What are some of life's greatest ironies

Irony and grotesque in Joseph von Eichendorff's novella "From the life of a good-for-nothing"

Table of Contents:

1. Joseph von Eichendorff - A romantic ironic far from romantic irony?

2. Philistine criticism

3. The irony
3.1 Basics
3.2 Historical development

4. Eichendorff and irony
4.1 Ironic stylistic devices in Eichendorff's novella From the life of a good-for-nothing
4.2 Eichendorff's ironic attitude

5. The grotesque
5.1 Basics
5.2 The grotesque in its various elements

6. The functions of the grotesque in Eichendorff's novella From the life of a good-for-nothing

7. Irony and grotesque in Eichendorff's novella From the life of a good-for-nothing

8. Source and research literature

1. Joseph von Eichendorff - A romantic ironic far from romantic irony?

In Joseph von Eichendorff's novella From the life of a good-for-nothing the main character, the good-for-nothing, is particularly influenced by the romantic model: hiking. Already at the beginning of the novella he addressed this topic: "This is how I want to go out into the world and make my fortune."[1] This model runs through the entire novella and for him represents a parable for being human in general[2] The wandering as an expression of the constant movement and development is here absolutely contrary to the sedentary Philistines. Eichendorff writes about university cities:

Here, too, there is again a threat of vague dilettantism and the paralyzing conceit of knowing too much. The youth have a perky wanderlust, they suspect the wonderful beauty of the world behind the morning scent; to conquer them independently is their joy.[3] [...] But romanticism was not just a literary phenomenon, it rather undertook an inner regeneration of the whole of life[4].

This intention explains the hostility towards the bourgeoisie, who were the focus of romantic criticism mainly because of their self-glorification.[5] But Eichendorff does not express this through superficial ridicule and scorn, but through subtle irony and grotesque. Literary scholars are of the opinion that Eichendorff is generally not a typical user of romantic irony. Prang confirms: "Just as the witty-witty and flirtatious-playful or even the satirical-aggressive in the art of narration was less important to him [...], he obviously lacked the intellectual enjoyment of ironic jokes".[6] In Eichendorff's works, the application-to-reader typical of romantic irony hardly occurs. Eichendorff did not use romantic irony as a means of art in his works, but rather preferred fun ideas and cynical cheekiness.[7] The romantic did make use of individual forms of irony, which ostensibly refers to the criticized Philistines. Those were not only a thorn in the side of Eichendorff, but also to his contemporaries Brentano and Goethe.

2. Philistine criticism

Eichendorff's ironic criticism relates primarily to philistineism. The attributes that stand for the typical Philistine are opposed to the romantic artist ideals.

In the 17th century, the term “Philistines” was used by students to refer to the city soldiers, their greatest enemies. Goethe elevates the term as a topos of literature. The Romantics expanded the term and used it to designate non-artists and commoners who only pursue their strictly regulated everyday life and have no sense of poetry.[8] According to Brentano, the Philistine is primarily characterized by the following characteristics: First of all, he is a dilettante in art and he cannot create art, but only imitate it. In addition, he is characterized by laziness, life weariness and selfishness and philistinism is just as widespread among the allegedly progressive as among the harmless philistines.[9] This attitude shaped Eichendorff to a large extent, his criticism of the Philistines is considered a comprehensive criticism of the amateurs, society and the spirit of his time. Above all, Eichendorff is deeply repugnant of the self-glorifying manner of the Philistines. He does not want to see the individual person, but rather poetry and the culture that develops from it as the central aspect of society.[10]

The egocentric nature of the Philistines emerges in his novella From the life of a good-for-nothing when the painter Eckbert describes himself and the good-for-nothing as geniuses and thus rises to the center. He justifies the selfish speech he gives to the good-for-nothing as his "civic duty [...] to you[11] to bring some morality to mind ”.[12] The good-for-nothing reacts to the speech by saying that "long before him [dreaded]"[13]. This disgust that the good-for-nothing here harbors for the dilettante Eckbert,[14] is more likely to come to light in the narrative in other situations. So, when he led a philistine life as a collector for a short time, he suddenly felt a horror at this lifestyle and the porter: "Suddenly the whole guy [...] and everything was abhorrent to me."[15] When a little later in the story an unfriendly Philistine, whom the good-for-nothing calls "Knollfink", threateningly approaches him, he has "suddenly such a curious, terrible fear"[16]. Eichendorff uses this aversion, which the good-for-nothing experiences only intuitively, in order to clarify his criticism of the pronounced subjectivism representative of his time.

Eichendorff expresses this criticism of the Philistines through irony.

3. The irony:

3.1 Basics:

The term irony comes from the Greek word eironia, which is translated into German with the term "Verstellung". Authors who use irony use it to ridicule and mockery under the appearance of seriousness, in that the opposite of what has been said is meant in the classical sense. The intelligent reader recognizes this deliberate, mocking manner of speaking as irony.[17] The irony is not only a literary style figure, but rather a conscious, intellectual attitude of the author.[18]

There are many different views and applications of irony, and Schlegel's view of irony stands out in particular.

