Theodor Fontane had enjoyed a long career as a travel writer, almost been executed as a spy and enjoyed a twenty-year long gig as a theater critic before he found the ideal medium for his literary expression. Fontane did not publish his first novel until he was into his sixties. The culmination of his long literary career did not occur until he was 75 years old with the publication of his recognized masterpiece Effi Briest.
Though not nearly as well known, Effi Briest has long enjoyed a critical reputation that places it alongside Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina as the most sublime portraits of the consequences of adultery in 19th century European society. Fontane offers a unique portrayal of the particular effects of Prussian conventions and expectations of order, authority and discipline. Effi is the 20-years-younger wife of a model of Teutonic bureaucracy fully committed to the ideals by which a civil servants climbs the steady ladder of success. Climbing that ladder unfortunately affords his young wife too much time in which to get bored. Making the situation worse is that his success also affords them enough wealth to hire a governess to take care of their child. Left alone with a life of no purpose and too much time on her hands, Effi guiltily engages in the brief affair which eventually results in a duel, brief imprisonment of her husband and a marriage which is strangled by estrangement and slowly dies an agonizing death of inattention.
Fontane reflects the dominant elements of Prussian society through a mirror composed of the perspectives of characters that become allegorical representations of various aspects of that society and their views on the morality of both Effi and her adultery and whether or not her husband’s response is an overreaction inform the viewer in a way that allows them to ultimately cast their own value judgment upon the proceedings.