One of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s most ambitious efforts at Gothic fiction is also one of his most complex (which is saying something for Hoffmann): it is a dense mystery involving multiple plots layered one over the other, jumping back and forth in time, with unique casts of characters existing in each timeline.
Biographically, the framing narrative about a sexually frustrated man’s aborted dalliance with a married woman borrows from Hoffmann’s own scandalous attentions toward a woman ten years his senior named Dora Hatt. As with his most famous romantic obsession -- the uncomfortably young Julia Mark -- Dora was one of Hoffmann’s music students, but unlike Mark, she was a married woman with children. Their lessons began in 1794, but within two years her family – outraged by Hoffmann’s obvious and barely restrained lust – fired him (just as the Mark family would in 1812). “The Entail” was written in 1817, after both humiliating experiences, and in many ways Hoffmann blends the older, married Dora and the affianced ingénue Julia into "The Entail's" mysterious, femme fatale, Baroness Seraphina. Like so many of his masterworks, the story's emotional foundation is centered on deep, social humiliation, the orgasmic metaphor of making music, and the frustrations caused by a society burdened with rampant bureaucracy, shameless nepotism, and inflexible traditions.
An early example of the haunted house genre, “The Entail,” (a.k.a. “The Walled-Up Door”) has been cited as a strong influence on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and offers a brilliantly subtle ghost story built around a family curse, crossed-star lovers, repressed emotions, concealed crimes, and an intricate web of psychological symbolism. While the story is admittedly long and often confusing, its visionary embrace of the haunted house story drags the genre out of the Medieval melodramas of Radcliffe, Lewis, and Walpole, transporting it into a contemporary setting with understated rather than excessive Gothic touches. Set in the coastal stronghold of a Prussian nobleman, alchemist, and wizard, “The Entail” follows the trans-generational secrets and tragedies of his progeny as they scuffle over his estate, dragging family friends and servants into their vortex of disillusionment.
Unlike “Nutcracker,” “The Sand-Man,” or “The Stranger Child,” this story avoids Hoffmann’s preferred blend of fantasy, fairy tale, and weird fiction, and presents a straight forward ghost story (in the manner of “The Vampire,” “Mines of Falun,” and – well – “A Ghost Story”). It seems to foreshadow psychologically complex works of the same genre: “The Turn of the Screw,” “The Haunting of Hill House,” “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” “The Shining,” and Poe’s “Usher.” It demonstrates Hoffmann’s ability to conjure mood with restrained vigor – whipping up a believable atmosphere of doom and dread without being carried away into cheap clichés. A classic ghost story complete with hidden rooms, crumbling towers, sleep-walking murderers, buried treasure, dangerous heights, and adulterous lust, it offers a good read for a long, windy winter night, and promises many surprises along the way.
The story concerns the murky and sinister backstory of a gloomy castle perched on the edge of the Baltic Sea.
One snowy, winter night, an elderly lawyer named Theodore travels by sleigh with his great-nephew, also named Theodore, to the Baltic estate of the noble R—sitten family. Theodore the Elder is a legal advisor to the Baron Roderick R—sitten, and has been appointed the manager of the R--sitten castle, which the Baron only uses once a year for a winter hunt. This year, Teodore the Elder has invited his twenty-year-old namesake to go hunting with the Baron and his coterie.
The castle has fallen into disrepair, with the ruins of a collapsed tower crumbled into a massive chasm at its base. The occupants are two ghostly, elderly aunts dressed in decades-old fashion, and a handful of odd servants. The two Theodores are guided through a ruined, snow-swept wing to a bedroom where they sleep uneasily. Oddly, Theodore the Younger notices a bricked-up door at one end of the room.
That night, they both have bad dreams, with the Younger Theodore hearing a man moaning in the hallway and a series of ghostly sounds – scraping, voices, and phantom horses – coming from outside. In the morning the nephew relates his experiences and his uncle is deeply disturbed (apparently because he recognizes the details from an event in the castle’s past).
They decide to stay up all night to watch for the presumed ghost, and to their horror, both hear something moaning and scraping from behind the bricked up door that apparently led to the demolished tower outside. The Elder Theodore knowingly attempts to exorcise by reciting a phrase: “Daniel, Daniel! What are you doing here at this hour?” The words seem to do something to the ghost, whose sounds cease and are never heard again.
