the vow

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The vow is a short story written by ETA Hoffmann ( he did not use the term novella ). It appeared for the first time in 1817 and is one of the lesser-known works of the late Romantic author.


The story takes place during the Polish struggle for independence, 20 years after the first partition of Poland , around 1792. On behalf of Prince Z., the mayor of the small Polish border town L. is entrusted with a veiled pregnant nun named Cölestine. After the confinement, the mayor's family feels emotionally connected to their two guests, but the mysterious permanent veil stands in the way of final familiarity.

A few months later, an officer of the French Hunter Guard storms into the house to kidnap the baby. In the struggle for the boy, Celestine's veil is torn off. A dead-pale, tight-fitting mask appears. After mutual curses, the mayor stands in the way of the intruder, whereupon the officer pretends to be the child's father and escapes with the baby in his arms. When Prince Z. and the abbess arrive shortly afterwards, they accept the kidnapping as a fact and only pick up Cölestine, who is in shock. Next, an unusually solemn funeral in the Cistercian monastery provides a topic of conversation. It is rumored that the dead woman was Countess Hermenegilda von C., who was said to be in Italy with her aunt, the Princess von Z. A flashback now tells the story of Hermenegilda and Stanislaus and how a vow came about: Patriotic meetings took place on Count Nepumuk of C's family estate before the Kościuszko uprising . The very young daughter of the host, Hermenegilda, and the 20-year-old Count Stanislaus von R. with political insight and strategic foresight also took part. A marriage promise grew out of their kinship. After a severe war wound and only because of the thought of his lover, Stanislaus retained his courage to face life and was reviled by Hermenegilda on his return home. She did not want to marry him until the Polish fatherland was liberated. The young count then entered French military service. Hermenegilda's heart was touched again by the heroic accounts of Stanislaus' former comrade in arms, so that insomnia and guilt plagued her. Hermenegilda was gradually becoming mad. When Stanislaus' somewhat younger cousin and service attendant, Xaver, visited the estate on convalescence leave, she thought she had Stanislaus in front of her. Xaver cleared up the mix-up and became the daily reporter of combat situations and the bearer of declarations of love, which he continued to embellish, since he himself had been seized by the love for Hermenegilda. Count Nepumuk von C. benevolently observed the enlightenment of his daughter's mind brought about by the young man's company and at the same time the prospect of a new future son-in-law. But with a touch of shame and remorse, Xaver left hastily.

One day Hermenegilda described how she married Stanislaus in the middle of the battlefield and how he died immediately afterwards, which is why she wanted to live as a grieving widow from now on. In fact, she had been in the remote garden pavilion. The report was seen as a vision and thus an aggravation of her state of mind. The confidante Princess Z. soon realized that Hermenegilda was in different circumstances. She suggested that the gentlemen travel with her because of the gossip that was to be expected. No sooner had the further course of action been decided than Count Xaver burst in with the news of the death of Stanislaus. Princess Z. calculated that the time of death coincided with Hermenegilda's statements. Xaver solicited Hermenegilda's hand in vain, revealing that he had impregnated the woman who was hallucinating that day at a wedding ceremony . After confession, the deceived woman experienced a state of mind chaos between “dull madness”, “wild frenzy” and bright moments. The jointly drafted plan was that Hermenegilda should be transferred to the monastery, while Princess Z. should give the appearance of staying with her in Italy. In fact, Hermenegilda was supposed to give birth to her child in the house of the mayor's friend. Hermenegilda's vow, intended lifelong mourning and penance, was demonstrated externally by the somber veil and pale mask. The action started at the beginning is continued at this point. The kidnapper is identified as Count Xaver von R. The kidnapped child dies on the way to a foster mother, whereupon Xaver disappears without a trace. It is believed that he committed suicide, but in fact he is met and approached by chance a few years later in a monastery garden near Naples . Terrified, covering his face, the monk rushes off.


