Theodor Fontane & 'Effi Briest'

Thomas Mann, the Nobel-winning German novelist, once stated that if one had to reduce one’s library to only six novels, then one of them would be Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest. He felt strongly that it was one of the six most important novels ever written! Now if I had to limit my library to only six books, I know who the author of all six would be, so I don’t agree with Thomas Mann, but his statement is a testament to a fascinating novel. Effi Briest is not widely known in Australia, but it is a seminal text in Germany, often studied in schools and universities. This year, which sees the 200th anniversary of Fontane’s birth, seems an especially apt time to read and discuss it.

“variety is the spice of life, a truth which, of course, every happy marriage seems to contradict.” – Theodor Fontane, Effi Briest

This book may be difficult to locate in English – but I can tell you where to obtain it!
Please use the links at the foot of this page to locate a copy. I have provided links to search for it in a library,  purchase it, or even to freely download a copy in the public domain.
Note: Beware of purchasing a copy using Kindle or Google Play Books. Both these editions are poor translations with many words unreadable!

Probably you have read those two great novels of adultery – Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. How about trying some Prussian adultery for a change? Get to know poor Effi, married off so young to be a man old enough to be her father and ex-boyfriend to her own mother, tempted by boredom and frustration into a passionless affair, and paying an incredibly heavy price for her brief lapse.

I first encountered this novel when I was a student in the German Department at the University of Auckland. My German was not good enough to read it in the original language (and sadly, it still isn’t!) but the class read it in translation. We had a rather ‘cool’ young professor and the department was lots of fun. I acted in a couple of German plays, we had Medieval German dinners, and I made many friends there. The nice professor told us he just adored this book and he had even named his own dog ‘Rollo’ in honour of Effi’s pet, so I was predisposed in its favour before I read it. I wasn’t disappointed. I remember feeling the duel was such a terrible waste, wondered (at the age of eighteen) how any girl could cope being married to such an ‘old’ husband, and shed tears over poor Effi’s fate.

As well as a tale of illicit passion, this is also a portrayal of Prussian society at a very influential time in its history. It has been great fun to go back to it after such a long time, to view it as an adult and a far more experienced reader, and to learn more about its author, setting and about Prussian society. Effi Briest is a powerful and important novel of the late 19th Century – I hope you enjoy getting to know a new author and an intriguing, memorable book. Effi Briest is a powerful and important novel of the late 19th C – I hope you enjoy getting to know a new author and an intriguing, memorable book. How did you respond to Effi? Do you find her charming or irritating, intelligent or foolish, sympathetic or unlikeable? Discuss this book with your book group or even with me by leaving a comment below.

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane  I only recommend the hard cover or paperback versions to purchase here.
Theodor Fontane: A Critical Study by Kenneth Hayens
Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

Effi Briest – Internet Archive by Theodor Fontane, translated and abridged by William A. Cooper Free downloadable version in various formats including Kindle, epub, pdf and others. If you are unsure of how to add these files to your ereader, look here.
Effi Briest – Librivox by Theodor Fontane, translated and abridged by William A. Cooper, read by Margaret Espaillat Free audio book.

FIND IN A LIBRARY (You will need to create an account and hold a library card.)
Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane, translated with an introduction by Douglas Parmée National Library of Australia free public access to books in libraries at Trove.

MOVIES Sadly, not in English. How is your German?
YouTube playlist featuring two movie adaptations of Effi Briest
The False Step (Der Schritt vom Wege) 1939

Purchase my Literary Reader’s Guide to Theodor Fontane & Effi Briest

I only recommend books I have read or know. Some of these links are my affiliate links. If you buy a book by clicking on one of these links I receive a small commission. It doesn’t cost you anything extra, but does help cover the cost of producing my free newsletter.

I always love to hear what you think.

