Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Jeremias Gotthelf's The Black Spider - long-legged, poisonous, and countless

Jeremias Gotthelf’s The Black Spider (1842) starts with a trick. Gotthelf was a Swiss pastor who wrote tales and novellas of peasant life, humorous or otherwise. The Black Spider, now his best-known tale, begins with a christening – the family gathers, the godmother forgets the baby’s name, a feast (“then there were dried beans and stewed pears and a gammon of bacon and magnificent loins of pork from three-hundredweight pigs, red and white and juicy”) is prepared and demolished. But then the grandfather is led to tell the horrible story that gives the book its title.

It’s a deal-with-the-devil tale, a highly original one. A peasant village is dragooned into a series of pointless tasks for its feudal lord. A Green Man, with a red feather and a “little red beard” that crackles and sparks, offers to do the work for them, at the small price of an unbaptized child.

The peasants eventually decide that when the time comes to deliver a child, they’ll figure out some way to trick the devil. That plan always works well. In fact, at first it doesn’t go so badly, until the Black Spiders show up (Spider Alert!):

“Then Christine felt as if her face had burst, as if red-hot coals were being born and coming to life in it; she felt a crawling over her face, over all her limbs, as if everything in her were coming to life and crawling in fire over her body. Then, in the livid light of the lightning, she saw, long-legged, poisonous, and countless, black spiders hurrying over her limbs and away into the night, to be followed by others, long-legged, poisonous, and countless. At last no more came, the fire in her face died down, the Spider settled and shrank into an almost invisible spot, gazing with dying eyes at the infernal brood it had borne and sent forth as a sign that there was no jesting with the Green Man.”

Yes, Christine makes the deal with the devil, and later Christen helps defeat the Black Spider, and did I mention we began with a christening? A main subject of the short book is the strength of individual faith and the weakness of collective faith. As a group, the peasants are indecisive and paralyzed, while decisive individual actions both cause all of their troubles and save them.

As with many of the tales associated with German Romanticism, the characters can appear flat, but only because the writers have a different approach to characterization. In these sorts of stories, the descriptions of the outside world tell us about the internal world. The Black Spider is sometimes extremely literal in this regard, as the above passage shows.

The spider is almost symbolically too rich. It is collective sin and punishment, the evil inside us all, but also, from Swiss folklore, a plague metaphor. And it’s also a vigorously described actual monster, with a sense of humor – it likes to perch on it’s victim's head, so everyone but its immediate prey can see it.

I’ll reserve my complaints about the availability of 19th century German literature in English for tomorrow. The Black Spider ought to be, in the U.S. a creepy horror classic, at least. In print somewhere, at least.

I read The Black Spider in a book of Three Eerie Tales. Here’s a fellow who read it in an old anthology with a fantastic Edward Gorey cover, well worth the click. It’s also been published on its own, with a boring cover, but scroll down a bit for a skin-crawling illustration. And here’s a discussion of what Robert Walser thought about The Black Spider (it “makes my back cold”). Now that’s an endorsement!


  1. Hello there. I just wanted to say thanks for stopping by my blog and thanks for the encouraging words about taking on the canon.

    I was excited to see what you're doing over here at Wuthering Expectations, and I plan to stop by and read often. There's a much bigger classic literature community out here than I first realized!

  2. I like your positive attitude. I somehow had assumed there would be a lot more non-academic semi-specialists. Anyone know a Renaissance/ early modern litblog, one that isn't entirely about conference scheduling? 'Cause that's all I've found.

  3. I should have thought to mention Robert Walser before - have you read him? Definitely a Swiss fellow not to be missed. Jacob von Gunten is a twisty, forlorn tale. And if you're interested in more folkloric stuff, Ramuz might be someone you'd enjoy. He was big on exploring the idea of the noble peasant, romanticizing nature and common people.
    I will have a look for Gotthelf.

  4. I've read a single, three paragraph story by Robert Walser. He's in the Must Read category. I haven't read Ramuz, either, but I was led to his existence, as to many things, by a single reference in Sebald. For details, see here: http://sebald.wordpress.com/category/cf-ramuz/

  5. I missed this discussion too (yet another one), but I'll now link this back to my Black Spider posts. Edwin Frank at NYRB mentioned that the version you & I read (in Three Eerie Tales) isn't complete. I plan to compare it closely to the Waidson/Calder translation to figure out what exactly was cut. It sucks that this isn't mentioned anywhere on the book.

    Also, I was in touch with someone (somewhere) who said she read The Black Spider in an anthology of 19th century Gothic stories or novellas. She couldn't remember the name of the anthology (or the translator). I plan to research it soon.

  6. Will, I looked around for the anthology of 19-Century Gothic stories that you mentioned but didn't find it. I did find a paper that Waidson published in 1948 about Gotthelf in English ('Jeremias Gotthelf's Reception in Britain and America', Modern Language Review 43 [1948]). He mentions a translation of
    Black Spider by B. Q. Morgan, a German professor at the Univ of Wisconsin. However, Waidson says he read the manuscript of the translation. I don't think it was ever published.

    Also of interest is a 1973 Penguin horror anthology edited by Peter Haining. It's called Great Tales of Terror From Europe and America and its contents are listed at http://tinyurl.com/5z7ngn

    It includes Tieck's 'Bride of the Grave' and de la Motte Fouque's 'Field of Blood', as well as stories by Goethe, Schiller, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and some 19th-Century Germans whose names weren't familiar to me.

  7. Incomplete translations? Others only in manuscript? Weird. It's like a novel. What are they hiding from us?