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


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By the Window, C.E. Brock, illustration for Shirley

Fantasies of Female Independence and Self-Definition in Shirley 

Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley begins with the promise of “something real, cool and solid. . . as unromantic as Monday morning” (3); in short, it begins with a promise of reality. What the novel delivers, though, is a double-marriage, double-romance, from whose ending the narrator excises elements of “the unvarnished truth” because “plain facts will not digest” and “whenever you present an actual, simple truth, it is, somehow, always denounced as a lie” (471). Though the narrator is here speaking specifically about the fate of Malone (which she withholds for fear of cries of “Impossible!” and “Untrue!” from her reader), her observations in the last chapter throw into doubt the whole rest of her story. If unvarnished truth is, in this case, rejected from the story, how much of what has come before has been varnished? Have we been given fantasy in place of the promised reality? It is long before the capricious narrator’s final comments about Malone that the reader begins to wonder at the presence of fantasy in a text which begins by affirming itself as “real, cool, and solid” (3) and yet traffics in the language of fairy-tale, myth, and legend.  What is posited initially as an essential distinction never materializes as one, as far from belonging to two separate spheres, fiction and reality are consistently confused and blurred in the text, both intentionally and accidentally. Given the novel’s promise of grim reality and its self-conscious interrogation of the line between reality and fantasy, the few episodes in which characters indulge in outright fantasy take on an outsize significance, providing glimpses not only into the fantasy-reality dynamic at work in the text, but also into the ways in which the characters themselves view their world. Read More

Harmony and the Art of Listening in Tristram Shandy

Peter De Voogd, in a guide to reading Laurence Sterne’s discursive The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, advises the Shandean novice to “remember that most books in the eighteenth century were read out loud, and commented upon by fellow readers (or listeners) during the reading, and that it helps enormously when you, too, read out the text, doing different voices” for the various characters. Indeed, Sterne’s text is a cacophony of voices which interweave and interrupt, overlap and unite, grate and collide to create a polyphonic chorus which even the carefullest of readers may find it hard to follow. Though it is the voice of Tristram himself that dominates, others vie for the reader’s attention with operatic bombast, speaking over, under, and around one another in search of “the sportable key” which will “give sense and spirit”  ( to their tales and fix the attention of their listeners. Even Tristram acknowledges the primacy of voice in his account and particularly the importance of multiple voices: “Writing,” he says “when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation” (II.xi.96)—conversation between himself and his presumed audience, himself and his reader, between the many characters in his tales, and, of course, with himself. Sterne’s many voices, in conversation and in combat, are noticeable not only for their omnipresence, but for the consistency of the scheme by which they are described. Throughout the text, Tristram borrows words from the realm of music to describe voices’ tones and capabilities and, by extension, to approach the character of a voice—and through it, the person. Read More

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Le chevalier Calogrenant verse l’eau sur le perron de la fontaine merveilleuse et déclenche la tempête; il se retourne pour affronter le gardien, Esclados le Roux, sorti précipitamment de son château. 1433. Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The world of Yvain is no fairytale landscape: in it, princes die before the giant can be vanquished, the right hand man of the good king champions the wrong person, magic ointments come only in limited quantities, heroes need two-week recovery periods before battles, young damsels get sick and risk failing in their quests, and, though demons may be beaten, their masters are allowed to remain at large. That Yvain’s is not the world of the likes of Erec and Enide is hinted at from the very beginning of the romance, though Yvain is not aware of it himself. Chrétien does not choose the shame and failure of one of Arthur’s knights to serve as the action’s catalyst arbitrarily; rather it is the first (and one of the greatest) indicators of the type of world in which this story will take place. In the world of “The Knight with the Lion,” realism comes to the fore in ways which we haven’t encountered elsewhere in Chrétien de Troyes—particularly existential realisms, not simply the sort presented by the plight of the weavers at Dire Adventure.

In this tale, failure is not an abstract concept, but a real possibility. Death lurks ever-present at the story’s edges and the hero, though he is a force of nature, is not superhuman (as perhaps one might argue Erec is in the context of his tale and his world). Yvain, though, does not initially recognize that his world is not of a kind with Erec’s and that he himself is not superhuman. Yvain, as he listens to Calogrenant’s tale, never considers the implications of the fact that Calogrenant was beaten by Esclados; he only registers the opportunity for an adventure and a flexing of his chivalric muscles in publicly avenging his cousin’s shame. Indeed, Yvain is initially characterized by an unflagging belief in his own prowess and capabilities—his own inability to fail—which goes hand in hand with his misunderstanding of his world. It is this belief—this lack of self-knowledge—which renders Yvain’s failure to keep his word to Laudine such a shock to him, sending him spiraling into self-hatred and madness. Yet it is this very madness which proves the vehicle for the rehabilitation and correction of Yvain’s relation to his world as it retrains him in his interaction with the people around him and allows him to rebuild his sense of self. Read More

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Peggy Ann Garner as Jane Eyre in the 1943 film adaptation

