The Ironies of Degeneration: The Dilemmas of Bourgeois Masculinity in Theodor Fontane’s Frau Jenny Treibel and Mathilde Möhring

David S. Johnson


This article explores how Theodor Fontane’s novels Frau Jenny Treibel (1892) and Mathilde Möhring (1891/1895/1896) engage nineteenth-century literary and scientific discourses on degeneration. Although the young bourgeois men Leopold Treibel and Hugo Grossmann both share a devotion to a life of leisure and consumption and embody symptoms of degeneration, their portrayals are embedded with irony. Whereas both critical and celebratory accounts of the condition presuppose a normative bourgeois masculinity that is in need of either reinvigoration or continued subversion, Fontane’s novels provide cynical and ambivalent assessments of the state of bourgeois masculinity. Leopold’s and Hugo’s symptoms of degeneration not only demonstrate that conventional views about the role and capabilities of bourgeois men are no longer credible, but also point to the inability of any model of masculinity to possess and convey legitimacy, authority, and hegemony. (DSJ)

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