Effi Briest is sort of a German version of Madame Bovary. It seems that the last half of the 19th century was a big time for novels about unfaithful wives. However, whereas Anna Karenina was a call for improvement in women’s rights on this issue, Effi Briest seems to accept the unfairness of the laws and societal mores. Nevertheless, I liked this novel more than Madame Bovary, which is more of a character study of a stupid woman.
Effi is only sixteen when the Baron von Instetten, an old suitor of her mother, comes calling. Within an hour, he proposes marriage and is accepted. The Baron is a civil servant, and after their marriage, he takes her home to a seaside village in upper Pomerania. The house is dark and depressing and reputedly haunted. Society is limited, and Effi, who is a gay person who likes to enjoy herself, finds only one congenial inhabitant, the local chemist. The women she has to socialize with are commonplace or spiteful. Effi feels neglected and unhappy.
After the birth of her daughter, the Crampases arrive. Major Crampas is an old schoolfriend of the Baron and a known womanizer. (I wonder if his name’s resemblance to Krampus is a coincidence, considering the Germanic origins of that character.) Although she tries to avoid it, Effi is drawn into an affair with him. When her husband gets a posting to Berlin, though, she is happy to leave and put it behind her. But it is not behind her at all.
I liked the character of Effi very much, but she is the only one in this novel who is fully drawn. The others just seem like placeholders for their actions, except for Rollo the dog. Also, the harsh reactions of everyone when they find out about the affair, even though it is long over with, seem even more extreme than Karenin’s in Anna Karenina.
Even though this novel is 20 years more recent than Anna Karenina, having been published in 1895, it has a much more rigid and judgmental message despite Effi being a sympathetic character. As a person, I liked Effi better than silly Emma Bovary or naïve Anna Karenina, but I found the novel a bit punitive. Fontane was reacting in it to a story he heard of a similar event in which he was struck by the lack of surprise or dismay expressed by society at the harsh treatment of the woman involved, so he is combining an approach to our sympathy with Realism in this novel.