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Featured image credit- Julia Jentsch in Effi Briest, 2009 Constantin Films adaptation,

Comments (12)

  1. Deborah Rhodes

    Hi Susannah and readers,
    I’ve only just finished reading Effi Briest this afternoon and felt very sad, but mostly about Rollo! There are similarities to the end of the film of Louis de Bernieres’s Red Dog. I didn’t particularly warm to Effi but became more and more concerned about her towards the end. I agree with you Susannah, the Doctor (and Alonzo) were the best characters in the novel but I enjoyed seeing Effi’s parents relenting and welcoming her back to recover from illness, even though it was too late; although I felt they were a bit ‘switched-off’ at the end.
    It was hard to work out the relevance of the ghostly presence, but then it made sense to have the duel near the Chinaman’s resting place.
    Peter’s point about the extent of relations between Crampas and Effi are interesting because, as noted, we never really get the details.
    The stand-out for me in this novel is the firm relationship between Effi and Rollo and what it represents: love, loyalty, absence of prejudice, empathy. This highlighted the kind (and possibly redeeming) act by Geert of reuniting them suggests that (empathy and) forgiveness might be a sub-theme towards the end.
    All in all, it revealed some amazing insights (jealousies, pettiness, ambition, selfishness, prejudice, ‘living life stuck behind the steering wheel’) that Fontane has into the thoughts and feelings of both sexes in an astonishingly well described way: a terrific suggestion Susannah!
    PS I read the Mitchell and Ritchie translation.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so glad you enjoyed reading it, and thought about it so much too. Yes, Rollo is the one true love in this novel. No wonder the German professor who introduced me to this book named his own dog Rollo. It is a sad and rather painful novel, but I think an important one in European Literature, which is why I included it in the course.

  2. Peter Danzer

    Apropos passionless affair or her brief lapse….
    Having read the book a year ago I was intrigued by its delicateness of expression concerning the “misconduct” of Major Crampass because we can’t put any blame on Effi Briest who was only 18 years old at the time when he ” hotly kissed her hands” in the horse drawn carriage. The reader becomes none the wiser when certain letters were discovered by Baron Instetten how serious the lapse was. Properly nothing more than kissing of hands which was in 1895 in a Prussian society
    quite serious. The reader, like me, is quite shocked by the punishment that is dealt out to Effie.
    Her destiny may be considered more shocking than that of the literary figures you mentioned above — because of her tender age!!
    A very worthwhile read indeed even though it can be mentally painful.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, it is asad book to read and one is left wondering how far Effie actually went with the Major. And why oh why did she not destroy the letters???? Poor Effie does not deserve her tragic fate.

  3. Jenny Gray

    Hi Susannah,

    May I comment in regards to this passage in your notes on Effi Briest? :

    “In the second chapter there is a reference to breaking the fourth commandment (which is about keeping the sabbath day holy) which inevitably brings to mind that one of the commandments is “Thou shalt not commit adultery”.

    In the Catholic Church the fourth commandment is “Honour thy Father and Mother” which I think makes more sense in the context. When Hulda reprimands Effi for saying “If I were a young lieutenant I should fall in love with mama” – Hulda replies “Oh Effi, how can you ever say such a thing? Why, that is contrary to the fourth commandment”.

    What do you think?

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks, Jenny, you are quite right. I obviously had my commandments muddled and will fix my Guide accordingly.

  4. Suzanne Williams

    Thank you Susannah for the recommendation. It looks fascinating.

  5. Penny Morris

    I have definitely never heard of it so am looking forward to reading it along with the literary readers guide.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I hope you enjoy it – it’s a powerful novel.

  6. Patricia Farrar

    When I was living in Germany some years ago, my friends were astounded that I hadn’t heard of, let alone read, Effie Briest. The 1974 film directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder would be my pick of productions but the 2009 remake looks pretty good too. On my list! For a preview click here.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Trish, I think you are in a small minority in Australia, as most people I’ve mentioned the novel to had never heard of it. The latest film is very gorgeous to watch but does make big changes to the ending.

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