The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


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Lessing's Emilia Galotti and Schiller's Love and Intrigue are con­ventionally classified as "bourgeois tragedies", even though they concern nobles as well as commoners. In fact it is the nobility that induces the tragedy by jeopardizing the commoners' honor. Perhaps Germany's first, and possibly best, purely bourgeois tragedy on the theme of honor is Friedrich Hebbel's Maria Magdalene, which appeared in 1844. As the title implies, it is the story of a fallen woman; and as such it deals primarily with the problem of lost "feminine honor". Like Emilia, the heroine of this play is killed by her father; but in this case the father uses words rather than a dagger. Unlike Emilia and Louise, her fate is not caused by the tyranny of the ruling classes: rather it results from the bigotry and prejudices of her own class, particularly from the self-righteousness of her father.

Master Anton, an uneducated cabinet maker, prides himself on his righteous behavior and respected place in society; and his only anxiety is his fear that his wayward son Carl will bring dishonor upon the family. His daughter Clara, on the other hand, is pious, obedient, and thoroughly virtuous. When Clara's childhood sweetheart goes away to study and fails to write to her, she believes herself deserted and accepts the attentions of an unscrupulous suitor named Leonhard, who has designs on her small dowry. In order to assure himself of her, Leonhard requires her to choose between him and her childhood sweetheart, who has just returned as town secretary; and he insists that she guarantee her choice by giving herself to him. Believing she has lost the man she loves because he is now her social superior, and fearing ridicule if she loses both suitors, she submits to Leonhard's demands. As soon as she has done so, Leonhard discovers that Master Anton has given away his life savings, including Clara's dowry, to help a former benefactor. When Carl is falsely accused of stealing some jewelry, Leonhard uses the scandal as an excuse to break off the engagement, even though he knows that Clara is pregnant. By the time Carl is proved innocent, Leonhard has succeeded in getting the mayor's daughter in trouble too.

Suspecting Clara's predicament, Master Anton makes her swear over her dead mother's body that she will never bring dishonor upon him; and thus he practically exacts a promise of suicide. When the distraught girl finally jumps into a well to save her father's honor, his greatest regret is that an eye-witness testifies that her death was intentional. The secretary seems to speak for Hebbel when he denounces the bigoted father in the last scene. Returning mortally wounded from a duel in which he has killed Leonhard, he reproaches the father for having driven his daughter to her death and declares him unworthy of her sacrifice. He also blames himself for having been so concerned with demanding satisfaction from Leonhard that he did not remain with Clara to prevent her from taking her fatal and easily foreseen step.

Master Anton's exaggerated sense of honor causes the tragedy in more ways than one. When the court bailiff arrests and humiliates Carl without valid evidence and thus triggers the catastrophe, he does so to repay Master Anton for having once insulted him by refusing to drink with him and by saying he should wait for his kinsman, the skinner. Master Anton's exaggerated sense of honor is emphasized throughout the play. Perhaps he is so punctilious because he almost had to grow up without honor: he would never have become a master craftsman if his benefactor had not taken him on as an apprentice without demanding the customary tuition. People constantly refer to him as ehrlich, in the sense of honest and respectable. It appears, however, that he is not only righteous, but also self-righteous; for he often refers to his own virtue and honesty. On the other hand, he is obsessed by fear of winning Schande, by which he clearly means public disrespect. Because he fears disgrace so greatly, he is sure that his son will come to no good; and he immediately believes in his guilt without waiting for proof.

Whereas Master Anton's obsession with honor causes his son to rebel, it has positive influence on his daughter, who is honest in every way and frankly confesses her condition when the secretary proposes to her. She admits that she gave herself to Leonhard partly to avoid other people's scorn and the accusation of false pride; but it is likely that she was really thinking of the embarrass­ment it would bring her father. She is not vain and would probably bear her shame if her father had not threatened to kill himself if ever she should bring shame upon him. His fear of shame first makes her resolve to marry Leonhard, even after he boasts of many dishonorable deeds, such as making love to the mayor's hunch­backed daughter just before the selection of a new town cashier and getting the rival candidate, the parson's nephew, drunk on the day of the examination. Anton, whose inflexibility has caused the tragedy, is unreconstructed to the very end. All he can say is, "I don't understand the world any more."1

1 "Ich verstehe die Welt nicht mehr" (Maria Magdalene, III, 11).

