If Balzac were a freethinker
by Adolph von Menzel
Edwin, a philosopher and tutor, lives with his younger brother Balder, a semi-crippled young man who ekes out a meager living in woodworking. The pair dwell in a small flat above a shoemaker’s shop. With such poor-paying professions, the brothers live a Spartan lifestyle, but the joy they find in each other’s company alleviates the squalor of their surroundings. A few good friends frequent the brothers’ austere salon, armed with contrasting philosophical views that make for lively intellectual discourse. One night, the gift of a theatre ticket gives Edwin a reprieve from this comfortable but limited social circle. In the theatre he spies a beautiful young woman and experiences love at first sight, even though he knows the aristocratic beauty is out of his league.
A big difference between Balzac and Heyse is that the former was a Catholic while the latter was a freethinker. Roughly half the characters in Children of the World, most notably Edwin, are freethinkers—atheists, materialists, pantheists, and the like. The title Children of the World refers to these freethinkers, as opposed to the believers in religion, the Children of God. The main plot of the book does not revolve around Edwin’s atheism, however. The novel is primarily a love story. In fact, there are so many love triangles in this book they practically interlock into a star of David, and this was the era when unrequited love would cause physical illness and even death. The freethinking theme is woven throughout the narrative as a simple fact of the character’s lives. Edwin and his friends express their distaste at how religion is forced upon them at every celebration of birth, death, or marriage. When Edwin’s godless views become public knowledge, his career as a teacher is threatened. For the freethinking reader, it is refreshing to read a novel from this era that treats atheism and the prejudice against it as a matter of simple fact. One of the villains in the story is a religious hypocrite who simulates piety for his own gain. Heyse also tackles the class system by pointing out the shallowness and hypocrisy of the nobility in contrast to Edwin and friends’ more secularly righteous working-class lives.
Be warned before starting, this is a very long book. When first published in English in 1882, it was split into three volumes. Later editions crammed it all into about 600 tightly packed pages. Once the reader gets involved in these characters lives, however, it is a pleasure to watch the story unfold. The book’s main fault lies in one of Edwin’s love interests, who is portrayed too idealistically and is prone to annoying emotional histrionics. Though the book is quite modern in its philosophical ideas, its treatment of romance is still very much rooted in whatever was the German equivalent of the Victorian Era. Nevertheless, this is still a very worthwhile read for lovers of classic literature, particularly for those who share Edwin’s godless inclinations.
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