JEREMIAS GOTTHELFfS DIE SCHWARZE SPINNE

 

            This tale should be regarded as a story within a story.  Of course, the inner story is easily the more important, but this does not mean that the outer story should be thought of as a mere framework, a window through which the events of the past are glimpsed.  There are similarities between interior and exterior, and the fact that these similarities exist in spite of the difference between the immediate (if fictionalised) present and a remote, semi-mythical past means that they support the moral tone of the novel: in brief, what happened then could happen now if we do not pay due care and attention.  Die Schwarze Spinne could profitably be compared to and contrasted with Defoefs A Journal of the Plague Year; here let it suffice to say that whereas both are concerned with a possible recrudescence of the Plague/Black Death, the latter is a historical, journalistic work dealing with an event of immediate relevance and concern to its reading public (the plague having broken out in Marseilles some little time before) and containing a scientific investigation of practical methods with which to combat the disease; and the former is an allegorical work treating of a terror which, although a remote probability, is nevertheless an eternal possibility, and one only to be avoided by constant, unswerving faith.  That is not to say, however, that Defoefs work does not have a moral tone, or that it is scientific as opposed to religious – there is no real reason why the two should be opposites; knowing how things work does not remove the wonder of the working process or the marvel of creation, and the more one learns, the more amazing the world, the universe, become.

            But to return to one of the most entertaining, wonderfully written tales I have ever had the pleasure to read.  The opening scene is idyllic; a baptism takes place while a sabbatical sunshine illuminates Godfs earth and manfs house living together in perfect harmony.  There are humorous touches, for instance when the Patin is fed with an overbearing generosity on the part of her hosts; and it is a time for tradition, for gWeinwarm,h for acting gnach alter Übungh – for example, the new brand of coffee, which could be drunk on any day, is scorned.  So we see that, despite the traditional Swiss conservatism, time has not stood still; but the past is still present and live on certain days – such as this particular one.

            Inevitably, the present is compared unfavourably with the past – and inevitably, these comparisons are drawn by old people: gEhemals ist es doch nicht so gewesen,h and gdie heutigen Menschen vergessen baldh warns the grandfather.  But it is interesting to return to the above-mentioned similarities between past and present, and so between the inner and outer shells of the novel; certain themes recur, such as female curiosity – once again, curiosity is something to fear and shun, hence the Godmotherfs not being allowed to ask the babyfs name at the christening – gHoffarth and male inactivity.  However, whereas these failings are merely mentioned as light-hearted banter by the rejoicing family, we are given a graphic illustration of the devastating effect they can have in the grandfatherfs stories: male hesitancy and the curiosity of women – especially of Christine – appear at the crucial moment of the first tale; and those women who look through their keyholes on the night of the battle for the babyfs soul are temporarily blinded; and gHoffarth seems to be the major sin in the continuation.  Although the horror is but a distant memory, the Grandmother can hear a purring sound from the post whenever her thoughts stray into impiety; and the reaction of the young Godmother, who has been sitting with her back to this post, as the first tale comes to an end, amply demonstrates that the desired effect has been achieved.

            I have called the second tale a continuation of the first, for the same themes appear: the gBauteufelh is once more in evidence (and it is worth bearing in mind that this edevilf is the root, if not the major, cause of the first outbreak of plague); the inhabitants of the valley treat their servants in the same way as the earlier generation of knights had, and receive the same punishment; and there is Swiss conservatism – Christine was a Lindauerin, gHoffarth was introduced into the valley by foreigners, the strange, fierce youth was an outsider, the two women led impious, lazy lives, and Christinefs husband died an even more gruesome death than the other victims, presumably because of his failure to control his wife.

 

            The moral intent of these tales can not be too greatly stressed; it must be remembered that they are told by an old man.  In the stories, the aged warn of the consequences of impious behaviour – in particular, the galt, ehrwürdig Weibh at that vital moment when the peasants agree to the devilfs request – and they are ignored.  For the peasants are acting in a ggottvergessenh manner.

