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Literature / Der Stechlin

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Der Stechlin is the last great novel by the German poet and writer Theodor Fontane; it first appeared in serial form from 1895 to 1897 and as a book in 1899. As the title indicates, it is set on the shore of the Stechlin, a (real) lake in northern Brandenburg, in the (fictional) manor and village of the same name. The central character, Dubslav von Stechlin, is an ageing nobleman or "Junker" rooted in the traditions of Prussia and the province of Brandenburg. There isn't much of a plot: as Fontane wrote to a friend, all that happens is that an old man dies and two young people get married, but the important thing is how this story is told. In countless conversations between the major and minor characters — who come from all walks of life — a perspicacious portrait of German and Prussian society in the first decade of the rule of Wilhelm II emerges. As a summation of the wisdom of Fontane's old age, the novel never quite achieved the popularity of e. g. Effi Briest, but it is considered one of the great German novels, especially after Thomas Mann wrote an essay about it. It was filmed for West German television in 1975.

Dubslav von Stechlin, a widowed retired officer, lives a quiet life on his estate with his valet Engelke, regularly visited by the Protestant pastor Lorenzen and the village schoolmaster Krippenstapel, and keeping a somewhat looser contact to a few of the other noblemen who live in the surroundings. His only son, Woldemar, is an active cavalry officer in the Guards and stationed in Berlin. Here he moves in more varied social circles; his two closest friends are two fellow officers, the slightly frivolous Captain von Czako and the serious, pious and pedantic government offical and reserve officer von Rex. Woldemar is introduced to the family of Count von Barby, a retired diplomat, and becomes attracted to his two daughters and ends up having to choose between the witty and mysterious Melusine and the more serious and idealistic Armgard. The Barbys are a more "exotic" family — the Count's late wife was Swiss, his daughters grew up in London while he served in the embassy there — and have a very diverse circle of friends and acquaintances, including the Bavarian diplomat Baron Berchtesgaden and his earthy and vivacious wife, the Czech pianist Dr. Wrschowitz, and the excentric painter Cujacius.

In the course of the novel Dubslav unsuccessfully becomes the Conservative candidate in a by-election, which is won by the Social Democratic candidate. This is one of the many illustrations of one of the central themes of the novel, the change from the old to the new. But while Dubslav is politically conservative, he is also very undogmatic and open to new ideas and views that do not agree with his own. This is also made evident in the fact that he appointed the progressive idealist Lorenzen as pastor of the parish church and tutor to his son even though Lorenzen is accused of being a subversive and near-unbeliever by the more conservative and conventional Protestants, not least Dubslav's extremely narrow-minded spinster half-sister Adelheid. But the forces of the new aren't idealized either, and so it is understandable that Lorenzen sums up his position that Lorenzen sums up his aims as "Better with the old as far as possible and with the new as far as necessary."


