The local as colonial subject: imperialism and ethnography in Gerhart Hauptmann's novellas Bahnwarter Thiel and Fasching.
But what of the hat? The narrative punch of the aforementioned collision, together with the accessibility of the train metaphor, has obscured more subtle and yet equally compelling ways in which one might situate this novella in the imperial context signified by the fez. If Hauptmann is truly a "seismograph of his time," as Ralph Fiedler once avowed, we are due to revisit the novella for broader insights into its Imperial German backdrop than what heretofore have been offered. (2) In particular, I would like to fill in at least part of this scholarly oversight by prying more thoroughly into how the novella fits into Germany's self-identification as a colonial power at the end of the century. In light of the broader historical context of Bahnwarter Thiel, as well as Hauptmann's anthropologically flavored descriptions of his characters and their surroundings, the novella is due for a thicker reading, one that is mindful of what H. Glenn Penny has identified as nineteenth-century Germany's collective and entrenched ethnographic curiosity. (3) Thiel's conspicuous physical appearance, coupled with the novella's geographically detached setting, brings to mind the period's discourse on colonial spaces and their perceived primitive inhabitants. Might Hauptmann--consciously or not--have approached the novella from the vantage point of de facto colonist? Indeed, his original title for the work--Im Waldwinkel--betrays the fact that Hauptmann intended at least initially to foreground the remoteness of its Spreewald setting. Its intermediate title also retained part of this regionally-bound character: it first appeared in the journal Die Gesellschaft with the subtitle novellistische Studie aus dem markischen Kiefernforst.
The following inquiry teases out Hauptmann's participation in Germany's ethnographically infused mindset in the age of Imperialism. In revisiting how Germans engaged with their newfound colonial identity in ways that reached beyond the acquisition of territory and commodities, we might consider the extent to which an imperial awareness was relevant in the novella's unlikely setting merely a stone's throw from the nation's capital. An ethnographically oriented reading of Bahnwarter Thiel shows that Hauptmann situates the German region vis-a-vis the larger world, not in the conciliatory "nation of provincials" paradigm that has otherwise provided rich insight into the harmonic coexistence at this time between the German national idea and its composite regions, but rather in a detached portrayal that foregrounds the region's geographic and cultural isolation. (4) Furthermore, given Hauptmann's eventual associations with Social Darwinism, as well colonialism's reinforcement of the idea of racial and class hierarchy, I would like to suggest that the ethnographically colored depictions of the novella's events and figures, while displaying some of Hauptmann's characteristic insight into the plights of the working-class, not only situate the novella solidly in its Imperial context, but depict Germany's composite parts and constituents in a way that calls into question the nation's political and cultural dominance.
1. A Domestic Noble Savage
Superficially, there is little reason to connect Hauptmann to what Volker Langbehn calls Germany's "Imperial consciousness" at this time (9). His oeuvre does not point directly to an engagement with colonial issues, nor did his travels extend to any of the country's new colonial acquisitions. To be sure, Hauptmann cites in his memoirs a typical childhood fascination at that time with Robinson Crusoe and Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, but his own literary subject matter remains confined primarily to Germany (7: 495). Nevertheless, it is hard to overlook the fact that Hauptmanns early productive period coincided with Germany's imperial expansion: the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, which marked the official beginning of Bismarck's entry into the colonial race, took place just two years before Bahnwarter Thiel was written. The resulting surge of ethnographic curiosity and nascent self-awareness as an imperial power--what Penny has termed "worldly provincialism"--permeated even the far corners of German society. Fixated as Hauptmann's works are on domestic issues, therefore, it seems somewhat confining to isolate even the decidedly non-cosmopolitan working-class milieu of his works from the ethnographically aware environment of the time.
As evinced in the period's popular media, Germans' collective keen interest in their overseas colonies stemmed not only from pride in the nation's imperial clout, but from a racist fascination with these new colonial subjects. Kirsten Belgum's study of the widely-read Gartenlaube serial as an insight into German national identity is helpful here, not only in contextualizing the overlooked ethnographic slant of the novella, but also in pointing out the overt racism that accompanied Germans'interest in the nation's colonial holdings. Even as the magazine pursued an educational mission to promote Germany's colonial program by familiarizing its readers with overseas acquisitions, its illustrations and articles often fore-grounded and sensationalized the physical characteristics and savagery of colonial subjects (152-158). Revealing a similar case of anthropological curiosity giving way to racism, Penny's research on the period's burgeoning ethnographic museums shows that despite academic or nationally oriented intentions, museum displays of overseas cultures were often reduced to spectacle (163).
