The ninetenth-century novel that sheds light on 21st century backwardness

I finished Fontane’s Effi Briest on the train back from Warsaw. Maybe I shouldn’t have. The tale of a young girl who marries a much older, politically ambitious man doesn’t end well. I burst into tears while reading the final passage. LSB, well used to my delicate sensibilities, patted my back and let me blow my nose in his scarf. Then I hid my face in his coat to avoid the stares of my fellow passengers.

Image source: Wiki Commons (c) H.-P.Haack

Image source: Wiki Commons (c) H.-P.Haack

*Spoiler Alert*

On the surface, it’s easy to see why I found the story upsetting. 17 year-old Effi is married off to Baron von Instetten, who was once in love with her mother. They move into a creepy house in the middle of nowhere. A huge shark carcass hangs in the entrance hall and Effi is scared by the strange sounds coming from an empty upstairs room. Instetten dismisses her fears and spends most of his time travelling and pursuing political ambitious in Prussia. Lonely and shunned by all but a good-natured apothecary, Effi descends into depression.

She gives birth to a baby girl and recruits a suicidal woman to nurse her.

Enter Major Crampas. He’s a married man with a reputation for infidelity. He makes advances on Effi and implies that her husband is using her fears of the haunted house to “educate” her. One night while taking a sledge ride, Crampas kisses her. It’s a nineteenth century novel, so either the rest of the affair is glossed over, or it doesn’t go any further than that.

In any case, the years go by and things improve when the family moves to Berlin and Effi can finally bid goodbye to the creepy house with the shark carcass. But while Effi is away breathing in sea air to increase the chances of bearing a son, Instetten finds old letters from Crampas in her sewing box.

Instead of being heartbroken, he’s mortified at what society will think of him. He challenges Crampas to a duel and shoots him dead. Then he banishes Effi and deprives her of seeing her daughter. Years later, when he grants a single visit, Effi realises that her daughter has been poisoned against her. Her health declines. Eventually, Effi’s parents take pity on her and allow her to come home. She dies full of remorse at age 29.

That was the bit that got me. Effi dies believing herself monstrous. Despite the fact that she was undoubtedly the victim of a stifling, money-driven, image-obsessed society with a questionable understanding of a woman’s worth, as well as of sexual consent.

Now we get to the crux of it. I wasn’t just in floods of tears because of Effi. After all, she’s fictional!

What made me really inconsolable was recognising that young women these days are still being subjected to outrageous social pressures. And that many, like Effi, accept the blame for things which are not their fault.

Let’s take the fact that Effi’s parents have control over her sexual and marital fate. Nineteenth century craziness, right? Not really. A recent documentary followed the purity movement in the United States, where apparently one in six girls takes a pledge to stay a virgin until she marries. Specifically, it followed the troubling phenomenon of “father-daughter purity balls” where teenage girls, many of them much younger than Effi, pledge that their father will be their only boyfriend until they marry.

What about power dynamics in relationships? Did young Effi really have a choice when the sleazy Crampas came on to her in the sleigh? A video on Upworthy which went went viral last week features a young woman promoting what’s dubbed “consent culture.” She details in crystal clear language what consent is and what it is not. She argues that in some cases, consent is impossible. For example she says, “you can’t get consent from someone you have power over.” Well over a hundred years after Fontante wrote Effi Briest, campaigners still need to spell out that some relationships are by their very existence, exploitative. Echoes of wealthy, manipulative Crampas preying on young and vulnerable Effi are all around us.

Finally, let’s consider the image-based culture Effi is subjected to. She’s paraded around society, where she is expected to display flawless beauty. Last month, 17 year-old singer Lorde took to Twitter to express her frustration that a publication had doctored an image of her to correct her skin blemishes. “Remember flaws are ok :)” she tweeted to her 1.46 million followers.

If only that, and the other important messages Fontane was sending us, would actually catch on in the 21st century.