Marie Nathusius' Elisabeth and Fontane's Effi Briest: Mental Illness and Marital Discord in the “Century of Nerves”

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Abstract

This comparative analysis of Marie Nathusius' Elisabeth (1856/57) and Theodor Fontane's Effi Briest (1895) reveals striking similarities. Both novels depict child brides whose disappointment in marriage leads to nervous ailments. The Kur that both heroines undergo represents one of several contrasts between domesticity and the outside world. Illness, in Nathusius's portrayal, is an opportunity to negotiate difficulties in marital relationships. While Elisabeth upholds traditional models of femininity, it also shows the husband's nervous reactions to discord. Like Effi Briest, there are implications of social pressures, but ultimately healing Elisabeth involves her free will to choose religious faith, and thus health or “das Heil”. Fontane, in contrast, places the etiology of illness firmly within the vicissitudes of patriarchal society, which crushes the individual beneath its hypocritical norms. The Kur thus offers Effi no respite, and instead transports her toward isolation and untimely death.

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