Kliest, Hoffman, Tieck, and the Brothers Grimm

Last week we read several short stories by famous German writers, several which were from Appelbaum’s collection, Five Great German Stories, but also two others not featured in the book. What I found particularly interesting was the narrative style of each story: while similar, the slightest differences can help create a completely different atmosphere in each tale.

Schneewitchen. In the public domain. Accessed from Wikimedia Commons.

“Earthquake in Chile” by Kliest

The narrator of “Earthquake in Chile” has a tendency to spout large amounts of information – in the first sentence alone, we find out that the setting is “Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile”, the time frame is “the great earthquake of the year 1647”, the consequences of the event “in which many thousands of people perished”, and the main character, “a young Spaniard accused of a crime, Jerónimo Rugera” (5). The sentence doesn’t even end there, and it is revealed that at the start of the story, Jerónimo has been imprisoned and is on the verge of committing suicide. In one long sentence, a massive amount of information has been revealed, and it almost seems like the narrator is in a hurry to get to the climax of the story.

“The Sandman” by Hoffman

What’s interesting about the narrator in “The Sandman” is that he is not an objective, omniscient narrator like the ones found in the other stories – he/she is connected on a personal level to the characters in the story and informs the reader that he obtained the letters at the beginning of the story from Lothar himself. He/she refers to Nathanael as “my poor friend”, implying that he/she sympathizes with his story, and even knows about his personal feelings, stating that Nathanael’s plight had “completely occupied [his] heart, mind, and thoughts, driving out all else” (61). Given the secrecy and controversy of Nathanael’s actions, and his difficult to understand mind, it is very strange and highly unlikely that the narrator would know these events to the degree that he/she claims, especially since he/she has established that he is human and likely not omniscient. Pardon me if I am skeptical, but it does not seem like he/she is the most reliable narrator in the world.

“Fair-Haired Eckbert” by Tieck

“Fair-Haired Eckbert” uses the conventional narrator, but also utilizes the concept of a “story within a story” – much of the narrative is narrated by Bertha, Eckbert’s wife. Not only is the reader distanced from the story because of the 3rd person narration, the reader is further alienated by another narrator within the main story. The mystic elements in Bertha’s story are further enhanced by this, and the reader becomes even more unsure of what is actually going on in the story, especially when the knight questions himself whether or not he even had a wife.

“Snow White” by the Brothers Grimm

The narration in “Snow White” is poetic and flowing, adding to the “fairy tale” aspect of the story. Often, many metaphorical statements appear quite literal, such as when the Queen “turned yellow and green with envy” (250). Although still possible to take in a metaphorical sense, given the nature of the story it does seem not out of the ordinary for her to turn yellow and green in an almost comical way (and part of this interpretation I blame on Disney cartoons). In general, the smooth and easy to read narration creates a mystical atmosphere throughout the story.

One thought on “Kliest, Hoffman, Tieck, and the Brothers Grimm

  1. Ah, now that I’ve read your essay on these stories I see that you’ve developed some of these themes even further! I completely agree with your point about the narrator in Hoffmann’s story (which isn’t to say I don’t agree with the others): if s/he (probably, given the time, a “he”) claims to be a friend of Nathanael’s, then is therefore human, it is highly unlikely that he would be able to have this much information and must be making some of it up. When the narrator makes him- or herself out to be an actual person in the story, then they shouldn’t act in a way that a person would be unable to act, know things such a person would be unable to know.

    And now that I’m thinking about this a bit more, the narrator compares himself to Nathanael to some extent, as discussed in class. Nathanael creates poetry and fictional stories, and perhaps the narrator does too.

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