In Chapter 3 of Theodor Fontane's novel Effi Briest, which I've recently started reading online, Effi and her mother are spending some days in Berlin before her marriage, accompanied by her cousin Dagobert. The following paragraph puzzled me:

Every day passed according to program, and on the third or fourth day they went, as directed, to the National Gallery, because Dagobert wished to show his cousin the "Isle of the Blessed." "To be sure. Cousin Effi is on the point of marrying, and yet it may perhaps be well to have made the acquaintance of the 'Isle of the Blessed' beforehand. " His aunt gave him a slap with her fan, but accompanied the blow with such a gracious look that he saw no occasion to change the tone.

What is the "Isle of the Blessed", and what is the meaning of Dagobert's comment connecting it to marriage? Searching online, I found only references to the Isles of the Blessed in Greek mythology, or in more modern literature even newer than Effi Briest, but nothing about an artwork with this name.

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    A slideshow presentation on Effi Briest that I found on the web associates Die Insel der Seligen with images of two paintings by Arnold Böcklin that appear to have been in the National Gallery at the time Fontane wrote — Die Gefilde der Seligen (The Fields of the Blessed) and Die Insel der Toten (The Isle of the Dead). So I'm still confused. – Peter Shor Feb 27 at 14:13

At the end of the 19th century Arnold Böcklin was a well-known painter. Die Gefilde der Seligen, apparently the painting the book refers to, had been commissioned in 1876 by the National Gallery. After its exhibition caused a public scandal it was quickly removed: The female nudity in the foreground, the provocative wild virility of the centaur carrying the nymph and even the "provocative steepness" and conspicuous contrast of the swans' necks in front of the dark water were at odds with the public sentiment at that time. (As an aside, it is an example for Foucault's recurrent theme that nothing obsesses the human mind more than the forbidden.)

This was, after all, the outgoing Victorian age. But the times changed, and with them the perception of Böcklin and his painting; by the time Fontane wrote that novel, in 1895, the image (or maybe an oil sketch) was hanging in the museum again. But of course the scandal was still known, also to Fontane, and it's safe to assume that it was still seen as daring.

The figure of Dagobert, Effi's cousin, is somewhat of a counterpart to her boring fiancé: Young, full of ideas, a natural entertainer, funny, and with an open interest in Effi. The occasion on which Dagobert suggests to see the picture is a shopping visit. It takes them from their provincial home town into the metropolis Berlin which at that time undergoes in an extremely dynamic phase of urban development and expansion. Dagobert is the Ladies' guide and entertainer on this trip.

Taking them to the somewhat famous painting is, I would think, first and foremost part of his commitment to entertain the two ladies. Its daring nature makes it a little more interesting, a little tease, even more so because of his interest in Effi. Perhaps he means that it is time to introduce her to the facts of life; or, because he knows that her fiancé is 20 years older, he means to show her what passion and virility look like since she will likely not see it in her marriage; but in the end, this is all speculation.


The comment doesn't need to reference a real painting to make sense in the context of the novel, but some searching shows that Fontane had a particular painting in mind.

Since Hesiod, Elysium has also been known as the "Isles of the Blessed" or the "Fortunate Isles" and there are several paintings and artworks that have been inspired by this mythological concept. For example:

Böcklin's painting Die Gefilde der Seligen is currently in the Kunst Museum Winterthur in Switzerland, which acquired the painting in 1926. (akg-images sells reproductions of an "Ölskizze für das Gemälde in der Nationalgalerie in Berlin", i.e. an oil sketch for the painting in the National Galery in Berlin.)

Note that Böcklin also painted Die Lebensinsel ("The Island of Life", 1888), which actually shows an island, whereas Die Gefilde der Seligen doesn't, so Fontane might have combined two real paintings into a fictional one named "Insel der Seligen". However, Wolf-Rüdiger Wagner writes in a blog about his book Effi Briest und ihr Wunsch nach einem japanischen Bettschirm (2nd edition, kopaed, 2019),

Der Vetter Briest besucht mit ihnen bei dieser Gelegenheit die Nationalgalerie, um ihnen Arnold Böcklins Bild „Die Gefilde der Seligen“ (im Roman ist von der „Insel der Seligen“ die Rede) zu zeigen. Das von der Nationalgalerie in Auftrag gegebene Gemälde wurde 1878 kurz ausgestellt, aber aufgrund der öffentlichen Proteste wieder abgehangen.