For the creation of the story, the research gives a time frame from "late 1816 to summer 1817". According to Julius Eduard Hitzig , who wrote his biography immediately after Hoffmann's death, Hoffmann is said to have been inspired by his wife Michalina, who reported a similar incident from her native Posen . Hoffmann interwoven the external plot with the then current "romantic medical discourse". There is evidence that he had read the publications of Johann Christian Reil , Gotthilf Heinrich Schubert and Carl Alexander Ferdinand Kluge and maintained contacts with practicing followers of this direction, which was known under the terms " animal magnetism " or "mesmerism". With this and similar stories he carried out a “poeticization of medicine”. The story was first printed by the Realschulbuchhandlung / Reimersche Buchhandlung in Berlin as the penultimate part of the second volume of the narrative cycle Nachtstücke, published in 1817.


There are three levels of time in what is called " anachronic narration ". Hoffmann often uses this narrative form. In the first section the reader is confronted with mysterious events and gruesome details. A slightly longer following section explains the history before a short "years later" episode closes the narrative. The central pavilion scene is depicted from three perspectives. First from the perspective of the sick, which is purely subjective experience. Then from the point of view of the aunt, who is a desperate attempt at clarification. And finally from the perpetrator's point of view, which is rational and objective. It is similar to medical case histories. In parts, the descriptions act like a protocol enriched with findings and hypotheses .

Recurring motifs

Various motifs appear again and again in Hoffmann's oeuvre . In the present narrative these are the motifs “Puppeteer”, “Doppelganger”, “Madness”, “Faraway feeling” and “Abuse of power”.

Doll man
Artificial, often mechanical, people or figures that come to life are part of Hoffmann's repertoire. The best known example is Olimpia im Sandmann . But there are also people of flesh and blood who lapse into a doll-like posture. This happens to Princess Hedwiga in the life views of the cat Murr . The self-determined demeanor has suddenly given way to outside guidance. “Prince Ignatius can play with her like a doll,” summarizes Klaus Deterding. In her vow , after the child was torn from her, Hermenegilda is as if paralyzed , because "standing silently like a statue with arms hanging down" (293), she lets herself be led out of the house without a will. Hoffmann sometimes uses the term “automaton” for objects that you can't tell exactly whether they are natural living beings or constructed machines. In relation to Hermenegilda, who now bears a religious name, he writes: "Cölestine had sunk into an automaton-like state [...]." (293) Both Hedwiga and Hermenegilda / Cölestine had a traumatic experience that put them in this state. While Hedwiga wakes up again, Hermenegilda's mental illness soon becomes fatal.

Stanislaus and Xaver are not real doppelgangers like Giglio Fava and Prince Cornelio Chiapperi in Princess Brambilla , but they are very similar due to their relationship, i.e. more comparable to Medardus and his hidden blood relatives from the elixirs of the devil . What makes Xaver the double of Stanislaus is - in combination with the similarity - the exuberant wishful thinking of Hermenegilda, plagued by remorse. In contrast to the examples mentioned from Brambilla and the Elixirs , the two peers do not meet within the plot. Thus there is again a correspondence with Professor X from Die Automate , which was seen in two places at the same time, for which Hoffmann gives no explanation. Hermenegilda, Hoffmann tells the reader, on the other hand, simply fuses two events in her hallucination, the one on the battlefield with Stanislaus and the one in the garden pavilion with the entered Xaver.

Hoffmann doesn’t use any clinical picture in his stories more often and more multifaceted than insanity. In the entire narrative cycle The Serapions Brothers , madness is the dominant theme. Among those affected by the mental illness, Nathanael, the protagonist of another night play (from the first part) entitled The Sandman, is perhaps the best known. In the Barren House , Countess Angelica's mental illness is based on the withholding of her child, conceived under mysterious circumstances. Hermenegilda has a different cause, but there is still a parallel, because alien forces and powers were also involved in the conception of her child. The kidnapping then puts her on again and leads to a worsening of her condition, the final stage of which means death.

