“Alles so orientalisch”: The Elaboration of Desire in Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest (1896)
This study of Effi Briest explores the Oedipal relationships that shape the protagonist’s subjectivity and the construction of her fantasy in “Oriental” terms. Prohibited from investigating the possibility of erotic fulfillment in her marriage, Effi turns to the trope of the Orient as a culturally mediated, socially accepted discourse through which to articulate her research into the mystery of sexuality. Scholarship on Effi ’s interest in the Orient has focused primarily on the Chinese ghost, but this study analyzes the broad scope of her fascination with “all things Oriental.” It draws on the work of Edward Said and Jacques Lacan in the interpretation of references to the East as both culturally symptomatic and evocative of an individual, uniquely structured fantasy. For Effi, that fantasy is fueled by a skewed Oedipal dynamic and is shaped by the multifaceted signifier of the Orient, which was powerfully operative in nineteenth-century European culture.
Theodor Fontane’s novel Effi Briest opens with an idyllic scene set at the Briest family residence in the fictional town of Hohen-Cremmen, Prussia. The seventeen-year-old Effi and her mother, Luise von Briest, are seated outdoors in a courtyard of sorts, sheltered by the walls of her father’s ancestral estate on two sides and on a third by the neighboring churchyard wall. This is Effi’s childhood home, bathed in late-morning sunlight, and for the time being, the enclosed garden represents a world of warmth, security, and stability for the young protagonist. The idyll is disrupted, however, when three of Effi’s friends arrive, and as Frau von Briest retreats indoors, Effi tells the trio of the impending visit of Baron von Innstetten, her mother’s former suitor. Effi’s description of the couple’s relationship as “a love-story complete with hero and heroine, and ending in renunciation” (7) triggers a giddy adolescent assessment of marriage and romance until Effi herself is called inside, just as the clock strikes noon, to prepare for the Baron’s arrival.1 The church bells’ toll marks a shift in tone from lighthearted to darkly foreboding, and [End Page 118] Effi, as if unconsciously aware of the end of her own innocence, incites the girls to perform one last play ritual: a mock funeral. As Effi sings a dirge, the girls submerge a bag of gooseberry skins with a stone into the backyard pond. Foreshadowing her own tragic fate, Effi explains to her friends, “‘this is how they used to drown poor unfortunate women, from boats like this, for infidelity of course.’ ‘But not here,’” asserts her friend Herta. “‘No, not here, [. . .] that kind of thing doesn’t happen here. But in Constantinople it does’” (10).
In the carefully constructed architectural and geographic symbolism of the opening scene, the novel traces the entire course of Effi Briest’s development from childhood innocence to feminine desire and fantasy, adultery, punishment, and, finally, to death. Mother and child are depicted as a dyad in an almost symbiotic moment, a world of nature and of plenitude, hemmed in by the boundaries of patriarchal referents—the paternal domicile and the adjacent church. The scene clearly establishes the dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship and the role of Effi’s future husband, Baron von Innstetten, and of her father, Herr von Briest, as well as the nature of both Effi’s desire and her mother’s. Moreover, as it draws to a close, chapter 1 alludes to the condition of Effi’s eventual alienation and foreshadows the fantasy—fraught with potential danger—that will emerge in an attempt to repair that alienation. In the make-believe funeral that follows the girls’ naive discussion of love and marriage, Effi frames her own transgressive search for satisfaction, and its eventual consequences, in an Oriental scene.
The nature of Effi’s alienation and the formulation of her fantasy through the idiom of the East are the main concerns of this essay. Guided by the Lacanian model of the intersubjective constitution of human desire, it examines both the complex Oedipal relationships of mother-daughter-father/husband and the enigmatic construction of Effi’s desire in Oriental terms.2 My use of Lacan draws specifically on his understanding of the Oedipal complex as a dynamic in which the child’s own desire is structured by its relationship with the mother, as it attempts to discern what it is that the mother wants, and to be that fully satisfying love object for her.3 I argue that because Effi’s unconscious is prohibited from investigating the possibility of erotic fulfillment in her marriage to Innstetten (first by her mother and then by Innstetten himself), it must mobilize an alternate means to express both the titillating promise and the anxiety that swirls around her transition to adulthood, as well as her investigations into the mystery of sexuality. As she takes up her position as a wife, [End Page 119] Effi consequently turns to the trope of the Orient because it offers her a culturally mediated (and socially accepted) discourse through which to articulate her need to understand the nature of romantic love, her search for fulfillment, and her confrontation with the strange, frightening, and forbidden realm of erotic desire.
While other critics have also employed the work of Lacan to scrutinize the familial and societal pressures that act upon Effi’s inner life, they have failed to sufficiently examine the representation of her dreams and fantasies as Oriental. Edith Krause demonstrates, for example, the “collision of individual and collective demands” in Effi Briest that leads to the systematic repression of feminine desire within patriarchal culture (“Desire” 117) and interprets Effi’s hallucinations and fears as manifestations of “the woman’s suffering in male dominated systems” (“Eclectic Affinities” 451). Similarly, John Blair and Herman Rapaport are concerned with triangulation of desire and the patriarchal structures that subordinate Effi and her mother. These scholars do mention the Chinese ghost that haunts Effi’s imagination, but they are minimally concerned with the question of why the ghost is Chinese. On the other hand, George Steinmetz, who also makes use of the Lacanian model, does in fact offer a brief interpretation of the ghost in Effi Briest within the larger project of tracking the ways in which levels of “discursive, sociological, and psychic” concepts affected German colonial native policy (xx–xxi). But he does not consider the Oedipal structures that shape the protagonist’s subjectivity and generate her Eastern fantasy, or for that matter, the broad scope of the motif of the Orient in the novel as a whole.
