PSYCHOLOGICAL DIMENSIONS IN ROMANTICISM: FAIR ECKBERT
HEERHAVINY GANESA MOORTHY
PROFESSOR CHRISTINA KRAENZLE
Heerhaviny Ganesa Moorthy
Professor Christina Kraenzle
05 April 2018
Psychological Dimensions in Romanticism: Fair Eckbert
The emergence of psychology in the nineteenth century gave rise to multiple questions about the study of the nature of the human mind as well as the validity of considering it a scientific study. It was a controversial field, for dissecting the human psyche and interpreting it was no easy task and the fact that the human psyche is not something we can physically see makes it more ambiguous. Romanticism is an artistic and intellectual movement that played a part in reviving psychology by elucidating the many layers of human experience (Schneider). Psychological dimensions were not a common topic explored through writings, especially not in traditional fairy tales or folk tales. Nevertheless, given the nature of romantic literature, which focused introspection and nonconforming ideas, one can say that focus on psychology and the uncanny in writings was typical of German romantics who developed through the storm and stress movement. Ludwig Tieck’s Fair Eckbert is an excellent example of a novella which forges ahead of a typical fairy tale as it embraces psychological aspects as well as traditional elements. The primary focus of this analysis is to highlight how Fair Eckbert amalgamates various elements in a traditional folktale and the psychological kunstmarchen. Throughout the paper, psychological elements such as paranoia, narcissism, delusion will also be explored to explain how melding features of a traditional marchen and a psychological kunstmarchen make it difficult for readers to get a clear-cut interpretation due to its narrative ambiguity.
The first major part of Fair Eckbert follows Bertha’s life until she met and married Eckbert. Bertha’s story reads more like a Volksmarchen, or in other words a traditional marchen, although she tells Phillip not to consider her story a fairy tale no matter how peculiar it may seem. Her story emphasizes many elements that one would typically find in a folktale or ‘traditional fairy tale’. Main characters in folktales are typically young and go through a big change in life at the beginning of the story and sometimes lose a parent or two. In Bertha’s case, she lost both her parents when she ran away from home because her father always considered her a good for nothing who was a burden. Pathetic fallacy is another fairy tale element that is used throughout Bertha’s story in Fair Eckbert where the nature around her is used to reflect the inner turmoil she faced when she ran away as well as the reassurance and comfort she felt when she met the old woman. This brings us to another imperative facet of folktales, which is the focus on magical things and mysterious people. In the story, we are made to accept that the old woman Bertha met was witch-like and had magical powers. Throughout the story we also see the existence of animal helpers or magical creatures like the singing bird that laid eggs containing jewels. Such “improbable” instances are common in traditional fairy tales as there are no rational explanations for it. Folktales generally end with an improvement in the status of the protagonist, which is what happened to Bertha after she met and married Eckbert, the young knight she had been waiting to meet. Up to the end of Bertha’s story, the novella reads like a Volksmarchen, but things take a different turn after she finishes her story, and this is where Eckbert’s story comes to play.
The second half of Fair Eckbert is different compared to the section on Bertha’s story. Eckbert’s story does not gloss over elements typically found in a folktale, instead, is more closely related to a psychological Kunstmarchen, emphasizing on instances that bring into question the mental state of the characters in the story. Eckbert and Bertha are said to live in solitude in their castle, away from people and anyone to befriend. Eckbert is said to be merry only when he had guests, which was very rare, and silent whenever he was bound to solitude. Eckbert’s melancholy could be more than just a part of his natural personality, as there is a possibility that his sombre attitude is a manifestation of the repressed knowledge that he married his half-sister (Finney). Bertha’s willingness to live a life like that suggests that the knowledge of her marriage to her brother is buried somewhere deep in her subconscious. This may be the reason Eckbert and his wife are recluses who shut themselves away from the outside world in hopes that no one else would find out their repressed secret. When Bertha expresses her concern or rather her curiosity as to how Walther knew the name of her little dog, Strohmian, Eckbert seemed to be a lot more affected by it then Bertha, suggesting that somewhere deep in his subconscious, Eckbert was in fact, aware that he married his sister because how else would his close friend Walther know the name of the dog unless he grew up around it. On the other hand, the fact that Bertha hid Walther’s knowledge on little Strohmian from Eckbert until she was on her deathbed may suggest that she could not accept the fact that she married her sibling, so she continued repressing it till her death, so she wouldn’t have to face it. Moreover, Bertha’s “story-telling” seemed more like a confession to Eckbert’s only friend, Walther, suggesting that she could not handle the weight of her sin on her own anymore, having needed another person to share her guilt.
