Heinrich Heine: Dreams in A Winter's tale. A New Historicist Approach.

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2000
15 Pages, Grade: A-


Heinrich Heine: Dreams in Deutschland – A Winter's Tale.

Texts do not come out of the blue. This could be the motto of those literary theorists that apply the method of the "new historicism", a procedure for interpreting texts that has become popular in the 1980s. New historicism aims at revealing power relations that are reflected but hidden in texts. Taking into account historical and cultural backgrounds – both at the time of a text's production and at the time of its reception – this approach implies that there is no l'art pour l'art. Instead, all texts are considered products of specific historical conditions and therefore imbued with cultural, social and political elements. For this reason, texts function as vehicles of politics insofar as they negotiate the fabric, which includes social, political and cultural formations, of the respective historic conditions. Following this train of thought, one has to object to the simplistic distinction between literature and history and favor a complex dialogue between them.

Such a complex dialogue between text and history can be clearly seen in Deutschland. A Winter's Tale[1] by Heinrich Heine. Having been aware of the functionality of literature and the intertextuality of discourses, his motto, when he was writing the travel story in 1844, could have been: dreams do not come out of the blue either. The four dream narrations that are part of the text are, just as the whole text itself, embedded in the political context of Heine's time, called the Restoration or, when referring to the March revolution in 1848, Vormärz. How and to what extent the interpretations of the dream narrations in Deutschland. A Winter’s Tale depend on and interfere with the political situation in the middle of the nineteenth-century is the content of this paper.

One may wonder why the four dreams, which make up a comparatively small part of the whole text, are of such importance. At first sight the travel story and the frequent descriptions and comments on the current political situation in Germany seem much more relevant. From the point of view of a new historicist, however, all texts sorts should be regarded equal and inter-dependent, for they all contribute to a (subjective) construction of the world:

Representations of the world in written discourse are engaged in constructing the world, in shaping the modalities of social reality, and in accomodating their writers, performers, readers, and audiences to multiple and shifting subject positions within the world they both constitute and inhabit. (ML, 778)

Written texts sorts are to be treated equally if one accepts the thesis of "the historicity of texts as well as the textuality of history" (ML, 781). Then, history is not an objective knowledge which can be applied to explain a literary text, and literature is not just a medium for the expression of historical knowledge, but it plays an active part in the construction of a particular historical moment.

Accepting the historicity of all texts, new historicists work with sources from a variety of disciplines and discourses for the analysis of a piece of literature. Furthermore, this approach even justifies an application of discourses that have come into existence before or after the work in question – as long as they can contribute to its interpretation and evaluation. For the interpretation of the dreams in Heine's Deutschland. A Winter's Tale I will make use of this methodological advantage and apply various sources that range from ancient times up to the 20th century.

Considering the fact that the interpretation of dreams has always been of interest, one may wonder why this should be the case at all. It is a fact that everybody dreams, and insofar they are real. This reality can be approached in different ways. One approach is to belief that dreams help to digest the previous day. In the introduction to his book Die Traumdeutung, Freud declares that each dream is a "sinnvolles Gebilde [], welches an angebbarer Stelle in das seelische Treiben des Wachens einzureihen ist" (FS, 13). Dreams are meaningful because they are triggered by real experiences that are re-experienced and coped with in the dream.

It is this interdependence of reality and dream that has been taken up by Heine in Deutschland. A Winter's Tale. In the first dream, for instance, the narrator's experience of the previous day is even emphasized, and the other dreams, too, incorporate facts from the narrator's "real" experiences during his journey through Germany. Like the narrator, Heine was travelling through Germany in 1844, and most probably he has made similar experiences. Then the narrator's statements and dreams about the situation in Germany may resemble those of Heine so that we can get an idea of Heine's attitude towards his native country.

Another important function of dreams is that they are regarded as a trigger to perform a certain action in the "real" world. This close relationship between dream and action, dream and reality, or dream and politics is not a new invention as Tögel and Zürcher have shown in their analyses of ancient dreams, e.g. the dreams in the Gilgamesch epos in Homer‘s Ilias. Likewise, Heine‘s narrations of dreams in Deutschland. A Winter's Tale are meant to provoke action, not on the side of the dreaming narrator but on the side of the readers.

That literature can have far-fetching effects on history seems to be a universal knowledge. Not only Plato feared the corrupting influence of literature for which reason he suggested to banish poetry from the ideal state. Moreover, almost each nation has a literary canon, and the mere existence of such a canon affirms that literature does have an effect: a nation's cultural achievements are read over and over again and finally believed by millions of people. Thus, a literary canon takes part not only in constituting but also in preserving a culture. If, however, stories are about to circulate or already circulating that do not conform with the approved canon, then those to whom these alternative stories may cause harm will react to them. One form of reaction could result in legal regulations or censorship of the production of culture in general and its distribution. Nowadays, for instance, certain programs are not recommended to teenagers, and at Heine’s time there were repressive laws such as the Karlsbader Beschlüsse (1919) or the prohibition of not only the older but also all future works of a group of writers called Junges Deutschland (1835), whose writers were considered too progressive and hostile to the current government. Even though Heine was not one of their members the publication of his writings was forbidden as well.

In this political power of texts new historicists believe as well:

Cultural analysis of texts is not so much the discovery of latent order as it is a recognition of what texts do or how they work. Rather than accepting certain representations of political order as descriptive, new historicists see such representations as productive of order. Furthermore [...] for any text there will always be other representations, other stories as well as disruptions in the dominant or empowered representations (CC 204).


[1] The original title is Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen. For this paper I will only use and quote from the English translation by Reed.

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Heinrich Heine: Dreams in A Winter's tale. A New Historicist Approach.
University of Connecticut  (German)
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Heinrich, Heine, Dreams, Winter, Historicist, Approach
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MA Susanne Kaufmann (Author), 2000, Heinrich Heine: Dreams in A Winter's tale. A New Historicist Approach., Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/24007


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