not directly through the author's evaluative statements, but through multiple viewpoints and especially through dialogue. Characters are revealed through what they do, through what others say of them, and most tellingly through what they say and how they say it. Fontane in fact became a master of dialogue. For him dialogue is the most direct way to depict the intersection of character and circumstance. This use of dialogue gives a great depth to his characters. As a result Fontan's version of realism is created by a sense of over-hearing ongoing conversations that reveal individual characters but also social and generational contrasts. In Effi Briest, for instance, Fontane presents the complex life of the seemingly simple Baltic seaport and resort town of Kessin. His readers can judge small town life with all its characters and personal and social conflicts on their own. In his Berlin cycle as well, Fontane invites his readers to get to know the city not through description of its various quarters and highly mixed population (German, Slavic, Jewish, Swiss, Flemish, and Huguenot) but through hearing the famous Berlin irony and archness of speech.

Most of the literary criticism on Fontane hovers around the question of the power of his realism. It inevitably results in comparisons with the established masters of this novelistic form. Earlier critics emphasized the blandness of Fontan's realism, compared with that of Stendhal or Honoré de Balzac; the weakness of his social criticism, compared to that of Émile Zola or even Charles Dickens; and his characters' general lack of psychological depth, compared to those of Gustave Flaubert or Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Georg Lukács, for instance, pointed to his failure to develop a strong critical voice. All such evaluations, however, miss the point. Although suggestive, these comparisons overlook many of the subtleties of Fontan's type of characterization and his sensitive ear for dialogue. In addition, Fontane never assumed the role of reformist in his novels, and in fact his tone most often evokes nostalgia for the fading world of old Prussia. He could be ironic but this irony was more loving than biting. Later criticism appreciates his more subtle, less opinionated realism. In other words there has been a growing appreciation of Fontan's powers of observation and his artistry in conveying these observations through his unique stylistic qualities. In fact, Fontane is now often favorably compared to the masters of European realism, Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Turgenev, and Dostoyevsky.

See alsoDickens, Charles; Germany; Prussia; Realism and Naturalism; Zola, Émile.


Denmetz, Peter. Formen des Realismus: Theodor Fontane. Munich, 1964.

Minder, Robert. Kultur und Literatur in Deutschland and Frankreich. Frankfurt am Main, 1962.

Müller-Seidel, Walter. Theodor Fontane: Soziale Roman-kunst in Deutschland. Stuttgart, 1975.

Ohff, Heinz. Theodor Fontane: Leben und Werk. Munich, 1995.

Reuter, Hans-Heinrich. Fontane. 2 vols. Berlin, 1968.

Scholz, Hans. Theodor Fontane. Munich, 1978.

Ziegler, Edda, and Gotthard Erler. Theodor Fontane, Lebensraum und Phantasiewelt. Eine Biography. Berlin, 1996.

Benjamin C. Sax

Theodor Fontane

views updated May 18 2018

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

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