Prussia, the 1890s. Effi Briest is a light-hearted seventeen-year-old; one day her parents introduce her to the 40-year-old Baron von Innstetten, a rising politician, and half an hour later she's engaged to marry him. The couple move to Kessin, a town on the Baltic Sea, where Innstetten is governor. It's a pretty gloomy setting for Effi, with few amusements in town, and a husband who's constantly busy; there's no one to socialize with except the local gentry, who are largely bigoted and dull, and who immediately start passing around disapproving gossip about her. Her only friend is the charming, but ugly, apothecary Gieshübler. Worse, the house Effi and her husband inhabit is rather creepy, and the servants assure her that it's haunted by the ghost of a Chinese man; Innstetten hints that the Chinese man's death was caused by some scandal with a young woman who previously lived there. (Perhaps Innstetten's giving Effi a subtle warning.) The birth of a daughter does nothing to improve Effi's spirits.
Therefore, when a womanizing officer, Major Crampas, comes to town and sets his sights on Effi, it's easy for her to slip into a brief affair with him. It's no great passion, and she greatly dislikes the deceptions and lies she's forced into, so she's very relieved when her husband is transferred to Berlin, giving her a chance to break off the affair. Effi and Innstetten are much happier in Berlin, and finally start to become really fond of each other. Effi is not haunted by guilt, but only by fear of her old transgression being found out. Inevitably, this happens, but not until six years later. When Innstetten learns the truth, he realizes that after all this time, he's neither jealous nor angry, and still loves his wife. Nonetheless, he's a firm believer in the codes of his society, and his actions are decided for him. To uphold "the right thing to do", he will divorce Effi, whom he loves; bar her, a good mother, from seeing her daughter; and fight a duel with Major Crampas, whom he doesn't hate. This is the end of all happiness for both Innstetten and Effi.
Effi Briest is a subtly-written examination of the rigidity and hypocrisy of the value system among the Prussian nobility. It was written by Theodor Fontane, published in 1896. It's one of the great classic novels of German literature, and standard reading in schools. It has been filmed at least six times, most famously by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
- Character Development: Kind of zig-zagged with both Effi and Innstetten
- Death by Adaptation: Effi. Elisabeth von Plotho, the woman on whose life the novel was based, became a nurse and lived to become 98.
- Defrosting Ice King: Especially after the move to Berlin, Innstetten progresses from a gloomy, strict, repressed and somewhat mysterious/strange workaholic to a nice, devoted, father and husband. Of course, all of this is undone once he finds the letters....
- Friendship Moment: Rosawitha showing up at Effi's apartment after the divorce
- Germanic Efficiency and Germanic Depressives: Innstetten is extremely conscientious in his bureaucratic job, dutiful, repressed, and pedantic. He's also very depressed by the end of the novel.
- Hey, Let's Put on a Show: One way that small-town nobility amuse themselves in the winter; Effi is particularly fond of participating in these.
- Incurable Cough of Death: Effi's fatal illness has all the symptoms of tuberculosis, though Fontane hints that her unhappiness is the real cause of it.
- Love Father, Love Son: Innstetten used to court Effi's mother.
- Mal Mariée: French for "badly married", this trope refers to a young woman unhappily married to a jealous older man who often falls in love and cheats on him with a young lover. Zig-Zagging Trope with Effie Briest, a 17-year-old girl, is married off to Baron von Instetten who is about 40. She feels neglected by her constantly busy husband and frowned upon by the local gentry; and worse, the unsettling house where they live is allegedly haunted by the ghost of a Chinese Man, and not even the birth of a daughter improves her spirit. Her husband is never downright abusive and feels in his own way fond of her. She starts having an affair with Major Crampas, but she can't stand that she has to lie. She's relieved when her husband is transferred to Berlin, giving her a chance to break off the affair. Six years later she seems to be finally happy with her family but her affair with Crampas is discovered by Instetten who, despite still loving her and not being angry with Crampas, feels obliged to respect the codes of society: he divorces her and prevents her to see their daughter and kills Crampas in a duel. Effi lives her final years alone and gravely ill until her death.
- Melodrama: Averted; Fontane deliberately underplays some parts of the plot that could be highly emotive the duel is very brief, the adulterous meetings take place entirely offstage.
- Moral Dilemma: Several, especially variations on To Be Lawful or Good, where characters who have been lawful wonder whether they've actually been good.
- Nothing Is the Same Anymore: Once Innstetten finds the letters, everything goes downhill...
- Protagonist Title
- Scare 'em Straight: Possibly the intention behind telling Effi the ghost story.
- School Study Media: In Germany at least and much hated as such.
- The Un Reveal: The author repeatedly evades giving details of the story of the Chinese man's ghost, including once "panning the camera away from" a character who's telling the story.
- What Is This Feeling?: Effi, the first time Major Crampas kisses her.