‘Effi Briest’ by Theodor Fontane – Effi B. versus Emma B.

‘Effi Briest’ by Theodor Fontane  (1896) – 235 pages    Translated by William A. Cooper

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Having read ‘Effi Briest’ now and re-read ‘Madame Bovary’ quite recently, I am in the somewhat fortunate position to be able to compare and contrast these two young women with the same initials and quite similar fates.

‘Effi Briest’ begins with seventeen year old Effi in the backyard playing with her friends Bertha, Hertha, and Hulda.  Effi is a high-spirited and fun loving girl. Parents usually want the best for their daughters, and the parents of Effi are no exception.  So when a financially well-established man, Innstetten, asks the parents for Effi’s hand in marriage, they agree.  Innstetten is an old friend of the family, in fact a former suitor of the mother.    He is more than twenty years older than Effi, and the parents do have doubts about the arrangement, but they do decide it is for the best.

screen-shot-2014-09-24-at-07-23-25For me one of the most poignant scenes in ‘Effi Briest’ is after the wedding when her parents sit around the kitchen table discussing the suitability of this arranged marriage.  I wonder how often today parents pause to discuss the quality of their children’s marriages.

Meanwhile the marriage in ‘Madame Bovary’ is not an arranged one as Charles Bovary actively courts Emma Rouault before they marry.  Still he too is about twenty years older than Emma.   Charles Bovary is a doctor who is dedicated to his work, and soon Emma is making fun of him behind his back.  She regards him as boring and a stick-in-the-mud, and her contempt for him grows.  She is fascinated with Parisian high society and has little use for the dull doctor, her husband.  She also spends a lot of the good doctor’s hard-earned money.

At the same time Effi Briest admires her husband even though he is somewhat cold and distant. ‘Innstetten was kind and good but he was not a lover.’  The problem here is that he lives far to the north in Germany in the seaport town of Kessin.  Effi must leave her parents and friends, and she is somewhat lost and lonely in her new surroundings.

So here is a major difference between Effi and Emma.  Effi is essentially a good girl who is overwhelmed and distracted by her severe isolation.  However Emma is mischievous and ready for trouble from the very beginning.

Trouble does arrive for both Emma and Effi in the form of a young man.  I suppose there has never been a shortage of young men out to seduce pretty young women.  Rodolphe of ‘Madame Bovary’ and Major Crampas in ‘Effi Briest’ are both womanizers of the first order.

Hanna Schygulla as Effi Briest

Hanna Schygulla as Effi Briest

Theodor Fontane is quite discreet about Effi’s affair with Major Crampas.  Effi goes off alone for long walks in the woods or along the river and comes back alone a couple of hours later.  We never have a scene of the two of them by themselves together.  Meanwhile in ‘Madame Bovary’, Rodolphe is not Emma’s first affair, and we do actually see them getting it on in the woods during their horse riding.  Although ‘Effi Briest’ was written nearly forty years after ‘Madame Bovary’, ‘Madame Bovary’ is the much more explicit novel.

Since both Effi and Emma have committed that most heinous of crimes, adultery, they both must be punished severely.  In both cases the adultery is found out by hidden secret letters several years later. In Emma’s case, adultery didn’t bring her down; it was her spendthrift ways. Effi Briest remains a kind worthy person until the bitter end.

The difference between Effi Briest and Emma Bovary is as follows.  Effi is a good young woman driven by loneliness to temporarily go bad.  Emma is a forever mischievous troublemaker but loveable.

 

 

My review of ‘Madame Bovary’ can be found here.

 

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by yodcha on November 23, 2014 at 4:11 AM

    I am half way through Effi Briest. It lacks the ice cold perfection of Madame Bovary but a good social portrait. I personally do not find Emma Bovary lovable but very selfish.

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    • Hi yodcha,
      I agree that Madame Bovary is much the superior work as you mention its ‘ice cold perfection’. I wanted to compare the two characters because they both got married and had affairs.
      Emma Bovary is selfish and willful, but I suppose from a man’s point of view those are more reasons to be attracted to her. Whatever one thinks of her, she probably did not deserve her ultimate fate.
      Even though Effi Briest is the much later novel, it is the more traditional novel. Effi Briest is a basically good person who is a victim of circumstances.

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  2. I wouldn’t describe Emma as wicked – to me she is more a girl who lives in a fantasy world and then tries to enact that fantasy in her own life. I’ve not heard of Effi Briest but I like the way you’ve looked at these two novels together

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    • Hi Booker,
      Yes, ‘Wicked’ is probably too strong a word for Emma Bovary. It just came up in contrasting the two, because Effi Briest is shown to be such a good person despite the adultery. Of course all these judgments went out the window in modern times.
      Emma Bovary does fantasize about the high society world and disdains Charles’ down-to-earth labors. Perhaps instead of ‘wicked’, she could be described as ‘willful’.

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  3. Posted by yodcha on November 24, 2014 at 12:13 AM

    Do you see Effi as more like Anna Karenina or Emma?

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  4. Interesting comparison. I was more moved by Effi’s fate than by Emma’s but I didn’t feel she was wicked – rather silly, while I found Effi tragic. I remember when we read Effi Briest as a readalong title during our first German Litearture Month and everyone kept wondering “Did they or didn’t they?”. It’s not very explicit.

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    • Hi Caroline,
      I’ve been trying to think of a better word for Emma than wicked since I wrote it. Yes, Emma makes some childish mistakes, but she probably did not deserve her bad end.

      If Effi had burned the love letters which were discovered seven years after the affair, she would not have gotten kicked out of the house, and Major Crampas would not have been shot.

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  5. Lovely piece which I slightly skim read as I haven’t read Briest and was a bit nervous of spilers. I note Karenina is ages back, will you revisit her do you think? Not that I’ve read that yet either.

    I have read Bovary at least, which I consider one of the finest novels ever written.

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    • Hi Max,
      I agree with your opinion that ‘Madame Bovary’ is ‘one of the finest novels ever written.
      I’m still patting myself on the back for having gotten through the entire 950+ pages of Anna Karenina even once, so I’m nowhere near ready to re-read. So far, I only re-read relatively short novels like Madame Bovary.

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  6. I agree with your vision of Effi but I don’t share your vision of Emma. I don’t think Emma is wicked, I think she’s plain stupid and I didn’t find her loveable because of that;

    The other big difference between the two is that Emma doesn’t feel guilty at all about her adultery and she’s more punished by her stupidity than by her affairs.

    Where Madame Bovary differs from Effi Briest is on the incredible criticism of the society. Flaubert mocks the bourgeois, the church, the State, everything. It’s highly controversial for the time.

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