Effi Briest, the tragic, eponymous heroine of Fontane’s novel, is the only child of a German aristocratic couple living on an idyllic country estate outside of Berlin. When Effi is seventeen years old, she is married off to Baron Geert von Innstetten who is twenty years her senior. In addition to the age gap, their very different views on life doom the marriage from achieving any peace and contentment from the start.
When we first meet Effi she is playing in the garden on her parent’s estate, her favorite place in the world. Effi loves nature and is a carefree spirit who always laughing and taking great delight in socializing with her family and friends. An hour before she is engaged to Innstetten she is playing tag in the yard with her three best friends. When she is introduced to her finance, she is excited at the prospect of marrying a man who is ambitious and will provide a good life for her. Innstetten is a Landrat in Kessin, a senior politician that oversees a large rural population. But during their engagement there are hints at the aloofness of her future husband in the letters he sends to her. Effi mentions to her mother that “most of what he writes I could put on the noticeboard at the town hall where his official announcements are posted. Geert isn’t a Landrat for nothing.” Effi’s statement is a perfect example of Fontane’s subtle and allusive narrative—we are given hints about the great contrast between Effi’s needs and Geert’s inability to fulfil those desires.
When Effi moves to Innstetten’s home in Pomerania, she is still very much childlike and innocent. She is oftentimes frightened by noises she hears in her new home and an old legend about the previous owner and his “Chinaman” adds to her terror. The local Prussian nobility is unwelcoming and aloof and, except for a town chemist who is especially warm and kind to her, Effi is socially isolated. Innstetten is oftentimes away fulfilling his administrative duties and when he does spend time with his wife he only gives her “one or two tired if well-intended caresses.” She is oftentimes unhappy and doesn’t realize that it is due to the fact that her marriage has failed to satisfy her emotionally or physically. It is no big surprise that Effi engages in a brief yet passionate love affair with Major Crampas, a reputed womanizer who is more passionate and expressive than her husband.
But Effi, in the end, develops no real attachment to Crampas and decides that the best course of action for herself and her family—she has an infant daughter by this time—is to stay with her husband who is being promoted through the ranks of the political system. When Effi and Innstetten move to Berlin for his new ministerial post, Effi believes that the affair is something in the past, a long-forgotten indiscretion. She still has bouts of sadness because she misses the emotional and physical connection with Crampas but she puts aside her own needs for the sake of her husband and daughter.
Innstetten, who was a former suitor of Effi’s mother, has spent his life working and improving his career. After the rejection by Effi’s mother, he has denied himself intimate human connections or marriage. But the thought of having another chance with a young woman who greatly resembles his former love is too tempting. He seems delighted with Effi and throughout their honeymoon and the early days of their marriage he is very complimentary and affectionate to his young wife. But once he settles back into his routine he takes on the role of an authority figure. It is Crampas who points out to Effi that Innstetten has assumed the role of “pedagogue” in their marriage. Effi’s high spirits and vigor are greatly contrasted with her husband’s restraint and self-control. He is a man of the law and sees the world in terms of moral imperatives and absolutes. Effi’s affair is her attempt to free herself from these constraints.
Effi keeps her love letters from Crampas locked away in her sewing box and six years after the affair has ended, while they are living in Berlin, Innstetten discovers the letters quite by accident. Even though he still loves his wife, his strict adherence to his values causes him to make decisions that destroy his entire family. He challenges Crampas to a fatal duel, throws his wife out of his home and doesn’t allow Effi any further contact with her daughter. Innstetten’s handles the situation in the only way he feels right, but his morally correct actions bring him no peace or comfort. Several years after Effi is gone, he has a vulnerable moment and confides in one of his only friends: “But I’ve forgotten how to be glad about anything. If I said that to anyone other than you, it would just sound like a glib phrase. But you can follow my drift. Look at this place; look at how empty and desolate it all is.”
The strengh of Fontane’s narrative lies in the character of Effi that he creates for his story. Effi stands among famous 19th century female characters like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary as an example of a daring woman who resists the sexual, emotional and even political restraints that are imposed on her. Effi finally returns to her parent’s home, the one place she was truly happy and free to be herself. She dies, full of heartache and grief, but is buried in her favorite place in the garden and, as a last act of defiance and free will, she requests her own, original name be carved on her gravestone: Effi Briest.
(I read the Penguin Classics version translated by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers. Persephone Books has also published a translation by Walter Wallich that was reviewed by Ali at her blog: https://heavenali.wordpress.com/2017/05/08/effi-briest-theodor-fontane-1895/).