Theodor Fontane (18191898). Trials and Tribulations.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations
I. By Richard M. Meyer
FONTANE possesses the wonderful irony of the Berlineran irony which, paradoxical as it may sound, is naïve; for it is nothing but an involuntary doubt of his equally naïve conceit, as Fontane often likes to say. Assuredly the Berliner is inclined to a certain conceitedness. He belongs to a city which has grown great in a struggle against antipathiesantipathies of the Government and of the Junker class, of the poets and of the rival capitals, one might almost say of nature herself, so sparingly has she dealt with this city on the Spree. In this constant struggle Berlin has been victorious, and every Berliner to this day feels that victory to the marrow of his bones. Fontane, using his friend Lepel as his mouthpiece, makes him say, Well, Fontane, there you are again; talking like an oracle. It all comes from that curiously naïve belief in yourself. You always think you know everything best. But I can tell you, there are people living on the other side of the mountains too. This quiet feeling of superiority the Berliner has gained only after a struggle, and therefore he is at bottom precisely aware of his limits. No one can express this more strikingly than Fontane himself: Deeply penetrated by my insufficiency and my ignorance, I sawincredible though it may seemthat the ignorance of my fellow-creatures was even greater than my own. So I was at the same moment both humble and conceited. There is the typical Berliner! He knows well his own weakness, but, since he is successful, he takes it for granted in all naïveté that he is yet the one-eyed among the blind.
The gentle melancholy of two people coming together in a way which can never lead to full satisfaction, the quiet tragedy of a separation not forced by external powers but by the constant pressure of circumstancesthis is what sounds through this splendid story. Trials and Tribulations is built entirely on this motive. An honest sturdy young officer and a decent pretty girl get to know each other on an excursion. Unconsciously they drift into a relation where heart meets heart, the breaking of which causes the deepest pain. But both see clearly from the beginning that there is no other end. For they know that the world is stronger than the individual, and the many small moments than the one supreme. They know it, for they are, like their creator, resigned realists. They shut their eyes only in order not to see the end too near. Then comes the parting, still and quiet: She leaned on him and said quietly and warmly, And so this is the last time that I shall hold your hand in mine?From Die deutsche Litteratur des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (1910).