The Black Spider
‘The Black Spider’ by Franz Karl Basler-Kopp
|Original title||Die Schwarze Spinne|
|Translator||HM Waidson (1989)
Susan Bernofsky (2013)
|Genre||Allegory, horror, Biedermeier|
The Black Spider is a novella by the Swiss writer Jeremias Gotthelf written in 1842. Set in an idyllic frame story, old legends are worked into a Christian-humanist allegory about ideas of good and evil. Though the novel is initially divided, what is originally the internal story, later spills over into the frame story as well. The story is characterized by its complex narrative structure, its conservative Christian motifs and symbolism, and its precise descriptions of the social dynamics of the village.
The novella begins with a christening party at a farm, during the course of which a few of the guests in front of the house go for a walk. It catches the godmother's eye that although the house is newly built, an old, black post is built in. At her inquiry, the grandfather tells the story of the post.
First internal narrative
The grandfather tells how a few centuries before, the village had been ruled by the Teutonic Knight Hans von Stoffeln, who worked the farmers of the village very hard. Von Stoffeln, a hard and aggressive man, relentlessly collected on the tax obligations of his serfs. His unpredictability inspired fear among the peasants, and he would brook no contradiction; any criticism of him inspired such harsh retaliation that the farmers submitted weakly to his will. Von Stoffeln demanded ever more ludicrous tasks, the last of which was the replanting of trees from a distant mountain to form a shaded path on his estate. He demanded this job be done in such a short period that the peasants could not possibly do it without forgoing their own harvest and going hungry.
At this dire moment, the devil, in the form of a wild hunter, offered to assist them with the replanting. As payment he wanted an unbaptized child. The farmers initially refused. However, Christine, a farmer's wife who had come to the valley from Lindau on Lake Constance, was opposed to the fatalism of men of the village and was ready to fight against the outrageous demands of von Stoffeln. After the initial refusal, everything began to go wrong with the project. Finally, Christine convinced the farmers to accept the bargain believing that they could escape it by baptizing every child immediately at birth. The pact was sealed when the hunter gives her a kiss on the cheek. The hunter used his demonic powers to instill in the kiss a curse which would ensure his payment.
The task of moving the trees suddenly became very easy and was quickly completed. When the child was born, the pastor saved it by baptizing it immediately, but Christine then felt a burning pain on her cheek, exactly where the hunter had kissed her. A black mark appeared, which grew into the shape of a black spider. After the next newborn child was baptized, a storm broke out and many small spiders emerged from the burst mark on Christine's face. In the village, the calamity spread, and cattle died in their stalls. Thus the devil reminded them of his contract.
Christine and the farmers decided to sacrifice the next newborn, and the plague on the cattle ceased. When the birth came, Christine tried to steal it in order to give it to the devil, but the priest sprinkled it with holy water before she was able. Christine transformed into a spider, struck the priest and killed him. Then she began to terrorize the valley, killing both people and animals, including von Stoffeln and his knights. One night, the mother of a child who had been attacked grabbed the spider, stuck it in a hole in a window post she had prepared, and plugged the hole up. The woman also died from touching the spider, but peace and quiet returned to the valley.
After the grandfather finished the story, the guests, now afraid of the house, returned reluctantly to the table. The grandfather therefore feels obligated to finish the story:
Second internal narrative
In the following centuries, the people of the valley initially led god-fearing lives, but over time many fell again into godless behavior. Finally, though, a malicious farmhand releases the spider, which kills almost all the inhabitants of the village. At the next birth, Christen, the master of the farmhand who released the spider, saves the child from the devil, captures the spider and returns it to its old prison. He pays for this service with his life, but he dies in "God's Peace." In the valley, peace and god-fearing are once again the order of the day. Although the house was rebuilt several times, the post was always put back in in order to preserve the old blessing. When the latest house was built, the grandfather integrated the old window post into it.
The grandfather ends his story on that note, and the christening celebration continues jovially until late in the night. The novella ends with a hint that God is watching over everything.
Reception and Criticism
The Black Spider is Gotthelf's best known work. At first little noticed, the story is now considered by many critics to be among the masterworks of the German Biedermeier era and sensibility. Thomas Mann wrote of it in his The Genesis of Doctor Faustus that Gotthelf "often touched the Homeric" and that he admired The Black Spider "like no other piece of world literature."
The Black Spider is, in many ways, a precursor to the weird fiction of twentieth-century writers such as Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft and "may very well be one of the first works of weird fiction ever written."
The novella's depictions of a town led astray in difficult times by a headstrong leader and the morality of collective guilt, gave it renewed relevance in the post-World War II era. Scholars and critics have also focused on the gender norms that emerge from the story. Christine's role as the headstrong and independent woman leads to the first introduction of the spider. The mother of a child then manages to capture the spider, at the cost of her life. Then the malicious, godless farmhand releases it. Finally Christen (who is browbeaten by his overbearing wife and mother) captures the beast again, and dies from its bite.
The Swiss composer Heinrich Sutermeister wrote a one act opera based on the story in 1936, which was first performed as a radio opera. In 1949 a staged version was put on conducted by Silvio Varviso. The first film adaptation was released in 1921 as a silent film; then in 1983, Swiss director Mark Rissi directed a film based on the novel, but with a modern story frame. The story was also the basis for a 1983 opera by Judith Weir.
The novella has been translated into English in a number of versions and numerous other languages. This is not a complete list.
- The Black Spider in German Novellas of Realism, The German Library. Trans. H. M. Waidson (1989)
- The Black Spider, University Press of America. Trans. Jolyon Timothy Hughes (2010)
- The Black Spider, New York Review Books Classics. Trans. Susan Bernofsky (2013)
- "The Black Spider". One World Classics. Retrieved September 25, 2011.
- Donahue, William Collins (Summer 1994). "The Kiss of the Spider Woman: Gotthelf's "Matricentric" Pedagogy and Its (Post)war Reception". The German Quarterly. 67 (3): 304–324. doi:10.2307/408627. JSTOR 408627.
- "Obituary: Silvio Varviso". The Times of London. November 23, 2006. Retrieved September 25, 2011.
- "Die Schwarze Spinne". IMDB. Retrieved September 25, 2011.
- "The Black Spider". The Black Spider. Chester Novello. Retrieved September 25, 2011.