Theodor Fontane, Mrs Jenny Treibel
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1999
The realist novels of Theodor Fontane (1819-1898) are considered classics of German literature. Fontane is mentioned in the same breath with Thomas Mann, Friedrich Schiller or Heinrich Heine. But why has this Prussian novelist become so famous? What is it about Fontane’s texts, which still attracts such a large number of readers? We will find out by looking at his novel “Jenny Treibel”.
The novel revolves around two families: The first one is the Treibel family, with Mr. Treibel, his wife Jenny and their sons Otto and Leopold. Treibel is a factory owner and he represents the propertied bourgeoisie. The second family is the Schmidt family, consisting of Professor Wilibald Schmidt, a grammar school teacher, and his daughter Corinna. Both are part of the educated middle-class. The story centres on the possible engagement of Corinna Schmidt and Leopold Treibel. While Corinna wants to marry Leopold for financial reasons and is prepared to do anything to climb the social ladder, Jenny Treibel tries everything to prevent the engagement, as she wants Leopold to marry someone with the same social status.
Reading “Jenny Treibel”, one will quickly notice a recurring theme: Basically, it is all about money. While many characters, especially Jenny Treibel herself, mainly talk about art, poetry and idealism in social circles, all of it becomes irrelevant as soon as it comes to finances. When Jenny was a young woman, she turned down the passionate advances of Wilibald Schmidt and instead married the rich but boring Mr. Treibel. But even though she came from a poorer family herself, she is set on Leopold marrying someone from a rich family.
Fontane thus shows the phony nature of the bourgeoisie. He artfully reveals Jenny and her kind as ridiculous and hypocritical. While she still recites the poems and songs Wilibald wrote for her in her youth, and suggests that people should follow their hearts, her greatest ambition is actually a life filled with wealth and elegance. She wants to lead the life of the aristocracy. Art and idealism are merely decoration and a sign for good education. Fontane uses her to mirror the society of 1880 and clearly takes the educated middle-class’s side instead of the propertied bourgeoisie.
The surprising thing about “Jenny Treibel” however, is that it still seems up-to-date. Everyone will relate to the fact that we still – or more than ever – live in a highly competitive society, and everyone will be aware that financial wealth is still one of the most important goals for the majority of people. But the novel shows more than that. Reading the conversations in “Jenny Treibel” makes us feel unmasked, because they are the same kind of mindless small talk that still dominates our society. Just like us, the people in “Jenny Treibel” briefly mention art references or use English words in a German conversation to appear well-educated and worldly - Anglicisms and name-dropping as early as 1880.
Theodor Fontane illustrates that money and status are the driving forces of the bourgeoisie and we as readers in turn realise just how right he was and that this is not going to change any time soon. Academics still predominantly marry academics and expensive cars and houses are still respected more than artistic ambitions. Thus, we will simply have to wait and see if “Jenny Treibel” will lose any of its poignancy in the next few decades to come.