Social Issues in “Effi Briest” by Theodor Fontane


Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane is one of the most famous realist novels, which stands in line with masterpieces like Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. This book tells the story of a girl who enters into an arranged marriage and eventually becomes its victim. The novel’s plot is centered around the topic of adultery and social pressure. The feeling of guilt is a decisive emotion in Effi Briest, but given the socio-economic context of the period, it would be wrong to blame for the novel’s outcome on the particular characters.

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Socio-Economic Background

It is essential to read this novel, paying special attention to the atmosphere and general public mood in the Imperial society. What might seem like an overreaction to a contemporary reader is the only natural response for the 19th-century German civil servant. At that time, Germany could not yet bridge all the differences, and the social and political environment was more philosophical and ideological rather than pragmatic (Schulze, 173). Therefore, the superficiality and what would now be called “overreaction” were rather the self-defense mechanisms against the pressure of the community.

Effi Briest Characters as Victims of Their Time

In the noble and unapologetic Prussian society, nobody had the right to a mistake as it would inevitably backfire. As Howes notes, the material world of the 19th century is “a product, not the determinant of human behavior”. Indeed, Effi does not question the ways that lead her to marriage with a man twice her age. Neither does she wonder what nudged her into an affair. Contrarily, the protagonist completely understands her husband; she gives in to overwhelming guilt and blames herself for everything that happened. Similarly, the reader cannot blame Baron von Instetten for his reaction because he was following his fate. Once he made the secret affair public, there was no going back. The social pressure forces him to act despite his love for his wife; he is either a predator or a victim.

Effi followed social norms for her entire life, and she inherited the desire to obtain a high social status from her mother. Moreover, Effi’s life is an extension of her mother’s story as she marries the man who used to be her mother’s suitor in the past. Her destiny is pre-determined in many ways, and the fact that the only choice she ever made herself became fatal makes her story even more dramatic. When Effi dies, her mother does not explicitly admit that her death was the result of social pressure, but she knows it. Deep inside, the woman understands that they all are prisoners of social norms. Unlike the real-life Effi, Elisabeth Ardenne, fictional Effi could not succeed as a woman. It is very tempting to hold society accountable for her destiny, but given the socio-economic settings of that period, one cannot blame anybody.


To conclude, the tragedy of Effi Briest is just an unfortunate coincidence. Regardless of the root cause, in this particular environment, “guilt requires expiation” (Fontane, 178). Each key personage in the novel experiences guilt in one way or another. However, it is hard to imagine a different outcome for this situation because the historical context of the plot determines the response of the characters. It seems that the society that has not yet healed its wounds from the devastating war, cannot have any mercy for its individuals.

Works Cited

Fontane, Theodor. Effi Briest. Penguin Classics, 2000.

Howe, Patricia. “‘Ich Hätte so Eschrieben’: Fontane’s Reception of Zola.” Fontaine and Cultural Mediation: Translation and Reception in Nineteenth-Century German Literature, edited by Robertson Ritchie, Routledge, 2017, pp. 170-182.

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Schulze, Hagen. Germany: A New History. Harvard University Press, 2001.

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