The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf
The Black Spider is a Swiss-German novella first published in 1842. Today, it’s published by Oneworld Classics and effectively translated by H.M. Waidson, who also writes a useful (and spoiler free) introduction. It was, apparently, one of Thomas Mann’s favourite works, though sadly it’s not also one of mine.
The locations in Spider are real places, ones that would be familiar to many of its original readers. The story by contrast is a mix of parable, myth and folklore. The book opens in the then present day, on the morning of a christening, a family of rich Swiss peasants preparing for celebration and feasting secure in the knowledge of their piety, good neighbourship and solid work ethic. The opening paragraphs show a scene of bucolic near-paradise:
THE SUN ROSE OVER THE HILLS, shone with clear majesty down into a friendly, narrow valley and awakened to joyful consiousness the beings who are created to enjoy the sunlight of their life. From the sun-gilt forest’s edge the thrush burst forth in her morning song, while between sparkling flowers in dew-laden grass the yearning quail could be heard joining in with its love-song; above dark pine tops eager crows were performing their nuptial dance or cawing delicate cradle songs over the thorny beds of their fledgeless young.
In the middle of the sun-drenched hillside nature had placed a fertile, sheltered, level piece of ground; here stood a fine house, stately and shining, surrounded by a splendid orchard, where a few tall apple trees were still displaying there finery of late blossom; the luxuriant grass, which was watered by the fountain near the house, was in part still standing, though some of it had already found its way to the fodder store. About the house there lay a Sunday brightness which was not of the type that can be produced on a Saturday evening in the half-light with a few sweeps of the broom, but which rather testified to a valuable heritage of traditional cleanliness which has to be cherished daily, like a family’s reputation, tarnished as this may become in one single hour by marks that remain, like bloodstains, indelible from generation to generation, making a mockery of all attempts to whitewash them.
Despite that last and ominous note regarding the possibillity of tarnish, this is a vision of temporal loveliness. God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world. From there, we go to the preparations for the christening, the good natured banter between the locals, lingering descriptions of the fine table laid out for guests, these are people who live solid, sensible and godfearing lives and they are rewarded by their god accordingly.
All this is a framing device, for the house has one curious feature, an ancient black post which sits oddly with the otherwise pristine design. A grandfather explains its provenance, with a chilling tale that forms the heart of the book.
Centuries past, when the Teutonic knights ruled the territory, an indifferent lord was working the peasantry into penury. As harvest time approached, he decided he wanted a shady grove in which to walk on the hot summer days, and so ordered the peasants to move a grove of beech trees from the valley to his mountain keep – roots and all. The task is near impossible, and even if it can be completed it can only be achieved by letting the harvest rot in the fields and so means sure starvation for the villagers.
After hearing his demands, the villagers return to their homes, but on the way sit down despairing in the road and cry out about their plight. They are heard, and a green huntsman appears and enquires as to the cause of their sorrow:
A red feather was swaying on his bold cap, a little red beard blazed in his dark face, and a mouth opened between his hooked nose and pointed chin, almost invisible like a cavern beneath overhanging rocks, and uttered the question ‘What’s the matter, good people, that you are sitting and moaning like this, as if to force the rocks out of the earth and the branches down from the trees?’ Twice he asked thus, and twice he received no answer.
Then the green huntsman’s dark face became even darker and his little red beard became even redder, so that it seemed to be crackling and sparkling like pine wood on fire; his mouth pursed itself sharply like an arrow and then opened to ask quite pleasingly and gently: ‘But good people, what use is it your sitting and moaning there? …’
The villagers ultimately ask for his aid, and ask what he requires in return.
Then the green huntsman showed a cunning face; his little beard crackled, and his eyes gleamed at them like snakes’ eyes, and a hideous laugh came from the two corners of his mouth as he opened his lips and said, ‘ as I was saying, I don’t ask for much, nothing more than an unbaptised child.’
The villagers of course refuse, but nothing goes right for them from that point. They make no progress moving and planting the trees, everything goes wrong. Only one among them, a foreign woman named Christine brought to the region by one farmer to be his wife, is willing to have any truck with the green huntsman (whose true identity they understand all too well). Finally, on a night when a storm cracks overhead with unusual force, they collectively decide to follow Christine’s advice and take the bargain, calculating that they can always renege on their side of it later. The next day:
The morning was beautiful and bright, thunder and lightning and witchcraft had vanished, the axes struck twice as sharply as before, the soil was friable and every beech tree fell straight, just as one would like it; none of the carts broke, the cattle were amenable and strong and the men protected from all accidents as if by an invisible hand.
Indeed, the only seeming downside is that the carts become peculiarly heavy when taken past the church and the men and animals filled with an inexplicable fear.