Indeed, studies interested in the presence of the Orient in Effi Briest tend to focus almost exclusively on the Chinese ghost, in line with Fontane’s own designation of the apparition as the novel’s pivotal point.4 With the notable exception of Judith Ryan and Claudius Sittig, relatively few have treated the Orient as a pervasive element in the novel, or the ghost as part of the larger complex of Effi’s fascination with things she refers to as “Oriental” (“orientalisch”). Ingrid Schuster calls the phantasm an “extremely enigmatic phenomenon” (“ein äusserst schillerndes Phänomen” [“Exotik” 115]), and as numerous studies have shown, the many-faceted symbol has elicited a multitude of interpretations. Peter Demetz, for example, argues that the Chinese man in Effi Briest is a poetic construct whose possible interpretations verge on the infinite (205). One can, however, identify two predominant strands of investigation in the attempt to explain the enigma of the Chinese specter. Critics such as [End Page 120] Schuster, Ulrike Rainer, and Richard Thum address it chiefly as an expression of Effi’s inner life—a symbol of forbidden passion, alienation, isolation, guilt, and desire. Meanwhile, as Peter Utz, Ryan, Sittig, Steinmetz, Inka Mülder-Bach, Karl Guthke, and Geoffrey Baker have demonstrated, the ghost is clearly also representative of the political and cultural realities of late-nineteenth-century German colonial expansion and exoticism.
Rather than focusing solely on the figure of the Asian ghost, however, this analysis examines the apparition as one element among a series of Oriental allusions in the novel. It also combines the two angles of critical approach by interpreting these references to the East as simultaneously evocative of (1) a particular individual’s uniquely structured fantasy and (2) a particular social and historical moment. A Lacanian perspective is helpful in reconciling these two strategies, because it emphasizes the role of the social system as constitutive of the subject and thus pays special attention to the intersection of cultural and historical discourses, social exchange, and human desire. Based on this premise, I argue that Effi’s fantasy can and should be explained as a symptom of an historically specific social imperative, as well as of a unique familial dynamic, and that the multifaceted signifier of the Orient, which was powerfully operative in nineteenth-century European culture, offers Effi’s unconscious the language that will express her desire and shape her fantasy.
In her fascination with “all sorts of exotic things” (33; “allerlei Exotisches” ) Effidraws from a well-established archive of signifiers that were pervasive in a culture obsessed with the Orient and Orientalia. Ludwig Ammann identifies in nineteenth-century German society a heightened interest in the area of the world that fell under the rubric of the Orient as increasing numbers of Germans traveled to the Middle East and Asia and as Germany became involved in the European race for colonial power (Ammann 3). By the end of that century, as Nina Berman notes in her recent study German Literature on the Middle East, there was “a proliferation of images and themes related to the Middle East in virtually all areas of German culture” (167).
At the same time, however, the Orient remained foreign and enigmatic in the European imagination and thus offered a convenient topos, especially in literature, on which to displace an exploration of the erotic. Indeed, Effi’s references to “all sorts of exotic things” at various points in the novel indicate places that were present in the public discourse (Constantinople, Japan, China) as well as to material objects that were desirable [End Page 121] and readily available (such as a Japanese screen, a Turkish rug, etc.). But these places and things also function—both in Effi’s own mind and on the level of text—as signifiers that invoke a series of associations attached to the cultural conception of the Orient. Even as the nineteenth century drew to a close and European knowledge of and relations with Near and Far Eastern nations grew (in no small part due to the West’s colonial endeavors), age-old clichés persisted or regained traction. As Edward Said noted in his groundbreaking work, Orientalism: “One of the important developments in nineteenth-century Orientalism was the distillation of essential ideas about the Orient—its sensuality, its tendency to despotism, its aberrant mentality, its habits of inaccuracy, its backwardness—into a separate and unchallenged coherence” (205).
The extent to which the body of ideas about and associations with the Orient was “coherent and unchallenged” has been one of the many points of contention in scholarship in the wake of Orientalism, particularly among scholars of German literature. Critics such as Todd Kontje, Berman, and Andrea Polaschegg, for instance, have argued in various ways (1) that there was no single, shared Western discourse on the Orient, (2) that German views about and reception of Eastern cultures were unique to Germany’s political and cultural situation, and (3) that even within the German context, those views were historically determined and thus articulated in divergent and pluralistic forms, which Kontje calls “German Orientalisms” and discusses in his book by the same title. But few would argue against the observation that there was in German-speaking society, similar to elsewhere in western Europe, a dramatically heightened interest, both academic and popular, in Eastern cultures, as well as a proliferation of Asian- and Middle Eastern–styled goods in late-nineteenth-century quotidian life.5 And while German constructions of the Orient may have been multiple and divergent, there existed in the cultural imagination a stable of familiar ideas and associations that informed certain fantasies of the East. Said’s assertion that the designation “Orient” was a “European invention” and that it referred to “a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences” (1) that often had little to do with the “real” Middle East and Asia and all of its geographical and cultural components is a critical point for this essay.6 The clichés of despotism, excessive sexuality, and brutality that Said, Ammann, Schuster, Berman, and others refer to are firmly ensconced in the collection of tropes from which Effi Briest’s fantasy is constructed and that inform Fontane’s treatment of the Orient. Thus the [End Page 122] Chinese ghost that later haunts Effi can function in traditional terms as a metaphor for sexual freedom while at the same time suggesting cruelty and danger, characteristics linked to the more contemporary and historically contingent image of the “yellow peril” (“die gelbe Gefahr”), a central component of Germany’s imperialist representation of China. This duality of danger and attraction is attached both to the Chinese ghost and to the East as a whole and is alluded to already in the opening scene when the girls’ talk of romance ends with a song about cruel punishment in Constantinople.
A closer examination of the symbolic geography of the initial episode brings into sharp relief the organization of the Briest family dynamic, the web of triangulated desire through which Effi must navigate, and the projection of her fantasy into the East. The garden in which Effi sits alone with her mother represents Effi’s last moments of childhood. It is also the place to which she will return at the end of the novel as a social outcast, doomed to a fate similar to that of the Turkish adulteresses she refers to during the make-believe funeral. The garden is framed by a horseshoe-shaped border, with the Briest home and side wing to the west and the south and the churchyard and cemetery behind it to the north. The walls that surround the two women function both to protect the moment of plenitude and to impose upon it the law of society, thus representing the social forces that will control her.7 In Effi Briest, it is the intricate web of Prussian and European cultural norms and expectations that will determine the nature of the protagonist’s subjectivity, structure her alienation, and organize her fantasy. Only toward the east is the vista open, past the plane trees, the swing, and the lake. This is the very same body of water in which Effi and her friends drown the gooseberry hulls as if they were adulterous women deserving of punishment, “for infidelity of course.” Already in the novel’s initial symbolic topography, the East is cast in an ambivalent light, representing freedom and desire as well as danger and death.
