Saturday, July 5, 2008

Gotthelf's Black Spider

Image from here.
Jeremias Gotthelf's most touted story is his 1842 novella
Die Schwarze Spinne (The Black Spider), which Thomas Mann professed to "admire almost more than anything else in world literature" (The Story of a Novel, trans. Richard and Clara Winston [NY: Knopf, 1961], p. 63).

This novella was not published in English until 1957, and was not among the most esteemed of Gotthelf's works until WWII, at which time it appears to have been co-opted by the Nazis. The story continued to grow in popularity in Germany after the war. It is not hard to see why; one of the story's motifs concerns the collective guilt of a community that has acquiesced in the evil plotting of one (or more) of its members.

I'll preface my review with a recommendation of these four posts on The Black Spider at Journey Round My Skull and of this review at Wuthering Expectations. I earlier provided some background information on Gotthelf.

The story begins in a Swiss village with preparations for a baptism. The villagers are affluent, indulging in a rich feast before departing for the church. They are keen to observe the social niceties and present themselves in accordance with the mores and customs of their community. After the baptism, they return to the parents' house for more socializing.

While lounging about, an old man tells a story about a window post in the house that looks out of place. It turns out that this post was taken from previous houses on this family's property. They preserve the post because it has for centuries imprisoned a monstrous spider. It is the family's duty to prevent the evil that lurks in this piece of their home from escaping.

The old man tells two tales, both of which are set centuries in the past.

The first story is set in the medieval era, when the Teutonic Knights ruled the area in which the village is located. The head knight commands the villagers to perform arduous tasks that leave them little time for their own farm work. The most burdensome of these tasks is to remove several large trees from a distant valley and erect them by the knight's castle.

The villagers realize that they cannot both complete this work and harvest enough food to get them through the winter. As they are complaining to each other, a green huntsman appears and offers to do most of the work required for re-locating the trees. His fee? Well, it turns out that he's Satan, and he wants the villagers to give him an unbaptized child. At first they refuse, but eventually one of the villagers, Christine, accepts the devil's terms. The other villagers are uneasy about this, but end up going along with the arrangement (by co-operating with the devil to move the trees). So the whole village is implicated in Christine's fiendish pact. They reckon, however, that they can refuse the devil his due by baptizing each newborn at birth.

Satan, of course, has prepared for this eventuality. When he made the agreement with Christine, he kissed her cheek, which made her feel "as if some sharp-pointed steel fire were piercing marrow and bone, body and soul." She sees his face "gleefully distorted," and then he disappears. (I'm quoting from p. 162 of German Novellas of Realism, Vol. 1, ed. Jeffrey L. Sammons, trans. H. M. Waidson [Continuum, 1989].) Commentators have long noted the sexual overtones of this passage, especially in view of the fact that the devil's kiss implanted the beginnings of a creature in Christine's face. When it becomes apparent that she plans not to keep her part of the deal, the creature grows in her face, taking the shape of a spider-like blemish. As it grows larger, it becomes clear that it really is a spider. Its growth causes Christine great pain, leading her to try and secure an unbaptized child for the devil.

At one point, the spider gives birth to a legion of smaller spiders which burst from Christine's face to torment and kill the villagers' cattle. A commentator, David Gallagher ("The Transmission of Ovid's Arachne Metamorphosis in Jeremias Gotthelf's
Die Schwarze Spinne," Neophilologus, on-line preprint), says that on one longstanding interpretation the spiders represent the plague -- Christine is infected and the army of little spiders that spread from her are like germs that carry the disease.

After Christine's subsequent, failed attempt (abetted by other villagers) to steal a child, she undergoes a full metamorphosis into a large spider, or the spider in her face consumes her -- it isn't clear. This large spider kills many villagers. It does at least have the decency to kill also the local Teutonic Knights. Eventually, though, one heroic and pious woman, wishing to protect her kids from the spider, imprisons it in the window post. She does, however, suffer a spider bite, which kills her. The lesson is clear: a good mother is willing to lay down her very life for the sake of her children.

The second of the old man's stories is less involved. Briefly, a couple of centuries later a rash fool lets the spider out; it launches another reign of terror, which is ended only when another pious individual (this time a man) sacrifices his life in order to protect some children by putting the spider back in the window post.

The upshot of the old man's stories is that the villagers must always be pious and vigilant against the evil that lies within lest it erupt and destroy them all. Also, they must appreciate the significance of baptism, standing ready to sacrifice themselves for the well-being of their children.

I didn't really appreciate the point of Gotthelf's story until I read an article about it by Jamie Rankin ("Spider in a Frame"
The German Quarterly 61 [1988]: 403-18). Rankin describes a narrative structure that typifies many of Gotthelf's stories: first, there is a framing narrative, in which a narrator (who is not a character in the story) describes some events that are roughly contemporary with their narration; the second part of the structure is an internal narrative, which appears when a character in the framing narrative recounts some events from the past. According to Rankin, Gotthelf used this structure for a didactic purpose. Briefly, the characters in the framing narrative exhibit some vice, the characters in the internal narrative more clearly exhibit the same vice, and the internal narrative is designed to impress upon the characters in the framing story the need to mend their ways.

