The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Entail" (1817)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Entail” (original: “Das Majorat”) was written by E.T.A. Hoffmann and first appeared in Nachtstücke 2 (1817). Hoffmann (1776-1822) was a major figure of the German Romantic movement and is now remembered for his music and fiction, which is regarded highly. Hoffmann is an important historical figure, both in the Romantic movement and in the history of fantastic fiction. “The Entail” is not as widely known as “Mademoiselle de Scudéry” or “The Sandman,” but which is well-regarded by the critics. Most modern readers will be underwhelmed by it, however.
“The Entail” tells the story of Freiherr Roderick von R-----, a practitioner of astronomy (and perhaps the Black Arts). Roderick offends “an august princely house”1 and is kicked out of his home at Courland and forced to take up residence in his ancestral castle. Roderick does not blame those who drove him from Courland; rather, he blames his predecessors, who left the ancestral castle at R----- unfinished. Roderick entails the castle, so that the estate cannot be given to just anyone; by the terms of Roderick’s will, the estate can only be handed down under certain conditions. The entail causes an argument between Roderick’s sons, Wolfgang and Hubert, who are both possessed by greed and a desire for Roderick’s wealth and the property. Wolfgang, the elder, gains the property, but his greed leads him to be cruel to his steward, Daniel. Daniel, nursing his slights, plots with Hubert to kill Wolfgang and then carries out the murder himself. Hubert is grief-stricken by Wolfgang’s death and does not long enjoy ownership of the castle. Hubert’s son becomes haughty, arrogant, and avaricious as soon as he enters the castle, and so Roderick’s original sin or curse descends from generation to generation until there are no more von R-----‘s left and the castle itself is in ruins.
"The Entail” may have been influential on Edgar Allan Poe when he was writing “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Certainly, the critics think so.2 There are some similarities between the works, including the crumbling ancestral house haunted by a family curse, incest (cousins marry in “The Entail”), and music used to stir the passions of characters. But Poe did far better at maintaining a doomed atmosphere. “The Entail” is a shambles, a story with a sprawling, overfull plot told at too great a length and with reverses in narration that add nothing to the story and in fact spoil what momentum the story builds up. It is hard to tell what Hoffmann intended with “The Entail,” although the critical argument that Hoffmann wrote under the influence of Schiller’s “The Ghost-Seer” (which is referenced in the text itself) seems a sound one;3 Schiller was a hero of Hoffmann, and the Schiller Hoffmann had in mind was the Sturm und Drang (see: Romanticism) Schiller, the Schiller of The Robbers.4
Unlike “The Sandman,” which is a well-written story about insanity, “The Entail” lacks enough supernatural material to be a competent ghost story (although the ghost of Daniel appears, it is handled in an offhand manner) and lacks enough atmosphere to make the story of the doomed family affecting in any way. The narrator of the first half of the story, who falls in love with the wife of the current Freiherr, was undoubtedly a protagonist the Romantics could root for, but modern readers are likely to find him annoying, juvenile, and lacking in attractive qualities. The first half of the story has at least adequate characterization, but the second half, in which the story of the family curse is revealed, lacks that.
Whatever Hoffmann’s intentions in writing “The Entail,” he failed.
Print: J.A. Cuddon, ed., The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
1 E.T.A. Hoffmann and J.T. Bealby, “The Entail,” Weird Tales (London: J.C. Nimmo, 1885), 224.
2 As far back as 1904 Gustav Gruener took it as a given in “Notes on the Influence of E.T.A. Hoffmann on Edgar Allan Poe” (PMLA 19, no. 1 : 1-25).
3 Kenneth Negus, “The Allusions to Schiller’s Der Geisterseher in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Das Majorat: Meaning and Background,” The German Quarterly 32, no. 4 (Nov. 1959): 341-355.
4 Negus, “Allusions to Schiller,” 343-344.