As they sit facing one another in the enclosed garden, Effi and her mother form a dyadic unit. Frau von Briest admires her child, and Effi returns the gaze, wishing to please her mother. Effi complains about the youthful, androgynous clothes that Frau von Briest has chosen for her, but she poses no real resistance: “‘Why have you got me in this shift—this boy’s overall? [. . .] Why don’t you make a lady of me?’ ‘Would you like that?’ ‘No.’ Saying which, she ran up to her mother, threw her arms round her impetuously and kissed her” (6). Although Effi questions her mother, she identifies with her entirely and attempts to be the object of [End Page 123] her desire, to be that which Luise von Briest wants. According to Bruce Fink, author of The Lacanian Subject, “in the child’s attempt to grasp what remains essentially indecipherable in the Other’s desire [. . .] the child’s own desire is founded” (59). Jane Gallop describes this “dialectic of desire” (184) as the relationship between desire and the quest to know: “The subject does not know what she desires but must learn it from the Other. The desire to know what the Other knows, so as to know what one desires so as to satisfy that desire, is the drive behind all quests for knowledge” (185). The enigma of what it is that the mother wants, however, is complicated by the problematic nature of Effi’s Oedipal dynamic, due initially to the virtually complete absence of the father, and secondly to her mother’s previous relationship with Effi’s husband-to-be, Innstetten.
Herr von Briest never enters this opening scene and is introduced only by way of reference. He is in fact helpless to intervene as an effective force into the orbit of mother and daughter. Briest’s absence, in body and in word, is of significance, however. The decisions that will define Effi’s adult existence, that determine the dynamics of the family’s interrelationships, are Luise von Briest’s. Her husband, while tentatively critical of her choices, is a mere bystander to the events that shape their lives. When Effi explains the earlier romantic link between her mother and Innstetten to her friends, the question arises: “And what does your father say to that?” Effi responds matter-of-factly, “Nothing” (9–10). Herr von Briest is clearly not the object of his wife’s desire (a fact that is taken for granted even by Effi) and consequently in no position to sustain the paternal function, that is, to step in and provide the “no,” or prohibition, that would initiate Effi’s separation from her mother and free her to pursue her own desire.8 Since the father never intrudes, the normal Oedipal dynamic can never be resolved, and consequently the seventeen-year-old Effi, desiring to “know what the Other knows” (Gallop 184). enters willingly into a union with the much older Innstetten (thirty-eight years old), who had courted her mother two decades earlier. As Innstetten’s wife, Effi will serve as her mother’s proxy, fulfilling her mother’s desire while remaining herself the object of no one’s.
Luise von Briest’s insistence that her daughter remain the naïve child thwarts any possibility of Effi “occupying the position of ‘desired object’” in her marriage with Innstetten because, as Rapaport stresses, “[the mother] is already where the daughter ought to be” (143). When Effi is called into the house to change into clothing more appropriate for a meeting [End Page 124] with her new suitor, her mother detains her: “Maybe it’s as well in the end you just stay as you are” (12, emphasis mine). The liminal space that Effi occupies—between girlhood and womanhood—is conveyed through a layering of discordant voices, which Effi perceives simultaneously, as she stands in the garden room. While her mother tells Effi the surprising news of Innstetten’s impending proposal (to Effi), her father’s voice emanates from the entryway as he ushers Innstetten into the house, and from outside, the voices of her friends call out one of the novel’s most memorable phrases, “come back Effi” (13). This chorus of conflicting messages dramatizes two essential dilemmas: on the one hand, the familiar comfort of childhood beckons even as Effi’s new position as wife is revealed to her. More important—and problematic—however, is Luise von Briest’s maternal instruction to her daughter to “stay as you are” just as she crosses the threshold between adolescence and adulthood. The motivation behind Frau von Briest’s command reaches the level of awareness when, on the evening of Effi’s betrothal to Innstetten, the mother dwells for a minute upon her own courtship with Innstetten before reminding herself, “it couldn’t be her, so now, instead of her, it was her daughter” (13).
Given the mission to enact what could have been between Luise and Innstetten, Effi must now negotiate between two conflicting paths. The first is the child’s paradigmatic search for a stable, autonomous position outside of her mother’s desire, the object of which is the father (or in this case, Innstetten). In other words, having been expelled from a position of oneness with the mother, the child must normally answer the question, “What am I in relation to the Other?” Effi, however, in relation to Innstetten, has been assigned the task of continuing where her mother left off. Thus, the second—and contradictory—path is the attempt to locate, identify with, and act out her mother’s desire, as opposed to finding a place for herself, as subject, separate from and outside of that desire. As Rapaport notes: “Given the problematic overlapping, Effi, as linguistic shifter (or ‘it’) can stand in different places within various familial perspectives, provided that she does not declare herself a desiring agency in her own right” (141). The successful pursuit of either path is obstructed by the skewed Oedipal dynamic. On the one hand, the position as substitute for her mother blocks Effi from acquiring her own selfhood or desiring agency; on the other hand, her efforts to assume the role of the good wife are doomed to fail, since her explorations into what it is that Luise von Briest wants are deliberately obstructed by both Luise and Innstetten, who urge Effi to remain childlike. [End Page 125]
The mechanism by which the subject inquires into the desire of the Other, a desire that reaches beyond the subject itself, is fantasy. It is also the process by which that subject, split from itself and its Other, attempts to reconstruct the illusion of wholeness and unity. For Effi, both that which is unknown and that which belongs to the realm of desire is fashioned as Eastern, which explains why, almost immediately after the proposal, she constructs an imaginary geography that positions Kessin, her future home, far to the east. While this fictional city set on the Baltic Sea is actually less than 150 miles east of Hohen-Cremmen, Effi prefers to lend the sleepy seaside town an air of the Exotic, conjuring up what the narrator calls “a rather curious notion of Eastern Pomerania” (20). For Effi, Kessin is a place of ice and snow, practically Siberia. Her mother is quick to point out that Kessin is neither St. Petersburg nor Archangel, the latter being located even farther east, on Russia’s White Sea. But Effi remains insistent (and hopeful): “No, but it’s on the way” (20).
