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Effi Briest  
Author Theodor Fontane
Translator Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers
Country Germany
Language German
Genre(s) Novel
Publisher ? & (Eng. trans. reissue Penguin Classics)
Publication date 1894
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
ISBN NA & reissue ISBN 0-14-044766-0
First print 1894, original cover

Effi Briest is widely considered to be Theodor Fontane’s masterpiece and one of the most famous German realist novels of all time. Thomas Mann once said that if one had to reduce one’s library to six novels, Effi Briest would have to be one of them.[1] Published in 1894, the novel forms a trilogy on marriage in the nineteenth century from the female point of view along with the more famous Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. All three are adultery tragedies.


Plot introduction

Effi Briest is the daughter of a nobleman in northern Germany. At the age of seventeen, she is married off to Baron Geert von Innstetten, a 38-year-old aristocrat who years ago had courted her mother Luise and been turned down because of his insufficient social position, which he has in the meantime ameliorated.

Plot summary

The puerile and carefree Effi, still practically a child, but attracted by notions of social honour, consents to live in the small Baltic town of Kessin, where she ends up in the throes of an emotional crisis. Her husband is away for weeks at a time and leaves her to her own devices in their domicile in Kessin. Alienated from the local aristocracy and therefore miserably unhappy, Effi finds but one companion in the whole town. Her suspicions that their house may be haunted have been, perhaps on purpose, not completely laid to rest by Innstetten. When she voices her disquiet about the possible presence of a ghost, her husband irately retorts that her fears will inevitably pale into insignificance when compared with the importance of his political career. His wrathful reply bespeaks the dread that the prospect of people learning about Effi’s angst and subsequently deriding them publicly fills him with.

The mercurial and debonair Major Crampas finally announces his arrival in Kessin, and although he is married and notorious for his overt womanising, Effi cannot help but rejoice in his inconspicuous attentions. As the reader is only delicately told, a full extramarital relationship is consummated. Innstetten, however, inwardly scorns Crampas and perceives him as a lecherous philanderer with a cavalier attitude to the laws, whereas Crampas is persuaded that Innstetten has a fervid propensity for educating and edifying his fellows in a slightly patronising way.

Years later, Effi’s young daughter Annie is growing up and the family relocate to Berlin as Innstetten has ascended the political hierarchy. All things appear to have turned out well for Effi. However, when her ancient correspondence with Crampas sees the light of day by chance, Innstetten resolves to divorce her immediately. The letters have unequivocally divulged to him that his wife had become enamoured of Crampas while they still abode in Kessin. Innstetten is given custody of their daughter, in whom he successfully inculcates a latent feeling of disdain for her mother. Indeed, when Effi and Annie arrange a brief encounter a couple of years later, the glacial atmosphere which dominates the reunion evidences that they have become estranged. In the aftermath of this meeting, Effi ceases to make any more endeavours to strike up an untroubled relationship with her daughter.

Forlorn and disowned by her fellows, Effi resorts to acclimatising to a reclusive life and suffers from ostracism over a myriad of years, during which she plumbs the depths of despair. Since public opprobrium has been indelibly heaped upon her, her parents refuse to take her back, persuaded that it ill behoves them to accept her in the midst of their family. As the story is set in the late nineteenth century, the prevailing shibboleths stipulate that the acquaintance of someone whose marriage was annulled because of their own adultery besmirches the reputation of those who stay in contact with them.

In the meantime, Innstetten ruminates over his fateful discovery and determines to inform his former rival about his intention of challenging him to a duel. Crampas acquiesces to the plan which results in his being killed by Innstetten, who afterwards has second thoughts about his action. He finally has to acknowledge that the halcyon days of his marriage are long past: he does not even delight in his gradual ascent within the country’s political hierarchy.

Effi is eventually taken in by her parents, and temporarily seems to recover from the nervous disorder she has come down with. Her convalescence is nonetheless an ephemeral procedure, as feelings of sorrow and repentance are deeply embedded in her soul. Shortly before she passes away, she summons her mother and beseeches her to inform Innstetten about her regrets and her willingness to forgive the dolour by which she has been bedevilled over the course of her declining years. The novel closes with Effi dying serenely at the parental estate of Hohen-Cremmen, in a very symmetrical ending that matches the beginning of the novel. In the novel’s final scene, her parents vaguely realise their responsibility for her intractable hardships, but ultimately they do not dare question the social constructs which caused the tragedy.


