The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


Virtue commands respect, even in beggar's rags. - Schiller, Kabale und Liebe, II, 6.

As long as honor meant respect shown to superiority and superiority was equated with rank, wealth, and power, so long did honor remain a monopoly of the upper classes. As C. L. Barber has shown, seven­teenth-century English dramas used the term "honour" only of the gentry: a commoner could aspire to no more than "reputation".1 When honor began to be shown to moral as well as to social superi­ority, and when "honor" finally began to designate the moral qualities that commanded respect, then the upper classes lost their monopoly and honor became attainable by all men.

Since the days of the ancient Greeks it had been agreed that great tragedy, in fact serious literature in general, should concern itself only with aristocratic personages. This view obtained not only in the courtly literature of the High Middle Ages, but even in most bourgeois literature of succeeding centuries. Just as the medieval burghers largely overlooked their own class in seeking heroes for their romances, their descendants continued to do so through the period of Baroque. In his Buch von der Deutschen Paeterey of 1624, Germany's most influential seventeenth-century ars poetica, Martin Opitz declared that tragedy should not introduce persons of humble estate,2 even though such a rule would have excluded commoners like himself. Andreas Gryphius, Germany's chief dramatist of that century, followed this tradition of choosing wellborn heroes, although he too was of simple birth. Even Grimmelshausen, while denying the importance of gentle birth, saw fit to let his foundling hero be the son of a nobleman.

1 Barber, pp. 101-126.

2 "ohne das sie selten leidet, das man geringen standes personen und schlechte sachen einführe" (Buch von der Deutschen Poeterey, V).

The German bourgeoisie, who were gradually beginning to feel their own importance, could not ignore their own order forever. English writers such as George Lillo had already written dramas concerning common life, and German writers were not long in adopting this innovation. Twelve years before writing his Minna von Barnhelm, Lessing had written a bourgeois tragedy called Miss Sara Sampson (1755), which borrowed heavily from Lillo's Merchant of London (1731) and Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe (1748). Of more interest to our study was Lessing's Emilia Galotti of 1772, which is not only a bourgeois tragedy but also an "honor-drama". Lessing was less successful with this drama than with his Minna, its chief fault being his choice of theme, that of the father who kills his daughter to save her honor from a tyrant into whose hands she has fallen. Such motivation was credible in the ancient legend of Virginius, the Roman republican who stabbed his daughter Virginia to death to save her from a lecherous decimvir; but it could no longer be presented convincingly in the year 1772. "Feminine honor" was still of great importance; yet it scarcely justified killing one's own daughter.

Lessing's dramatization of this theme is set at an imaginary Italian court at a vague time between the Renaissance and his own day. Emilia, the daughter of Odoardo Galotti, is betrothed to Count Appiani, a young nobleman in the service of the prince of that court. Knowing that the prince is enamoured of Emilia, the prince's diabolical chamberlain arranges to have the bridal pro­cession waylaid by pretended bandits. Appiani is killed in the attack, and Emilia is ostensibly rescued by the prince's servants and brought to his summer residence. Hearing of the attack, Galotti hurries to the residence, where he learns the true state of affairs from the prince's former mistress. Unable to free his daughter from the prince, who feigns legal grounds for having to detain her, Galotti stabs her to death with a dagger given him by the jealous mistress.

Realizing that the old Roman theme was morally archaic, Lessing tried to revivify it by giving it new moral and psychological motivation. This is clearly revealed in the next to last scene, in which father and daughter realize that they cannot prevent the prince from confining her in the notorious home of Grimaldi, the chancellor. When Emilia threatens to take her own life, her father reminds her that she has "only one life to lose".

"And only one innocence," she answers.

"Which is high above all force," the father assures her.