Just as Kessin is displaced in Effi’s mind eastwards to Russia, so the mysteries of sexuality are represented in Oriental terms. When her mother asks Effi before the wedding if she has any last wishes for her new home, Effi requests a Japanese folding screen and a lamp to bathe her marital bedroom in a red glow (21).9 The wish for an Oriental-styled screen by the bed and the red lamp is the conscious articulation of an unconscious fantasy in which Effi investigates her own awakening sexuality, as well as the mystery of her mother’s desire. The objects function within the symbolic economy of a society for which the Orient is a ubiquitous motif, one that evokes not only a sense of anxiety, fear, and the forbidden but also associations of the erotic, the pleasurable, and the sensuous. Connected as it is with the locus and myth of paradise, the Orient also offers the promise of fulfillment. Mülder-Bach, in fact, argues that the characters in Effi Briest construct their own reality according to signs that circulate in social discourse.10 Mülder-Bach is referring specifically to the characters’ many references to literary and artistic works which, she argues (in light of Fontane’s own reference to the novel as a “Psychograph”), the author develops into a signifying system of the unconscious (626). I would extend that system of signs in the social discourse to include Effi’s references to Orientalia, which operate in a similar way. Effi’s fantasy thus makes use of a signifier that is multiply charged and that conveniently allows her both to articulate the question of desire and to reconstruct the paradisiacal moment of the novel’s first scene. What is more, because of its shifting web of meaning and its ability to accommodate [End Page 126] associations that are inherently contradictory, the trope of the Orient can most appropriately capture the concept of what Lacan calls jouissance, the simultaneous experiences of bliss and the anxiety and horror of getting too close to the promised oneness of that bliss.11
Although the unconscious operates in a free associative way, it collects and processes those signifiers that are operative in culture. For centuries, the Orient, and any part associated with that generalized abstraction, represented for Europeans the ambiguous, the forbidden, and the sexually charged. As Said notes: “[F]or nineteenth-century Europe, with its increasing embourgeoisement, sex had been institutionalized to a very considerable degree. On the one hand, there was no such thing as ‘free’ sex, and on the other, sex in society entailed a web of legal, moral, even political and economic obligations of a detailed and certainly encumbering sort” (190). As a result, he argues, “the Orient functioned as a place where one could look for sexual experience unobtainable in Europe” (190). Said is referring here chiefly to the many male writers who wrote about or traveled to the East after 1800 (190). The idea, however, that in a highly stratified, controlled bourgeois society the Orient would serve as an outlet for repressed feminine sexual energy as well is of course most relevant to Effi Briest. Effi’s choices are clearly limited; her natural inclinations and wishes are stifled by societal norms; her marriage is arranged to satisfy not her own economic and social ambitions but those of her mother; and her eventual sexual transgression will have ramifications on every conceivable level: social, moral, legal, economic, and physical. As Krause points out, both as daughter and wife, Effi is “tied to the strictures of patriarchal Law that governs the narrow domestic sphere” (“Domesticity” 417). Any exploration of “sexual experience” must thus be reframed in socially acceptable terms, and so Effi projects her imaginations onto an eroticized Oriental space, which is defined interchangeably as Japanese, Persian, Turkish, Indian, and Chinese.
By the late nineteenth century, objects and ideas related to the Middle East and Asia had become almost commonplace in European popular and intellectual culture. Novels, travelogues, political tracts, scholarly publications, even children’s books offered up to the nineteenth-century European reader the image, myth, and reality of the East; both high and applied art were influenced by and imitative of Middle Eastern, Japanese, and Chinese aesthetics; homes were filled with paintings, plants, and furniture designed to conjure up an Oriental ambience and a sense of the Exotic. By the 1880s, when the novel’s action occurs, Europeans had generated [End Page 127] yet another Oriental vogue, Japonisme, to follow the centuries-long infatuation with Chinoiserie.12 This heightened taste for all things Japanese was triggered by the opening of Japan’s ports to the West by the US Navy under Commodore Matthew Perry in 1854 and by the 1862 International Exhibitions in London and Paris, which featured Japanese art and wares. Elizabeth Aslin points out that by 1868, especially in England, but also in the rest of Europe, “the mania knew no limits” (96).
Across the Continent, Europeans decorated their rooms with Japanese fans, plates, sword hilts, and lacquer boxes, but particularly desirable was the folding screen that Effi wishes for shortly before her wedding. In their study of the European fascination with Asian-styled folding screens, Michael Komanecky and Virginia Fabbri Butera note that “by the turn of the century [. . .] there was hardly a single middle- or upper-class home that did not have at least one of these versatile pieces of furniture” (42). Despite its ubiquity, however, the Asian folding screen remained an exotic pleasure, a symbol of other worlds and, more importantly, other norms. In 1882 the French critic and historian Charles Blanc touched on its appeal: “Folding screens are never better decorated than by Chinese or Japanese subjects which are colored with opulent costumes, exotic flowers, highly colored coats of arms; fantastic birds with glistening plumage; [. . .] A glance at this type of folding screen transports you to imaginary countries at the other end of the world” (qtd. in Komanecky and Butera 46).