Given this pervasive--and racially tinged--imperial consciousness, it is easy to identify in the novella's main character numerous stereotypes associated with what at the time were considered "primitive" colonial subjects, especially those from Germany's acquisitions in Africa. Most strikingly, Thiel's hulking build immediately marks him as different. His sinewy arms and "kindgutes, nachgiebiges Wesen," as well as his intellectual shortcomings, lethargic nature, and curious, fetish-like collection of objects, call to mind stereotypes of simple, superstitious, pre-industrial natives (6:39). Furthermore, Hauptmann's juxtaposition of Thiel's improbable attempts at a refined appearance draws attention to the gulf between the civilized ideal and his true primitive nature. The contrasts are striking: his red hair, in literature historically a marker for abnormality or malevolence, is "militarisch gescheitelt," and his clean Sunday suit with its brightly polished buttons, outfits a "breiten, behaarten Nacken" (6:37). In her summary of scholarly assessments of Thiel, Robin A. Clouser calls to mind stereotypes commonly ascribed to the colonial subject at that time: "many critics berate Thiel as a bestial subhuman with whose physical drives and mental weaknesses they could not possibly have anything in common" (107).s In an even more blunt assessment, Fritz Martini writes that Thiel exists in "dumpfer Primitivitat," a dismissive appraisal that is evocative of the period's racially motivated depictions of Germany's colonial subjects (91). Whether Hauptmann intended with Thiel directly to reference these stereotypes, readers at the time, already primed by the prevalence of these themes in popular and print media, undoubtedly were attuned to imagery presented in his depictions of this Spreewald "native."
As a counterpoint to these insinuations of Thiel's borderline-domesticated status, however, Sprengel reminds us that Thiel in fact ably performs a job that requires the characteristic Prussian virtues of "Punktlichkeit und Achtsamkeit" (Gerhart Hauptmann 189). Furthermore, his strict adherence to routine, such as his steadfast weekly church attendance and obsessive organization of his material possessions shows that these are not difficult virtues for Thiel to embody. Nevertheless, the indications from the novella's outset of Thiel's potential for violence suggest that Hauptmann's primary intent was not to emphasize Thiel's adherence to these exacting expectations of a regimented society, but rather to juxtapose them with his darker side. Indeed, even Sprengel's own wording of "[d]ie preussischen Tugenden des Wahnsinnstaters" underscores the coexistence in Thiel of domesticity and savagery (Gerhart Hauptmann 189).
Even within his insular community, Thiel stands alone. Hauptmann's repeated use of "die Leute" in his references to the other villagers singles him out from the rest of the community (6: 37, 38, 39, 44). It is notable that Hauptmann makes no mention of Thiel's extended family. This omission maybe nothing more than a plot device: the primary reason for his remarriage upon the death of his first wife is due to the urgent need for a caretaker for his infant son. Given the lack of geographic mobility of the lower classes, however, the absence of family members in this small village is curious. Adding to this sense of disenfranchisement, Hauptmann uses words that signify perception rather than intimate knowledge. Verbs such as "wahrnehmen," and "versichern," express the villagers' dependence on outward registers of emotion and, therefore, their failure to recognize his suppressed grief upon the death of his first wife, as well as their initial approval of his new wife as "ausserlich" (6:38). In his attempt to situate the novella within the transitional period between realism and naturalism, Ingo Stockmann sees this lack of specificity as the mark of an unreliable narrator, a harbinger of the modern German narrative (Naturalismus 159-60). I suggest--while not necessarily at odds with this observation--that Hauptmann's attempt to create a sense of alienation extends beyond the tensions between the objective world and narrative voice; indeed, by withholding from the reader intimate background knowledge about the main character, he both distances the reader from Thiel and underscores his own marginalized status within the novella's fictional community.
While Thiel's sheer physical difference is enough to create an imagined threat, Hauptmann addresses genuine fears at this time of the potential for violence associated with this character's massive size. In the last half of the nineteenth century, Rousseau's 'noble savage' myth lost footing to the new idea of yet-to-be-colonized man who was not merely undomesticated, but in his potential for violence more urgently in need of European domination. In a study of French popular and academic media in the last third of the century, Blanchard et al. note the emphasis on the perceived violent tendencies of the colonial subject: "[t]heir vocabulary stigmatized savagery ... and was reinforced by an iconographic production of unprecedented violence, giving credit to the concept of a stagnant sub-humanity that was to be found at the furthermost boundaries of empire, existing on the margin between the human and the animal" (107). In doing so, Blanchard draws on stereotypes about the perceived inherent violence of primitive man, and, by extension, the latent potential of the working class--the savage's European counterpart--for rebellion. And although Thiel attempts to repress his own violent urges upon witnessing her verbally and physically abuse his son, a reaction most readily seen in the "Krampf, der die Muskeln schwellen machte und die Finger der Hand zur Faust zusammenzog," his violence is eventually and explosively released in the novel's final pages when he brutally murders both his wife and infant son (6:46).