"But not above all seduction. - Force! Force! Who cannot defy force? What people call force is nothing: seduction is true force. - I have blood, father, blood as young and warm as anyone. And my senses are senses. I stand for nothing, I am good for nothing. I know the house of the Grimaldis. It is a house of pleasure. An hour there, under the eyes of my mother, and such tumult arose in my soul that the strictest exercise of religion could scarcely assuage it for weeks. Of religion! Of what religion? In order to avoid nothing worse, thousands have drowned themselves and become saints. Give me, father, give me this dagger!"1

Not only Emilia's good name is at stake, as in older versions of this story, but actually her innocence, since she herself fears that she can not resist temptation. It is significant that the word "honor" does not appear, only the word "innocence" (Unschuld). A few lines later, when Emilia tries to provoke her father by alluding to Vir­ginius's concern for his daughter, she uses the word Schande ; but she probably uses it to mean shameful behavior rather than public ignominy. Moreover, the emphasis upon Emilia's piety in the first chapter suggests that she, as well as Lessing, considered such behavior a sin before God. Lessing's play, if taken at its face value, implies that he considered death with honor better than a life of shame, at least for a woman. However, it is to be remembered that honor and shame here designate inner values rather than merely good or bad reputation.

During the decade following Emilia Galotti, the theme of "feminine honor" furnished the motivation for many dramas, especially in the tradition of the Kindermörderin, the unwed and abandoned mother who kills her child to avoid disgrace. Perhaps the best known example in this category is the Gretchen episode in Goethe's Faust, which was more representative in the earlier version, the so-called Urfaust, which Goethe completed in approximately 1775. In this story Gretchen's fall brings reproach not only upon her, but also upon her brother. As a soldier and man of honor, who has already boasted of his sister at his drinking bouts, Valentin feels his honor sullied by his sister's shame. Any rascal can insult him now that his sister has renounced her honor,2 and he does not regret dying in his attempt to gain satisfaction. His soldierly concern for his honor explains his cruel denunciation of his sister, which strikes most modern audiences as so heartless and unjustified.


1 "Und nur eine Unschuld!" "Die über alle Gewalt erhaben ist." "Aber nicht über alle Verführung. - Gewalt! Gewalt! wer kann der Gewalt nicht trotzen? Was Gewalt heisst, ist nichts; Verführung ist die wahre Gewalt. - Ich habe Blut, mein Vater; so jugendliches, so warmes Blut als eine. Auch meine Sinne sind Sinne. Ich stehe für nichts. Ich bin für nichts gut. Ich kenne das Haus der Grimaldi. Es ist das Haus der Freude, Eine Stunde da, unter den Augen meiner Mutter, - und es erhob sich so mancher Tumult in meiner Seele, den die strengsten Ûbungen der Religion kaum in Wochen besänftigen konnten! - Der Religion! Und welcher Religion? - Nichts Schlimmeres zu vermeiden, sprangen Tausende in die Fluten, und sind Heilige! - Geben Sie mir, mein Vater, geben Sie mir diesen Dolch" (Emilia Galotti, V, 7).

2 "beschimpfen" (Faust, v. 3641); "Da du dich sprachst der Ehre los" (v. 3772).

Another good example of this genre, perhaps partially plagiarized from Goethe's then unpublished play, was Heinrich Leopold Wagner's Die Kindesmorderin of 1776, in which a butcher's daughter is seduced and deserted by an officer. These two works, and many other dramas of the Storm and Stress era, seem to question the ideal of honor that puts such grievous punishment on a girl only because she has loved unwisely. When Valentin curses his sister, Goethe gives a vivid picture of the future a fallen girl could expect. First she will begin with one man, then with a dozen, then with the whole city. At first concealed by darkness, her shame will eventually be revealed, and respectable people will avoid her like an infected corpse. She will no longer wear a gold chain or stand at the altar or wear a lace collar or go to dances, but hide herself in some corner with beggars and cripples.l Such an attitude explains why so many unwed mothers took their lives.

In 1784, some twenty-two years after Emilia Galotti, Germany received another bourgeois tragedy in which the ruling classes oppress the common people and refuse to respect their honor. Friedrich Schiller's youthful play, Love and Intrigue, is set at an imaginary German court of his day. It tells of the thwarted love a bourgeois girl named Louise and a young nobleman named Ferdinand, whose father wishes him to marry the duke's mistress. Ferdinand's father, the unscrupulous president of the ducal court, supposes that he can terminate the affair because Louise is only the daughter of a poor court musician. When he fails, he calls Louise a whore and demands to know how much his son has been paying for her favors.2

Imbued with enlightened views on human dignity, Schiller natu­rally accepted the Christian view that every virtuous individual merits respect, even if he wears rags.3 Although he paints the president in the blackest colors, we should remember that the president's views had prevailed in good society throughout the Middle Ages, when honor was restricted to the upper classes. A vestige of the old attitude lingers in the gradual debasement of the words wench and dirne, which once meant country lass and serving girl, respectively, but have since acquired disrespectful overtones suggesting immorality. The president plans to have Louise exposed on the pillory, in the belief that Ferdinand, as an officer, will have to renounce her once she has been publicly disgraced.4

1 Faust, vv. 3736-3763.

2 "Sie wird Ihre Gunst nicht verschenkt haben" … "Hure" (Kabale und Liebe, II, 6).