Although Effi’s wish for a Japanese screen in her bedroom is in perfect accordance with the decorative fashion of her day, it functions in her imagination as more than just an ordinary household object. Here it operates as both signified and signifier: a screen, it turns out, is not just a screen. Luise von Briest’s reaction to her daughter’s request tells us that Effi’s wish is more than just a young woman’s attempt to decorate her new home à la mode. Indeed, the mother’s answer exposes the erotic and transgressive associations linked to this seemingly harmless item. At first, Frau von Briest treats Effi’s mention of the screen as childish romanticism: “It all seems like a fairy tale and you want to be a princess” (21). But Effi’s mother rightly equates her daughter’s longing to have a Japanese screen and to see “everything bathed in a red glow” (22) with escapism, eroticism, and with unrealistic sexual expectations for her marriage precisely because it alludes to those “imaginary countries at the other end of the world” (Blanc qtd. in Komanecky and Butera 46). The screen is thus a symbol for that which Effi cannot say, for all that she does [End Page 128] not understand and is hidden from her, and for everything she desires but must hide. It is for this reason that Luise von Briest once again puts a halt to the young woman’s tentative explorations and warns her daughter in couched terms that her expectations of erotic love cannot be fulfilled: “My dear Effi, in life we must be cautious, especially we women” (21–22). Luise von Briest is well aware of the price of nonconformity in Prussian society and cautions Effi against becoming the subject of laughter, “or possibly something even worse” (22). Yet the mother’s prohibition operates in the service of two separate agendas. Ostensibly she speaks for society at large, acknowledging its very real norms and taboos, but on another level she stifles, as Innstetten will later, Effi’s erotic curiosity and playfulness, refusing to acknowledge her as an adult woman: “She stood up and kissed Effi. ‘You’re a child. Beautiful and poetic. That’s how you imagine it. Reality is different, and it’s often a good thing that instead of light and red glow there is darkness’” (22). Luise von Briest is unwilling to shed light on her daughter’s inquiries into the erotic. They have been summarily dismissed and returned to the shadows, and so, in the realm of Effi’s fantasy, that forbidden erotic energy will in part be deferred from that which is alluring to that which is alarming. In the guise of the Chinese ghost, the Orient will once more serve to represent the mysteries of sexuality, this time in a darker, more ominous guise.
Once she enters her husband’s domain in Kessin, Effi ignores her mother’s cautionary advice and continues to explore her newlywed fantasies through an Oriental lens. Her hopes for something exciting and different are initially high when the couple’s carriage rolls into town. As she imagines her new life, she collapses the new and the strange with the Exotic into one sensational image: “If you haven’t been exaggerating, I find that it’s a completely new world. All sorts of exotic things [. . .] with perhaps a Negro or a Turk, or perhaps even a Chinaman” (33). Once again Effi’s desperate wish to transform the quiet little town into something more vibrant leads her to the vocabulary of the Orient. Upon entering the Landrat’s residence, she is enchanted by the foreign atmosphere: a model ship, a shark, and a crocodile that hang from the ceiling of the foyer, and underfoot, as Effi is pleased to note, a carpet that is most probably Turkish (37). Yet while the house and its eccentric paraphernalia speak to her fantasy and promise great things, the new bride’s first night in Kessin proves disappointing, and she wonders the next morning: “But where was Innstetten?” (38). Instead of recalling a night of passion, it seems, her memory of the first evening is dominated by the initial installment [End Page 129] of her obsession with the ghost of the Chinese man—she remembers a rustling sound and a vision of white satin slippers.
Over breakfast, Effi recycles the Oriental motif in a barely veiled plea to her husband. She recalls a collage of Oriental stereotypes from a childhood picture book: a Persian or Indian prince wearing a turban and sitting on a red silk cushion before an array of swords, daggers, and Turkish weapons on the wall behind him. In an effort to connect the fantasy to her reality, Effi inserts Innstetten into the Oriental scene: “And look, that’s just what it looks like in here, and all that’s needed to make the resemblance perfect is for you to sit cross-legged” (40, emphasis mine). Her appeal to Innstetten is a naive effort to navigate through the erotic labyrinth of her marital existence and to shift their positions into their correct alignment—as husband and wife, rather than parental authority and child. Unable to articulate her confusion, she borrows from an established portfolio of symbols to suggest notions of luxury, erotic desire, sensuality, and virility. Effi’s desire is thus shaped through and by the preexisting discursive network that simultaneously produces her alienation and provides her with the symbolic means to construct her fantasy.
The new husband, however, takes up where the mother left off and immediately deflects Effi’s inquiries by deploying the frightening side of the spectrum of clichés and stereotypes that made up the European representation of the Orientalized East. Innstetten’s refusal to acknowledge his young wife’s entreaty echoes Luise von Briest’s rejection of Effi’s earlier request for the Japanese screen, and similarly, he neutralizes Effi’s aspirations to womanhood and marital and sexual fulfillment with the noncommittal response: “Effi, you’re a dear, sweet creature” (40). In their Oedipal reality (logistically if not biologically), Innstetten represents the father, and as such he must reroute her investigations. It becomes increasingly evident that he has neither the ability nor the inclination to transform himself—literally or figuratively—into a turbaned, Indian prince (let alone a husband) surrounded by leopard skins and daggers. Instead, he gives Effi a tour of the house and in an upstairs room shifts her attention to three chairs and a miniature picture of a Chinese man.
Thus, as if in silent conspiracy with Luise von Briest, Innstetten represents an oppressive and punitive Prussian social code that has no place for unconventional young women. Echoing Luise von Briest, he cautions Effi, “beware of what’s out of the ordinary, or what people choose to call out of the ordinary. What appears to you so tempting [. . .], that is something that as a rule costs you your happiness” (63). But in contradiction [End Page 130] to his own warnings, Innstetten fuels Effi’s curiosity for things “out of the ordinary” and triggers the shift in her mind from the promise of pleasure to the threat of danger. In the upstairs room above her bedroom, Effi notices the picture of a Chinese man glued to the back of one of the three chairs, a cutout from a children’s primer. Like the story of the women of Constantinople and the picture of the Oriental prince, the spelling book representation offers signifying support to Effi’s fantasy. All three are images from her childhood, representations of the “monsters, devils, heroes; terrors, pleasures, desires [from which] the European imagination was nourished” (Said 63) and which have formed in Effi’s unconscious a series of associations linked to notions of passion, socially deviant behavior, mystery, and danger.
The central link in this chain of signifiers is the Chinese ghost, who haunts Effi’s new life as Baroness von Innstetten. Of the novel’s thirty-six chapters, twenty-four contain references to the Chinese man (Rainer 546), and his appearance does in fact mark a point on which the plot turns, coinciding as it does with the birth of Effi’s fear and disillusionment and her consequent slide into transgression. Even as the newlyweds’ carriage approaches Kessin, Effi is at once excited and horrified by the thought of a Chinese man living in the small town. She has actually invented the idea herself, but Innstetten immediately confirms it: “A Chinaman too. What a good guess” (33). Innstetten’s story of the Chinese man who once lived in the Kessin house exerts a seductive pull on Effi’s imagination, but she admits that the notion of a foreigner from Asia is at the same time “always a bit sinister” (33).13 Effi, whose emotions swing from longing to excitement to fear, has constructed her hallucination before she experiences it.
