Hanna Schygulla as Effi in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 film
Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest is a novel of silences punctuated by sounds attentively rendered. The swish of a curtain across floorboards, the roar of the ocean’s waves, the tap and slide of dancing feet, the slam of shutters, the rustle of leaves, the rattle of distant trains, the voices of men and women (and dogs): all are registered both by the narrator and the novel’s titular heroine who, standing at the center of all these sounds, listens with an open ear, susceptible to the sounds of voices and swishing curtain alike. Indeed, it is precisely her imaginative susceptibility to sound that catalyzes the oft-discussed “supernatural” plot of Effi Briest, a discussion which risks overshadowing the many later developments of sound in the novel and Effi’s changing reactions to them. For it is not in their supernatural capacity, nor as mere texture for Fontane’s world, that these sounds find their primary function, but as an aural correlative for Effi’s struggle with self.
Effi begins her marriage to Innstetten in listening. On their honeymoon in Italy, she plays the part of pupil to his fastidious lecturer as they make their way through the hallowed halls of Italian culture—of which Effi is woefully ignorant. Writing home to her parents, Effi describes her role, noting that her new husband is “very attentive” which “of course I have to be too, especially when he’s talking or explaining something” (30). “Attentive,” which Effi first applies to Innstetten to convey his concern for and attention to her, shifts when she turns it on herself to mean, primarily, a passive reception of the information he imparts. However, Innstetten’s dry facts do little for the eager ear turned toward him; an ear whose character we have already come to know in the last moment of the opening chapter, in which Effi, leading a funeral ceremony for the bag of Hertha’s gooseberry skins, insists that they sing a dirge—“it doesn’t matter” what dirge, “except that it must have a rhyme with ‘ee’” since “‘ee’” is the vowel for keening” (10). Effi’s is an ear that cares little for content, delighting in the shapes and qualities of sounds in themselves. Read More