Narcissism is another psychological dimension explored in the story through the relationship between Eckbert and his “wife” or his sister Bertha. Narcissism is also portrayed in the story through Bertha’s actions in the story of her youth as well as Eckbert’s indiscretion. Bertha’s story begins with her admitting that she could not do even the simplest things, which led her father to believe she was a burden. The first instance that portrayed Bertha’s narcissistic ideal is her daydreaming habits when she used to live with her parents (Mathas). As good as the intentions of her thoughts were, they were not very helpful as she was merely imagining how she could help them instead of taking real actions to do so, thus making her an unproductive member of the family. Her decision to run away into the woods could be her way of creating an inner authority to feed her narcissistic personality since she could not accept the harsh reality of her life (Mathas). Looking at her decision to marry Eckbert from the same perspective, it proposes that Bertha’s marriage to Eckbert is emblematic of her narcissistic ideal. After all, she married someone who was most familiar or most like her, that too someone related to her and one cannot get anymore self-involved than that. Like Bertha, Eckbert also indulged in an incestuous marriage to fuel his narcissism and their refusal to accept that they were aware of their wrong doings seems like an attempt to preserve their ego. To accept their transgressions is to give in to the fact that they are not perfect or to surrender their existing identity so to preserve their narcissistic ideal, both Bertha and Eckbert choose to live with guilt instead of accepting their sins (Mathas). In order to ease his guilt, Eckbert seemed to have convinced Bertha to share the story of her youth with Walther. This is nothing but another way to please his narcissistic self, because Walther’s knowledge of Bertha’s youth and his incestuous marriage subjects Walther to his power because Walther now shares his guilt. Walther functions as Eckbert’s superego here, becoming an authority figure and taking on the same censoring function as the old woman, whom in the end turns out to be Walther himself (Mathas). In the end, Bertha dies from the guilt she had to deal with as the mere mention of Strohmian had the power to kill her. Eckbert too, dies a slow death, plagued with the harsh and disturbing reality of his incestuous marriage which he had been repressing forever.
Fair Eckbert also paints a picture of narcissism and guilt turning into paranoia and delusion. Bertha’s narcissism led her to create a sense of inner authority which ultimately drove her to run away and abandon her parents. It was when she was lost in the woods that she met the mysterious old woman. Years later, Bertha betrays the old woman and eventually meets and marries her half-brother. Bertha is subconsciously aware of her incestuous marriage but represses it and turns it into guilt. This guilt coupled with the guilt she feels for deserting her parents and the old woman eventually turns into a paranoid anxiety. The old woman’s mysteriousness and changing faces represent the paranoia that Bertha has as she is afraid of the hidden anger of the old woman. The thought of any punishment, physical or otherwise from the old woman reminds her of the fear she harbours for her father. Eckbert’s mental state follows a similar pattern, as the guilt he faces causes him to be distrustful and paranoid about the actions of everyone around him. At first, Eckbert confides in his friend Walther then convinces his wife to tell him her life story to share the guilt and this suggests that he trusted Walther. However, Eckbert and his wife began to question Walther’s trust when he becomes less friendly and disappears for the next few weeks. His paranoia exacerbates when he finds out Walther was aware of the existence of the dog that Bertha left behind in the old woman’s house. Since Walther acts as a censor to Eckbert’s superego, in Freudian terms Eckbert’s paranoia can be said to have formed as the result of the superego’s defiance of the ego’s identity (Mathas). It is also apparent that Eckbert is extremely paranoid about Walther and safeguarding his incestuous secret through his rash decision to shoot Walther. Eckbert’s paranoia, manifested for example in his identification of both Hugo and the peasant with Walther also shows us that his irrational decision only demanded Walther’s presence, albeit the reality that the old woman and Walther were the same person (Finney).
At first read, Bertha’s story of her childhood may come across as a traditional fairy tale, while the second half of the story, focusing on Eckbert, may portray the story as a psychological kunstmarchen. The melding of features from both types of tales makes Fair Eckbert ambiguous in terms of its narration which makes it challenge for us readers to understand it through a single perspective. It is almost as if there is no right or wrong way to interpret the story, because on one hand, the story can be interpreted as it is, without further questions or introspection and on the other hand, the story may be one will a lot of hidden meanings and a lot of instances that can be questioned and interpreted through the psychological lens. One of the main questions left unanswered in Fair Eckbert is whether the main character, Eckbert is a person with special powers or if he is just a person who suffers from madness. The old woman who declares Eckbert’s death sentence because of his sins is either a real supernatural being or just a phantom of Eckbert’s mind (Tatar). While it is possible that the old woman was merely a fragment of Eckbert’s imagination, the fact that she was also revelaed to be Bertha’s guardian, Walther, Hugo and a peasant suggests that maybe she is more than just a phantom of someone’s mind. Given the vagueness of this story, we are also inclined to question Bertha, her existence and her story. The mention of the name Strohmian by Walther somehow validates her story and the fact that the utterance of the name Strohmian was enough to kill Bertha from all her guilt also suggests that the story of her youth was true. This also tells us that it is not likely that the old woman is not real as it would be impossible to explain Bertha, her life story, her death or even her existence. It is also unclear if Fair Eckbert has a specific moral that it wants readers to takeaway from the story. The moral of the story could be that incest is a sin and those who take part in it will be punished or it could be that abandoning your parents and being ungrateful towards people who have helped you or stealing is another thing you will be punished for. The possible lessons the story expresses may also be related to the symbolic representation of the old woman herself, albeit in many forms, which were justice, reincarnation of fate and even the spirit of vengeance (Tatar). There is also a chance that there is no moral in the story because all of these instances and characters are merely a creation in the mind of a mad man.
A narrative is anything but rigid, fixed and to be seen from a single perspective. A story may look the same on paper, but to each reader, the comprehension differs. Just like every other narrative, Fair Eckbert is open to the readers interpretation. There are multiple facets in the story through which the story can be understood. Through the psychological lens, we see that there may be underlying explanations as to why certain things play out the way they do in the story, albeit uncomfortable or disturbing ones. The existence of psychological elements in this story also suggests that Fair Eckbert may be more than just a fairy tale. While it is possible that the author had no intentions of making the story narratively equivocal, it is also possible that the readers need a different perspective to further understand the story which seems to have many odd instances which bring about doubt. Fair Eckbert is a story within a story, merging multiple layers of reality and successfully masking possible morals and life lessons, making the story difficult to fathom. Regardless of how grim and ambiguous it may be, Fair Eckbert is an imaginative, thought provoking and all in all, well told tale.
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