feeling of distance Another motif is empathic telepathy, the bond with the loved one over a distance, which Hartmut Steinecke called a "feeling of distance" and Giulia Ferro Milone as an "energetic distance connection". It does not occur frequently with Hoffmann, but in European Romanticism as a whole, whereby it should be noted that his nocturnal plays had a great influence in France and Russia. The simultaneous sense of death of the lovers who are spatially far apart is the subject of the poem Dream (from 1835) by Mikhail Lermontow . The feeling of distance is seen as a variant of magnetism / mesmerism , which in turn often occurs in Hoffmann's works, one of which also introduces the topic in the title, namely The Magnetizer . It was described in 1808 by Gotthilf Heinrich Schubert in his views from the night side of natural science : “If now such an intimate union of two human beings is possible in animal magnetism [...] where one participates in all the movements and feelings of the other as if it were happening to himself; if this deep compassion, which shows itself between the magnetizer and the somnambula, is often still effective at some distance from both [...]; From here there is only one more step to the wonderful knowledge of a distant person about the fate, but primarily about the death of a loved one who is closely related. We saw the possibility that two separate human beings could in a certain sense be one. The spiritual in us, even if it is only related to the physical forces of the inorganic, e.g. B. like light, magnetism, electricity, is not hindered by any distance and has an effect on everything related. Often the people who encounter such an unusual coincidence are in a state similar to magnetic sleep. "

Abuse of power
Manipulation and abuse of power also play a major role in Hoffmann's stories. While Ignaz Denner is a conventional abuse of power in the form of blackmail, the cases of abuse associated with mesmerism and somnambulism are more subtle. The aim here is to make a woman, for whom the perpetrator has a hitherto unrequited love, compliant by means of complex psychological influences. Alban in Der Magnetiseur and Graf Si in Der eheimliche Gast are the prototypes of these process users. The abuse of power by Xaver is not planned, it happens by chance. He does not use magnetism either (at least not consciously), he simply finds a favorable situation and lets himself drift in it: Hermenegilda herself stages her dream and illusion, possibly guided by the distant, but emotionally close, simultaneous world of experiences of the lover .


The course of the disease
Hermenegilda brings with it the character prerequisites for the
course of the disease described by Johann Christian Reil in his book Rhapsodieen on the application of the psychic curmethod on mental disruptions (1803), namely virtue , cleverness , volatility, irritability and doggedness up to fanaticism . Their fanaticism induces them to impulsively reject Stanislaus, who is unable to fulfill his mission to liberate the country, but their volatility causes their feelings to turn back to the other side, they regret and whether the danger of death that the rejected person then went into develops deep feelings of guilt . With this she has reached the first stage of Reil's theorem , that of "fixed madness". This turns into a shattered mind with periods of reflection, becomes a form of catalepsy (“dull madness”) and leads to death. Reil describes the state before the immediate end as follows: “In the dull madness the patient is immobile like a statue. He stands, sits or lies in one place, does not move his hand or foot, has closed his eyes, or stares around briefly and anxiously without noticing the impressions in their connection. ”This is exactly how Hoffmann describes his protagonist in or after the child robbery scene.

The pavilion scene is designed according to Carl Alexander Kluge. In his work, Kluge had attempted to portray animal magnetism as a remedy for six “degrees” of magnetic sleep, from drowsiness to waking dreaming to empathic clairvoyance, which was then called “magnetic double sleep”.

The patriarchal society
Hermenegilda's father Nepumuk instilled patriotism in the daughter . Because of her disposition, it became fanaticism and thus served her father's cause. With wisdom she advanced the resistance organization, which should actually have played only a subordinate role in society - and especially in political affairs. As long as the break in role assignment has advantages, Nepumuk lets them be. The salvation of his daughter's soul interests him little, however, the preservation of the social norm is in the foreground. It doesn't matter to him whether the maintenance is just a sham: he would without hesitation swap the fiancé Stanislaus for the addictive Xaver. In the new situation, decisions are traditionally made about the role-conforming weak and vulnerable woman.