As we have seen, all propertied and substantial people, be they noblemen, burghers, or peasants, despised the unpropertied and vagrant classes; and therefore the worst fate that could befall them was to sink into the status of those they scorned. A touching description of such loss of caste is found in A Village Romeo and Juliet, a short story published in 1856 by the Swiss poet Gottfried Keller. As its title suggests, this story relates the tragic fate of two young people whose love is thwarted by their parents' hostility. In this case the parents are proud and class-conscious Swiss peasants, contemptuous of all people less fortunate than themselves. When the story opens, the fathers, Manz and Marti, are still friends, who are tacitly united in misappropriating an ownerless strip of land lying between their fields. They well know that the disputed strip of land rightfully belongs to a homeless and therefore" dishonorable" character called the “black fiddler", who is obviously the grandson of the last owner. Nevertheless, like their fellow townsmen, who do not wish to recognize the vagrant's right of domicile, they refuse to acknowledge his claim as long as he can produce no birth certificate. After Manz and Marti have plowed deeply into the ownerless field, misappropriating a narrow strip each year for many years, the remainder is auctioned by the local authorities; and Manz wins it at a high price after having to outbid Marti. Because of their previous encroachment, the boundary is no longer definite and soon becomes a bone of contention between the two guilty men. The ensuing litigation benefits only the lawyers and speculators; and the two peasants spend all their time, energy, and money in their bitter fight, which keeps them in town more than on their farms. Spurred on by righteous indignation and secret sense of guilt, they gradually deteriorate not only economically, but also socially and morally. His land mortgaged and his mortgage foreclosed, Manz leaves his farm to run a tavern in town. In his new profession he is as unsuccessful as in his old, until he at last begins to cater to thieves and to receive stolen property. Marti remains on his farm until completely impoverished and degenerate, at which time a blow on his head sends him to the public insane asylum.

When the story opens, Manz's son Sali and Marti's daughter Vrenchen are little children playing together on the unplowed land between their fathers' holdings. When their fathers become enemies, the children part and scarcely see each other, each believing the other more fortunate than himself. At last, when they are twenty and seventeen, they meet again one day while their fathers are having a disgraceful fight. The next day they meet again and discover and confess their love. Marti finds them together in a grain field; and Sali, in defending Vrenchen, strikes him on the head with a rock and deprives him of his reason.

Although knowing their love is hopeless, the lovers come together again as soon as Vrenchen has returned from taking her father to the asylum. They plan to have one last day together, one day to dance and forget their misery. Sali sells his watch to buy Vrenchen a pair of shoes; and the next morning they set out to dine and dance like respectable people. Feeling out of place among prosperous and respectable people, they go to a rural dance resort where the black fiddler is playing for the poor and homeless. The fiddler tries to persuade them to join his gypsy band; but they decline, since they know that they could never rise out this despised group and that their love could never survive in it. Instead, they spend the night on a hay barge and then, at dawn, they quietly slip into the deep water.

In the opening lines of the story, in fact even in his choice of a title, Keller says that his plot is the eternally recurring theme of un­fortunate young lovers whose love is thwarted by the hostility of their parents. To be sure, this theme is present; but the parents' enmity is actually only an indirect cause, only one factor contributing to their misfortune; for their parents no longer have any authority over them when the tragedy occurs. As Walter Silz has so ably demonstrated, they die because they cannot overcome their own sense of class honor.1 Having been born to respectable people and nurtured in contempt for social outcasts, they know they can never be happy without the recognition and approval of their rightful peers. Thus the true theme is not that of Romeo and Juliet, but rather that of Tristan and Isolde . Tristan and Isolde do not leave the Love Grotto because they must, but because they know that their love cannot survive without the honor and social recognition found only at court. Likewise, Sali and Vrenchen know their love will die if they try to live together with the dishonorable fiddler and his homeless band. As Walter Silz states, they "could never have escaped their tragedy, because they could never have escaped from themselves."2

1 Walter Silz, Realism and Reality, Chapel Hill, 1954, pp. 79-93.

2 op. cit., p. 93.

Gottfried Keller was neither a medievalist nor an antiquarian; yet his story presents values and attitudes in perfect accord with those of the Middle Ages. These similarities can be explained by the cultural conservatism of the nineteenth-century Swiss peasants, whose hearts and minds Keller so well understood. Manz and Marti were as proud of their status as ever Father Helmbrecht was; and they were as contemptuous of their social inferiors as any ancient Germanic freeman. Having land, horses, and servants, they re­present the substantial backbone of the community. The former social and political status of Marti's family is indicated by the halberd standing in his garden; for it symbolizes both military service and political function. After Marti's social and economic decline, the halberd serves only to support a bean stalk; and it is symbolic that Vrenchen hangs the key on the rusty weapon when she takes her final leave of her dilapidated home.

As substantial citizens, Manz and Marti feel neither compassion nor responsibility for the black fiddler, who, being illegitimate and homeless, can obtain only the most despised work such as mending pots, burning charcoal, and boiling tar. Because his friends, being vagrants, have no honor, they are not legally qualified to testify that he is the rightful heir to the disputed land. When the land is sold and the money is held in trust for the lawful owner, Manz and Marti rationalize by saying that the fiddler, as a vagrant, would only drink the money if it were given to him, whereas he really wants it in order to emigrate. Like their Germanic forebears, they consider poverty a sure sign of shiftlessness and lack of virtue. This is suggested in their use of the opprobrious terms Lump and Hudelvolk, both of which literally mean people in rags but have acquired a secondary meaning of ragamuffin or scamp, just as the English word shabby has acquired the meaning of despicable.

Whereas the ultimate cause of Manz's and Marti's downfall is their guilt in robbing the black fiddler, the immediate cause is their pride or point of honor. Once the boundary dispute has begun, neither can make any concession through fear that people will think it an acknowledgement of inferiority; for no one takes advantage of another person unless he considers him a contemptible and defenseless fool.l Because they feel their honor impugned, they need even more money to keep up appearances, and therefore they risk their money in lotteries and thus decline even more. When Sali leaves home for the last time, Manz gives him a gulden to spend in some tavern so that people will think them prosperous.