2. Darkest Brandenburg
The novella's Spreewald setting, while less immediately striking than Thiel's imposing figure, also reinforces a clear distinction between dominant center and inferior periphery. To begin with, it is helpful to recall that the setting of Bahnwarter Thiel has a connection to a longer history of German colonization. Both the village of Neu-Zittau, where Thiel attends church, and Schon-Schornstein, the "Kolonie an der Spree" where he lives, were, despite their proximity to the Prussian capital, regarded as colonial outposts, an identity that stemmed not only from their location near the Polish border, but also from the fact that they had been founded only a century earlier as part of Frederick the Great's plan to surround Berlin with agriculturally productive villages (6:36). Readers familiar with Hauptmann's socially critical body of work might read the name of the latter village as an ironic commentary on the tendency of industry to mar the natural landscape, but it in fact traces its origins to a sixteenth-century fishing settlement, as a district of the town of Erkner, where Hauptmann lived from 1885 to 1889 to escape the Berlin city air that ailed his lungs. Its location near the Spree, Oder, Havel, and Elbe, as well as its surrounding natural resources of coal and limestone, made the village a natural hub for barge traffic as a rapidly expanding Berlin required increasing amounts of raw materials. With the advent of the railway, this mode of transportation eventually dominated, and the Berlin-Frankfurt an der Oder train line mentioned in the novella was completed in 1848. Although by Hauptmann's time the village had grown into a suburb--a streetcar line to Berlin had begun in 1882, and its population numbered over fifteen hundred residents in 1885--its rural character still prevailed (Sprengel, Gerhart Hauptmann 117-18).
Despite the area's history as a strategic outpost, first as a buffer against what Frederick the Great saw as the Slavic hordes from the East, and then as a hub for the transport of raw materials from the outlying provinces to Berlin, Hauptmann takes pains in Bahnwarter Thiel to present the area as remote and, despite its history as a regional transportation hub and its proximity to Berlin, detached from the body politic. His description in the novella of the Silesian express train that passes through without stopping underscores the insignificance of the town and situates it into empty space. Hauptmann clearly wishes to preserve this awareness of the village's location on the margins, repeatedly referring to it not as a "Dorf" but rather a "Kolonie," and indirectly mentions its origins as a fishing colony when he describes its composition of "etwa zwanzig Fischer[n] und Waldarbeitern]" (6:36, 45, 65). The village is described in a pre-industrial configuration, with almost every character described according to their pre-industrial profession: Bahnwarter, Pfarrer, Kuhmagd, Fischer, Waldarbeiter. This impersonal nomenclature also distances the reader from the village: aside from Thiel's immediate family, no characters are identified by name.
Hauptmann's desire to foreground the remoteness of Thiel's surroundings might explain his silence in the novella on the other industry of the region. This omission certainly was not due to lack of source material: its location on the train line made Erkner a strategic location for industry, notably Germany's first major coal tar distillation facility founded by industrial pioneer Julius Rutgers in 1861/62. In his memoirs Hauptmann writes of his acquaintance with workers from "einer nahen chemischen Fabrik" that was in all likelihood the Rutgers plant (7:1043). Even more noteworthy in the context of the novella is the fact that the primary application for coal tar at that time--and indeed the primary product of the Erkner facility--was creosote for railway ties. As a novella, Bahnwarter Thiel was not intended as a sweeping panorama of the area; given the provincial flavor of the novella's original titles, however, one cannot help wonder if Hauptmann might have intended with this omission to understate the area's involvement in Germany's larger economic and technological developments, further heightening the perception of the region as a backwater satellite.
Hauptmann writes of being struck by the region's cultural isolation, explaining his discovery that even a stone's throw from Berlin the residents of these Spreewald villages appear to have experienced none of the political and social changes of the nineteenth century. "Dass es ein geeinigtes Deutschland gab," he observes of the villagers' disenfranchisement with the larger Germany even after the collective euphoria following unification in 1871, "wussten sie nicht. Davon, dass ein Konigreich Sachsen, ein Konigreich Bayern, ein Konigreich Wurttemberg bestand, hatten sie nicht gehort. Es gab einen Kaiser in Berlin: viele wussten noch nichts davon" (7: 1043). As he writes of his close interactions with the rural residents, Hauptmann's engagement with the area is reminiscent of anthropological fieldwork: "Ich machte mich mit den kleinen Leuten bekannt," he writes, "Forstern, Fischern, Katnerfamilien und Bahnwartern, betrachtete ich eine Waschfrau, ein Spitallmutterchen eingehend und mit der gleichen Liebe, als wenn sie eine Tragerin von Szepter und Krone gewesen ware" (7: 1043). Such intimate and sympathetic portrayals are worlds apart from his detached descriptions of Thiel and his life of drudgery; nevertheless, their characterizations as "domestic natives" unaware of any superimposed political structure lends an ethnographic depth to the nation.
