Forgotten classics: Effi Briest

Reader's Digest Editors

Classic literature is not known for treating its heroines kindly. From being locked up in castles, to trapped in loveless marriages or even hurled under trains, women rarely get an easy ride in the fictional world. Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest may seem like another bleak tale, but the 19th century novel has more to offer than you’d think

About the book

German history is often only rewound so far as the 20th century. More reunification than unification, less Napoleonic battles than Great World Wars. Yet at the end of the 1800s, the country was beginning to find its feet as a European force to be reckoned with.

Cities like Berlin were rapidly industrializing, while men and women off all classes struggled against the militarism of the Second Reich. It is amid this slow-bubbling pool of chaos that author Theodor Fontane placed his protagonist, Effi Briest.

Fontane’s subject matter is seemingly simple. In the opening chapter of the novel we meet the young and wild Effi, described as a “daughter of the air”. Despite being only 17, she is chosen to marry the aristocratic Baron Geert von Innstetten, a former lover of her mother’s and over 20 years her senior.

Effi readily accepts the proposal, dreaming of a high-status life full of pampering from her husband. Little does she realise it will come at the cost of her freedom, childhood and happiness.

The pair move to the seaside town of Kessin, where Effi grows lonely and bored as her husband travels for work. His cold and stoic manner leaves her isolated, even after she conceives a baby girl. It is here that she meets the unhappily married Major von Crampas who seduces her into a brief but passionate affair. Effi ends the relationship when her family moves to Berlin, but she has already unwittingly set her downfall into motion.

Six years later Innstetten discovers love letters from Crampas and challenges him to a duel, with horrific consequences. A full report of the duel and its cause are published in the newspapers the next day. In an instant, Effi loses custody of her daughter, her status and is ostracised by all of society—including her own parents. Even they cannot go against "the implacable forces of Prussian rectitude".

Fontane was applauded for the realism of the novel, which was said to be inspired by real life events. In 1888, the scandalous affair of Baroness Elisabeth von Ardenne was revealed in the newspapers. After marrying her husband as a teenager, she had embarked on affair with a judicial member, who her husband then shot and killed in a duel, resulting in just a short prison sentence—while Elisabeth lost custody of their children.

Published seven years later, Effi Briest would become a symbol of Prussian society and the toxic moral straight jacket that enclosed its citizens.

So why is Effi’s tragic plight still worth reading today? On the one hand, Fontane’s work serves as a didactic tale about the ways in which societal pressures can wreak havoc on our personal lives. While the rules might have changed today, they still exist; be it over how we dress, how we think or who we choose to sleep with.

Fontane demonstrates how walking the the thin tightrope of social inclusion can cause us to push others over the edge, just to maintain our balance. Innstetten could have pretended Effi’s affair never happened and continued life as it was. But once he had confided in his colleague Wüllersdorf, he had made her infidelity public and laid himself open to ridicule, forcing him to redeem his honour in the eyes of society. It is only with Crampas’ last words that he feels the full emptiness and remorse of his actions.

What’s more, the end of Effi’s story is perhaps more modern than even Fontane intended. It might be easy to dismiss her as a victim, but after losing everything, our heroine finds a way to take back control of her life. Chronically ill and close to death, she realises that her esteemed husband was not manly and principled as she had thought, but narrow-minded and almost pitiful. From this perspective she sees that he too was a victim of their harsh surroundings and forgives him for what he has done.

The act itself is a huge twist by 19th century standards. So-called “deviant” women were supposed to repent their actions and beg to rejoin normal society; not dish out the pardons themselves. By making peace with herself, Effi’s fate is finally back in her own hands and for once, untouchable by anyone else.  

Ironically, her parents come to note the unfair treatment of their daughter, even suggesting that society might be geared up to suit a man better than a woman. It’s a bittersweet observation: One too late for Effi Briest and depressingly early for readers still facing gender inequality over a hundred years later.