Manfred von Ardenne’s grandmother Elisabeth von Ardenne (1853-1952) is said to be the inspiration for Effi Briest.[2]

Elisabeth von Ardenne was born Elisabeth von Plotho on 26 October 1853, the youngest of five children. Her place of birth, Zerben, is nowadays known as Elbe-Parey. After her father’s untimely demise in 1864, she led a blissful and tranquil childhood until she made the acquaintance of her future husband, Armand Léon von Ardenne (1848-1919). The adolescent Elisabeth, who had by then received the sobriquet “Else”, is said to have displayed little interest in the young man who was five years her senior, and therefore declined his first proposal of marriage. Nonetheless she had a change of heart during the Franco-Prussian War over the course of which Ardenne was injured. Elisabeth von Plotho and Léon von Ardenne announced their two year engagement on 7 February 1871. The couple eventually wed on 1 January 1873.

They relocated to Düsseldorf in the summer of 1881 owing to Ardenne’s ascent within the country’s political hierarchy. In Düsseldorf they struck up a relationship with the judge Emil Hartwich (1843-1886), who also had an outstanding reputation as a painter. Hartwich, who was suffering from the throes of his unhappy marriage, became acquainted with young Elisabeth von Ardenne, who was ten years his junior. They soon turned out to have many things in common, such as their love for theatre plays. The correspondence between them did not even cease when Ardenne returned to Berlin on 1 October 1884, with Elisabeth and the couple’s two young children following him.

Hartwich continued to pay erratic visits to Elisabeth and her husband even after the couple’s departure. While he was sojourning in Berlin during the summer of 1886, he and Elisabeth both resolved to divorce their respective spouses and to marry each other. Ardenne, however, saw his secretly harboured suspicions confirmed when he located the hiding place of the letters which his wife and Hartwich had been exchanging over the course of several years. Thereupon he filed for divorce and challenged his rival to a duel, an event upon which massive media coverage had been centred before it took place on 27 November 1886. Hartwich sustained severe injuries and died four days after the duel on 1 December 1886. Although Armand von Ardenne was initially sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, his prison term was reduced to merely eighteen days not long afterwards.

The von Ardennes’ divorce was finalised on 15 March 1887, with Armand von Ardenne being given full custody of their two children. Over the years following her separation from her husband, Elisabeth von Ardenne consecrated herself to the care of deprived or disabled people. Her name was, albeit temporarily, deleted from her family’s chronicles.

In 1904, Elisabeth’s daughter Margot was the first one to make an endeavour to track down her disowned mother, whereas her son Egmont encountered with the latter only five years later. Thus Elisabeth von Ardenne reunited with her children after two decades of separation. In the meantime, her former husband had deceased in 1919 at the age of 71.

Elisabeth von Ardenne died on 4 February 1952 in Lindau at the age of 98, and was interred in an Ehrengrab in Berlin.


Differences between fiction and reality

Fontane, however, changed myriad details lest the novel jeopardise the privacy of the concerned people. In addition, he intended to accentuate the story’s dramatic effects. For example, Elisabeth von Plotho did not marry her husband at the age of seventeen as does Effi Briest, but when she was nineteen years of age, with Armand von Ardenne being just five and not twenty years her senior. Moreover, she launched into her extramarital relationship twelve and not only one year into her marriage, and her husband did not despatch her paramour several years after the affair had ended, but when Elisabeth was still rendezvousing with Hartwich.

Fontane was cognisant of the fact that Elisabeth von Ardenne did not retreat into her privacy once her amour had come to light; in contrast to Effi Briest, she took up several jobs and devoted herself to the more disadvantaged. Elisabeth von Ardenne died in 1952 at the age of 98, whereas Effi expires when she is 29.

Additional differences between the fictitious story and the true incidents upon which it is based are the days on which several incidents in Fontane’s novel occur. Effi Briest weds her husband on 3 October, while Elisabeth von Plotho got married on 1 January. The former bears her child on 3 July, whereas neither of Elisabeth’s children was born on that day. Indeed, Margot and Egmont von Ardenne were given birth on 5 November and 4 January respectively.[3] Finally, Elisabeth von Ardenne’s day of birth is 26 October, while Effi Briest is said to celebrate her birthday sometime in August.


Today the novel is widely discussed and taught at German high schools, being prescribed reading for almost all students.

The novel has exerted a major influence on following German writers, including Thomas Mann’s early work Buddenbrooks.


  • First published in Deutsche Rundschau, 1894 – 1895.[4]
  • Penguin Books, 1967 ISBN 0-14-044190-5
  • English translation by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers, Angel Books 1996 ISBN 0-946162-44-1, reissued by Penguin (in Penguin Classics) 2001 ISBN 0-14-044766-0

Film and television adaptations

In 1974, a film version directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder was released, with Hanna Schygulla as Effi Briest. Three earlier German versions were made in 1939, 1955 and, for TV, in 1970. In 2009 German production company Constantin Film AG produced the book's fifth film and television incarnation, with European Film actress 2005 winner Julia Jentsch taking on the title character.

See also


External links


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