3 "Ehrfurcht befiehlt die Tugend auch im Bettlerkleid" (op. cit., II, 6). cf. "And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds, So honour peereth in the meanest habit" (The Taming of the Shrew, IV, iii, vv. 175-176).

4 op. cit., JII, 1; II, 7. Luise later refers to the pillory as a Schandbühne (III,6).

He is justified in expecting such a reaction, since Ferdinand has convinced him that he is a man of honor. He has told his father that he cannot marry Lady Milford, the duke's mistress, because he would be embarrassed before every artisan who had married an intact wife and even before the concubine who was washing the stains of her own Schande on his Ehre. "If you take my honor," he tells his father, "then it was an inconsiderate and rascally deed to give me life, and I must curse the father as well as the pander."1 Despite this pretext, Ferdinand is really less concerned with his honor, in the sense of reputation, than with his love; and therefore he threatens to mount the pillory with Louise if she is thus disgraced. Louise claims to be unconcerned about public opinion; yet she later tells her father that she would rather leave town than suffer ridicule and loss of good name.2

Lady Milford, the mistress, is especially concerned with her honor, which she has inherited from an illustrious English family. Honor is her greatest possession; yet she realizes that it is a good of fortune which she contrasts with virtue, just as Ferdinand has formerly done.3 She refuses to renounce Ferdinand because her honor will not allow her. "Our union is the talk of the whole country," she argues. "All eyes, all shafts of ridicule are aimed at me. The affront will be unquenchable if a subject of the prince refuses me."4 Later, after Louise has appealed to her sense of decency and inner pride, Lady Milford has a change of heart and says that she will let herself be shamed (beschämen) but not reproached (beschimpfen),5 a statement which is difficult to analyse. She seems to mean that she is willing to be socially degraded, but she is unwilling to act in such a way that anyone could reproach her moral integrity.

1 "Meine Ehre, Vater - wenn Sie mir diese nehmen, so war es ein leicht­fertiges Schelmenstück, mir das Leben zu geben, und ich muss den Vater, wie den Kuppler verfluchen" (op. cit., I, 7).

2 "Ich verachte das Urteil der Menge" (op. cit., IV, 7); "'Weg von der Stadt, wo meine Gespielinnen meiner spotten und mein guter Name dahin ist auf immerdar" (V, 1).

3 Lady Milford compares her own Ehre with Luise's Tugend (op. cit., IV,8). Ferdinand had previously distinguished between Tugend and Ehre and said that the former often survives the latter (II, 3). Cf. “Er selbst (the duke) ist nicht über die Ehre erhaben, aber er kann ihren Mund mit seinem Golde verstopfen. Er kann den Hermelin über seine Schande herwerfen" (II, 3). In view of Ferdinand's objective use of Ehre, his oath "bei meiner Ehre" (V, 2) is probably meant in its ancient sense of "I pledge my good name". .

4. "Meine Leidenschaft, Walther, weicht meiner Zärtlichkeit für Sie. Meine Ehre kann's nicht mehr - Unsre Verbindung ist das Gespräch des ganzen Landes. Alle Augen, alle Pfeile des Spotts sind auf mich gespannt. Die Beschimpfung is unauslöschlich, wenn ein Untertan des Fürsten mich ausschlägt" (op. cit., II, 3).

5 "Beschämen lässt sich Emilie Milford - doch beschimpfen nie!" (op. cit., IV, 8).