Depictions of rural settings and their homespun residents are hardly new to German literature of the nineteenth century. Yet whereas bucolic realist scenes were intended largely to familiarize Germans with the country's composite regions, or, as famously illustrated in the case of mid-century folklore scholar Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, identify in the countryside the root of German character, Hauptmanns depictions of rural Brandenburg foreground the area's detached, indeed foreign nature. (6) Writing in his memoirs of their time spent in Erkner, he describes himself and his wife as "entlegene Kolonisten," again drawing attention to the cultural gulf separating the region from mainstream Germany (7:1027). Despite his self-proclaimed role as "colonist," however, Hauptmann never presumes to take on a civilizing role in his adopted region; rather, he writes of the transformative, indeed, regressive, effect of the environment, describing how both he and his wife were "instinktgemass zur Natur zuruckgekehrt" (7:1028). He describes the primeval quality of the Spreewald: "Die markische Erde nahm uns an, der markische Kiefemforst nahm uns auf. Kanale, schwarz und ohne Bewegung, laufen durch ihn hin, morastige Seen und grosse verlassene Tumpel unterbrechen ihn, mit Schlangenhauten und Schlangen an ihren Ufern" (7:1027). Scholars have drawn links to the Romantic qualities of what Hauptmann himself refers to as the "markische Waldeinsamkeit" of the forests as portrayed in Bahnwarter Thiel, and indeed the geographic specificity of pine trees and woodpeckers leaves little doubt of the novella's Central European setting; nevertheless, combined with Hauptmanns own observations of the area, the region takes on a more elemental nature: "Nein, hier war kein Breslau, kein Dresden, kein Hamburg [...]. Es war grundlich Tabula rasa gemacht worden" (7: 1030, 1028). (7) Given the period's imperial context, this Rousseauean description of the Brandenburg hinterlands offers a striking, subversive counterpoint to the popular conception of imperial dominance. Instead of presenting this area as an empty space awaiting settlement, Hauptmann reports having experienced here the dissolution of civilization: his admission of having adapted to--indeed having been absorbed by--the region's land and forests, suggests the destabilizing effect of this space. Moreover, the passage suggests that there is more at stake here than merely a temporary reversion to nature: Hauptmann's mention of the presence of snakes, black canals, and morasses adds another, almost sinister, layer to his description. This is not merely empty space awaiting settlement, but rather a desolate state of wilderness that threatens not only to resist settlement, but indeed to overcome the settler.
Hauptmann's apparent desire to dissociate Thiel and his adopted village not only from greater Germany, but indeed from historical time, can be explained in part with the help of Anne McClintock's discussion of what she terms "the invention of anachronistic space" (40). As she states in her study of British imperialism in the Victorian age, "imperial progress across the space of empire is figured as a journey backward in time to an anachronistic moment of prehistory" (40). In other words, as the colonist moves into the space to be colonized, he goes back in time. Not even forty miles from the center of Berlin, Thiel's Spreewald village serves as a reminder of how abruptly the center transforms to the margins. Furthermore, McClintock explains how the conceptual distance of marginal groups is linked to physical distance, as, among others, "the colonized and the industrial working class are disavowed and projected onto anachronistic space: prehistoric, atavistic and irrational, inherently out of place in the historical time of modernity" (40). Despite the role of the railway in the larger spatial nexus--and indeed Thiel's occupational association with this role--he and his village reveal no real adherence to the nation.
While the unfeeling machinery of the train plays its most insidious role in the downfall of Thiel and his family, Hauptmann also hints at the railroad as a contributing factor in the alienating distance between center and periphery. To be sure, the railroad, as an actual mode of travel, has historically been celebrated as a unifying force. However, the train can become an agent of anonymity, rupturing the very community it purports to serve. Wolfgang Schivelbusch explains how train travel--in particular, the distortion and sensory overload resulting from the combination of high velocity and limited viewing angle--changes not only one's view, but one's deeper connection to the landscape and its occupants: "[t]he depth perception of preindustrial consciousness," he explains, "is literally lost: velocity blurs all foreground objects, which means that there is no longer a foreground--exactly the range in which most of the experience of preindustrial travel was located" (98). With the disappearance of the foreground, the traveler is removed from the inhabited space of the landscape, losing not only visual acuity, but the accompanying deeper knowledge of--and identification with--the surroundings as well. Residents of the surrounding countryside become spectacle, and regions, such as the outlying Brandenburg landscape in the novella, become empty space between larger hubs. Even when the train makes an unscheduled stop after the accident, allowing the passengers more closely to interact with the family, their unfamiliarity with Thiel's domestic situation leads them, ironically, to sympathize only with the negligent Lene.
