- Space in Theodor Fontane’s Works: Theme and Poetic Function by Michael James White
Michael James White’s study Space in Theodor Fontane’s Works is the published version of the author’s doctoral thesis. It draws on “space” as a category for literary analysis to provide new insights in the writings and “art” (1) of Theodor Fontane. Structurally and stylistically, it closely observes the conventions of scholarly theses: in the introduction, White motivates his topic into the context of existing Fontane scholarship, very briefly surveys methodological approaches to space in literature, touching mainly upon the contributions of Lotman, Genette, Bachelard, and Hamon, and presents his own analytical tools. The actual analysis unfolds over the course of five chapters in close readings of Die Grafschaft Ruppin (the first volume of Fontane’s Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg), Vor dem Sturm, Schach von Wuthenow in comparison to Graf Petöfy, Irrungen Wirrungen in contrast with Unwiederbringlich, and Der Stechlin. In each chapter, the interior spaces, landscapes, and topographies that constitute the textual worlds are shown to take on different functions, ranging from the production of symbolic meaning to the expression of aesthetic perception [End Page 315] and subjectivity. White concludes that from the earliest writings on, spatial representation is an important literary device for Fontane that has “a functional and a reflective aspect” (164) and that gradually gains in complexity. Ultimately, it provides a vehicle with which Fontane explores and thinks through the relationship between aesthetic perception and its literary representation. The actual significance of spatial analysis thus lies in its potential to make a self-reflexive part of Fontane’s poetics visible, a potential that, according to White, previous spatial studies of his writings have overlooked (169).
Attentive to details and careful in his readings, White convincingly shows that space is an omnipresent concern and variable poetic device in Fontane’s works. The primary literature is balanced, providing a mix of fictional works, non-fictional writings, and a few samples of Fontane’s late poetry. The connections to Fontane scholarship are extensive, well-documented, and up-to-date. This is, however, not the case with existing research on space in literary studies, and from this lack of contemporary theorization, some significant problems arise.
A number of publications from the last two decades attempt to theorize space for literary studies and refine the contributions of such founding figures as Bachtin and Lotman (e.g. Hallet and Neumann, eds., Raum und Bewegung in der Literatur: Die Literaturwissenschaften und der Spatial Turn, Bielefeld 2009; Piatti, Die Geographie der Literatur. Schauplätze, Handlungsräume, Raumphantasien, Göttingen 2008; Wenz, Raum, Raumsprache und Sprachräume. Zur Textsemiotik der Raumbeschreibung, Tübingen 1997). Yet these contributions are absent from White’s book, whose primary reference points on spatial and literary theory date back to the late 1960s, 1970s, and early 1990s. That is a shame, in particular because White actually shares some underlying assumptions with current spatial literary studies, such as the assumption that space cannot be understood as a mere backdrop for literary settings but is a category that acquires meaning only insofar as the narrator or the protagonists move through and experience it. White, however, claims that “[. . .] within literary studies, systematic definitions of literary space are hard to find” (1–2) and thus resorts to his own, “pragmatic” (2) definition of space and a very traditional method: “In its most simple form, then, a spatial analysis is one in which the focus of investigation is on the world represented in the text, the way it is constructed, the way characters interact with it and its meaning for them [. . .]” (10). His approach thus comes down to close reading and text-immanent analysis, which limits the significance of his findings to Fontane specialists and, what is more, also limits the originality of his study.
The negative corollaries of an exclusively text-immanent analysis become particularly visible in the conclusions to the individual chapters. In his readings, White proceeds ever more deeply into the textual...