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Theodor Storm (1817–1888). The Rider on the White Horse.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Criticism and Interpretation. By Adolf Stern

WITHIN his special North German world, Storm’s view extends back through the decades and centuries. It reaches also from the humblest classes of the people, whose solidity and peculiar virtues he understands as well as anyone, up to the circles of the most liberal and profound culture. But the class that stands out most conspicuously is the bourgeoisie, with their moderate means and their traditional eagerness to assure to their children circumstances as good as their own or better; among them his novels are usually laid, and among them he finds his richest and most original characters. All these people are deeply rooted in the soil of the family, of the home in the narrower sense; with all of them the memories of childhood, the earliest surroundings, play a more important part than would be the case with people of the same type of mind and the same social position from another region. With all of them a conservative element is predominant, which makes itself felt in all their doings, their way of seeing things, their habits. Men and women appear to be in the peculiar bondage of a convention more formal than severe; they seem possessed by a feeling of responsibility towards a conception of life which dominates them, a conception which does not, to be sure, exclude free will, a noble passion or warm affection, but which recognizes such and admits them to their world only under special conditions, watchfully, carefully, and with reserve. They are more dependent on the opinion of their environment than the more careless and indifferent children of other stocks. But though all the characters which Storm likes to portray are wonderfully and apparently inextricably overgrown with tradition and custom, yet they are, on the other hand, strong individualities, independent to the point of subbornness, and fully conscious of their right to their own inner life. In these natures so honestly sober, testing and weighing so sensibly, living in such well-established order, there reigns secretly a powerful imagination, a longing and a determination to win, each for himself, a piece of life after his heart’s desire. They are all ready under certain circumstances to enter into the sharpest conflict, even into the most irreconcilable struggle with all the conventions, as soon as they feel their inmost being seized by such a yearning. They have little inclination to yield to their imaginations in the things of everyday life, or to urge their desires beyond the usual. But sometimes in decisive moments they are carried away, they become conscious of the ardor and at the same time of the strength of their hearts, for once they must follow the call of their feelings which tells them they are free and have to work out their own salvation. It is among such natures that there is scope for the strong and deep passion of love, for that faithful affection that gives no outward sign—we stand on the shore whence rose the song of Gudrun in the gray days of old.

Of course, not every one of these peculiar and silent characters is victorious in the strife with the hard, stubborn, conventional world, nor does their struggle for their highest good always lead to a tragic ending. Storm’s eye rests too serenely and securely on the object; he is an artist filled with too deep a sympathy with life to deceive himself sentimentally about the fatal chain of human destiny, about guilt and error, about the secret relation between weakness and its results in life, about the places in the way which we cannot pass. He is a better, even a keener, realist than many who call themselves by that name, and has looked deeper into the eye of Nature than those who imagine that their microscope has laid bare to them every eyelid of the eternal mother.—From “Studien zur Litteratur der Gegenwart” (1895).