Here the train passenger's aforementioned fez comes into play. The traveler's exotic fashion illustrates what Jeff Bowersox refers to as Germany's "mass colonial culture" that permeated the nation at this time (8). Thiel's observation of the train adds a curious note to this idea of a peripheral colonial theme in the novella: his sudden awareness that the trains hold occupants underscores not only Thiel's disenfranchisement from the technology that has been his livelihood, but also his inability to process intellectually the modernizing world of which he, as a railway worker, is an agent. His observation--"Er hat sich nie um den Inhalt dieser Polterkasten gekummert"--suggests an aboriginal mindset on Thiel's part, or at the very least uncovers a rift between his daily life and his larger community.
3. A Bourgeois Counterpart Fasching (1887)
Given Thiel's working-class status and presumed accompanying lack of bourgeois self-regulation, it might be tempting simply to attribute his tragic outcome to social rank--as a lesser citizen more susceptible than the robust middle class to the destabilizing forces of the periphery. Hauptmann, however, does not neatly allocate the "primitive" flaws of his peripheral colonial subjects to a single class. Certainly Thiel's explosive and tragic outburst after a lifetime of repression at the novella's end can be seen as a warning of latent proletarian violence, but a parallel work suggests that even Germany's outwardly steadfast middle class is also susceptible to the entropic forces of this marginal space. A striking complement to Bahnwarter Thiel, yet one that has received little scholarly attention--and similarly limited acknowledgement from the author himself--is the novella Fasching, Hauptmann's earliest published prose narrative. (8) First appearing in the literary journal Siegfried in (1887), Fasching was written within months of his better-known novella, and, like Bahnwarter Thiel, was intended as a brief character study. (9) Given their near-concurrent appearances as well as their adjacent settings in small Brandenburg villages, a comparative reading of the two novellas helps address whether Hauptmann's alienating depiction of Thiel and his surroundings is attributed primarily to that character's primitive and decidedly unfortunate circumstances. At first glance, the flawed main character of Fasching, despite his initial appearance as a German everyman, complicates the notion that Thiel's downfall is linked to his foreignness.
Initially, the main character of Fasching could not be more different from the downtrodden protagonist of Bahnwarter Thiel. Segelmacher Kielblock--note the same pre-industrial "profession + name" designation--comes across as Thiel's prosperous counterpart. Whereas there are clear signs of Thiel's financial insecurity--the free use of a plot of land for growing potatoes appears to be a significant windfall for the family--Kielblock's life is the picture of petty bourgeois prosperity: the narrator inventories among his possessions "ein hubsches Eigentum am See, Hauschen, Hof, Garten, und etwas Land," in addition to a cow, pigs, and numerous fowl (6:15). Kielblock's personality reflects his good fortune. Married only one year, he smugly sees himself as proof that marriage need not mark the end of youthful frivolity: "der ist ein Narr," he boasts with self-satisfaction, "der in die Ehe geht wie in ein Kloster ... bei uns geht das lustige Leben jetzt erst recht an" (6:15). Even the birth of their son does little to hinder the couple's self-indulgent lifestyle, thanks to the presence in their household of Kielblock's mother, who fills in as caretaker. In contrast to Thiel's life of routine and drudgery, Kielblock emanates a boozy hedonism: "Der Winter," the narrator describes Kielblock's robust good cheer, "war seine liebste Jahreszeit. Schnee erinnerte ihn an Zucker, dieser an Grog" (6:16). Furthermore, while Thiel is trapped in a "Netz wie Eisen" both by his wife's domination and his lack of upward mobility, Kielblock appears to be the agent of his own fate--in no small part due to what initially appears to be a solid bourgeois work ethic: "Es wurde verfehlt sein," the narrator cautions us against misjudging the sail-maker, "Herrn Kielblock schlechtweg fur einen Faulenzer von Profession zu halten, im Gegenteil, kein Mensch konnte fleissiger arbeiten als er, solange es Arbeit gab" (6:47, 16). Whereas Thiel appears aben in both looks and spirit, Kielblock's penchant for hard work and Lebensfreude makes him, at least initially, the bourgeois everyman.
