The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf

German literature monthIt’s German Literature Month 2013–a blogathon event I’ve participated in now for its third year. I don’t often participate in blogathons as I have so many other reading plans of my own. This event has been very enjoyable, and as clichéd as it sounds, the event has expanded my reading horizons. In 2011, I read Elective Affinities and then in 2012 came Heinrich Mann’s wonderful novel, Man of Straw. For 2013, I had lots of titles I wanted to read but had to narrow them down to a few, and here I am with the first pick, a New York Review Books release, The Black Spider (1842) by Jeremias Gotthelf.  Gotthelf, who was a pastor in Switzerland, wrote in German, so the book ‘counts’ towards the month even though I feel that I’m cheating a bit. The Black Spider is basically a morality tale. While I enjoyed it, the moralizing floated too much to the surface for my tastes ultimately overtaking the book’s structure so that form followed function and the book suffered as a result.

The Black spiderThe book begins with a deceptively bucolic scene of a baby’s baptism day. It’s a time of celebration and feasting, so in this pastoral setting, the peasants prepare for the event with “great bustling and activity.” The best plates are used for the food display, and the various food items waiting to be consumed are detailed. Then the family and the guests troupe off to church for the baptism with tradition demanding that the mother remain at home. In spite of the fact that this is a happy event, there’s an air of uneasy superstition woven through the ceremonies: the guests must walk to the church and cannot use a wagon for transport as to do so will supposedly ensure that the child will grow up lazy, and the godmother cannot ask the child’s name “unless she meant to ensure the child’s unhappiness.” The weaving in of superstition into an otherwise carefree scene adds an element of foreboding to the tale, but it’s not until the feasting takes place that the promise of bad things to come is realized when an elderly man tells a story of past events in the region.

The tale involves the long-dead, and vastly unreasonable lord of the near-by castle, Hans von Stolfflen–a fearsome character who gets it into his head that the serfs who’ve just finished building his castle should create a “shady walk lined with trees.” He orders the peasants to remove 100 fully grown beech trees and replant them at his castle within a month. The peasants protest as the task is physically impossible, but under threat of dire punishment if they fail, they leave the castle. Even if they were given more time to accomplish the demands, they would be forced to neglect their fields at an imperative time, and the serfs are collectively despondent when the devil appears as a green man and makes them an offer….

Only Lindau Christine was unable to flee, and she learned the meaning of the old saying: Paint the devil on the wall, and you will meet him in the flesh! She remained rooted to the spot, transfixed, unable to avert her eyes from the red feather on his cap and the little red beard flapping merrily up and down in his swarthy face. The green huntsman’s laughter pursued the fleeing men, but the face he turned to Christine was gentle, and with a courtly gesture he took her hand. Christine tried to draw her hand away, but she could not escape him, it was like meat sizzling in the grip of red-hot irons.

Great imagery there. The devil who “liked his women bold,” flatters Christine,  and strikes a deal with her. It’s when this deal goes south, that all hell is unleashed on the serfs in the form of … you guessed it… a black spider–obviously the Black Death. Well you have to love the way people blamed pestilence as the work of the devil and invited in by something they did wrong.

The tale of The Black Spider seems to end but no, there’s a morality tale redux,

And so, after many generations had come and gone, vainglory and pride took root in the valley, brought and fomented by women from other lands. Their clothing took on a vainglorious cast, gleaming jewels appeared, even the very emblems of holiness were affected, and while their hearts should have been ardently bent toward god during their prayers, their eyes clung instead to a rosary’s gold beads. And so worship was replaced with vainglorious grandeur, and hearts were hardened against god and man. God’s commandments mattered less and less, and worship and worshippers became objects of mockery;

Notice that all the trouble begins again thanks to women, and foreign ones at that!

I liked the first part of the book–particularly the way we see this group of peasants enjoying a happy event, and the way the storyteller at the christening feast opens a door into another world. We see a community mired in tradition, but at the same time, there’s a link between tradition and superstition. Where does one end and the other begin? The story initially presents a dilemma in which there are no easy solutions. Should the serfs simply tell Hans von Stolfflen to piss off and do his own gardening, or should they try to replant the trees and fail in the attempt? The third option, of course, is to make a deal with the devil. These are all options that any reader can ponder. The second part of the tale offers no such interesting dilemma but instead hammers home the obedience to the church and humility, and without the unreasonable Hans von Stolfflen stirring events, this section of the book is little more than a sermon. While I enjoyed the first part as a piece of literature, the second part seemed redundant, spoiling the work and morphing into religious lecture. Anything to keep those plebs behaving….

For another opinon, here’s Max’s review

Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky

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23 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Gotthelf Jeremias

23 responses to “The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf

  1. Jonathan

    I like the idea of a German literature month and would have liked to join in as well. It made me realise that a lot of the German(ic) literature that I’d read or wanted to read was either Austrian, Czech, Polish etc.

    A recent favourite of mine is Adalbert Stifter, and I keep meaning to read something by Thomas Bernhard.

    • There’s still plenty of time to join in. I have another one finished and I’m halfway through yet another. I didn’t know the names of many authors who wrote in German before I began joining in with this event, and now I have to pick and choose from the titles I have waiting to read.

      I can heartily recommend Bernhard’s Concrete, btw.

    • There is time until the end of the month. You can just jojn whenever and however you like. As long as the book has been written in German, anything goes.

  2. I really like stories involving such fanciful mythology. On the other hand I would find a modern book that espoused what seems like conservative religious morality in a fairly simplistic manor hard to take.

  3. Well – it’s not cheating when it’s written in German. We really didn’t want to include only Germany.
    I agree with Brian, if this was a modern tale, it wouldn’t work. It’s rooted in the time and the place. I’m someone whose afraid of mountains. Can’t tell you why, so the setting in itself, although not high up, was scary to me.
    I have to admit though that it’s a long while since I’ve read it. In German in has a special appeal as the language is so old-fashoned and dated. The superstitious parts just go with it. If you know what I mean.

  4. Gee, that’s not for me at all. And as often with German literature, it’s not available in French.

    PS : I find the cover horrible and chilling.

  5. I enjoyed the first part of the book a lot, but the second part was more of a “woe, woe, the end is nigh.” And so the need to preach the message took over the quality of the book, IMO.

  6. Spiders. That’s all it’s about, spiders. Forget the preaching, just enjoy the body count – I really couldn’t care less about the moral, I just wanted to see more spiders 🙂

  7. Thanks for linking to mine, not sure it’s another opinion though – we have very similar conclusions. I found the depiction of the devil great, the bits with the spider largely fun and the moralising distinctly offputting. I particularly struggled with all the bad things that happen happening because of disobedient women. The gender politics of this one haven’t aged well it’s fair to say.

    There’s been a few reviews of this just recently. I think I’ll update my post with some links to the others as Trevor and Stu both wrote it up as well.

  8. Pingback: if they had fooled the green huntsman once… | Pechorin's Journal

  9. Pingback: Translation Duel: The Black Spider – Jeremias Gotthelf | Lizzy's Literary Life

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