Theses Doctoral

Ways of Living: An Ethical Realism in the Prose of Gottfried Keller

Lipkin, Michael

My dissertation, Ways of Living: An Ethical Realism in the Prose of Gottfried Keller, takes as its focus the extensive discourse in mid-nineteenth century German letters on what constitutes a properly “realist” work of literature. My study examines three major works by Gottfried Keller: Der grüne Heinrich, the Leute von Seldwyla cycle, and the political satire Martin Salander. I consider these prose works as a response firstly to the call by critics like Julian Schmidt and Gustav Freytag for a return to das Reale, as they called it, and secondly to the contemporaneous developments in the French and English novel. Keller, I argue, is less interested in offering a comprehensive social portrait of his native Switzerland than he is in exploring contrasting ethics, or modes of disposition towards the world: resentment and affirmation, parsimoniousness and wastefulness, sensuality and renunciation. To this end, Keller uses the familiar structures of Realist prose, like the construction of characters as types, the extensive description of physical objects, or the use of narrative topoi like the marriage plot, to dramatize conflicts between various Lebensarten: self-sacrifice in service of an unattainable ideal or fleeting happiness in the here and now, for example. For Keller, then, the “objectivity” championed by the Realists is above all a way of directing the reader’s attention towards the crises of value underpinning the most unremarkable of people and the most mundane of occupations. In Keller’s prose, I conclude, Realism is less an aesthetic program than a way of comporting oneself, a survival mechanism by means of which the hard truths of life, above all the vanity of human endeavor and the painful renunciations demanded by the world of work, are poeticized in order to make them bearable.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Germanic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Mücke, Dorothea V.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 9, 2018