- Spyri's Mountain Miracles:Exemplum and Romance in Heidi
That Johanna Spyri's Heidi (1880; English translation, 1884) is a children's classic few would deny. Heidi's continued packaging in sets of Christmas books and Hollywood adaptations makes her one of the most well-known heroines in children's literature; James Steel Smith's discovery of her on eight out of ten lists of children's classics he surveyed is not surprising.1 The reasons for Heidi's continued status as a classic, however, may not be so apparent. Usually, critics credit Spyri's characterization of Heidi and portrayal of setting: Heidi is "wholesome,"2 "good-natured and sensible, never dull,"3 and above all she is "real,"4 as "real" as her mountains and goat-milk cheese. On the other hand, Spyri's classic strikes many twentieth-century readers as too didactic and sentimental: Heidi quotes the Frankfort grandmother's pious wisdom several times too often, and the adults around Heidi are a bit too gushing in their appreciation of "their happy child."5 No doubt, it was reasons such as these which led Alice Jordan to exclaim, "And Heidi—who can say just why that little Swiss girl lives so vividly in many hearts?"6 The following literary analysis seeks to provide answers to this question. Through an examination of Heidi's placement within the traditions of the exemplum and the pastoral romance, this article offers some reasons why the book has survived and probably deserves to survive as a children's classic. This primarily generic approach helps weigh the book's admitted didacticism and sentimentality against the congruence of theme and structure which gives to the work much of its power.
Northrop Frye's assertion that just value judgments of literature depend on appropriate categorical judgments, that we cannot tell how good a thing is until we know what it is,7 is particularly applicable to Heidi, which can only superficially bear the label of realism sometimes suggested for it. The book [End Page 62] nowhere approaches psychological realism, for example. Heidi may be a memorable literary creation, but she, like her friends, is not given enough personality traits to become more than a character type. The "realism" of Spyri's setting is similarly questionable: the book may make its reader want to buy a ticket on Swiss Air, but reflection suggests that a hayloft bed might be too cold and that goatmilk cheese every day might become tiresome.
If "realism" is inappropriate to describe the literary mode of Heidi, equally so is "fantasy." Heidi has a marvelous effect on those around her, but she does so without magical apparatus; her mountains suggest those in picture postcards; but they belong more to Switzerland than to J.R.R. Tolkien's desideratum for fantasy, "Faerie."8 Like many other children's classics confusingly labeled "realistic," Heidi functions somewhere between realism and fantasy; it presents a fictional territory Laura Ingalls Wilder also explored and located when she combined the fairy-tale formula for timelessness with a specific, historical time reference in the opening sentence of her first book: "Once upon a time, sixty years ago."9 This realm is that "neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet" which Nathaniel Hawtorne identified as the world of the romance as opposed to that of the novel.10 In this kind of fictional world, as Richard Chase has pointed out, character often becomes "somewhat abstract and ideal," and "astonishing events may occur" which have a "symbolic or ideological, rather than a realistic, plausibility."11 Thus Heidi embodies the ideals of empathetic sensibility and natural simplicity, and the "astonishing" effect she has on most persons around her demonstrates the power of these virtues. She is precisely the child whom the Frankfort housekeeper wanted as a companion for her invalid charge but, ironically, did not recognize in Heidi: "such a creature as I have read about in books, a girl, you know, born in the fresh mountain air, one who walks through life scarcely touching the ground beneath her feet" (p. 126). Heidi, then, is not a realistic...