Analysis of Christa Wolf’s Divided Heaven

Divided Heaven, the second novel by German author Christa Wolf (1929–2011) became an immediate best seller and a critical success upon publication: The initial 160,000 copies and 10 editions sold out within a few months. Divided Heaven chronicles Rita Seidel’s reflections on her life when her boyfriend, Manfred Herrfurth, escapes from East to West Germany; after he leaves, Rita experiences a physical and mental breakdown. The novel’s time span runs from 1959 to 1961 and ends with the erection of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961. The book’s settings move from Rita’s home village to Halle and West Berlin, and it includes autobiographical elements from Christa Wolf’s life. Divided Heaven moves from the present (1961) to the past (1959) when Rita first meets Manfred, and then the book chronologically tells of the events that lead to her accident and hospital stay. In the course of the novel, she develops from a shy, uncertain woman to an independent, self-confident one.

The novel opens as Rita awakes from unconsciousness in a hospital and a doctor wonders what led to her mental breakdown. Rita them reflects on the events of the previous two years. As the story goes back two years, she meets Manfred Herrfurth, a chemist, at a dance in her village, and for her it is love at first sight. Rita decides to become a teacher and follow Manfred to Halle, where she moves in with his family. She must complete a practicum in a factory as part of her studies and volunteers to work at an all-male railroad car factory. During the novel, Rita moves between the worlds of workers at the factory and intellectuals as she studies and lives with the Herrfurths.

In fact, the novel’s primary setting is the factory, where Rolf Meternagel, an older worker, becomes her mentor. At one time Meternagel had a prominent job, but he was demoted after a series of dubious circumstances. The event that cost Meternagel his position turns out not to be his doing, and his reputation is later restored. Unfortunately, his health is now irreparably damaged. While Rita works at the factory, there is a crisis when not enough parts are delivered and production must be shut down. This crisis in the factory is reflective of the economic crisis then being experienced in the eastern part of Germany. Despite the human and economic problems, Rita becomes committed to socialism as she works in the factory.

In contrast, Manfred becomes frustrated in his work, and when an improved machine he has developed is rejected by company bureaucrats, he leaves for the West. Throughout the novel, mention is made of characters that have fled for the West. Although Rita follows him, she returns to the East and dedicates herself to socialism; she has confidence in the system, whereas Manfred does not. It is thus not only the two Germanys and the Berlin Wall that rip the couple apart, but also their different ideologies. The separation from Manfred precipitates a suicide attempt, which Wolf depicts as an accident. By doing this, the author assured that the East German government would accept the novel since it frowned on suicide.

The East German government followed the Soviet Union’s model of socialist realism, which called for literature that reflected everyday human life. Novels or stories had to have positive heroes who set an example for everyone and coped well with life. Divided Heaven is an outgrowth of the Bitterfelder Weg, in which the East German government called for intellectuals and workers to work together to promote socialism. The Bitterfelder Weg was a cultural program created in 1959 by the Socialist Unity Party, which urged workers to write their own stories in writing circles. This, however, did not pan out, and instead writers worked on literature about workers and their problems. Christa Wolf’s own life experiences make their way into Divided Heaven since Wolf worked in a railroad car factory herself, worked in a clerical office and had an extended stay at a hospital.

In Divided Heaven, Wolf examines the “German question” about the separation and distancing of Germany’s two sections. The West was prosperous while the East went through economic difficulties, which led to skilled workers leaving the East for the West. This in turn led the East German government to build the Berlin Wall. While Divided Heaven does deal with the problems of the two Germanys growing apart, universal themes such as love, independence, finding one’s purpose in life, and alienation abound in the work. While the novel speaks about divisions, Rita’s accident is a result of the strain of the divisions and is depicted as an accident. At the time of Rita’s accident, two railway cars are coming at her from two directions and she “falls” between two colliding cars. Rita’s stay in hospital and subsequent therapy help her find her way to a new positive beginning in the East.

Divided Heaven was awarded the Heinrich Mann Prize and was made into a film for which Christa Wolf wrote the script.

Analysis of Christa Wolf’s Cassandra

Baumer, Franz. Christa Wolf. Berlin: Colloquium, 1988.
Böthig, Peter. Christa Wolf: Eine Biographie in Bildern und Texten. Munich: Luchterhand, 2004.
Finney, Gail. Christa Wolf. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999.
Resch, Margit. Understanding Christia Wolf: Returning Home to a Foreign Land. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1977.

Categories: German Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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