  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Averted. The most unsympathetic character with a "von" is the recently ennobled bourgeois entrepreneur von Gundermann, a conniving nouveau-riche.
  • Author Avatar: Dubslav is generally seen as a self-portrait of Theodor Fontane, but many see his political and social views becoming apparent in the synergy between Dubslav and Lorenzen.
  • Berserk Button: His Embarrassing First Name Niels (see below) for Dr. Wrschowitz. He is so touchy about his first name that Melusine advises Woldemar not to mention anything or anybody Scandinavian in his presence as he always suspects this it to be an oblique dig at his Danish first name.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Educated characters occasionally use French (also Italian and English) phrases, the members of the rural lower classes (agricultural labourers, workers at the glass factory in Neuglobsow, many of Dubslav's servants, etc.) speak in the Brandenburg dialect of Low German.
  • Democracy Is Bad: At the banquet of the Conservatives following the victory of the Social Democratic candidate in the Reichstag by-election, Gundermann gives a speech in which he calls for the Reichstag to be abolished, saying an electoral system in which Dubslav von Stechlin's vote counts no more than that of his coachman is nonsensical. Even some members of his audience among themselves say that only shows the man is a fool and that the Reichstag is an indispensible forum for the Conservatives to make their views heard and influence government policy.
  • Elopement: Briefly touched when a group of noblemen gossips about a daughter of one of the noble families of the county who eloped to Britain with a teacher intending to get married in Gretna Green.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Two cases:
    • Dubslav von Stechlin hates his first name because it is a name atypical of Brandenburg (the province of Prussia in which he lives) and typical of the neighbouring province of Pomerania.
    • Niels Wrschowitz dislikes his given name intensely, partly because it is Northern Germanic and does not fit with his Czech surname, but more importantly because his father named him after the 19th century Danish composer Niels Gade, whom he, as a very pronounced Wagnerian, has come to detest. Wrschowitz thus went to the effort of earning a doctorate in music so that he could print "Dr. Wrschowitz" on his calling-cards without the embarrassing first name.
  • End of an Era: Dubslav's death is treated as this, and the whole novel can bee seen as a study in the changes of German and Prussian society after the death of Kaiser Wilhelm I and the dismissal of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck by Kaiser Wilhelm II.
  • The Gay '90s
  • Gratuitous English: In part because the Barbys and their friends the Berchtesgadens had spent many years in London. The Barbys' ladies' maid Lizzi and the Berchtesgadens' coachman Robinson came over to Berlin with them.
  • Impoverished Patrician: The Stechlin family has seen better days, and especially Dubslav needs loans from the Jewish merchant Baruch Hirschfeld to help him out. He is thus rather pleased that his son marries into the rich Barby family.
  • Last-Name Basis: Still very common at the time, not just how Dubslav addresses his servant Engelke and most of the local non-nobles. Sometimes it's also a mark of familiarity, e. g. Czako, Rex and Woldemar von Stechlin usually address each other simply by their last names.
  • Mad Artist: Cujacius, to a large extent, although in the conservative to reactionary mold. He stands in the tradition of the "Nazarener" group of German artists from the early 19th century, considers even the British Pre-Raffaelites traitors to the cause, and voices a heartfelt disdain for more modern artists like Turner and Millet, to say nothing of the artists who became prominent in the 1890s. His nostalgia for the good old days even goes so far that he hates the newfangled metal tubes in which artists' paints are now sold - the old pig bladders were so much better!
  • Maiden Aunt: Adelheid von Stechlin is much nicer to her nephew Woldemar than to her brother Dubslav.
  • Marry for Love: Ermyntrud Katzler was born as a Princess of Ippe-Büchsenstein, but became a commoner to marry Wladimir Katzler, the head forester of the Stechlin region. Fontane treats this marriage fairly realistically, showing that there is some stress between the still somewhat exalted former princess and her more down-to-earth husband.
  • Meaningful Funeral: Dubslav's funeral brings together a large part of the cast on a cold winter day. From both from the Stechlin area and from Berlin people from all classes come to pay their respect; ironically his son Woldemar and his new wife are absent as they still are in Italy on their honeymoon. Pastor Lorenzen gives the eulogy which encapsulates what made Dubslav such a special and likeable person, how he looked at the world and how he lived his life.
  • Meaningful Name: Quite a number of characters have meaningful names, as happens quite often in Fontane's novels.
    • It's Lampshaded when Woldemar in his diary reflects how appropriate the names of Count Barby's two daughters are to their bearers. Melusine is as sinuous and enticing as the siren Mélusine from French folklore, and Armgard shares her uprightness and integrity with the heroine from Friedrich Schiller's play Wilhelm Tell.
    • Some of the noble families appearing in the book are very old, which in that part of Brandenburg often means Slavic in origin. Thus one of Adelheid's associates is a Fräulein von Triglaff, whose name is that of a Slavic god ("three-head") and Adelheid mentions in passing that the maiden name of her own mother was von Radegast, the name of another Slavic god (which also was used by J. R. R. Tolkien for his character Radagast the Brown). Dubslav on another occasion mentions that in the baptismal registry her first name is listed as "Adelheide", which combines Adel (nobility) and Heide (heathen); in the course of the novel it is hinted that Adelheids narrow Protestant orthodox piety is less a matter of true faith than of her insistence on the norms and conventions of her class and its position in the social order.
    • Two other lampshaded cases are Captain von Czako (a military headdress) and Freiherr (baron) von der Nonne, who in accordance with his surname ("of the nun") is frail and speaks with a voice that is compared to mice squeaking.
  • Moral Guardian: Dubslav's elder sister Adelheid. As he reminisces he mentions that her strict morals drove away her very eligible suitor and led to her entering the foundation for unmarried noblewomen (Damenstift) at the former monastery of Kloster Wutz. Adelheid is supported in her tendencies by the church superintendent Koseleger and the deeply pious Ermyntrud Katzler.
  • Noodle Incident: The exact reason why Melusine so quickly got a divorce from her Italian husband, Count Ghiberti, is not explained.
  • Nouveau Riche: Gundermann grew rich making floorboards, becoming the ennobled owner of seven sawmills. At a formal dinner in the first chapters of the novel he behaves smarmily and as a pillar of society and the Conservative party, but he is not really accepted by the noblemen who interact with him. Which is actually not unjustified, as Gundermann displays a number of character defects and is also the prime target of anti-Conservative campaigning in the run-up to the election.
  • Old Maid: This describes the inhabitants of the Stift (foundation for unmarried noblewomen) in Kloster Wutz: Domina Adelheid von Stechlin and Fräulein von Triglaff, Fräulein von Schimonsky, and Fräulein von Schmargendorf.
  • Our Mermaids Are Different: Countess Melusine's name is commented on a lot. It comes from a medieval French legend of a knight marrying a woman called Mélusine (sometimes spelled: Merlusigne) and one day, when he came home unexpectedly seeing in her true mermaid formnote , causing her to flee from him. According to this legend the powerful Lusignan family was descended from her. Since Mélusine is usually described as a demoness or a water-spirit, it is no surprise that Adelheid von Stechlin deeply disapproves of Countess Melusine. As for Melusine herself, she embraces her mermaid connection with gusto. At one point she mentions that she prefers e. g. a modern painting by Alfred Böcklin featuring a mermaid to the kind of art preached by Cujacius: "Of course in this matter I'm biased."
  • The Place: The novel is named after the lake near which stands the ancestral manor of the Stechlin family.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The outcome of the by-election was based on a real-life by-election where tactical voting by liberal and socialist voters defeated the Conservative candidate. In the novel partisans of the Fortschrittpartei (progressive liberals) help the Social Democrat Torgelow to gain his majority, in real life it had been the other way around.
  • Shed the Family Name: After her divorce from Count Ghiberti, Melusine stops using his surname, but interestingly she also does not revert to her maiden name von Barby. To those who know her, she is simply Countess Melusine.
  • Theme Naming: When he did not give them Meaningful Names, Fontane often liked to name his characters after geographic locations, like a lake (von Stechlin) or more often a town (Count Barby, Baron Berchtesgaden, Torgelow, Edler von Alten-Friesack, von Molchow etc.).
  • The Von Trope Family: Most of the characters of the novel are members of the nobility.