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Academic journal article The Modern Language Review.


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Problematische Naturen? Held und Heroismus im realistischen Erzahlen. Paderborn, Munich, Vienna, and Zurich: Schoningh. ISBN hbk.

The term 'hero', charged as it is with classical epic expectations, becomes increasingly dubious in the later nineteenth century, so that one might wish to find an alternative term, though 'protagonist' does not quite emancipate us from genre traditions. In pursuing this problem in German realism, Bettina Plett is aware of its comparatist dimensions, referring to Thackeray's mischievous claim of 'a novel without a hero' and what Willibald Alexis called Scott's 'liebenswurdige Nullen'.

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But in Germany the decline in forcefulness of the literary hero contrasts vividly with the propagation of a heroic monumentalism in the dominant Wilhelmine culture. Critical spokesmen demanded an inspiring heroic representation, adequate to the times, that authors consistently refused to deliver. Plett reviews the critical tradition in this matter from Hegel to Northrop Frye and the great-man theory of history from Rousseau to Treitschke.

Significant within this discourse is the contrast of Carlyle and Mill, for one of her governing theses is that fixation upon or scepticism about the heroic correlate with authoritarian or democratic attitudes respectively.

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Friedrich Spielhagen

Plett begins with Friedrich Spielhagen's Problematische Naturen, the Goethean title of which has supplied her own, and In Reih' und Glied; the dubious heroes of both deviate considerably from Spielhagen's theoretical requirements. She continues somewhat unexpectedly with Adalbert Stifter's Witiko, whose hero refuses distinction and assertiveness in the interest of the commonweal; Conrad Ferdinand Meyer's Jurg Jenatsch, an unstable representation of the incompatibility of effective leadership with integrity; Friedrich Theodor Vischer's cranky Auch einer, which ironizes the biographies of great men and subverts the Bildungsroman model propagated in his own aesthetics; and Wilhelm Raabe's quiet heroism of the outsider in Alte Nester and Die Akten des Vogelsangs, followed by the near disappearance of the heroic in his late historical novels, Das Odfeld and Hastenbeck.

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Held und Heroismus im realistischen Erzahlen. Paderborn, Munich, Vienna, and Zurich: Schoningh. ISBN hbk. The term 'hero', charged as it is with classical epic expectations, becomes increasingly dubious in the later nineteenth century, so that one might wish to find an alternative term, though 'protagonist' does not quite emancipate us from genre traditions.

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In pursuing this problem in German realism, Bettina Plett is aware of its comparatist dimensions, referring to Thackeray's mischievous claim of 'a novel without a hero' and what Willibald Alexis called Scott's 'liebenswurdige Nullen'. But in Germany the decline in forcefulness of the literary hero contrasts vividly with the propagation of a heroic monumentalism in the dominant Wilhelmine culture.

Critical spokesmen demanded an inspiring heroic representation, adequate to the times, that authors consistently refused to deliver.


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  • Plett reviews the critical tradition in this matter from Hegel to Northrop Frye and the great-man theory of history from Rousseau to Treitschke. Significant within this discourse is the contrast of Carlyle and Mill, for one of her governing theses is that fixation upon or scepticism about the heroic correlate with authoritarian or democratic attitudes respectively. Plett begins with Friedrich Spielhagen's Problematische Naturen, the Goethean title of which has supplied her own, and In Reih' und Glied; the dubious heroes of both deviate considerably from Spielhagen's theoretical requirements.