Questions, Questions, and More Questions–The Result of Trying to Interpret German Short Stories

Personally, I find the readings for this week to be particularly interesting.  I mean, I never would have thought that I would be writing a scholarly essay on the Grimm Brothers’ fairytale “Little Snow-White”.  Reading stories like this, however, has reminded me that even supposedly simple works of art can have a deeper meaning–if you take the time to interpret them.  After all,  like “Little Snow-White”, the other two short stories, “Fair-Haired Eckbert” and “The Earthquake in Chile”are also fictitious (though it is believed that “The Earthquake in Chile” was inspired by the events that occurred in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755); yet, being fiction doesn’t seem to make them any easier to interpret.  In fact, I would even say that, in some ways, the fictional elements of these stories make interpretation even more difficult.  After all, authors have a lot of freedom when it comes to composing a fictional work; they can defy reality by making that which is impossible achievable. In “Fair-Haried Eckbert”, Ludwig Tieck, makes full use of his power that fictional authors have by telling the tale of a knight, who has a wife with a very unusual childhood.  While reading “Fair-Haired Eckbert”, I get the sense that this is a story that has meaning layered on top of meaning–there is just so much going on, all at once! Every time I think that I am starting to come up with a solid interpretation of “Fair-Haired Eckbert”, I re-read the story, notice something new (and contradictory to my interpretation), and get confused all over again.  One thing that I find particularly confusing occurs at the end of the narrative.  After paranoia causes him to kill his friend Walther and distrust Hugo, Eckbert abandons all notions of friendship and rides into the wilderness. In his delirious state, Eckbert finds “himself entangled in a labyrinth of rocks, from which he could discover no outlet”(44)–he has becomes as lost and confused physically as he is mentally.  Eventually, Eckbert crosses paths with an old peasant, who reminds him of his dead friend Walter.  Frightened, “Eckbert spurred his horse as fast as it could gallop, over meads and forests, till it sank exhausted to the earth.  Regardless of this, he hastened forward on foot” (45).  In the sharp contrast to the frantic state just described, in the next line, Tieck goes on to write: “In a dreamy mood he mounted a hill” (45).  Tieck’s choice to use the word “dreamy” here confuses me.  When I think of a “dreamy mood”, I think of a relaxed, carefree, head-in-the-clouds state.  Yet, Eckbert was just perviously in a mad fit of fright, which seems anything but relaxed.  Tieck then goes on to describe  how Eckbert “fancied he caught the sound of lively barking at a little distance; the birch-trees whispered in the intervals…” (45).  On the wind, Eckbert also hears the following song:

 

Alone in wood so gay,

Once more I stay;

None dare me slay,

The evil far away:

Ah, here I stay,

Alone in wood so gay. (45)

The description of this scene left me rather bewildered.  Not only does it seem unusually peaceful and pleasant, when compared to the previous place and state Eckbert found himself in, but the words of the bird’s song state that “evil is far away”.  Yet, in the paragraph following this description, evil anything but far away, it is nigh.  For, after hearing the song, Eckbert is described as being in an enchanted, dream-like state, in which “he was incapable of thought or recollection” and everything had become “a riddle that he could not solve” (45).  He then is confronted with the old woman from his wife’s past, who Eckbert learns was really Hugo and Walther, his only two friends.  Upon discovering this Eckbert cries, “in what frightful solitude have I passed my life?” (45).  Yet, the bad news doesn’t stop there, for the old woman informs Eckbert that his wife, Bertha, was really his sister.  In despair, “Eckbert lay distracted and dying on the ground” (46).  Thus, it seems as though Eckbert has lost everything important to him;  he has lost his ability to reason and think clearly, his friends, and the innocent love that he felt towards his wife. Everything in Eckbert’s life has been touched by evil and corrupted.  Therefore, I am confused about the significance of the words of this song.  Earlier, the bird’s song always highlighted a significant truth about the situation portrayed in the story, yet this doesn’t seem to be the case here.

I also find it interesting to compare the scene mentioned above to another part of the story.  Earlier, Bertha describes her first encounter with the old woman and how she came to live a solitary life in the woods.  Before meeting the woman, Bertha says that she was also in a very distressed state of mind, in which she “was tired and spend, [she] scarcely wished to live, and yet [she] feared to die” (34).  Then upon nearing the old woman’s house in the woods, she describes nature in a very breathtaking, peaceful way, for “the trees were standing with their tops in the glow of the sunset; on the fields lay a mild brightness;…the pure sky and open paradise…and, from time to time, the rustling of the trees, resounded through the serene stillness, as in pensive joy” (35).  And while Bertha observes all this, she hears the old woman’s bird singing in the background:

Alone in wood so gay

‘Tis good to stay,

Morrow like today,

Forever and aye:

O, I do love to stay

Alone in wood so gay. (35)

But, while living in the woods, Bertha states that “‘I never fairly thought I was awake, but only falling out of one dream into another still stranger” (36).  Thus, like Eckbert at the end of the story, Bertha cannot tell whether she “was dreaming now, or had before dreamed” (45).  Thus, it seems as though Tieck is recalling Bertha’s first encounter with the old woman at the end of the story.  Yet, why would the author do this?  What purpose does it serve, if it serves any purpose at all?