My translation (emphasis added):

On that occasion Cousin [Dagobert von] Briest visits the National Gallery with them to show them Arnold Böcklin's painting "The Realm of the Blessed" (the novel talks of the "Isle of the Blessed"). This painting, commissioned by the National Gallery, was briefly exhibited in 1878 but was taken down because of public protests.

It is not obvious that readers in 1895 would remember this about the painting. Fontane himself, however, still remembered the painting: on 25 June 1889 he sends a letter from Berlin to his daughter Martha Fontane saying,

Mama macht mir stille Vorwürfe darüber und mitunter auch laute, als ob ich die Sache ändern und durch eine Nachmittagsfahrt nach Treptow oder Stralau die Insel der Seligen wieder herstellen könnte. Doch höchstens eine wie die Böcklinsche, die noch langweiliger wirkt als der Potsdammerstraßen-Alltagszustand.

My translation (emphasis added):

Mama makes silent and sometimes not so silent reproaches, as if I would be changing the issue and restore the isle of the blessed by afternoon trips to Treptow or Stralau. But at best an isle of the blessed like Böcklin's, which is even more boring than the workaday life on the streets of Potsdam.

Based on this, it is more than likely that Fontane had Böcklin's painting in mind when he let Dagobert mention the "Isle of the Blessed". Dagobert's comment is just banter, and that is how Effi's mother interprets it. On the one hand, he wants Effi to see a painting that scandalised people in the late 1870s because of the nudity of the nymphs. On the other hand, he mya be ironically teasing Effi with the idea that marriage does not lead to a blessed or happy state, so she should at least get a glimpse of it before she gets married. Effi's mother knows better than to exaggerate the happiness brought by marriage: at the start of chapter III, the narrator had given us the following insight into her own marriage (page 229 in The German Classics of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries on Archive.org):

For one could live with von Briest, in spite of the fact that he was a bit prosaic and now and then showed a slight streak of frivolity.

Note that Effi says in Chapter IV that she does not want boredom in her marriage (although that is exactly what she gets most of the time while living in Kessin). One should not overstate the erotic allusion or undertone in Dagobert's comment, which would probably have provoked a sterner response from Effi's mother. Fontane is so indirect about anything remotely erotic in the novel that even Effi's pregnancy comes as a surprise: the most intimate thing that Effi and her husband do with each other is giving each other a kiss; it is as if they never share the same bed (the only persons who are described as spending the night in the same room as Effi are two female servants); and even the words "pregnancy" and "delivery" are carefully avoided.

References (besides the links in the answer):


@Tsundoku writes: "He is teasing Effi with the idea that marriage does not lead to a blessed or happy state, so she should at least get a glimpse of it before she gets married."

Not quite. Dagobert is teasing Effi with a reference to a painting that has been taken down later because it was thought obscene. So there is an erotic undertone in his comment, and that is what the mother reacts to: the slight streak of frivolity that the later quote mentions.

  • This answer assumes that Dagobert is married to Effi's mother, which is not the case. – Tsundoku Feb 27 at 19:55
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    Additionally, this "answer" appears to consist entirely of a reply to another answer, which is not how Stack Exchange works. Replies go in comments and answers go in answers. – bobble Feb 27 at 21:07
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    @bobble Well, if that reply ends up being another answer on its own it's perfectly legit, in my view. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Feb 28 at 8:17
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    @Tsundoku: Re: "This answer assumes that Dagobert is married to Effi's mother": I don't see any assumption like that. What am I missing? – ruakh Feb 28 at 9:25
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    @ruakh The later quote is about Effi's father, not about Dagobert. This is what both S. Eligen and you missed, apparently, because you are not familiar with the novel. – Tsundoku Feb 28 at 12:15

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