The bourgeoisie's emergence in literature did not indicate that the upper 'classes had become more democratic so much as it indicate that the bourgeoisie had become more active as literary patrons and public. On the other hand, the subsequent emergence of the laboring classes as subjects of literature did reveal an expanding social consciousness, since these classes produced neither patrons nor public. As we shall see in the next chapter, the lowest orders of society became serious subjects in German literature soon after the French Revolution. Great passions, which had once been thought limited to the aristocracy, were now found to exist among the common people too. Although Ferdinand Freiligrath attributed this discovery to Clemens Brentano,1 Schiller had already noted deep passions among the lowly and dispossessed, as will be shown in the discussion of his Criminal through Lost Honor. During the nineteenth century nearly all the scorned and oppressed classes obtained a hearing in literature and were judged by their merits rather than by the accident of their birth. Peasants were representative of mankind for Immermann, Auerbach, Bitzius, Keller, Stifter, and a host of others. Chamisso saw pure humanity in a washerwoman, Grillparzer in a poor minstrel, and Hauptmann in his weavers, draymen, flag­men, and factory workers.

Adalbert Stifter argued passionately for the innate dignity of man in the preface to his Bunte Steine, a collection of stories about simple people. In this preface, which was written in 1852, Stifter defended himself for always describing little people leading humdrum lives. For Stifter, the growing of the grain and the twinkling of the stars are greater than storms, volcanoes, and earthquakes; and he holds a similar view concerning human beings. "Just as it is in external nature," he argues, "so it is in the inner nature of mankind. A whole life of righteousness, simplicity, self-control, reasonableness, effectiveness in one's circle and admiration for beauty, combined with a serene and resigned death - these I consider great. Great passions, frightful thundering rage, craving for revenge, the inflamed spirit that strives for activity, tears down, changes, destroys, and often throws away its own life in its agitation - these I consider not greater, but rather smaller, since these things are merely the products of individual and onesided forces, just like storms, fire-spewing mountains, and earthquakes."2

1 Concerning Brentano's Kasperl und Annerl, Freiligrath wrote: "Der warf zuerst aus grauer Bücherwolke Den prächt'gen Blitz: die Leidenschaft im Volke!" (cited in Brentanos Werke, ed. F. Bomke, Leipzig & Wien, 1892, p.90).

2 "Ein ganzes Leben voll Gerechtigkeit, Einfachkeit, Bezwingung seiner selbst, Verstandesgemässheit, Wirksamkeit in seinem Kreise, Bewunderung des Schönen, verbunden mit einem heiteren, gelassenen Streben, halte ich für gross: mächtige Bewegungen des Gemüts, furchtbar einherrollenden Zorn, die Begier nach Rache, den entzündeten Geist, del nach Tätigkeit strebt, umreisst, ändert, zerstört und in der Erregung oft das eigene Leben hinwirft, halte ich nicht für grösser, sondem für kleiner, da diese Dinge so gut nur Hervorbringungen einzelner und einseitiger Kräfte sind wie Stürme, feuerspeiende Berge, Erdbeben" (Adalbert Stifter, Gesammelte Werke, Bielefeld, 1956, III, p. 10). This belief suggests George Chapman's words, "They're only truly great who are truly good" (Revenge for Honour, V, 2).

What Stifter wishes to observe is "the gentle law", by which he means the moral law that guides mankind. This law is concerned with the forces that aid all mankind, not just one individual. "The law of these forces is the law of righteousness, the law of morality, the law that wishes for everyone to exist with other people, respected, honored, and without danger. . . "1 The student of mankind can see this law "just as well in the lowest hut as in the highest palace, he sees it in a poor woman's devotion and a hero's tranquil scorn of death for the fatherland or for humanity."2 Here we see the Church's ideal of honor for all men, an ideal at last accepted by a good proportion of mankind, at least in the West. Henceforth, with few exceptions, all German writers deplore and ridicule the remaining customs, prejudices, and selfishness preventing the realization of the Christian ideal.

1 "Es ist das Gesetz dieser Kräfte das Gesetz der Gerechtigkeit, das Gesetz der Sitte, das Gesetz, das will, dass jeder geachtet, geehrt, ungefährdet neben dem andern bestehe..." (Stifter, op. cit., p. 10).

2 "Er sieht es ebensogut in der niedersten Hütte wie in dem höchsten Palaste, er sieht es in der Hingabe eines armen Weibes und in der ruhigen Todes­verachtung des Helden für das Vaterland und die Menschheit" (op. cit., p. 11).

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