Xaver takes advantage of Hermenegilda's confusion in the pavilion and sees a suitable way out in a marriage that only solves his problem and not that of the person he adores. In general, he is the active one from the start, the one who fosters confusion through manipulative speech.

The gender role of women at that time was a passive and weak one, and Hoffmann does not deviate from this either, in that he makes Hermenegilda the one who is susceptible to mental disorders and susceptible to "transmission energies" despite or because of her doggedly combative traits. In addition, the female characters are open to the initially inexplicable phenomena, i.e. consider paranormal phenomena possible, while the male characters take a purely rational view and the women laugh at their naivety .

The magnetizer principle
According to Giulia Ferro Milone, Xaver takes on the role of absent magnetizer. He has not forged a plan, but "guided by the sure tact for evil within" (303) he ensnares the pretty young woman, who succumbs to him as if magnetized, expressively and suggestively. Ferro Milone speaks of an exchange of Hermenegilda's inner world of images or a reconfiguration of reality. Since Stanislaus is still present in a certain way, "triangular interactions" would arise.

The pavilion symbol
The pavilion as a shelter goes back to antiquity and was then called the “pleasure tent”. In the more massive design it was later used in gardens and parks in the Baroque period . the "Lusthaus" The pavilion offered a retreat area for tryst was ideal. Today there are so-called “wedding pavilions” for wedding ceremonies in the countryside in many places.

The "rapt" person that Hermenegilda is, withdraws to a "rapt" place. Here she "receives" the signals from the distant Stanislaus and "receives" a child from the approaching Xaver.

The mask symbol
For Hermenegilda, the mask is a means of self-punishment. Her angelic face attracted the devil, she says, and must therefore be hidden forever. In this sense, Steinecke sees the “atonement” as one function and as a second function, “protection from madness”. As a result, the unveiling in the mayor's house by Xaver endangers her intentions and she lapses into a deadly rigidity. Maria Popp sees the mask symbolically. Her paleness reflects Hermenegilda's “sick inner life”. It is a literary anticipation of imminent death. Giulia Ferro Milone defines a “reaction to the loss of her female honor”, ​​as well as a protest attitude because of the “non-communicability of her experience”.

Walther Harich interprets the vow, which in addition to wearing the mask also includes life in the monastery, as a path “that leads out of the world”, as an alternative to a no less tragic “emergency reconciliation” with Xaver.

The Kleist comparison
The motif of getting pregnant in absent-mindedness was already dealt with in 1808 by Heinrich von Kleist in the novella The Marquise of O .... In it, the eponymous marquise is raped while she is unconscious by an officer who has saved her from abuse shortly before. In addition to some similarities, such as the male family members who are morally indignant about the alleged immorality of those affected and the female family members who show understanding, there are also differences. Thus the aspect of romantic science that is important for Hoffmann does not appear at all in Kleist. Most important - especially for the once conciliatory, once tragic outcome - is that with Kleist the person admired by the victim has committed the crime that can be forgiven, with Hoffmann the double of the beloved, whose injustice is accordingly more important.

The vow fall, says Thomas Weitin , opposite the Marquise of O .... from. Walther Harich, on the other hand, thinks that Kleist presented his case “with uncomplicated primitiveness”. Hoffmann's intricacies make the humanly understandable situation an individual case with which one can identify less, but instead he created a “massive and shocking structure”.

The question of guilt
Hoffmann not only blames a single person for the fateful course of events, but distributes it “to all persons and thus to life in general”, writes Harich. According to Ferro Milone, the play not only criticizes the behavior of Xaver, who belongs to the patriarchy and who has been promoted to an even higher position of power, namely that of a magnetizer whose immoral path was prepared by the victim himself. It also criticizes Schubert's theory of animal magnetism as an omnipresent harmony-creating world soul, because while an individual receives it, there is no one else who feels it or at least understands it. What was propagated as salvation turns out to be a fallacy. Jürgen Barkhoff also sees a skeptical attitude of the writer towards "the therapeutic expectations of salvation which his followers linked to mesmerism".


