Theodor Fontane’s Cécile: An Allegory of Reading



The verb ‘to read’ means both ‘to consume a written text’ and ‘to interpret signs in the world’. Analogously, the construction by readers of literary character is associated with the interpretation of the personalities of real people. In Fontane’s Cécile the process of ‘reading for character’ is heightened by the hermeneutic stimulus of the enigma surrounding the eponymous heroine and also by the presence of Herr von Gordon, who functions as a ‘reader’ within the text. Gradually, though, Gordon’s initially disinterested interpretative efforts are undermined by his growing passion for Cécile. However, even before his objectivity is thus undermined, his rigid use of categories and his prudish morality cause a reductiveness in his reading strategy. Indeed, Gordon’s destructive passion for Cécile can itself be seen as a result of his evaluative categorisation of her. In its attempts to know its object, his reading strives for domination and possession of it, hence he increasingly both despises Cécile and desires to possess her sexually. Cécile herself tries to defend herself against the violence of Gordon’s reading of her, but to no avail. However, the external reader can observe the consequences of the flaws in Gordon’s reading of character and adopt a more differentiated approach.