Rankin then applies this template to The Black Spider, which requires finding some vice in the characters of the framing story. This runs counter to the interpretive tradition, though, since the frame narrative in The Black Spider seems to be full of merriment in a nice, solid community. So, what's wrong with the people in the framing story? Well, says Rankin, Gotthelf, a devout pastor, would surely not have approved of the villagers' attitude to the baptism. They see this religious ceremony mainly as a festive event, an occasion to socialize and display their material wealth (in the form of a great feast). Little thought is given to the religious purpose of the ceremony, the focus of which should be the well-being of the child.

For Rankin, the villagers' failure to attend to this point is an instance of the larger flaw of self-centredness. The focal concern for each person at the baptism seems to be her own reputation and the social game-playing that is designed to enhance it. As a result, the villagers come across as being too self-centred to care genuinely for the well-being of their peers (except insofar as their well-being is necessary for one's own). In short, each villager seems to regard his peers as mirrors, where what he really cares about is how he is reflected in their opinions. Such obsessive self-concern stands in marked opposition to the selfless care for others that Gotthelf prefers, and that is supposed to be at the forefront in baptism, a sacred rite performed for the sake of a new member of the community (and not an occasion to party or improve one's own social standing).

The villagers' self-centredness is reflected in an exaggerated, grotesque way in the internal narratives, especially the first one. There, the villagers end up trying to prevent a child's baptism, being prepared to sacrifice this potential new member of their community for the sake of their own material well-being. By contrast, the heroes in both internal stories display a thoroughly selfless devotion to the well-being of others (children in both cases).

Rankin doesn't mention Kant, but Kantian ethics fit nicely into Gotthelf's lesson, especially the Kantian idea that one ought never to treat others wholly as means but always as ends in themselves. The villagers in the framing story treat each other as mere means to self-praise, or to the ehancement of their reputations, showing little real concern for another person as an end in himself or herself (a locus of intrinsic value that may call for the sacrifice of something of one's own).

Finally, there is, sadly, blatant sexism in Gotthelf's work. For instance, in the second internal story there is this description of a male character: "... his will lay bound by that of his womenfolk, and such dependence is certainly a heavy sin for any man. ..." (p. 206). Again, we find this description of the fool who set the spider free: "... in the company at large he was like a ravening wolf and behaved as if he hated everyone, as if he wanted to outdo them all in wild deeds and words; but men like that are supposed to be just the most attractive to women." (p. 202) Also, Christine, an evil woman, is an assertive woman, and these traits seem to be linked in Gotthelf's view. (Worse still, she's from out of town!)

One critic, William Collins Donahue, has a paper in which he claims to excavate, by Freudian means, a deeper, pervading misogyny in Gotthelf's novella ("The Kiss of the Spider Woman," German Quarterly 67 [1994]: 304-24). I'm not convinced. I think the sexism is all on the surface, and once we dig deeper we find less sexism. For example, in Gotthelf's novella evil takes both male and female forms, there are powerful, scary male and femal characteres, both male and female characters exhibit the chief vice of the story, male and female characters make sacrifices for the sake of the children, male and female characters learn from the internal stories, etc.

Update (August 7, 2008): I've just found another interesting reference to The Black Spider, this time by Elias Canetti. On p. 216 of the Granta version of Canetti's A Torch In My Ear (part of his autobiography), he says that when his future wife, Veza, spoke highly of Peter Altenberg's work, he (Canetti) "found this ridiculous" and "opposed Altenberg with my Swiss writers: Gotthelf's The Black Spider and Keller's 'The Three Just Kammachers'."

Update (May 6, 2009): Oneworld Classics have re-issued Waidson's translation.

Update (July 30, 2009): Bill Marx has a short review at World Books.


Will said...

Thanks for the review and cover image. The Continuum anthology must be the book of misremembered "gothic" novellas we couldn't identify; one mystery solved.

This comment was starting to exceed the length of your post, so I'll try to just post my take on the book on my site.

I think I'll revise my posts now that I have a better idea of what is and isn't "Romanticism." Gotthelf is certainly nothing like Jean Paul.

praymont said...

Thanks for clearing up that mystery. Yes, the Romantics' work seems more open-ended and ambiguous, while Gotthelf's stories are more like old-fashioned morality tales with a tidy resolution and lesson.

waggish said...

Excellent commentary, thank you. I have the same anthology and think it's hilarious that it's called "German Novellas of Realism," which I can only hope is a misnomer. Adalbart Stifter sometimes hints at similar realms but there's never any explicit horror, just vague hints.

praymont said...

Thanks, Mr. Waggish. I have still to read Stifter. He's one of the authors I first heard about as a precursor of Sebald, so I'm looking forward to reading something by him.

David Auerbach said...

Susan Bernofsky is working on a new translation! Her Walser work has been amazing so I am looking forward to it.

praymont said...

Thanks, David. I found a reference to the book here:

It looks like the book is due in 2013. I'm looking forward to it.