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Abstract

This dissertation analyzes one of the most recurrent--and troubling--motifs in modern German literature: death by drowning. Ultimately, it suggests that these scenes of drowning function as narrative “knots” in which two concepts fundamental to the epistemology of realist literature intertwine: law and sacrifice. More specifically, it argues that the narrative logic of drowning stages a conflict between the “surface” domain of law, on the one hand, and the hidden “depths” of the subjective interior, on the other. In each of my chosen texts, the resolution of this conflict takes the form of an act of sacrifice that either relinquishes some portion of the self for the sake of the law or immolates some form of law for the sake of the self. Chapter 1 examines Adalbert Stifter’s early work, first tracing how he presents self-sacrifice as a midpoint of universal law that bridges the cosmic sphere of nature and the human sphere of ethics. Stifter’s changing vision of lawfulness shapes his novella "Kalkstein" (1853), which tells the story of a country parson’s selfless efforts to protect the parish children from drowning in the nearby river’s regular floods. These themes are echoed in Gottfried Keller’s novella "Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe" (1856/1876), which Chapter 2 argues to be structured around transgressive acts that consist not so much in overt contradictions of legal tenets, but rather in the protagonists’ mimicry of the lawful state of marriage, whereby they tragically imitate the very fulfillment from which this act of imitation occludes them. The tale ends with their suicide by drowning, which I read as a sacrifice of their wish for a publicly recognized, married life together in exchange for a momentary, private simulation of it on the banks of the river. The narratives that occupy the second half of the dissertation develop this thematic framework, gradually moving from the “external laws” of nature and social custom to the “inward laws” of ethical and moral obligation. Chapter 3 analyzes the late novellas of Theodor Storm (1876-1888), all of which brim with issues of guilt, memory, and contrition. In his last creative period, Storm portrays various categories of law as “inheritances” of the past, while sacrifice serves as a means of atonement—a means, that is, of relating to one’s future by looking back to one’s past. Invariably, the moment of sacrifice culminates in drowning. Finally, Chapter 4 considers Theodor Fontane’s novel "Unwiederbringlich" (1892), whose protagonist devotes her life to fulfilling Lutheran precepts of spiritual and moral duty, only to drown herself at the end. I read this final act as a sacrificial exchange of ethical paradigms, suggesting that by transgressing against a private system of duty, she ultimately secures a collective sense of duty rooted in the communal rites of mourning. The dissertation bookends its inquiry with glances backward to Goethe’s 1809 novel "Die Wahlverwandtschaften" (in the Introduction) as well as forward to the Expressionist obsession with the figure of Ophelia (in the Epilogue) in order to sketch a broader contextualization of the German Realist program.

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