The next morning, Baron Roderick – a brusque and passionless man – has arrived with his young, melancholy wife, Seraphina. Theodore the Younger immediately falls in love with her, and when he learns that she has a deep appreciation for piano music, he buys a piano from the village and they begin spending all of their time together: the Baroness seems to find great spiritual relief both from his piano playing, and the presence of his watchful great-uncle.
Theodore the Elder views his great-nephew’s increasingly irrational love for the married woman with skeptical fear and attempts to shake him from her spell, while Roderick is seemingly unthreatened and only asks his young rival to help him dispel his wife’s manic obsession with the wandering ghost, and grimly requests that he ease off on their eroticized music sessions which he believes have been inflaming her already wild imagination.
During his increasingly dreamlike stay at the castle, Theodore the Younger eventually accompanies the Baron on a snow-swept hunt in the Baltic woodlands. Lost in a reverie, he is surprised by a wolf who attacks him, but manages to kill the beast. This ominous event brings him the further admiration of Seraphina – and the whole party – but seems to signal the beginning of the end.
He repeatedly regales her with exciting details from his encounters with the wolf and the scratching ghost – Seraphina’s favorite topic – but this sends her into a dangerous, manic episode: she falls violently ill with a brain fever and nearly dies during the night.
Ashamed by his having ignored Roderick’s warnings, and horrified at the results, Theodore the Younger has to be restrained from committing suicide, but his uncle succeeds in bringing him to his senses. The Baron seeks them out, furious at the nephew for his lack of discretion. He commands him to cease their music sessions, and explains that they have had a close call: Serphina is completely recovered and nothing is wrong with her – this time. Rattled by the experience, both Theodores depart abruptly that morning, leaving Theodore the Younger heartsick but alive.
Soon after, Theodore the Elder suffers a stroke when he reads a letter whose contents he refuses to share. Before his own death, he summons his great-nephew to his bedside and agrees to tell him about the castle’s strange past, filling in the missing pieces to the family's dark history, and helping convince the young man that he had been lucky to avoid becoming entangled in their history of betrayal and greed…
In the mid-18th century, Roderick’s grandfather, Roderick R—sitten the First (a greedy, eccentric alchemist who dabbles in the dark arts), is killed when his private, laboratory tower mysteriously collapses during a freak storm implied to have been conjured by his own astrological experiments.
This fact is discovered by his elderly steward Daniel, who opens the door to the tower and almost steps through it, but finds himself staring into wild space. According to Roderick's intentionally provocative will, the entire R—sitten estate is entailed to pass on to his oldest son, Wolfgang, a greedy cur who mistreats and browbeats Daniel in search of his father’s hidden cache of alchemical treasure, which is suspected to be lost amongst the inaccessible rubble below.
Incensed by his mistreatment, Daniel conspires with Wolfgang’s wastrel brother Hubert Sr. to side-step the stipulations of the entail through murder. One night, Daniel personally shoves Wolfgang to his death while the frustrated heir was standing at the tower door, staring into space, wondering about the treasures buried in the wreckage below. His last words are “Daniel, Daniel! What are you doing here at this hour?”
His murder hands the estate over to Hubert Sr. who has the tower door bricked up. When Hubert Sr. dies, his arrogant son, Hubert Jr., expects to be given R—sitten as a matter of course, but is shocked when his father’s will reveals that he has been aware of the existence of Wolfgang’s secret marriage to a commoner. Disapproving of his son’s clandestine marriage and child, Hubert Sr. disinherits him
Instead, the castle (and its legendary treasures) is given to this new heir – Roderick II, Seraphina’s husband – and Hubert Jr. is killed in a duel shortly after Hubert Sr.’s death.
Meanwhile, Theodore the Elder, as the family lawyer, has been carefully monitoring these events, and becomes suspicious that Daniel had a hand in Wolfgang’s death.
He verifies these suspicions when he catches the old steward sleepwalking – reenacting the murder (trying to unlock the bricked up door and attempting to saddle Hubert Sr.’s horse) and is given a formal confession from Daniel in professional confidence as a lawyer.