(Aside: Also, what is the significance of the title.  The story is called “Fair-haired Eckbert, but it mostly seems to be about Bertha and her childhood.  Why does Eckbert have to be “fair-haired”?)

I also have a question concerning “The Earthquake in Chile”.  Religion seems to be cast in a bad light in this story.  When Josefa’s father discovers that she is secretly meeting with her lover Jerónimo, he places her in a nunnery as punishment.  Despite becoming a nun, Joesfa, continues to meet with Jerónimo and the two conceive an legitimate son.  Upon going into labour pains, the nunnery discovers that Josefa is pregnant and, “with no regard to her condition, [Josefa] was immediately thrown in prison…” (5).  Then, immediately after giving birth to her child, “by order of the archbishop, she was subjected to the most harrowing trial” (5).  For doing nothing more than falling in love with a man and having a child, Josefa is sentenced to death.  On the day of Josefa’s execution all the “pious daughters of the city invited their girl friends to attend the spectacle offered to divine vengeance at their sisterly side” (7).  Thus, the devout religious people seem to be portrayed in a heartless and blood-lusting manner.  Yet, Jerónimo, who was thrown in jail for his immoral acts, does not seem to abandon religion entirely, as he  “flung himself down before the image of the Mother of God, and prayed to her with tremendous ardor, believing her to be the only one from whom salvation could still come” (7).  What I find interesting to note here is that Jerónimo does not pray to God, but to Mary and that he believes that only Mary can save Josefa.  But why? I get why Jerónimo might have no faith in God after his love had been sentenced to death by religion, but I don’t understand  why Jerónimo still  has faith in Mary.  Isn’t Mary still associated with the religion that sentenced Jerónimo’s love to death?  Then, later, after being freed from prison by the earthquake, Jerónimo “bowed his head so low that his forehead touched the ground,in order to thank God for his miraculous rescue…” (9).  Yet, upon recalling Josefa’s execution, “he began to regret having prayed, and the Being that rules above the clouds seemed fearsome to him” (9-11).  But, when he discovers that Josefa is alive, he shouts “‘O Holy Mother of God!'” (11).  So, God seems to be largely associated with negative aspects, whereas Mary seems to be praiseworthy, someone worth worshipping.  I may be reading into this story way too much, but I would really like to know why you think Mary and God are portrayed in this way!

Thanks for taking the time to read my massive blog post!

1 thought on “Questions, Questions, and More Questions–The Result of Trying to Interpret German Short Stories”

  1. Great questions, and I fear I won’t be able to give useful answers to many of them. I think we came up with a possible explanation for the one about “The Earthquake in Chile” in class, and I think that explanation makes sense.

    I’ll just say a couple of things about “Fair-Haired Eckbert.”

    First, I, too, was puzzled at first because the story seems mostly to be about Bertha so why title it with his name? But I do think that ultimately it’s about him in the end. Her story makes up the bulk of the middle, but I think the story is more about what he does after she reveals it. At first I thought it was strange that the narrator was talking about unburdening oneself before a friend, but then Bertha is the one doing the unburdening; but still, it’s also about Eckbert and how he has participated in her deception and theft of the bird by going along with keeping the riches they have as a result of Bertha stealing the bird. But honestly, I have no idea if it matters that he is “fair-haired.” That isn’t mentioned at all in the story.

    Regarding the question about being frantic and then mounting the hill in a dreamy mood: I thought of the latter as just him not being sure anymore what is going on. It could be a relaxed, calm mood, but it could also just refer to someone not really being sure if they’re awake or dreaming, which can still happen when one is frantic (a kind of anxiety-driven hallucination, maybe?). Alternatively, he may have gotten to the point where he, like the horse, is utterly exhausted by that point!

    About Eckbert making the same journey as Bertha does: I noticed this too. One thing I was thinking about this story is that when Bertha does her journey and spends time at the hut it is really like an illusory state. She gets what she wants and it seems unrealistic: she is able to have a family, a mother like she never had; she is able to make money easily to try to bring back to her family; she is suddenly able to do things well that she couldn’t do while at home (her family said she was no good at anything); the whole thing is bizarre, of course. It feels like it never really happened but was her own projection in some way. This reminds me of the discussion of German idealism and how what we think of as reality is due to our own perspective and interpretation. So then when Eckbert has the same journey I wonder: (1) if this is also just his own projection, his own imagination; (2) I wonder if Bertha was even real, as discussed in class (had he dreamed her?), or maybe the whole thing was his own imagination. Going with the less radical interpretation (1), I might say that this last part is Eckbert revealing some things to himself through his own unconscious–the part about him always having a premonition about Bertha upholds this to some extent. And then I thought that the old woman saying she was Walther and Hugo could be Eckbert realizing that the way he viewed them was not really as they were, but through his own projections (especially insofar as he sees them through suspicion after he reveals himself to them).

    But these thoughts are not fully formed, and may not ultimately work out.

    As for the evil being far away in the bird’s last song, maybe it could be pointing out how Eckbert is truly alone now, and though that doesn’t mean all evil is far away, it could refer to him thinking that being with other people, revealing himself to them, is evil and that is done because he has left all other people behind? That’s a guess, and probably not a very good one.

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