While Utz warns that the plethora of interpretations of the Chinese ghost threatens to “wear out” its position in the novel (213), it is actually that versatility which lends the ghost its motivic efficiency. The ghost’s “Chineseness” is at once symbol, metaphor, and metonymy. It symbolizes, as Utz (214), Ryan (371–73), and Steinmetz have demonstrated, Germany’s real involvement in China and the attendant issues of subordination and domination. As noted earlier, it also represents, by way of its association with the larger concept of the Orient, as well as the personal story of the Chinese man himself, the more abstract concerns of Effi’s interior world—desire, forbidden passion, and repressed guilt. Finally, like all things linked to European conceptions of the Orient, the figure of the Chinese man triggers a metonymous or contiguous chain of [End Page 131] associations, many of which are inherently oppositional. According to Steinmetz, Fontane’s novel contains “the most extreme proliferation of disparate interpretations and uses of ‘China’ within a single text” (423). Steinmetz analyzes the shift in German culture from sinophilic attitudes to racist sinophobia, finding in the multiple implications of the Chinese ghost a representation of “the evolution of European discourse on China from the Middle Ages to the end of the nineteenth century.” The ghost, he argues, evokes various connotations of “sexually charged difference,” “Oriental despotism,” “stagnation, illness, and death” (424–26). Given how complicated the nineteenth-century German colonialist notion of China was, it is no surprise that Effi is both fascinated and entranced, on the one hand, and terrified and repulsed, on the other, by the thought of the Chinese man that once lived—and died—in her new home.
There is also much in the biographical account of the Chinese man (who was brought to Kessin as a servant by a sea captain named Thomsen) that would explain Effi’s identification with him. First, she too is an outsider who stands on the periphery of Kessin society and from whom the object of desire is withheld. Her position also echoes that of Thomsen’s niece (or granddaughter, no one is sure) Nina, the young woman who marries another captain “according to the old man’s wishes” (62), but most likely against her own. Effi clearly makes the latter connection herself, whether consciously or unconsciously, when, in telling the story to her mother, she substitutes the word “grandfather” with “father”: “But what’s more important,” she tells Luise von Briest, “her father had brought a young Chinaman back with him from China, first as a servant, then as the old man’s friend” (73, emphasis mine). The elision of a generation (the grandfather) reveals Effi’s unconscious identification first with the arranged marriage and, second, with the forbidden longing that must be suppressed once she has acquiesced to her mother’s arrangements.
The implication that the Chinese man was Nina’s lover also underscores the theme of triangulated desire in Effi Briest, which, I argue, drives, to a large extent, the novel’s plot. The configuration of the Chinese servant, Nina, and the sea captain she marries is echoed first in the bonds between Effi, Innstetten, and Luise von Briest, respectively, in which the Chinese visitor and Effi are excluded from a love relationship. It also resonates later with the dynamic between Effi, Innstetten, and Crampas, the man who will return her gaze when Innstetten won’t. Schuster analyzes various characters in the novel on the basis of their judgment of the Chinese servant and their reaction to the idea of passionate [End Page 132] love, which he represents, and which is prohibited (“Exotik” 117). However, Schuster also identifies in the novel another constructed triangle that is symbolized by the three chairs in the upstairs room where Nina’s wedding was held. This represents the triad of Innstetten’s past formed by Innstetten and Luise and Herr von Briest (121). Here, it is Innstetten whose experience resembles that of the Chinese man, although I would point out that unlike the Chinese servant, Innstetten, the Prussian aristocrat, is free to revisit the romantic scene of his youth and marry the daughter of the woman he couldn’t have. For Effi, the story of the Chinese servant resonates with her own experience as the outsider—a third party who is barred access to erotic fulfillment. His personal tragedy takes on mythic proportions, however, because it is aligned with the highly charged floating signifier of the Orient. It is this double-sided appeal, personal and symbolic, that allows the specter of the Chinese man to take such hold of Effi’s imagination.
It does not take long for Effi to realize that her expectations of married life, however amorphous they may have been, will not come to fruition: “what was actually lacking in her marriage [were] marks of devotion or encouragement, little attentions. Innstetten was kind and good, but he was no lover” (74–75, emphasis mine). When Effi’s romantic notions and unconscious explorations of desire lead nowhere, she turns (at Innstetten’s prodding) from Oriental fantasies of seduction and sensuous pleasure in Japanese, Indian, Persian, and Turkish guise to alarming visions of the ghost. The exotic house eventually loses its charm, and Effi’s fear intensifies with her growing disillusionment. Alone at home one night shortly after her arrival, Effi reads the story of the “White Lady,” the ghost of the Countess of Orlamünde, who, according to legend, murdered her two children in order to marry her beloved. Effi, half fascinated, half repulsed, tells herself: “I’ve been afraid of [her] for as long as I can remember” (51). Effi’s thoughts turn first to the party on the eve of her wedding, then to her friends, to her charming and lively cousin, Dagobert Briest, and, finally, to her mother: “‘[Cousin Briest] really was charming and always so full of high spirits [. . .] And now what about me! Here of all places. Oh, I’m not cut out to be a grand lady. Mamma, she’d have fitted in here, she’d have set the tone. [. . .] But me [. . .] I’m a child and I’ll always remain one. I once heard that was a good thing. But now I don’t know if it’s true’” (51, emphasis mine).
On some level Effi recognizes not only her mother’s duplicity in the sacrifice of her own daughter’s happiness but also the travesty of her assignation [End Page 133] as Innstetten’s wife. It is Cousin Briest who would have made the better partner for Effi, and Effi’s mother who should have been where Effi is now.14 Effi, however, has been given her mother’s double (and self-contradicting) injunction to be a good wife and to “stay as you are” (12), and now she understands the futility of the former, given the latter. As long as Effi remains the child to Innstetten’s position as paternal figure, she can never displace her mother as Innstetten’s love object or fully explore her own desire within the socially and morally condoned parameters of her arranged marriage. It is on the heels of this realization, after reading the story of the Countess, that Effi has her first nightmare, not of the “White Lady,” as one might expect, but of the apparition of the Chinese man, who flits past her bed in the night. The image of “the White Lady,” that is, the guilty mother, thus triggers Effi’s dream-hallucination of the Chinese phantom, the signifier of forbidden longing. And from this point on, her Orientalized fantasy will revolve entirely around this distressing, enigmatic figure.