Unaware of this messy intrigue, Roderick II marries the beautiful noblewoman Seraphina and moves to the castle, using it as his winter headquarters. One night, he stumbles onto Daniel’s nighttime sleepwalking ritual, and accidentally utters his grandfather’s exact last words ("Daniel! Daniel! What are you doing at this hour?").
At the sound of those words, the old man immediately falls dead from guilt and horror, but his ghost almost immediately returns to continue its mission to soothe his conscience. Disturbed by Daniel’s continued haunting of R—sitten and fearful of his wife’s hysterical reaction to the ghost, Roderick II leaves the castle in the hands of Theodore the Elder, only visiting for his annual hunt. His nephew, of course, knows the rest.
What he doesn’t know are the contents of the letter that caused his uncle’s stroke: the dying man tearfully informs him that Serphina has been killed in a brutal sleighing accident: “the beautiful lady—has fallen a victim to the dark destiny, the grim, mysterious power which has established itself in that old ancestral castle.”
Apparently, two days after the Theodores had left R—sitten, the Baron arranged a sleigh ride to conclude their trip. He was driving Seraphina’s sleigh when the horses suddenly bolted. Looking backward, his wife began shrieking: “The old man! The old man is after us!” Her screams further terrified the horses, who overturned the sleigh, throwing her a great distance to her death. Brokenhearted, Roderick II became bedridden and died shortly after. And Theodore the Elder will soon follow: “We shall never go to R—sitten again, nephew,” are his tearful last words.
Sixteen years later, his nephew is driven from Prussia by the Napoleonic Wars, and begins working as a diplomat to the Russian Empire. One summer night, the now-mature Theodore the Younger travels past R—sitten during a trip between the two countries’ capitals, when he sees a bright, red light burning in the distance. He asks one of the coachman what it is and is told that it is the “light of R—sitten.”
The memories of Seraphina, the Baron, and his uncle flood him, and he deviates from his course to visit the castle. But when he arrives at the gate, he is greeted by a government official instead of a steward: he discovers that – according to the rules of the entail – now that Roderick has died childless, it has been handed over to the state. Now an utter ruin, the fallen stones have been used to build a government lighthouse (the light he saw), but no treasure is discovered during the construction. He explores the wreckage with a peasant who confirms that it is still haunted by Daniel’s ghost.
Thinking gloomily of the fatal cycle of greed and competition which the original Roderick began with his cursed entail, Theodore mourns the passing of this noble family and their ancient property into the system of state bureaucracy: “Poor short-sighted old Roderick! What a malignant destiny did you conjure up to destroy with the breath of poison, in the first moments of its growth, that race which you intended to plant with firm roots to last on till eternity!”
With all due respect to Hoffmann, “The Entail” virtually requires two or three reads before you can be expected to understand it – so if you leave it confused, take heart. The most confusing part of the plot, however, likely generates from a very intentional effort on Hoffmann’s to layer his story with overlapping leaves of time: characters who share the same names (Theodores, Huberts, and Rodericks) also tend share the same fates, and a gradual, adding to a complex patina of duplicating history. I do strongly recommend reading “The Walled-Up Door” twice (or even three times) in order to move past the plot and character names and warm up the deeper issues lurking beneath.
Hoffmann was heavily influenced by early German Romanticism – the “Storm and Stress” era of Goethe and Schiller – which emphasized strong emotion and passionate impulses. This is not, however, to say that he was celebrating or encouraging this impetuous attitude: rather, the entire plot seems to critique earlier generations for their lack of flexibility, magnanimity, and compassion. Theodore the Younger is poised to become infected by the older generations’ vices, but his great-uncle intervenes multiple times to keep him from making a stupid decision – unlike the greedy Wolfgang, the murderous Hubert Sr., or the cruel Hubert Jr., Theodore the Elder has maintained an open-minded, open-handed attitude, sometimes to his detriment.