Although Sali and Vrenchen are basically kind and considerate, they have inherited their parents' social prejudices. Even after they have lost, through no fault of their own, the land and status to which they were born, they cannot resign themselves to accepting a lower status. Despite the inevitability of this fate, they try to deny it and they spend their last day together pretending that they are still respectable people. Before leaving her squalid house, from which she has been evicted, Vrenchen reveals her social ambitions by telling a neighbor that she is going to the city to marry Sali, who has become a rich man and will make her into a grand lady. All day the young lovers play make-believe and try to dine and dance like respectable young people. However, although they are neat, clean, well mannered, and respectable, they feel out of place among prosperous and respectable people and prefer to go to the Garden of Paradise, where the day-laborers, vagrants, and other poor and homeless folk assemble.2 In other words, they join the very people so scorned by their parents and their remote ancestors.

1 Romeo und Julia, p. 102.

2 Sali and Vrenchen are frequently referred to as ehrbar, ehrlich, and ehrsam . The people at the Garden of Paradise are das ärmere Volk, Taglöhner, fahren­des Gesinde (op. cit., p. 170); Hudelvölkchen (173); Heimatlosen (179). In other words, they are the very people disfranchised by the Mirror of the Saxons .

Like most nineteenth-century German writers, Keller does not seem to realize that inner and outer honor are two distinct concepts; for he uses the one word Ehre to mean both, often in juxtaposition. Of Sali he says, "The feeling that he can be happy in the bourgeois world only in an entirely honorable (ehrlich) and scrupulous (ge­wissenfrei) marriage was just as alive in him as in Vrenchen; and in both lost beings it was the last flame of honor (Ehre), which had glowed in earlier times in their houses and which their self-assured fathers had blown out and destroyed by an apparently insignificant blunder when they, thinking to enhance this honor by increasing their property, misappropriated the possessions of a dead man, quite without danger as they supposed."1 Here Ehre is used for both a virtuous sentiment and a social status that can be enhanced by an increase of property. Although Keller uses the word ehrlich here and on at least one other occasion in a moral sense,2 he generally uses it and ehrbar objectively.3

Keller employs the words Schande and Ehre with both objective and subjective meaning, often in close proximity. An example is offered in his short story, Clothes Make the Man, a farce about a poor tailor who is mistaken for a count and does not have the moral strength to expose himself. Because of the uncertainty of his position, the involuntary impostor begins to regret his false role and has sleepless nights. Keller then moralizes that he was to be censured because his sleep was robbed more by his fear of the disgrace (Schande) of being revealed as a poor tailor than by his ehrlich conscience;4 and here we see that Schande is used objectively but that ehrlich is used subjectively. Later, the heroine's father says that a wealthy man with an irreproachable name is ready to defend her honor by marrying her. The word Ehre excites her, and she cries out that it is precisely die Ehre that commands her not to marry him, since she can not bear him, but commands her to remain true to the poor stranger to whom she has given her word.5 Here we have the same linguistic ambivalence previously noted in Minna von Barnhelm : the word Ehre is used twice in close proximity, once to mean reputation and once to mean obedience to absolute moral law.

1 "Das Gefühl, in der bürgerlichen Welt nur in einer ganz ehrlichen und gewissenfreien Ehe glücklich sein zu können, war in ihm ebenso lebendig wie in Vrenchen, und in beiden verlassenen Wesen war es die letzte Flamme der Ehre, die in früheren Zeiten in ihren Häusern geglüht hatte und welche die sich sicher fühlenden Väter durch einen unscheinbaren Missgriff ausgeblasen und zerstört hatten, als sie, eben diese Ehre zu äufnen wähnend durch Ver­mehrung ihres Eigentums, so gedankenlos sich das Gut eines Verschollenen aneigneten, ganz gefahrlos, wie sie meinten" (op. cit., p. 176).

2 "Was kümmern uns die Leute!... Niemand hilft uns und ich bin ehrlich und fürchte niemand!" (op. cit., p. 150).

3 in his Grüner Heinrich, Keller says that at his confirmation he did not care whether or not he had a frock like the "ehrbaren Bürgerskindern" (Gesammelte Werke, Stuttgart & Berlin, 1904, I, p. 349).

4 "und es ist mit Tadel hervorzuheben, dass es eben so viel die Furcht vor der Schande, als armer Schneider entdeckt zu werden und dazustehen, als das ehrliche Gewissen war, was ihm den Schlaf raubte" (Kleider machen Leute, p. 34).

5 "Aber das Wort Ehre brachte nun doch die Tochter in grössere Aufregung. Sie rief, gerade die Ehre sei es, welche ihr gebiete, den Herren Böhni nicht zu heiraten, weil sie ihn nicht leiden könne, dagegen dem armen Fremden getreu zu bleiben, welchem sie ihr Wort gegeben hate ul1d den sie auch leiden könne!" (op. cit., p. 65).

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