Yet precisely Kielblock's "work hard, play hard" mentality sets him apart from his industrious bourgeois predecessors. In contrast to Gustav Freytag's bourgeois dictum that a duty-bound work ethic lies at the core of the German people, the narrator suggests that work to Kielblock has little virtue in itself; rather, it is merely the means to an indulgent end. (10) As he proudly assesses his home at the novella's outset, work to him contributes not to German national pride or economic contribution, but to his stomach: the narrator cartoonishly describes how Kielblock sees his livestock as walking sausages and roasts. And while the reader might overlook this love of food and drink as familiar and benign vices, Kielblock's misplaced love of money is harder to overlook, especially in comparison to Thiel's own selfless attempt to amass a small savings for his son's future. The narrator explains that Kielblock regularly gives the mother a coin to add to her chest of money, but what the old woman sees as a pension, Kielblock and his wife regard as a deposit to be redeemed upon her death. "Die Mutter ist eine gute Sparbuchse," Kielblock proudly tells his wife as they greedily plan how to spend the money, upon which the two initiate a jolly impromptu dance (6:17).The narrator's irony is hardly subtle when he predicts that the opening of the chest upon her death will be the "Hohepunkt seines Lebens" (6:20).
The novella's plot reads like a cautionary tale against intemperance. A winter hill of festivities already behind them, Kielblock and his wife merrily set out to a village Fasching party, angering a potential client by foregoing work to do so. They bring along their one-year-old son, because the grandmother recently has been debilitated by a stroke, and is therefore no longer able to care for him. As a condemning insight into the couple's character, the narrator describes how they leave the infirm old woman in her chair next to a plate of food, with plans to return to her and the family dog the next morning. At the party, Kielblock is beside himself with glee, due not only to his hearty intake of alcohol, but also to his delight at the partygoers' horrified reactions to his costume: a "Halsabschneider"--a chilling detail given the fate of Thiel's family (6:21). After celebrating until dawn, Kielblock makes plans for the following Sunday: first to enjoy a leisurely walk through the forest with friends--as well as a few bottles of Cognac--and later, to visit family on the other side of the iced-over lake. Upon their return home that night, Kielblock's dual vices of indulgence and greed join to bring about a tragic end: as the family makes its way home across the lake, the guiding light from the grandmother's lantern in the window on the opposite shore suddenly vanishes. After several agonizing pages in which the family wanders aimlessly in the moonless night, they eventually fall through the ice and drown. In a final ironic detail, the neighbors find the grandmother asleep the next morning, mid-count at her chest of coins: the lamp, which she had taken from the window so that she could count her money, is still emitting a weak light.
The above plot summary already reveals several similarities between Bahnwarter Thiel and Fasching, most strikingly the ironic link between the protagonists' professions and their subsequent downfall: Thiel's son is killed by one of the trains in his charge, and Kielblock, whose livelihood depended on his proximity to the lake, drowns. Tragically, the events of the latter novella are not fictional: on 13 February 1887, the shipbuilder Eduard Zieb, together with his wife and young son, drowned while attempting to cross the iced-over Flakensee near Erkner (Pfeiffer-Voigt 26). There are no factual roots for Thiel's story aside from Hauptmann's mention in his memoirs of interactions with the region's railway workers, but the author's plot sketches clearly denote his intention to spotlight a single tragedy in each novella: the notes for Bahnwarter Thiel refer to a "Bahnwarter uberfahrenes Kind," and Fasching simply reads "ertrunken" (Sprengel, Gerhart Hauptmann 132).
4. Ethnography and Social Darwinism
Given Hauptmann's colonially reminiscent depictions of Germany's geographical and social margins, what conclusions can be drawn about the effects of imperial culture on the literature of the period? Certainly their ethnographically thick depictions of Germans in their rural setting are in themselves not enough to differentiate Bahnwarter Thiel and Fasching from their regionally bound predecessors; in particular, the Dorfgeschichte a half-century earlier had already established the literary foregrounding of rustic spaces and their residents. Yet the conspicuous distinction between the regional idyll and wholesome residents of that genre and the remote setting, between the alienating characters and deterministic outcomes of Hauptmann's novellas, suggests that his historical moment had introduced a new layer of complexities to the perception of Germany's social and geographical differences.
As naturalistic studies, both novellas might most readily be characterized as detached narratives of tragic events in the lives of insignificant people, what Hilscher calls a "zeitgemasse Wiedergabe eines tragischen Kleine-Leute-Schicksals" (88). While this claim to naturalistic adherence is true in the main, it would be more helpful in situating the works in their imperial context--and remaining more faithful to Hauptmann's refusal to align himself with a single literary movement--not merely to identify the various "naturalistic" features of each work, but also to consider the specific ways in which the colonial experience influenced German self-perception at home. Specifically, Imperial Germany's ethnographic awareness helped develop the ideas of Social Darwinism and determinism that are typical features of this literary movement. In other words, I suggest more explicitly to attribute these typical "naturalistic" features of Hauptmann's novellas to the colonial experience and its accompanying hierarchical view of race and ethnicity.