Very Short Reflections on Jane Eyre

Almost from the first page of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë raises questions of substance and insubstance, fantasy and reality. Indeed, the distinctions which are drawn between Jane and her first antagonist, John Reed, place the issue of substance squarely at the center of the first chapter as the first body described in the book is not the diminutive one of Jane, but the “large and stout” one of John, whose “thick lineaments. . . heavy limbs and large extremities” (8-9) are overwhelming in their corporality, particularly in opposition to the girl whose presence we only really know through her thoughts to this point in the novel. John Reed is not the only antagonist whose physical presence is the basic fact of his existence; when Jane first meets Mr. Brocklehurst, she apprehends him not as a man, but as a solid, physical—even architectural—presence, a “black pillar. . . [a] sable-clad shape standing erect” whose “grim face was like a carved mask, placed above the shaft by way of capital” (24). Mr. Brocklehurst’s physicality is even more dominating than John’s, as in subjugates his animacy in its solidity. Jane is, of course, contrasted with these figures in her diminutive stature, which, even as an adult, lends her a waif-like presence.¹ However, these descriptions of intense corporality highlight a more interesting distinction, not between size, but between presence and absence, by throwing into relief Jane’s liminal self-conception, by which she places herself constantly on the border of fantasy and incorporeality.

The first image we receive of her is not actually of herself, but of her reflection in the red room’s looking-glass, so that her physicality is distanced from herself, unlike the physicality of John Reed which constitutes his entire being. Jane sees herself as a “strange little figure” that has “the effect of a real spirit. . . like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp, Bessie’s evening stories represented” (12). In this description of her image in her reflection, Jane blends the real and the unreal, bringing the spirits of lore into the real world, giving them substance in herself. She goes in to say that she feels that she is “like nobody there” (13), an interesting phrasing for though she literally means she is unlike the rest of the family, it also conveys a sense of absence, extending the ghostliness she saw in her reflection to her real being in the world where, indeed, she is often treated as if she were not there. Read More

Subordination, the Other, and the Question of the Self in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe


All illustrations N. C. Wyeth

Alone on his island, Robinson Crusoe spends much of his time in “imagining” and “representing to [him]self” those imaginings. With not much constraint on his time, daydreaming plays a large part in his daily routine, but it also serves the deeper purpose of helping him to adapt to—and escape from—his circumstances. At first these imaginings are quite recognizable for what they are, but as the text progresses, Crusoe’s imaginings increasingly blur with his self-perceptions and definitions, leading to contradictions in his self-representation. Tracking Crusoe’s own ideas of self-definition and his relation to the island as well as the concept of the other, it becomes clear that central to the problem of his shifting self-representation are the issues of power and subordination, which Crusoe, though largely alone, wrestles with, both in his imagination and without.

From the very first, Crusoe’s relation to the island is one of subjugation. Finding no immediate inhabitants of the island, Crusoe sets about subordinating nature, ordering the space around him to his liking. At first, this imposition of order is purely defensive: Crusoe expends much effort in building a wall “so strong, that neither Man or Beast could get into or over it” (44) fortifying him “from all the World” (45). However this fortification is also a means of  staking a claim: Crusoe, in enclosing his bit of earth, marks it as his own, subjugating it to his own purposes. This first fortification is emblematic of the many enclosures by which he orders his life in his twenty-eight years upon the island, all of which he designs to be impregnable and, with time, invisible.¹ And yet, it is not only through these enclosures that Crusoe figures the subjugation of his environment; his feeling of possession extends beyond the confines of his fences. Read More

 “Unvarnished Truth”: The Blurring of Fiction and Reality in Shirley

At the heart of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley is the means by which a story is told. Though it is not until the last pages that the reader is given any idea of who the narrator is, the narrator is just as much a character in the preceding 480 pages as Caroline or Shirley, constantly passing judgement on the action and the people it involves, and, what’s more, upon her (?) presumed reader. It is through this latter relationship—between the narrator and her reader—that Shirley most often draws attention to itself as an act of storytelling, as the narrator asks the reader to eavesdrop with her or read over a character’s shoulder as he writes, or, more often, accuses her reader of misinterpretation and misjudgment.¹ The first paragraph is scarcely ended when the narrator begins to accuse the reader, shattering the camaraderie established in the opening paragraph’s communal “we” and undercutting the assumptions she assigns to her reader. “If you think,” the second paragraph begins, “that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken” (3) she warns, replacing the unifying “we” with the accusatory and disintegrating “you,” which she repeats eight times in six sentences. And we, as readers, may squirm, uncomfortable with the judgmental role Brontë has assigned us—aware, suddenly, that our interpretive powers are not trusted; that while we are invited in, privileged to knowledge unknown even to characters themselves, we are also held apart as outsiders likely to misjudge and misunderstand. Thus storytelling in Shirley is not merely a collaborative exercise, but one born of conflict and confrontation—not just between the narrator and her imagined reader (and author and real reader), but as that second paragraph makes clear, between fiction and reality.  Read More