            This leads us on to the theme of selfishness.  When the peasants flee on discovering the green manfs identity, every one of them thinks only gan seine Rettungh; Christinefs sufferings do not move them in the slightest; and they are willing to sacrifice another.  Humility, respect, love of neighbours, and faith in Godfs omnipotence are all lacking – hence their thoughts of the devil after a mass has been read, hence their irreverence in genuflecting before Christine.  Above all, they forget the worth of a soul, which they are not willing to save by the disbursement of money; and there are few sins greater than this.

            Another aspect of selfishness is the reluctance to accept responsibility, which springs from the fear of punishment – generally by a higher secular authority or, if this cannot be the case, by onefs equals; for the acts under discussion here are incommensurable with true faith, and any protestations of concern about conscience or anxiety for the soul are likely to be hypocritical.  In this particular situation, however, divine punishment is genuinely feared.  Hence the theme of flight, which turns out to be useless; there is no escape.  No one is willing to accept responsibility; even Christine wishes for a gSündenbockh – and her wish is granted, although the God of Granting Wishes, a common character throughout the history of literature, once again shows the decidedly legal bent to his character; if a wish is not scrupulously worded, if there is the slightest possible ambiguity, thenc

            So the struggle to avoid individual guilt leads to collective guilt.  There is a problem with society; instead of uniting in suffering, they quarrel with each other.  In the second tale, society is also at fault; the strange youth, who is compared to a lamb when alone, becomes a wolf when in company – although this may be the fault of the individual who is unable to act in a becoming manner when with others.  The people are united only in their fear and folly, this latter being exhibited when they mock the devil after completion of the work and, more especially, during the feasting and celebrations which occur following the saving of the first child.  Christine also suffers from the delusion that she can enjoy the best of both worlds – that the devil will do the work, then God will protect the community from his revenge.

            The warnings that the peasants receive – and ignore – have already been mentioned.  But it must be remarked that these admonitions do not come only from a scorned individual; the weather also performs this role.  On the night of the pact, there is a storm; when Christine carries a baby to the devil, there is an storm of unusual violence; when the spider is released in the second tale, there is a gfürchterliches Unwetterh which is unusual for this season; and when the second child is saved, lightning strikes.  However, a storm is interpreted in different ways; a priest may view it as Godfs displeasure at tardiness, whereas Hans will claim that there is no need for haste on such a night.  From this it is plain that omens are warnings to be used with wisdom, to be objectively judged, and not to be interpreted in what one feels to be the most favourable manner.

            But who controls the storms?  Who is responsible?  There is no doubt that God is mightier than the devil.  The good priest drives the devil away; in his haste he stumbles over no stones, and the lightning serves to illuminate his path; the innocent little boy is not harmed by the spider, nor are those servants at the castle who did not mock the peasants; Christine, who made the pact, endures the greatest torments; the devil disappears, screaming, when Christen appeals to God; and Christen imprisons the spider with Godfs help.  From all of this we can comfortably claim that God controls the weather and the spiders.  Furthermore there is definite symbolism in the spider being released at Christmas.

            And yet: there is something unmistakably infernal about the appearance of Stoffeln, who drives the peasants to despair; the devil obstructs the building of the beech avenue; the peasants are protected after the pact has been made; and there is the question of fear.

            The moral is simple: fear God.  Christine and the servants in the second story fear neither God nor man; those who do not at first fear the spider lose their cattle; and so on.  But this is no healthy fear, engendering respect and order, this is no mere gFurchth; this is gSchreckh and gAngsth – terror, sweating panic.  This fear is even worse than death; the dying realise, too late, that the immortal is of far greater moment than the temporal.  But it is made difficult for the people to share the faith of the young pregnant woman, Christen, and his children, by the sheer sadism of the spider.

            However, it must be borne in mind that this is a moral, admonitory tale, and in such instances conditions and circumstances can be accepted which could not be accepted in real life.  The innocent have nothing to fear; yet, lest they should ever become complacent or lax, there is the memorable image of the solid, unyielding black post in the heart of the Arcadian landscape to remind them.