While the remote settings of these novellas did not make them colonies in the political sense, their proximity to the East nonetheless enabled Hauptmann to draw from imperial imagery in his depictions. Although Germany's larger history of territorial annexations as the country pieced itself together en route to unification meant that a context of "interior colonization" had been established long before Hauptmann's time, the connection between geography, race, and sociocultural evolution did not come into play until Germany entered the colonial race. Looking back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, for example, Marcus Twellmann has observed how in the Biedermeier period, newly annexed territories such as Westphalia served as proxies for the overseas colonies that Germany did not yet possess (59). As opposed to imperial-era colonies, however, these ethnic German acquisitions did not carry the negative, racially based stereotypes that were ascribed to more recent colonial subjects.
With their proximity to Poland, Hauptmann's eastern Brandenburg settings straddled a middle ground between civilization and wilderness, making his protagonists more susceptible to disorder. With this state of "domestic wilderness" in mind, Elizabeth Edwards's observations on how the period's colonial stereotypes could be extended to Europeans is helpful in explaining how Hauptmann transferred this negative colonial imagery onto his characters. As she explains of non-European races that were perceived to be "inferior" and therefore doomed to extinction, difference was not determined by race alone: "[t]he Other," she writes, "was not merely racially other, but, by implication, culturally and morally other" (140). The heightened awareness of race ushered in by colonialism led to new modes of social classification, as lower classes were described as distinct "races" rather than social groups. Bernhard Kleeberg notes, for example, how policy makers compared working-class slums of Victorian England to African colonies, and observed that its occupants were in need of "colonization" by the educated middle classes (35). He draws attention to the title of a social program from 1890: "In Darkest England and the Way Out," an obvious reference to Henry Morton Stanley's famous "Darkest Africa," chronicling his trip into the Congo (35). As I suggest earlier in this inquiry, Thiel's outward appearance clearly marks him as Other; his suppressed violent nature, too, both points to an uncompleted evolutionary state and hints at the shared potential for rebellion between the working class and colonial subjects.
Kielblock, too, despite his higher social status, follows his own set of "primitive" urges. Readers familiar with Vor Sonnenaufgang will be attuned to the character's functional alcoholism, one of many examples of urge fulfillment that we see in him. While as a skilled craftsman Kielblock appears to enjoy relative occupational freedom--indeed, intent on clear demarcation between work and leisure, he turns away a weekend customer on the eve of the fateful party--the miserly intensity with which his mother guards her chest of coins suggests that the family's greedy urges have not been tempered by the constraints of civilization. Less obvious, but as insidious and inescapable as Thiel's mental shortcomings, Kielblock's moral weakness point to the destabilizing threat of his proximity to the "Wild East." (12)
The women, too, factor into the idea of an arrested evolutionary development. Their borderline civilized status is hard to overlook: with her "brutale Leidenschaftlichkeit," Lene possesses what at the time was regarded as the 'primitive' sexual appetite of the African female, a "wild woman" whose urges must be domesticated (6:38). And while Kielblock's wife shows no signs of Lene's brutal rebelliousness, she, too, illustrates what at the time were imperial perceptions of African women as a "living archive of the primitive archaic" (41). Although their circumstances are infinitely more civilized than those of Thiel's family, the interaction between Kielblock's wife and infant son is more instinctive than consciously nurturing: as she breastfeeds him between dances at a party, the coarse description of the pair contradicts the civilized picture of bourgeois propriety: "Hier, auf der Treppe sitzend oder wo wie sonst Raum fand, reichte sie dem Kleinen die vom Trinken und Tanzen erhitzte, keuchende Brust, die es gierig leer sog" (6:16). As Post has suggested, the satiated child's "totenahnliche[r], bleiernde[r]" sleep after suckling in such a greedy manner suggests that like his father, he carries a predisposition for self-gratification. Alternatively, the vivid depiction of the child's voracious appetite mirrors his father's gluttony, drawing attention to how even in adulthood, Kielblock continues to house primitive urges.
In light of the chauvinistic cultural attitudes of Imperial Europe, these racially suggestive and Darwinistic views of the Other are hardly surprising; more puzzling, however, is Hauptmann's extension of this imagery onto German subject matter. With Germany eager to represent itself as the agent of social and political order, why would the author insinuate in his ethnic German protagonists a lesser degree of civilization? Certainly proximity to the Polish "frontier" enabled Hauptmann to depict his Brandenburg settings as more susceptible to the perceived disorder of the East; given the desire of imperial powers at this time to define themselves against their colonial subjects, however, one might more logically have expected him to showcase the triumph of civilization rather than its limitations.
