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Saturday, 7 January 2017

Effi Briest: the Chinaman

I have this habit: when reading bad marriage classic novels or adultery classic novels (the word “classic” is to indicate that most people know the plot or have some vague ideas about it), I often look for the signs, the hints, the foreshadowing devices, and wonder “Would I know what’s going to happen, if I didn’t know the plot?”.
In the case of Effi Briest, we may actually play a drinking game, like, have a drink whenever there’s some foreshadowing- it's all over the place. 
But then, what’s up with the sounds upstairs and the Chinaman? 
Listen to Effi:
“‘There was a very strange noise coming from above me, not loud but very penetrating. At first it sounded as if long dresses were sweeping over the floorboards, I was so worked up I thought several times I could see satin shoes. It was as if there was dancing up there, but all very quiet.’”
Later, she tells Innstetten:
“‘And then the gallery upstairs with those long curtains that brush over the floor.’
‘But what do you know about that, Effi?’”
That is chapter 7.
In chapter 9, alone as her husband’s away for work, Effi has a nightmare and thinks she sees the Chinaman rushing past her bed.
Now look at this conversation between Innstetten and Johanna in chapter 10:
“‘What happened with your mistress? Friedrich tells me something happened and you slept over there.’

‘Yes sir. Her ladyship rang 3 times, quite quickly, all at once, so I thought there must be something amiss. And so there was. She must have had a dream, or maybe it was the other thing.’
‘What other thing?’

‘Oh, you know sir.’…”
It’s like there’s something going on, and Innstetten doesn’t want Effi to know. Like a madwoman in the attic.
Later, when they talk:
“… ‘There you are, a dream, a hallucination. And I suppose Johanna told you about the wedding up there.’

‘No.’

‘So much the better.’…”
I understand, the point is to show that:
1/ Effi has a rich imagination, like the heroine in Northanger Abbey.
2/ She is lonely and bored, and there’s something eerie about the place that works on her like the yellow wallpaper.
3/ Innstetten disregards her feelings, and only cares about his own career and reputation—which says something about his character.  
And yet at the moment Effi Briest looks so much like a gothic novel, like it can go in 100 directions but Fontane chooses the mundane adultery plot.
Speaking of the Chinaman, do you understand the story Innstetten tells Effi? He’s a servant in the house of someone called Thomsen. 1 day, Thomson’s granddaughter Nina is married off to a captain, and after the wedding she’s gone. 2 weeks later, the Chinaman dies. Like Innstetten’s hinting, without saying clearly, that there’s some connection between Nina’s disappearance and the Chinaman’s death, but what’s the connection?

The translation is by Hugh Robbison and Helen Chambers. 

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