A community of serfs, set an impossible task by their tyrannical lord, is offered assistance by a mysterious green man: in return for helping them, the serfs must provide him with an unbaptised child. The serfs accept, thinking that they will be able to outwit the green man (who is, of course, the Devil). I trust I won’t be accused of giving away spoilers if I say that things do not turn out well, or that disaster appears in the shape of a monstrous black spider.
That’s the set-up for a fiendishly entertaining story, one that’s liable to give you some less than pleasant dreams. The splendidly-named Gotthelf (a pseudonym; he was really Albert Bitzius, a Swiss pastor) is a master at conveying fear, dread and appalling physical pain. But this isn’t readily apparent for the first fifth of the book, which lulls us with scenes of delightfully cosy comedy. In the midst of an idyllic valley, a christening is taking place – and what a christening! We have the bustle of preparation, the comic tension of a narrowly avoided blunder and the extravagant indulgence of celebration. The descriptions of food rival those in Lampedusa’s The Leopard: wine soup with saffron and cinnamon, beef soup with bread, ragouts of brains, mutton and pickled liver, sliced beef, thick slices of bacon, prodigious cheeses, dried pears, local pastries and cakes with names like Züpfe, Habküchlein and Eterküchlein. You might be forgiven for letting your mind wander while your stomach stakes its claim to your attention. You might also be curious, or impatient, as to where all this is leading. Where’s the damn spider? After a while, I started to feel anxious; surely it isn’t these good people, at the height of their happiness, who are about to be terrorized by the titular arachnid? Fortunately, no, it isn’t. During a break in the feast, the baby’s grandfather regales the guests with an old, long-forgotten tale concerning the very valley in which they live…
It’s a story (or rather stories; the grandfather tells two of them, set generations apart) we’re meant, at some level, to believe. Place names and topographical details root it in a community, making claims of literal truth, while the narrative’s sermon-like qualities and the biblical cadences of its prose reach for a higher, non-literal truth. Significantly, in a book written by a priest, it is a priest who plays a prominent and heroic part in the action, while both narrators (the grandfather and the authorial voice who relates the frame tale) make pointed, preaching remarks to their listeners/readers, urging them to keep to the right path. Dismiss the story if you will, but do so at your own peril.
Not altogether surprisingly, the chief transgressor and villain of the piece is a woman, Christine. I wonder if there’s any significance to the name; it suggests a feminine version of Christ (another, very different, character is a man called Christen), who sacrificed himself for the sake of others, whereas Christine’s plan involves sacrificing another for her own sake. It is she who persuades the community to agree to the Devil’s bargain, she who seals the pact with a kiss, believing herself capable of somehow tricking him at a later date. As a sure sign of her impudence and wantonness, even before the Devil requests a kiss of her, the narrator notes that she ‘might even have resorted to caresses in the hope of gaining time.’ A rather alarmingly conservative morality is evident throughout the book. Not only is Christine a woman, she is also an outsider, i.e. not local. In fact, she is sometimes referred to as ‘Lindau Christine’ or ‘the woman from Lindau.’ Not for her the traditional feminine role of passive domesticity, for here is a ‘frightfully clever, daring woman,’ not the sort ‘who is content to stay at home, quietly going about her duties with no other concern than household and children’ (tellingly, she has no children, though she is married – to a weak man who does as he’s told). The Devil informs her that he approves of bold women who do not flee him, and to reiterate the point, we later meet two more women from outside the valley, one of whom is clever and strong and in charge of her household; these two are scarcely better than Christine. Just in case we don’t get the message, the narrator makes it as plain as can be: ‘ …vainglory and pride took root in the valley, brought and fomented by women from other lands’ (hmm… not sure if something that has been fomented can take root). There are wicked men, too, of course, though they are associated with foreignness (such as von Stoffeln, the overbearing lord, and his knights, who have fought in other countries and are not local) or womanhood (either by being ruled by women, such as Christine’s husband and brother-in-law, or by being notably attractive to them, such as an unruly servant who is also an outsider). Lest we think that all women are bad, we are provided with a few models of ideal femininity: an austerely devout grandmother, a couple of devoted mothers. And that, ladies, is what you should aim for if you don’t want to die in agony after being bitten by a huge demonic spider (not that achieving this aim will be sure to safeguard you from such a death). And men, if you’re keen to avoid the same fate, then stop complaining about your slave-driving maniac of a boss and get to work – and whatever you do, don’t let your women step out of line.
Now, about this spider… In a grotesque parody of birth, it begins to make its appearance just after a child is successfully baptised, and occasions a particularly icky scene of body-horror following a second baptism. The adoption of its final, ghastly form is accompanied by a ‘horrific hissing sound like wool in fire, like lime in water.’ It can move with astonishing speed, making escape impossible. Stones, axes and cudgels are useless against it. It takes sadistic pleasure in taunting and playing with its victims before it kills them, glowering at them with malicious eyes. It is ubiquitous and indestructible. Against such a foe, there appears to be no hope:
And the one who was most cautious where he set his feet and who peered most sharply with his eyes would suddenly see the spider sitting on his hand or foot, or racing across his face, sitting fat and black upon his nose and peering into his eyes, and flaming thorns lodged themselves in his marrow and hellfire engulfed him until he lay dead.
