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The Emotive Textualities of Wilhelm Jensen’s Karin von Schweden


This article traces the emotive textuality in Wilhelm Jensen’s (1837–1911) Karin von Schweden (1872), which is an anomaly in the author’s expansive oeuvre of over 160 prose works in that it is one of his very few literary successes. Drawing on work in cognitive literary theory and emotion studies, the essay identifies emotive textualities in (1) the text’s emphasis on characters’ interiority through an extensive interest in fostering readerly attribution of thoughts, emotions, and motivations to actions of fictive characters (or, Theory of Mind, as cognitive sciences call the process), and (2) the text’s emphasis on facilitating readerly empathetic alignment with figures. The goal is to use the emotive textuality as a way to situate Jensen’s text in the context of sentimental fiction and the author’s personal populist style.

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  1. Zunshine extends her initial claims about Theory of Mind by considering in detail the role of body language (real or fictive) in engaging our mindreading capacity (Zunshine 2012).

  2. Zunshine here refers to Sperber’s (2000) influential edited volume on metarepresenation to define and engage with the term.

  3. See also Breithaupt’s English-language shorter work on the three-person model of empathy (2011, 1–8).

  4. Translations are mine.

  5. The side-taking in observing an interaction between at least two figures in an empathy-inducing situation departs from the use of “identifying with” figures, because taking on the “identity” of another is not a necessary step for empathy (Breithaupt 2009, 168).

  6. Jensen regularly wrote prose starting with the novella Magister Timotheus in 1866 until his death.

  7. Emphasis in original. Saul estimates Jensen’s average imprint to be 2000 exemplars whereas Ebers could reach up to ten imprints with a total of 30,000 exemplars printed in a year alone (2012, 59).

  8. Between 1899 and 1907 the text jumped from its ninth imprint to its eighteenth with Paetel, signaling a surge in interest in the novella. Paetel indeed lists in a 1921 advertisement Karin von Schweden’s imprint numbers as 49, whereas the second highest imprint was reserved for the novella Die braune Erika, which was in its eighth imprint that year (Weihnachts-Anzeiger: Deutsche Rundschau 1921, 32). Sigmund Freud’s famous study of Jensen’s Gradiva (1903), in which he identifies the formation of the Oedipal complex in “normal” adults and which forms one of the first psychoanalytic readings of literature, has subsequently received most attention from scholars. The novel counts as the most studied of Jensen’s works for this very reason, but not necessarily one that endured with popular audiences (Gay 2006, 320–21; Downing 2006, 87–167; Rohrwasser et al. 1996).

  9. See also an anonymous review of the novella in the respected literary and cultural magazine Die Grenzboten, which proclaims Karin von Schweden “die beste historische Novelle, die Wilhelm Jensen geschrieben hat” (Anonymous 1878, 519).

  10. Jensen received the highest praise for his historical fiction from Erdmann (1909). For an overview of the popularity of historical fiction throughout the nineteenth century, see Peterson (2005, 13).

  11. Kirsten Belgum notes that one of the most attractive features of Marlitt’s romance and social fiction was the “opportunity [her depiction of women] provided to live out the experience of desire,” a hallmark of popular sentimental fiction (2002, 276).

  12. A look at the range of features of popular literature captured in Karin von Schweden further substantiates a claim about Jensen’s wishes to appeal to audiences by replicating modes and motifs successful on the market. The fact that the novella’s title character is a woman would have appealed to the growing female readership of the time period cultivated through the success of romance and domestic fiction of, for example, Marlitt. Next, Jensen writes in the popular mode of historical fiction, for which he became widely known. Finally, Jensen taps into a growing interest in the 1860 s onward in things Scandinavian. (Erdmann 1907, 145–47). For an overview of the popularity of sentimental literature, see Tatlock (2010, 9). Sammons notes that the novel can be read alongside the anti-Dane sentiment and the pro-German enthusiasm of the Gründerzeit (Sammons 1993, 120). Additionally, the text’s extensive interest in Swedish folklore and history matches that of the other stories that appeared in the novella cycle Nordlicht.

  13. Naming Jensen’s novel Die Katze (1895) as an example of such a lack of aesthetic distinction, Busse notes the conspicuously hurried manner in which the work had been composed, citing as evidence an unsuccessful replication of a scene from an earlier piece: “Mit einer Ungenirtheit, die recht merkwürdig ist, hat sich Jensen selbst abgeschrieben. Da wird geschildert, wie die Freifrau von einem wüthenden Stier verfolgt wird, wie der Hauslehrer sich dazwischen wirft, wie er ihr das Leben rettet. Derselbe wüthende Stier lief schon in dem Roman In der Fremde herum, capricirte sich auch damals auf eine Dame, wurde auch damals durch einen jungen Mann abgelenkt, und macht in der Katze trotzdem dasselbe Experiment wieder” (Busse 1895, 467).

  14. Denkler notes that even Jensen’s wife, Marie, criticized her husband for his "Schwulst, Klischeehaftigkeit, Massenproduktion ohne Ausdruckszwang und Einstandsgewähr” (Denkler 2003, 99).

  15. Jensen himself said that his early years were by no means easy years as author: he had issues finding publishers, but this does not seem to be the case as his career progressed (Jensen 1894, 175).


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Correspondence to Ervin Malakaj.

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Malakaj, E. The Emotive Textualities of Wilhelm Jensen’s Karin von Schweden . Neophilologus 102, 59–74 (2018).

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  • Wilhelm Jensen
  • Wilhelmine literature
  • Nineteenth-century German literature
  • Publication history
  • Mindreading
  • Cognitive approaches to literature