There’s a definite issue of gender politics in this book, Christine is a domineering wife, prideful and headstrong. Her husband doesn’t control her, and rather than assuming her place of wifely support she intrudes on the men’s deliberations and sways their judgement. Disaster ensues. I don’t think I’m being oversensitive in seeing in the book a suggestion that it simply isn’t a woman’s place to take decisions that men ought to be taking, and that no good can come from her rebelliion against the natural order of things.
The grove is swift erected, but when time comes to hand over a baby the villagers do not live up to their end of the bargain, instead they ensure that the child is quickly baptised and so beyond the devil’s power (and it then promptly dies, which the book informs us means god has protected it from the possibility of later sin). From there, things go wrong again, with a black spider growing literally out of Christine’s cheek and laying devastation upon them, all those it touches swelling black with poison and dying in agony. The villagers have mocked the devil, and he will not lightly be mocked.
This section is the most effective in the book. There is a chilling sense of horror as the spider grows from Christine’s face and causes her increasing pain as the villagers seek to outwit the devil. Then, the spider born and intent on their destruction, each villager begins considering whether their life is not perhaps more important than some neighbour’s next newborn. Instead of turning to god, they turn to further selfishness, and so long as they do so the spider’s reign continues uninterrupted:
Thus it was that the spider was now here, now there, now nowhere, now down in the valley, now up on the hills; it hissed through the grass, fell from the roof or sprang up from the ground. When people were sitting over the midday meal of porridge, it would appear gloating at the far end of the table, and before they had time to scatter in terror the spider had run over all their hands and was sitting on the head of the father of the family, staring over the table at the blackening hands. It would fall upon people’s faces at night, it would encounter them in the forest or descend upon them in the cattle shed. No one could avoid it, for it was nowhere and everywhere; no one could screen himself from it while he was awake, and when he was asleep there was no protection. When someone thought himself to be safest, in the open air or in a treetop, then fire would crawl up his back, and the spider’s fiery feet could be felt in his neck as it stared over his shoulder. It spared neither infant in the cradle nor the old man on his deathbed; it was a plague more deadly than any that had been known before, and it was a form of death more terrible than any that had previously been experienced, and what was still more terrible than the death agony was the nameless fear of the spider which was everywhere and nowhere and which would suddenly be fixing its death-dealing stare on someone when he fancied he was most secure.
The spider afflicts peasants in their fields and homes, knights in the castle, pallbearers taking the dead to funeral, it is a pestilence that sweeps the village bringing horrible and unpredictable death and it’s as clear a metaphor for bubonic plague as ever I’ve seen.
Eventually, a pious mother traps the spider, giving her own life in the process. A virtuous woman, she is not afraid to die so that her child might live. Again, there’s a touch of gender politics to the story. The spider lies imprisoned and time passes, but generations later the villagers again grow prideful and vain and forget their god, the spider is once more unleashed and the horror renews. This time too, the fault is a woman’s. Another foreign wife, married to a man who dare not stand up to her nor to his browbeating mother who chose the wife for him. Once again, women have stepped out from the authority of men, and plague, terror and death is the consequence.
And that’s where I struggle a bit. The contemporary framing device shows people who live in memory of god and with piety informing all their lives, but for all that they seemed a bit smug about it. They are confident of their standing with god and secure in the knowledge that they are saved, perhaps it’s the remnants of my own Catholic upbringing which make me uncomfortable with that. Frankly, they could use being a bit less sure of themselves.
For me as a modern reader, another problem is the fact that much of what happens is the fault of uppity women who don’t know their place. That’s, well, perhaps not a point of view I feel wholly able to subscribe to. And the theology of it all I find rather troubling, this Swiss god after all allows children and elderly folk who surely played no part in the decision to deal with the devil to pay for the sins of others, there’s a sense of collective judgement that I struggle to square with my own conceptions of what’s right.
The Black Spider is essentially a Christian morality tale. It’s an enjoyable read in large part, particularly (and isn’t this always true?) the parts where the devil is running rampant either in person or through his servant, the spider. But, the point of the book for me was to contrast what it means to live in the light of god, and what it means not to, and given I don’t consider myself a Christian or indeed religious at all that’s a message that’s slightly lost on me.
All that said, I would recommend The Black Spider for any prosperous nineteenth Century Swiss readers, who wish to remind themselves to be thankful for their many blessings, and though I can’t speak to this with accuracy I suspect it might make quite a good thanksgiving tale for American readers who in that season would like to read a story about the importance of being thankful for good fortune and (if they’re religious) who they owe that good fortune to.
Update 11/11/13: Since I wrote this a new translation of The Black Spider has been issued by NYRB Classics. There are reviews of it at themookseandthegripes here and at His Futile Preoccupations here. Stu of winstonsdadsblog has also recently written a review but of the same translation as the one I reviewed above. Stu’s translation is here.