Hoffmann expressly offered his publisher Carl Friedrich Kunz the vow , which speaks of his own satisfaction with the poetic result. If anything, the work received poor reviews from contemporaries. The recent history of literature also turned to him relatively rarely.


First edition

  • ETA Hoffmann: The vow . In: Night Pieces . Second part. Realschulbuchhandlung / Reimersche Buchhandlung, Berlin 1817, p. 254-322 .

Reference edition

  • ETA Hoffmann: Night Pieces. Little Zaches. Princess Brambilla . Works 1816–1820. In: Hartmut Steinecke with the collaboration of Gerhard Allroggen (Ed.): Complete works in six volumes (=  Library of German Classics ). 1st edition. tape 3 . Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1985, ISBN 3-618-60870-5 , Das Gelübde, p. 285-317 .


  • Hermann Buddensieg : ETA Hoffmann and Poland . In: Mickiewicz leaves . No. 12 , 1959, pp. 145–191 (the 3rd issue of the year).
  • Elizabeth Wright: ETA Hoffmann and the Rhetoric of Terror. Aspects of Language Used for the Evocation of Fear (=  Bithell Series of Dissertations . Volume 1 ). Institute of Germanic Studies / University of London, London 1978, ISBN 0-85457-087-X , The Language of Concealment in Hoffmann's Das Gelübde and Kleist's Der Findling, p. 116-145 (Dissertation University of London).
  • Hartmut Steinecke: The vow. Origin, effect, structure and meaning . In: Hartmut Steinecke with the assistance of Gerhard Allroggen (Ed.): ETA Hoffmann. Night pieces. Little Zaches. Princess Brambilla . Work 1816–1820 (=  Library of German Classics ). 1st edition. tape 3 . Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1985, ISBN 3-618-60870-5 , p. 1022–1027 (origin / effect / structure and meaning / position comment in the appendix).
  • Edyta Polcynska: The image of Poland in ETA Hoffmann's “Vow” . In: Studia Germanica Posnaniensia . No. 17/18 , 1991, pp. 147-159 .
  • Markus Rohde: On the critical image of Poland in ETA Hoffmann's “The Vow” . In: Hartmut Steinecke, Claudia Liebrand (Ed.): ETA Hoffmann Yearbook . Announcements from the ETA Hoffmann Society. tape 9 . Erich Schmidt Verlag, Berlin 2001, ISBN 3-503-06121-5 , p. 34-41 .
  • Claudia Liebrand: puppet shows. ETA Hoffmann's night piece "The Vow" . In: Rolf Füllmann (Ed.): The human being as a construct . Festschrift for Rudolf Drux for his 60th birthday. Aisthesis-Verlag, Bielefeld 2008, ISBN 3-89528-709-1 , p. 171-179 .
  • Stephanie Catani: There is a method to madness. The “other of reason” in ETA Hoffmann's story “The Vow” . In: Journal for German Philology . No. 129.2 , 2010, ISSN  0044-2496 , p. 173-183 .
  • Maria Popp: The inharmonious touched tone. Poeticization of romantic medicine at ETA Hoffmann . Vienna August 2011 ( [PDF; 557 kB ] Diploma thesis University of Vienna).
  • Giulia Ferro Milone: Mesmerism and madness in ETA Hoffmann's story “The Vow” . Giulia Ferro Milone, University of Verona, Italy. In: Focus on German Studies . Journal on and beyond German-Language Literature. 20th year, issue 1, 2013, ISSN  1076-5697 , p. 63–77 ( [PDF; 115 kB ]).