The younger Theo is modelled in almost every respect on Goethe’s Young Werther, the suicidal manic-depressive protagonist of his first novel. In the 1770s and 1780s “Werther Fever” rocked Europe, leaving dozens of copy-cat suicides in Werther’s wake, and making his trademark blue jacket and yellow small-clothes a bold fashion statement for the 18th century’s Emo boys. Young Theodore, like Young Werther, finds himself consumed with a love for his best friend’s wife, and consummates a kiss with her during an emotionally climactic bonding over poetry.
Like his model, Theodore nearly turns a gun on himself, but his great-uncle – who has weathered nearly three generations of foolish choices, selfish impulses, and meaningless deaths (from murders, suicides, duels, and guilty consciences) – shakes him out of it by humiliating him at the height of his passion. Such clear-headed thinking could have saved Wolfgang from terrorizing Daniel, who would later kill him, could have saved Roderick II and his mother from being hidden and denied their rightful inheritance, could have saved Hubert Sr. from suffering from a lifetime of guilt. As he narrates the story, almost two decades later, Theodore the Younger reflects on his youthful passion with wry humor, recognizing his foolish exuberance for what it was.
But there is one character – the keystone uniting the first and second parts of the story – whose brutal end lingers in the imagination long after the story has been put down. Like Antonia in “Councilor Krespel,” Seraphina is opened up by music, and by opening up, she is made vulnerable – and through vulnerability she is destroyed. Seraphina holds the key to the R—sittens’ salvation; she offers them the opportunity to open their reclusive family up to the wider world – bringing new blood to the old blood, transfiguring repression into expression, and silence into singing. But she is threatened by the ghosts of R—sitten, and realizes that its labyrinth of secrecy is poised to consume her. Ironically, it is in singing and making music with Theodore the Younger that she most experiences her stifled existence: the expressiveness of their singing serves to accentuate the repressiveness of their surroundings.
Theodore the Elder and Roderick II both sense the danger the castle poses to Seraphina, and both understand the dangers posed by her music making – bringing out her native expressiveness and innocence into a hostile environment of despotic selfishness and brutal silence. Theodore the Elder complicates her biography by describing how the girl born in the late 1760s appears to have married Roderick II in the mid ‘60s, setting himself up as her friend, peer, and ally several years before her birth.
Critics like James M. McGlathery point out that it is likelier that Hoffmann has intentionally muddied Old Theo’s memory than that he forgot his timeline. Instead, McGlathery argues that the septuageniarian lawyer – who fawns over Seraphina’s attention (she desires his presence as a source of comfort and protection) and has a fatal stroke when he reads the news of her death – had invented a backstory with the teenage baroness.
Like most Hoffmann protagonists, he is an eccentric older male harboring a barely hidden passion for a much younger woman, and like Drosselmeier in “Nutcracker,” he uses his nephew’s attraction to her as a vicarious means of finding the acceptance he feels to be impossible. If we accept this interpretation (especially given its precedent in many of Hoffmann’s tales), we then see that both Theodores, encompassing between them the span of three generations, fail to protect and save the object of their shared affection. Both men, middle class outsiders with access to the R—sitten family, fail to override the momentum of time and society, leading to Seraphina’s unhappy, inevitable demise. But the true villain of the piece seems to be the society – its laws, customs, and traditions – that allowed such a tragedy to take place at all.
The German title, “Das Majorat,” or “The Entail,” refers to the legal machinery that ensures sibling rivalries, promotes murder and deceit, and leads three successive generations (Roderick I and Daniel, Wolfgang and Hubert Sr, Hubert Jr, Roderick II, and Seraphina) to miserable and preventative deaths. Roderick I dies because of his self-inflicted isolation; Wolfgang is murdered because of his greed-inspired cruelty; his assassin, Daniel, dies of shock induced by his burdened conscience; the orchestrator of the murder, Hubert Sr, lives a miserable life plagued by guilt; while his son dies in a hot-headed duel, and the final baron and baroness are innocent victims of R—sitten’s violent momentum.
All this, Hoffman-by-way-of-Theodore, ensures us, could have been avoided by eschewing the entail’s rigid legal apparatus, and having a more open-handed, open-hearted legacy available for all members of the family. In short, “The Walled-Up Door” is a critique of Prussian society – its prejudices, classism, inflexibility, bureaucratism, nepotism, sexism, and the glacial rate of social progress.