After World War II, many readers saw in The Black Spider a kind of clairvoyant proto-allegory of Nazism, with its depiction of a community being almost overcome by a sweeping, dominating evil. You can read the plague into it as well, if you are so minded. What interests me is that though it shows a community given over to panic and fear, fear itself assumes a somewhat ambiguous quality. On the one hand, the inhabitants of the valley, in abandoning themselves so completely to mortal terror, lose sight of God and the salvation of their souls, thereby not only securing for themselves a painful death, but also precluding them from afterwards enjoying heavenly bliss. Gotthelf stresses repeatedly that the truly righteous feel no fear in the face of deadly evil. The heroic characters arm themselves with faith to the extent that their fear vanishes; others, who fail to do so, are weak and helpless. But fearlessness is displayed by villains as much as by heroes, most notably by Christine. In addition to the green man’s praise of her boldness, it is stated that ‘her insolent heart [is] devoid of fear’. There is also one of von Stoffeln’s knights, who rides out to destroy the spider, and who is likened to a heathen for fearing neither God nor devil. He comes a cropper, of course.
If fear of death and of the devil is a mark of weakness (pointedly, the villagers’ fear of the Devil is greater than their fear of God), an absence of fear is not more laudable if it entails fearlessness before the Almighty; defiance, as the grandfather says, can lead to misfortune. Gotthelf’s religion is one in which fear is of paramount importance, for without fear – the right kind of fear – there is complacency, which leads to sin. Gotthelf’s God is a deity who browbeats his people with raging storms, which, though they are described with relish (‘every cloud became a warring army, each assailing the next, attacking its life force in a wild melee of cloud’), for the most part, don’t seem to have the desired effect on the villagers. They do succeed, however, in spurring the priest into action. He and Christine both stride into the same tempest undaunted, she taking it for ‘a sweet rustling of leaves’, he fortified by the knowledge that ‘he who walks God’s path can safely entrust himself to God’s storms.’ Gotthelf’s style is at its most Biblical here; the priest seems almost superhuman in his courage and steadfastness (‘his feet striking no stones, his eyes blinded by no flash’); he is likened to a warrior seized by a holy battle lust. This is a struggle between Good and Evil in the most starkly Manichean terms, appropriate to the distant medieval past, a fervent, turbulent age of crusades and cathedrals, depicted in the bold lines and colors of a stained glass window or manuscript illumination. This world is very different from the comfort and ease enjoyed by the grandfather and his audience, whose general pleasantness and good humor contrasts with the sharply differentiated righteous and unrighteous figures preyed upon by the spider.
The contrast is less than at first appears, of course. For in the contentedness of the modern-day (i.e. 19th century) villagers, free from cares, is there not a danger of complacency? That contentedness contains several subtle and not-so-subtle hints that we ought not to take it at face value. The cleanliness of the grandfather’s farmhouse is likened in the second paragraph to family honor, which ‘must be upheld day after day, for a single unguarded moment can besmirch it for generations with stains as indelible as bloodstains’. A reference to Easter is followed by the reminder that Heaven is attained only by those who ‘sought their salvation in the realm of the Father and not here on earth’. The spring flora, which burgeons heavenward, is a symbol of human destiny. A verse on a platter used to display the party food mentions the fires of hell. In his sermon at the christening service, the pastor says that human lives should be nothing more than a gradual ascent to heaven. There are high stakes even in these scenes of cosiness, even in the cosiness no doubt enjoyed by the reader, who perhaps – only perhaps – is in need of a reminder of those stakes.
Vainglory, vainglorious, pride, proud: repeated words of condemnation applied by the grandfather to the people who feature in his narration. How are their pride and vainglory manifested? By ‘unseemly displays’ in faces and clothes; by continuous rebuilding of their houses, expanding them as they grow richer, furnishing them luxuriously; by frequent feasting and celebration. Not so different from the prosperous ‘modern-day’ villagers, then, who like to build large, comfortable homes and celebrate christenings with extravagant feasts. They may, on the surface, seem affable and respectable, but when put to the test, as were their precursors, how would they fare? Of course, dear reader, one trusts that you would not yield to temptation, but perhaps some of your relatives, your friends, would not be so steadfast. In the context of such a rigid moral code, even a seemingly throwaway remark about young people not knowing the importance of rising early assumes a darker coloring.
The Black Spider is a good example of how a sense of humor can co-exist with a grim, forbidding understanding of morality and society. For there is humor here, whether it be the amusement provided by the framing scenes (especially a bit about a godmother being obliged to eat more and more food until her stomach is fit to burst) or the black, sadistic comedy of the spider’s rampage. But Gotthelf insists, nonetheless, on the importance of sobriety. Though the depiction of the christening and its ensuing party might seem attractively jolly and festive, we’re meant, retrospectively, to see how inappropriate that jollity is to the seriousness of the occasion. The ceremony of baptism is shown by the grandfather’s narration to be one of crucial importance, involving, as it does, the small matter of the salvation of a human soul. Yet the modern-day villagers seem more concerned with the business of eating, drinking and making merry. The fact that this particular christening is taking place over Easter compounds their thoughtlessness. In the grandfather’s narrative, their forebears display an even greater frivolity – celebrating baptisms with feasts even under the circumstance of their having done a deal with the devil. The priest advises them to tremble and pray; their reward for ignoring him is death by demon spider. I suppose that few readers today will be minded to tremble and pray after reading Gotthelf, but though one might be tempted to laugh at his clerical sternness, it’s not so easy to dismiss his tale’s unsettling power.