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Literature / Effi Briest

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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.

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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.

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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.


Tropes:

  • Arranged Marriage: The novel's central conflict lies in the fact that Effi is essentially pressured into an unhappy marriage with a much older man by her parents and society at large.
  • Big Friendly Dog: One of the few sources of joy and comfort for Effi during her long, lonely days at Kessin is Innstetten's loyal, playful Newfoundland dog Rollo.
  • Book-Ends: The book begins and ends with a description of the Briest family's garden. In the beginning, it serves as a symbol of Effi's innocent, playful childhood; in the end, Effi is buried there after her death.
  • The Casanova: Major Crampas has the reputation of a womaniser and soon begins an affair with Effi, despite being a married man himself.
  • Death by Adaptation: At the end of the novel, Effi dies at the age of 30, whereas 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 strange workaholic to a nice, devoted, father and husband. Of course, all of this is undone once he finds Crampas' love letters to Effi.
  • Duel to the Death: Innstetten challenges Crampas to a duel after finding out about the latter's affair with Effi years earlier. It results in Crampas' death and the dissolution of Effi's and Innstetten's marriage.
  • Friendship Moment: Rosawitha showing up at Effi's apartment after the divorce
  • Germanic Depressives: Innstetten's character serves as a critical examination of the stereotypical Prussian civil servant — he is extremely dutiful and conscientious in his bureaucratic job, but also pedantic, emotionally distant, and unquestioningly dedicated to the rigid social conduct and outdated code of honor of the military class, which has disastrous consequences for his marriage and family life.
  • 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.
  • Honor Before Reason: When Innstetten discovers evidence of Effi's previous affair with Crampas, he feels compelled to challenge the latter to a Duel to the Death in order to restore his honor, despite acknowledging that, from an objective point of view, it's a completely senseless act of violence that will only bring misery for all involved.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: After finding out about the affair, Innstetten admits that he still loves Effi and bears no grudge against Crampas, but nonetheless feels obliged to divorce the former and challenge the latter to a duel because that's what society expects of him.
  • 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: Effi 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. While her husband is never downright abusive and feels in his own way fond of her, she starts having an affair with Major Crampas, but 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 Innstetten 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.
  • Married to the Job: Innstetten is so committed to his work that he completely neglects his young wife, making her all the more susceptible to the allure of the womanizing Major Crampas. Their relationship improves after Innstetten is transferred to Berlin.
  • 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, and the story of the Chinese man's ghost is never told in its entirety.
  • Moral Dilemma: Several, especially variations on To Be Lawful or Good, where characters who have been lawful wonder whether they've actually been good. Innstetten's conflicted feelings about the duel with Crampas is one of the most prominent examples.
  • Never My Fault: At the end of the novel, Effi's mother asks her husband if they are too blame for their daughter's untimely death as a consequence of pressuring her into an unhappy marriage, and whether they should have at least waited until she would have been old enough to make her own decisions. However, Mr. Briest immediately dismisses these doubts.
  • Nothing Is the Same Anymore: Once Innstetten finds Crampas' love letters to Effi, everything goes downhill.
  • Protagonist Title: The novel is titled after its protagonist, Effi Briest.
  • Scare 'Em Straight: Possibly the intention behind telling Effi the ghost story.
  • There's No Place Like Home: After marrying and moving in with Innstetten, Effi often misses her family and never feels at home in her new environment.
  • 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.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The novel is partly based on the life of Elisabeth von Plotho, a noblewoman who, like Effi, was forced into a marriage with an older man at a young age and had an affair that, upon its discovery, resulted in a duel in which Elisabeth's husband and fatally shot her lover. Unlike Effi, however, Elisabeth did not sink into despair after the dissolution of her marriage and died at the ripe age of 98.
  • What Is This Feeling?: Effi is very confused and does not know how to react the first time Major Crampas kisses her.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Effi and Crampas have an affair with each other despite both of them being married.

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