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Effi Briest

One of the most famous German novels of all time, Effi Briest (1894) is realist Theodor Fontane's masterpiece. Thomas Mann once said that if one had to reduce one's library to six novels, Effi Briest would have to be one of them. Its influence on Mann's early work Buddenbrooks is evident. Along with the more famous Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, the novel forms a trilogy on marriage in the 19th century from the female point of view. All three are adultery tragedies. (See also Adultery in literature.)


Effi Briest is the daughter of a nobleman in northern Germany. At seventeen, she is married off to Baron Geert von Innstetten, a man twice her age who years ago had courted her mother and been turned down because of his insufficient social position, which he has in the meantime improved.

Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers

Effi, still practically a child, but attracted by notions of social honour, consents to living in the small Baltic town of Kessin, where she is miserably unhappy. Her husband is away for weeks at a time, she finds but one companion in the whole town, being snubbed by the local aristocracy, and her suspicions that their house may be haunted are, perhaps on purpose, not completely laid to rest by Innstetten.

The genial and somewhat crass Major Crampas comes to town, and although he is married and known as a womanizer, Effi cannot help but enjoy his attentions. Although we are only delicately told, a full relationship is consumed.

Years later Effi's daughter Annie is growing up, the family has moved to Berlin as Innstetten moves up in the ranks, and all in all things have turned out well for Effi. But perchance her ancient correspondence with Crampas sees the light of day, and Innstetten decides immediately to divorce her. He is given custody of their daughter.

Miserable Effi lives alone, as, covered by scandal as she is, her parents will not take her back. Crampas is challenged to a duel and killed by Innstetten, who all along feels that the drastic measures he has taken were not actually necessary. His life, too, is ruined.

Effi is finally taken in by her parents, and dies serenely at the estate of Hohen Cremmen, in a very symmetrical ending that matches the beginning of the novel. Her parents vaguely realize their responsibility in her unhappiness, but their lack of intelligence and sensitivity prohibits them from fully understanding the meaning of what happened and its reasons.