3.2 Historical development

As early as 400 BC BC Socrates uses irony in the form of philosophical arguments and Cicero uses it in rhetorical figures of speech. Socrates, who is considered the master of irony in classical antiquity, is characterized by the understatement of his abilities, the embarrassment associated with it and the resulting derision of his opponents. For a long time irony was used exclusively in rhetoric. However, this monopoly position of rhetoric dissolved in the 18th century and irony was from now on integrated into the general field of literature.

Many philosophies, poetic ideas, convictions and ideals shape the romantic irony, which emerged around the middle of the 18th century. Friedrich Schlegel made a decisive contribution to expanding the concept of irony out of its traditional usage.

Schlegel, like his colleague Solger, recognized the constant insurmountable discord between the desired ideal and reality. Their goal was to counteract this by rising above their works as authors. Through this elevation, as free creative spirits, they had the opportunity to continually repeal and break through the ideal of their creation by means of irony.[19]

Friedrich Schlegel dealt with irony in many of his fragments. He particularly coined the term that is an example of romantic irony: the "permanent Parekbase".[20] With this is the constant stepping out[21] of the choir meant in the middle of the dramatic piece. This interrupts the piece when the choir makes a speech to the people, with the most egregious harshness being told to the audience.[22] In this way, on the one hand, the poet presents his constant train of thought by stepping out of the choir and, on the other hand, he encourages the recipients to react. This guarantees a constant interplay and an ongoing exchange of ideas between the poet personality and the audience. Due to this communication basis, however, the work of art loses its independent and closed character and the author loses its dominant position. Because there is a constant “reflection and transcending of the poet's personality in one's own work of art with a constant focus on the audience”[23] instead of. The reader can therefore only round off the work through his interpretation and the poet also destroys his position of power inherent in the work with the ideals inherent in the work.[24] This "alternation between self-creation and self-annihilation", as Schlegel himself describes it in his Äthenäum fragments,[25] explains the elementary character of romantic irony. Hegel took this as a resolution to polemicize against romantic irony and Friedrich Schlegel's philosophy. Like Kirkegaard and other opponents in the early 19th century, he saw romantic irony as being primarily characterized by rigor and intellectual arrogance.[26]


[1] Eichendorff, Joseph von: "From the life of a good-for-nothing", in: Hartwig Schultz (ed.): Joseph von Eichendorff. All the stories Reclam-Verlag, Stuttgart 1990, p. 85.

[2] See: Leiser, Peter; Thunich, Martin: “Joseph von Eichendorff - From the life of a good-for-nothing. Interpretation and teaching didactic suggestions ”, Beyer Verlag, Hollfeld 1985, p.50.

[3] Eichendorff, Joseph von: "Erlebtes", in: Schultz, Hartwig (ed.): Diaries, autobiographical poems, historical and political writings, Volume 5 of the series: Frühwald, Wolfgang (ed.): Joseph von Eichendorff. Works, German Klassiker-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1993, p. 179.

[4] Ibid., P. 171.

[5] Cf.: Zimorski, Walter: "Eichendorffs, Taugenicht’ - An Apology of the Anti-Philistine? ", In: Aurora. Yearbook of the Eichendorff Society, Volume 39, Niemeyer-Verlag, Tübingen, 1979, p. 157.

[6] Prang, Helmut: "The romantic irony", Wissenschaftlicher Buchgesellschafts-Verlag, Darmstadt, 1972, p. 70.

[7] See: Ibid., P. 70.

[8] See: Quieter; Thunich: "Good for nothing interpretation", p. 64.

[9] See: Zimorski: “Apology of the Anti-Philistine”, p. 155f.

[10] See: Ibid., P. 156f.

[11] The good-for-nothing is meant here.

[12] Eichendorff, Joseph von: "Taugenichts", in: Schultz (ed.): Eichendorff stories, P. 158.

[13] Ibid., P. 159.

[14] See: Zimorski: “Apology of the Anti-Philistine”, p. 159f.

[15] Eichendorff, Joseph von: "Taugenasst", in: Schultz (ed.): Eichendorff stories, P. 97.

[16] Ibid., P. 110.

[17] Cf.: Prang, Helmut: “Die Romantische Ironie”, p. 2.

[18] See: Ricklefs, Ufert (ed.): "Fischer Lexikon Literatur", Vol. 2, Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1997 and Wilpert, Gero von (ed.): "Sachwortbuch der Literatur", Kröner Verlag , Stuttgart, 2001.

[19] Cf .: Ricklefs (ed.): “Subject Dictionary of Literature”, p. 377.

[20] Müller, Marika: “The irony. Cultural history and text form ”, Königshausen & Neumann-Verlag, Würzburg, 1995, p. 63.

[21] The term Parekbase comes from the Greek word ek-basis from which to German stepping out means.

[22] See: Müller: "Die Ironie", p. 63.

[23] See: Ibid., P. 63.

[24] See: Ibid., P. 63ff.

[25] Cf. Schlegel, Friedrich: “Äthenäumsfragmente - Aphorismus 51”, Critical Edition Volume 2, p. 165.

[26] Cf. Ricklefs (ed.): "Fischer Lexikon Literatur" vol. 2, p. 832.

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