Rebecca R. Silva '11

“Blurring Boundaries: Active Femininities and Reactive Masculinities in Erich Kästner’s Fabian: Die Geschichte eines Moralisten

My honors project focuses on literary depictions of gender relations during the Weimar Republic in Erich Kästner’s novel Fabian: die Geschichte eines Moralisten (1931).  I argue that the Weimar Republic blurred traditional gender roles and created a diversified gender spectrum as a result of the trauma and social upheaval induced by the First World War. Literary characters show how, in the Weimar Republic, men assume feminine traits and women take on masculine traits.

The central male characters I discuss in this project are reactive, in that they are generally more passive; they wait for the female characters to take the initiative and then respond to the women’s actions. These male characters appear cautious rather than bold. They feel threatened and unsure of themselves. They seem to have internalized some sort of danger, and it manifests as a form of paralysis. The changing gender dynamics are only one part of what these men find threatening, and thus they do not only react cautiously to new, masculinized femininity, but rather to all aspects of the changing society. Wary and uncertain in stark contrast with the bold and glitzy backdrop of modernity, these men appear as wayward figures who are waiting in limbo for orders that will never come. They are unsure of how to make independent decisions in unfamiliar situations, but are also unable to show weakness and ask for help.

This phenomenon of reactive masculinity emerges, I would contend, because the men are victims of their time, haunted by the effects of World War One and ill at ease in the rapidly changing society. Emerging from the aftermath of the First World War, the Weimar Republic developed in a climate of anomie. Over the course of the war, social norms had crumbled, which left an opening for rewriting gender scripts. While men tended to see the disorder in anomie, women often saw opportunity in the social restructuring and became bolder, actively striking out to better their financial situations. Girls matured in a climate that allowed them to conceive of themselves as individuals with agency rather than as appendages of the collective family unit. Men reacted to the independent, masculinized femininity of the emancipated woman with a hesitant, feminized masculinity. Popular novels of the time period, such as Kästner’s Fabian, both documented and exaggerated these changes in character types.