Theodor Fontane

Effi Briest

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Effi Briest Summary

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Effi Briest (1895) by Theodor Fontane looks at adultery and “fallen” women in mid-19th-century Germany. The story was influenced by Fontane’s own family history. It was not translated into English until 1915.

Its themes include the tragic strictures of social dictates, the class between passion and obligation, the loss of childhood, and diminished joy brought on by social conventions. Due to the time period and subject matter, the novel is often compared to Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina.

Effi Briest, a 17-year-old German aristocrat, is—as determined by her family—married to Baron Geert von Innstetten, a respectable but fairly inconsequential administrator for Otto von Bismarck (the first Chancellor of the German Empire as of 1871). Innstetten is 21 years older than Effi. Effi has only seen him one time before. Nearly a decade ago, he wanted Briest’s mother, Luise, but the family didn’t think he was rich enough, so he was only offered Effi.

Effi is a fun-loving girl who would rather read about mythology and run around in the meadows. Effi and Innstetten move to north-east West Poland to improve her social prospects. The town is on the waterfront. The author based it on several port cities the author knew, and named it Kessin.

Innstetten largely ignores his new wife and runs away on business for weeks at a time. He takes his job in the civil service really serious and is not at all a good match for the young, fun-thirsty Effi. Considering their difference in education and differing goals, their marriage was destined to fail. It’s clear that Effi’s family doesn’t care about this inequality; they wanted her to marry as soon as possible to any interested man with a large bank account.

Despite their differences, Effi tries to give their marriage a chance; she thinks that with enough time, she could love Innstetten. But during their months-long honeymoon, it’s clear that the two have different orientations toward the world. In Italy, Innstetten just wants to check off museums, whereas Effi wants to soak up the beautiful scenery. Innstetten wants to treat Effi more like a child than a wife; he is constantly saying that she has to educate herself.

She makes few friends in the town and is fairly certain that their new house is haunted. It’s filled with odd objects that a naval captain (the previous resident) picked up from his global travels. She starts having nightmares about the objects. Innstetten has no patience for her imagination.

Effi is ostracized by the overtly religious in Kessin. One of her few friends is the apothecary, Alonzo Gieshūbler, and a maid, Roswitha, who will later help her in childbirth.

The charming Major von Crampas seduces the young Briest. Innstetten has no interest in Major Crampas, writing him off as a habitual cheater with no respect for others or for state law. Effi herself is more infatuated by the Major’s attention than in love with him. The author hints that her social situation and arranged marriage led to her poor choices in the future.
Despite her husband’s sure objections, Briest and Crampas have sex. Effi is determined to lead a satisfactory life, even if everyone around her thinks she’s making a mistake. She’s drawn to the Major’s jokes and spontaneity, which is so different from her overly serious husband.

From this illicit affair, Briest has a child. The child is most likely Innstetten’s, but now there’s the possibility that the child is from Major Crampas. The delivering doctor says it’s not a great sign that the child was born on the anniversary of The Battle of Königgrätz, an 1866 battle when the Kingdom of Prussia defeated the Austrian Empire.

The child’s name is Anne (aka Annie). The family has since moved to Berlin because of Innstetten’s promotion. Briest is overjoyed by this return to higher society. Everything is going well until one day, six years after the affair, Innstetten discovers a series of letters between his wife and the despicable Major Crampas.

Innstetten divorces Briest. Effi concludes that it’s the honorable thing to do, and even thanks him for the divorce. With more money and seeming moral superiority, he is awarded full custody of Anne. He teaches Anne to despise her mother. Three years later, when Anne is a teenager, she meets her mother; it’s clear that she has zero interest in forwarding a relationship.

Effi Briest’s entire family disowns her. Innnstetten continues to tell everyone that Effi cheated on him. When Innstetten next meets Major Crampas, in a flash of anger, he challenges the Major to a duel. He ends up killing Major Crampas.

After learning that she indirectly caused a murder, Effi has a nervous breakdown. Her family finally agrees to take her back in. On her death bed, she asks her mother to tell Innstetten that she’s sorry for her actions.

As the novel concludes, her parents, Luise and Ritterschaftsrat von Briest, wonder if they should have objected to social conventions more and protected their daughter.