Effi’s research into the nature of her desire has led her from a fragment of information about the punishment that awaited Turkish women who pursued their passion outside the socially sanctioned realm to a wish for an Asian-inspired bedroom, to memories of pashas and leopard skins, and to a primer-book image of a Chinese man. This series of “all sorts of exotic things” (33) culminates in a preoccupation with the figure of the Chinese ghost, which, with its multivalent signification, becomes the primary incarnation of Effi’s fantasy. All of Effi Briest’s Eastern paraphernalia resonate, however, with her search for pleasure and a stable sexual identity. Thus, while the specific historical context (Germany’s military and economic expansion into China) may explain the ghost’s particular ethnicity, the figure must also be regarded, as the novel treats it, as just one element in a collage of Oriental references. These are sometimes interchangeable in Effi’s mind but always connected to the longings and anxieties that issue both from the fissures in the Oedipal dynamic and the pressures exerted upon her by a social code that denies her all agency. The Chinese ghost may well have been infused with an added level of meaning in a period that defined the “yellow peril” as a looming threat, but its symbolic potency in the novel remains chiefly derived from its affiliation with the Orient as a whole.
Bored and disillusioned, Effi allows herself to be seduced into an affair with the dashing and persistent Major von Crampas. Ironically, while the relationship between Effi and Crampas is in flagrant violation of social [End Page 134] codes (and will later result in punishment, expulsion, and death), it nevertheless establishes for the first time a proper Oedipal configuration. The affair provides Effi with an alternative to Innstetten (the parent-husband) and enables the child’s break from the mother, thereby resolving the destructive Oedipal constellation comprised of Luise, Innstetten, and Effi. Major von Crampas is, in fact, the logical choice to replace Effi’s father, despite his reputation as a philandering married man. Like Herr von Briest, Crampas voices his doubts about the social status quo. Von Briest repeatedly retreats behind the novel’s most famous line, “it’s a vast subject” (“es ist ein weites Feld”), whenever he is asked to elaborate on his opinions, but he is much less accepting of hierarchy and convention than his wife or Innstetten. In the novel’s one scene figuring only Briest and Innstetten, the two pace up and down the gravel paths at the Hohen-Cremmen estate following the proposal. Briest holds forth with “all sorts of digs at officialdom” (15), undermining Innstetten’s military faith in discipline and order. It is von Briest who appears to be most concerned about Effi’s emotional welfare, insisting that his daughter is a “child of nature” (27) and that his wife would have been much better suited to his future son-in-law, the provincial governor. In a parallel scene a year and a half later, Innstetten walks along the beach with his soon-to-be-rival Crampas and engages in a debate about the social necessity of “obedience and order” (94). Crampas has little patience with rules and regulations, and he can only laugh at Innstetten’s obsession with order: “Does everything have to be so fiendishly legal? Rules and regulations are always a bore” (94). Both von Briest and Crampas openly question the norms of Prussian society, in stark contrast to Innstetten, who is the personification of authority, discipline, and repression. Crampas may be an extreme version of von Briest, but he has much in common with Effi’s father. As a result, her affair with Crampas can be read as an attempt, at the level of the unconscious, to detach herself from her mother’s desire and to resituate herself—and find a safe haven—in the original Oedipal fantasy. The arrival of Crampas in Kessin thus signals, simultaneously, the return of the father who, in the functioning family dynamic, mediates between the child and the mother, issuing the “no” in the paternal metaphor and thus making an alternate love object possible, as well as the arrival of that love object.
Once Effi has succumbed to the Major’s advances and acted out the fantasy of forbidden desire, her obsession with the Chinese apparition (and all things Oriental) disappears. This may have something to do with [End Page 135] the revelation offered by Crampas that the ghost is part of Innstetten’s deliberate attempt to keep his wife “in order” (98), but the critical adjustment occurs in the Oedipal structure, which has now rotated into “proper” place. The illicit affair with Crampas in essence renders Effi’s fantasy superfluous, and the signifier of the Orient and its various manifestations becomes all but obsolete in the text.
As we have seen, Fontane employs the trope of the Orient in Effi Briest as an indirect means of communicating the complexity of Effi’s subjectivity, the social and psychological forces that block her road to maturity and the pursuit of fulfillment, as well as the articulation of her prohibited—and repressed—desire. The ghost, the screen, and Effi’s exotic fascinations all draw on a well-established cultural archive of signifiers and allow the author to elaborate the workings of Effi’s psyche and the development of her self without resorting to explication. The Orient and its iterations in Effi Briest thus function as a kind of shorthand, one that allows the reading audience (along with Effi’s husband and her mother) to recognize and interpret the signifiers of Effi’s fantasy, even when she herself shows little self-awareness.
Although the image of the Chinese man no longer dominates Effi’s imagination once her affair has ended, the consequences of her actions lead to a fate similar to his. Effi’s own isolation, death, and burial outside of the churchyard recall the tragedy of Thomsen’s Chinese servant, who died of heartbreak and was buried in the dunes outside of town. Moreover, Effi’s death by consumption, a collapse of the lungs, also parallels the demise of those women of Constantinople, whose story she tells in chapter 1. Having broken the moral codes of society in search of erotic fulfillment, they, like Effi, meet their end by drowning, “for infidelity of course” (10).
