The Artificial Silk Girl Summary

Irmgard Keun

The Artificial Silk Girl

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The Artificial Silk Girl Summary

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Irmgard Keun’s second novel, The Artificial Silk Girl (1932), is set in early 1930s Berlin during the decline of the Weimar Republic. Doris, the artificial silk girl, is the narrator. The young, beautiful, and aspiring star recounts stories from her bohemian lifestyle: her experiences with different men and attempts to climb in social rank. Due to the sexualized portrayal of women (and some disparaging political comments about Germany), The Artificial Silk Girl was banned by the Nazis and praised by feminists across the world.

The Artificial Silk Girl is delivered as diary entries that build a narrative over a short period of time. It begins with Doris living in Cologne with her family. She’s lovelorn, hoping for a man that can provide her with everything she wants and needs. Doris is candid: what she wants is to be loved, as a star and as a woman. She steals a fur coat that gives her a feeling of success and class, and flees to Berlin to pursue her desires, to take control of her life as a woman living in the 1930s.

Berlin displays to Doris lives of luxury and class as well as poverty and despair. In this metropolitan setting, Doris becomes romantically involved with many different men in her attempts to rise socially and also to be loved. As an object of their desire, she manipulates these men, though she remains aware of her tenuous position. While this independent lifestyle is appealing to her at first, it does not further her desire for stardom. Doris begins a relationship with a man named Karl but leaves him in the name of ambition. She doesn’t want to lose sight of her goals. Unfortunately, that ambition is quickly put aside in her attempts to climb the social ladder of Berlin.

The duality of Berlin is displayed in Doris as well. While she leads this promiscuous lifestyle, she maintains traditional views. She sleeps with married men but objects to profanities. She loathes the word “pimp” but finds herself in a position where she needs one. This is the story told, a  compromise of ideals, a push and a pull. She goes from living decadently with a married man to living on the streets, unsure of how she’ll get her next meal. She finds another man and begins the cycle all over again. This repetitive cyclical behavior begins to wear on her.

She then falls in love with a man named Hubert. He treats her poorly but satisfies her ideal that a man should be the provider. Even though Doris is quick to disengage with men who annoy or dissatisfy her, Hubert creates a financially stable environment for her, so she stays. Hubert decides to leave Doris for an arranged marriage with a virgin. This upsets her because he isn’t marrying for money or love (acceptable reasons in her eyes). To Doris, it seems that Hubert is marrying out of obligation. Hubert explains that since Doris has slept with him more than three hundred times, she’s no longer fit to be a wife. Enraged, she slaps him in a restaurant, leaves, and finds herself back on the streets.

Doris becomes romantically involved with a blind man named Brenner. He gives her the love she so craves and is unable to judge her physical appearance. This is appealing to her but also conflicts with Doris’s hunger for glamour. She doesn’t live lavishly with him and eventually moves on. She falls in love with a man named Ernst. She’s given a rich lifestyle but doesn’t receive any real love, because he’s still in love with his wife. It’s through these experiences that Doris truly discovers the challenge of living a life as a “modern woman.” She cannot have everything that she wants. She criticizes this aspect of German culture: if a wealthy young woman marries a wealthy old man she’s labeled a “German mother and decent woman” but if a young woman sleeps with a young man because she’s attracted to him, “she’s a whore and a bitch” (p.73). By the novel’s end, Doris decides to return to Karl, because even though she can’t achieve her stardom with him, she’s loved. And by now she’s content to achieve any success living as a modern woman.

The Artificial Silk Girl is a thin novel, but it is rich with poignant detail of the female experience. Keun is able to speak beyond the experience of German women one hundred years ago. The hypocrisy that existed then is still rampant now. Living as a modern woman hasn’t become easier and Doris’s experiences can serve as a guide. This novel served as an influence to Bridget Jones and Sex and the City for good reasons. It’s an honest telling of tragic and complicated events.