Web links

Wikisource: The Vow  - Sources and Full Texts

Individual evidence

  1. Franz Loquai : ETA Hoffmann. Night pieces . With an afterword, a time table on ETA Hoffmann, notes and bibliographical references by Franz Loquai (=  Goldmann Klassiker . No. 7678 ). 1st edition. Goldmann Verlag, Munich 1996, ISBN 3-442-07678-1 , notes, p. 412 .
  2. a b Steinecke, p. 1022.
  3. Ferro Milone, p. 63.
  4. Popp, p. 24 ff.
  5. a b Jürgen Barkhoff: Magnetism / Mesmerism . In: Detlef Kremer (Ed.): ETA Hoffmann. Life - work - effect . 2nd Edition. Verlag Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / Boston 2012, ISBN 978-3-11-026831-7 , Systematic Aspects, p. 511-513 .
  6. a b c d Ferro Milone, p. 68.
  7. Popp, p. 8.
  8. Steinecke, p. 1023.
  9. ^ Popp, p. 16.
  10. ^ Arno Meteling: Automaten . In: Detlef Kremer (Ed.): ETA Hoffmann. Life - work - effect . 2nd Edition. Verlag Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / Boston 2012, ISBN 978-3-11-026831-7 , Systematic Aspects, p. 484-487 .
  11. Popp, p. 12 f.
  12. a b Klaus Deterding: ETA Hoffmann. The great stories and novels (=  introduction to life and work . Volume 2 ). Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2008, ISBN 978-3-8260-3817-4 , p. 164 .
  13. a b Popp, p. 13.
  14. a b Stefan Willer: Doppelganger . In: Detlef Kremer (Ed.): ETA Hoffmann. Life - work - effect . 2nd Edition. Verlag Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / Boston 2012, ISBN 978-3-11-026831-7 , Systematic Aspects, p. 487-489 .
  15. a b Popp, p. 13 f.
  16. ^ Popp, p. 53.
  17. Stefan Willer: Madness . In: Detlef Kremer (Ed.): ETA Hoffmann. Life - work - effect . 2nd Edition. Verlag Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / Boston 2012, ISBN 978-3-11-026831-7 , Systematic Aspects, p. 557-559 .
  18. a b c d e Steinecke, p. 1024.
  19. a b c d Ferro Milone, p. 71.
  20. a b Thomas Weitin: Night Pieces (1816/17) . In: Detlef Kremer (Ed.): ETA Hoffmann. Life - work - effect . 2nd Edition. Verlag Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / Boston 2012, ISBN 978-3-11-026831-7 , The literary work, p. 161-168 .
  21. ^ Gotthilf Heinrich Schubert: Views from the night side of natural science . Ed .: Heike Menges (=  writings of the romantic natural philosopher . Dept. I, volume 2 ). Klotz, Eschborn 1995, ISBN 3-88074-989-2 , p. 350 (reprint of the Dresden 1808 edition).
  22. ^ Popp, p. 16.
  23. Steinecke, p. 1023.
  24. a b Ferro Milone, p. 67.
  25. Popp, p. 17.
  26. Johann Christian Reil: Rhapsodies on the application of the psychic curse method on mental disruptions . Dedicated to the preacher Wagnitz. 1st edition. Curtsche Buchhandlung, Halle (Saale) 1803, p. 361 ( online ).
  27. a b c Ferro Milone, p. 70.
  28. Ferro Milone, p. 64.
  29. Ferro Milone, p. 71 f.
  30. a b Ferro Milone, p. 69.
  31. a b garden pavilion. In: Retrieved August 29, 2015 .
  32. a b cane: Something different behind the house: the garden pavilion. In: November 15, 2013, accessed August 29, 2015 .
  33. ^ Pavilion . In: Meyers Konversations-Lexikon . 4th edition. Volume 12, Verlag des Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig / Vienna 1885–1892, p. 794.
  34. Popp, p. 10.
  35. Popp, p. 12.
  36. a b Ferro Milone, p. 73.
  37. a b c Walther Harich: ETA Hoffmann. The life of an artist . tape 2 . Erich Reiß, Berlin, "The Vow" and "The Marquise von O.", p. 128–131 (probably 1st edition, 1920).
  38. Steinecke, p. 1025.
  39. a b Steinecke, p. 1022 f.