Addressing this apparent inconsistency might help to stitch together Hauptmann's outwardly conflicting representations of his eastern settings. Their proximity to Berlin, in addition to their importance as suppliers of raw materials to the Prussian capital lends his settings and subject matter an economic and politically strategic significance; their location near the Polish frontier, on the other hand, marginalizes them. Furthermore, Hauptmann assigned each of his doomed protagonists a career--railway and shipbuilding--that was critical to the national infrastructure. It is tempting to interpret these opposing positions of centrality and periphery as a cautionary tale: with intervention by means of increased superimposition of national infrastructure into these regions--Bismarck's glut of social and domestic policies during the 1880s comes to mind--the two protagonists might have been exposed to enough administrative oversight to spare them their fates. Given Hauptmann's tendency, however, to foreground social issues over national ones, overemphasizing the political motivations of these works risks mischaracterizing his intentions.
What, then, might we ultimately conclude from Hauptmann's efforts to marginalize and alienate part of Germany precisely as the nation was asserting itself as an agent of civilization? Rather than deem Hauptmann a proponent of the progress that may have changed the course of his protagonists' lives, I suggest that we view his use of imperial imagery as a counterpoint to the nations arrogant self-perception at century's end. Indeed, while the imperial mindset reinforced cultural boundaries by conceptually separating German culture from the non-German Other, Hauptmann's colonially reminiscent depicitions of his eastern characters downplay the distinctions between Germans and their colonial subjects. Furthermore, in highlighting the primitive tendencies of both men and their families, regardless of social class and "Germanness," he subverts the power of national belonging and class. What appear to be isolated case studies of tragic lives in fact indicate a refusal on Hauptmann's part to place Germany neatly one on side of the civilized-uncivilized spectrum, and reveal a view of German imperial endeavors that was at best sobering.
Wake Forest University
(1) Notable exceptions to the "man vs. train" scholarly focus recently summarized by Youngman (ch. 5) include Martini's psychologically-based reading of the novella (59-98) and Byram's recent insinuation of Lene's "bose Stiefmutter" into the German fairy-tale tradition.
(2) Qtd. in Maurer, Understanding Gerhart Hauptmann 135.
(3) See Objects of Culture, "Introduction."
(4) See also Confino, who like Applegate, offers compelling evidence for how regional identity in the last half of the nineteenth century functioned as a metonym for the larger nation.
(5) By characterizing Thiel as "a modern Hercules," Clouser deviates from the standard Darwinian interpretations of Thiel's character, and instead insinuates him into classical mythology. Yet while this designation elevates Thiel in comparison to other readings, Clouser emphasizes that the comparison is due not to any superhuman characteristics, but rather to his flaws as "a modern strong man who fails to be a hero" (98).
(6) See Die Naturgeschichte des Volkes als Grundlage einer deutschen Sozialpolitik, especially Die burgerliche Gesellschaft (1851).
(7) See Crosby 28-30; Sprengel, Gerhart Hauptmann 193.
(8) Amid the scant scholarship on Fasching, Washington's article stands out. Additionally, Post offers a brief thematic comparison between this novella and Bahnwarter Thiel (65-68). The few other inquiries into this novella include Eberhard Hilscher's brief mention in his biography (86-89), and Maurer's short analysis and assessment of the novella as a "somewhat contrived, melodramatic tale of hubris and death" (Gerhart Hauptmann 13). Even Sprengel's recent comprehensive biography devotes less than a paragraph out of more than eight hundred pages to this novella (132). Hauptmann himself, while citing Fasching as the starting point of his literary ambitions, lists Bahnwarter Thiel as his first real literary contribution (7,1044).
(9) Although Fasching appeared in print one year before Thiel appeared in the journal Die Gesellschaft in 1888, the two novellas were both written in 1887.
(10) "Der Roman soll das deutsche Volk da suchen, wo es in seiner Tuchtigkeit zu finden ist, namlich bei seiner Arbeit" (Freytag, I: n.pag.).
(11) In following the historical shift of this word, Kopp notes the semantic breadth of the German--and English--term "Kolonie"/"colony;" in particular, she distinguishes the imperial understanding of this term with its implied imbalance of power from the more neutral understanding of this term, which at its most basic refers merely to a spatial offshoot from the body politic (2-3).
(12) I thank Kristin Kopp for this term.
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|Publication:||The German Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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