A weakness, or limit, of the German novella tradition is character, the lack of well-rounded, plumped up, lifelike characters. I can think of exceptions, but what I typically remember from an E. T. A. Hoffmann story is some brilliantly inventive piece of weirdness or ingenious dissociation – the moments when the story suddenly shifts from one plane to another – rather than telling details about the characters, who are often interchangeable from story to story. That cat in Tomcat Murr has a lot of personality – I said there are exceptions.
Some of this is the result of a complex exploration of the Ideal and the Real that begins with Kant, and Goethe’s response to Kant. Characters are often three-dimensional but made of porcelain, not flesh. Please see this marvelous example from Elective Affinities that nicole enjoyed.
The search for the uncanny is part of the story, too. The external world is just as important as the internal, and much of the best German fiction from the 19th century is about the interaction between the two. The forest and railroad in “Flagman Thiel” are at least as full and “real” as the title character, and have to be for Hauptmann to construct the sense of uncanniness that fills the last half of the story. In English and French fiction, the intense interiority and limited third person view of writers like Flaubert and Woolf has become a standard mode. German-language writers, before Fontane, were exploring a different method, one no less psychological or subjective, but different, maybe a little more mysterious, more willing to leave a character’s actions unexplained, and therefore distancing.
A playwright has the advantage that his characters, no matter how flat and empty, will be inhabited by actual humans with their own voices and gestures. The “real” becomes real, occurring right in front of me. As a reader, I have to imaginatively simulate all of this, as best I can.
Hauptmann’s characters in Before Daybreak are easy to imagine as genuine people. Horrible people, but plausibly horrible. The step-mother / mother-in-law, Mrs. Krause. See her fear and belittle her step-daughter’s education (ellipses in original):
MRS. KRAUSE. (With increasing fury.) ‘Stead o’ such a female lendin’ a hand on th’ farm… oooh, no! God forbid! Jus’ th’ thought o’ that makes ‘er turn green… Buuuut – ya take y’r Schillers ‘n y’r Goethes, ‘n all them stupid bastards who don’t give ya nothin’ but lies; thaaat gets to ‘er – thaaat she likes. It’s enough to drive ya crazy. (She stops, trembling with rage.)
I should note that mom has been hitting the Veuve Clicquot pretty hard, and that in the original she speaks a Silesian dialect, and that this is mostly not a dialect play: Mrs. Krause is special.
I would like to keep quoting her, because she is the most vivid, or most loud, character. Many other characters are just as good: Loth, the principled prig of an idealist; Helen, the only truly sympathetic character, whose intelligence and virtue are undercut by her entirely understandable emotional neediness; Hoffmann, who first seems like a decent enough guy in a bad marriage, but has been corrupted, hollowed out, by wealth. When I say “good” characters, I mean interesting artistic creations. I have some doubts about the “reality” of the story of Before Daybreak, which lays the wretchedness on pretty thick, but the characters, although a trying bunch, are pleasantly full of sap and vigor, and by themselves a reason for me to read more Gerhart Hauptmann.