Effi’s investigation of her sexual identity and marital romance (articulated in Oriental terms) and her brief affair with Crampas have brought her back to the opening scene, to her parents and her childhood home in Hohen-Cremmen. The promise to her friends that the cruel punishment of adulterous women “doesn’t happen here, but in Constantinople” proves not to be true. The young Prussian baroness is censured by society, deprived of her daughter, and cast out by her husband, having infringed upon what her mother calls “the law and the commandments and what people condemn” (204). Effi has lost her status as wife and mother, and this leaves her no choice but to reposition herself as child in the original family triad. The invitation to return home—“Come back [End Page 136] Effi” (204; “Effi, komm” )—is issued by her father, who composes his command in the very same space that Effi and her mother occupied at the novel’s beginning. Effi’s retreat from an oppressive social world, her abdication of adulthood and of the socially determined position of woman is symbolized by the striped tunic, which she wore moments before Innstetten’s proposal and which she dons again now. Her regression is accompanied, however, by a gradual decline in health, and the narrator tells the reader that Effi’s eventual death comes to her from the night air and the mist “rising from the pond” (215). In her final hours, she sits by her bedroom window, gazing out over the same body of water in which years earlier she and her friends had performed their ritual ceremony for Turkish adulteresses. As she looks eastward and away from the house, Effi experiences a sense of calm and “a feeling of liberation” (216) in the moments before she dies. In the symbolic geography of Fontane’s novel, Effi Briest’s short and confined life thus ends as it began, with fantasy, forbidden desire, freedom, and death projected onto and emanating from the only open vista, an imaginary realm to the East.
Debra N. Prager is associate professor of German and affiliated faculty in women’s and gender studies and medieval and Renaissance studies at Washington and Lee University. She received her PhD from Harvard University. Her publications include essays on the concept of “foreignness” in the sixteenth-century Prosaroman Fortunatus and on the Orientalized figure of Clawdia Chauchat in Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg. Her book Orienting the Self: The Encounter with the Eastern Other in the German Novel is forthcoming.
My sincere thanks go to Daniel Kramer, Kristin Kopp, Ellen Mayock, Domnica Radulescu, Betsy Moeller-Sally, Charitini Douvaldzi, and Deborah Wallis for their careful reading of this essay, valuable feedback, and generous support. I also would like to thank the editors of Women in German Yearbook and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions.
1. This and all following quotations from Effi Briest are from Rorrison and Chambers’s translation, listed in the Works Cited and referred to in the essay by page number. All other translations from the German are my own, with the German original text placed in the endnotes.
2. I use the terms “Orient,” “Oriental,” and the equally vague appellation “the East” with the understanding that these designations are problematic. I refer to them not literally, or in a national or geographical context, but as ciphers for a collage or collection of ideas, associations, and representations that were frequently assigned to a vaguely defined space that in nineteenth-century German culture was understood to include eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. My use of the vocabulary without quotation marks should not signal a repetition of the Orientalist gesture but rather the [End Page 137] recognition of its function as an imaginary construct in the historical and cultural context of Fontane’s Effi Briest.
3. This process occurs during the imaginary phase of development, which Bowie describes as “the dimension of experience in which the individual seeks not simply to placate the Other but to dissolve his otherness by becoming his counterpart” (92). More specifically, the imaginary relationship between child and mother, according to Dor, involves “[the] particular position taken by the child toward his mother as he seeks to identify with what he supposes to be the object of her desire. [. . .] In this first phase of the oedipal process, the child’s desire remains radically subjected to that of the mother” (98).
4. In an often-quoted letter to Widman of 19 November 1895, Fontane wrote, “This ghost [. . .] isn’t there just for fun, rather it is a pivotal point for the entire story” (“Dieser Spuk [. . .] steht [. . .] nicht zum Spaß da, sondern ist ein Drehpunkt für die ganze Geschichte”) (Werke 706).
5. Although Kontje’s work examines representations of the East in major works across a thousand-year span, and Polaschegg focuses chiefly on nineteenth-century works, neither critic treats works of literature produced in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when the enthusiasm for East Asia was in its “Blütezeit” (Schuster, China und Japan 4), and Germany joined the colonialist race.
6. Said’s approach, which defines Orientalism as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient,” is clearly a political one (3). Whether the Western view—or for that matter, the representation of the Orient in Effi Briest—is the instrument of a “dominating enterprise” falls outside the parameters of this study. What I do wish to draw upon, however, is Said’s definition of the Orient as a construct of European imaginative geography, a locus that holds within it a collection of ideas, attributes, and associations that are multivalent, often contradictory, and which rise and fall in significance depending on specific times and contexts. My position in this essay diverges from Said’s, and in fact from much of postcolonialist criticism, in that I am more concerned with the construction of the protagonist’s subjectivity by way of the encounter with the imagined East in its various manifestations than I am with the Orient as an epiphenomenon of Western cultural imperialism or, as is the case in Bhabha’s Location of Culture and Steinmetz’s The Devil’s Handwriting, with the construction of the colonial subject.
7. See Mandelartz’s examination of the scene as “a relatively autonomous ‘world’” (“eine relativ eigenständige ‘Welt’” ) connected to the theme of Paradise and Fall.
8. In the introduction to Feminine Sexuality, Rose clarifies Lacan’s notion of the symbolic father as follows: “The father is a function and refers to a Law, the place outside the imaginary dyad and against which it breaks” (39).
9. Effi asks for a Japanese folding screen (21; “einen japanischen Bettschirm”). Deutsches Wörterbuch defines “Bettschirm” as “bewegliche Wand vor dem Bett,” a movable wall or screen next to the bed (Mackensen 131).
11. For a helpful discussion of the Lacanian concept of jouissance, see Blevis and Feher-Gurewich.
12. According to Sweetman, Chinoiserie is a “blanket term [that] refers to the Western imitation of Eastern decorative art, mainly that of China but extending to embrace that of Islam also: firm distinctions about exact geographical origins were seldom made by the imitators” (2). For some scholars, the category also includes original wares from the East.
13. Innstetten’s intention is later made clear by his rival Crampas, who will refer to Innstetten’s use of the Chinese ghost as a deliberate strategy to discipline Effi and rein in her curiosity. Recalling her conversation with Crampas, Effi comes to the conclusion that “it was a kind of device calculated to frighten her. Here was a total lack of goodness of heart, verging on cruelty” (98).
14. In a conversation that takes place prior to the wedding, Luise von Briest inquires into Effi’s feelings for her cousin Dagobert Briest. “Marry him?” Effi replies. “My goodness no. Part of him’s still a boy. Geert is a man, a handsome man whom I can show off in society and who is going to be something in the world” (25). While Cousin Briest may be better suited to Effi because he is closer in age and temperament, she chooses to follow in her mother’s footsteps by marrying the older man with greater social standing.