Nov 7, In Jeremias Gotthelf’s 19th century gothic horror story The Black Spider, newly translated by Susan Bernofsky, a young woman makes a pact. Apr 5, The Black Spider. by Jeremias Gotthelf. Translated by Susan Bernofsky. NYRB Classics, I picked up The Black Spider because of its. And yet, there it is, Jeremias Gotthelf’s “The Black Spider” (or, as it was titled in its original German, “Die schwarze Spinne”), holding pride of place in Jones.

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Having recently read her translations of Kafka and Walser, as well as many of her blog posts at Translationista.

The Black Spider By Jeremias Gotthelf – The

And although I rarely find blurbs to be helpful, I was further intrigued by the Thomas Mann quote printed on the back cover: The Black Spider contains a story within a story. The first of these, which is merely a frame for the second, begins with an idyllic scene at a farmhouse, where the baptism of a baby boy is being celebrated.

A great feast has been prepared for the spidder, and Gotthelf describes it in amusingly excessive detail.

When the first round of feasting has come to an end, one of the guests asks the grandfather to account for the ugly black window post that mars the otherwise beautiful home in which they have gathered. After some hesitation, jremias answers by telling them the story of the black spider.

It is at this point that the book becomes interesting. In return for his help, however, they must pay a terrible price.

Here it becomes clear that this is not the kind of fairy tale one might find among the stories of the Brothers Grimm, but a conspicuously Christian parable about the fate of the human soul.

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Jeremiss the green man is the devil, and the payment he demands is an unbaptized child. The peasants flee the green man in terror, and back at home they tell their wives about the dreadful circumstances they have fallen into.

There is much jfremias and wailing, but one peasant stands out gotthwlf all the others: At first it seems that Christine will be the heroine of this story, but in fact she becomes the villain.

The qualities that initially make her appealing to the reader—bravery, independence, curiosity—lead her to the devil. She meets with the green man when all the other peasants are afraid to do so; she makes the deal with him, and he seals it with a kiss.

Book Review: The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf

The green man keeps his side of the bargain, but Christine does not keep hers: The peasants rejoice, for they think they have outwitted the green man, but Christine does not join them.

A painful black speck appears at the place on her cheek where the green man kissed her. Christine tried to comfort herself, saying it was nothing, bpack would soon go away; but the pain did not let up, and imperceptibly the speck grew, blakc soon everyone could see it and asked about the black dot on her face. The sense of dread established in this scene becomes even more intense in the pages that follow.

The closer the day of the birth approached, the more terrible the burning in her cheek became, and the more the black spot swelled, stretching distinct legs out from jegemias center and sprouting little hairs; shiny gottheld and stripes appeared on its back, the bump became a head, and from it flashed glinting, venomous glances, as if from two eyes.


When the next child is born and Christine fails to deliver it to the green man, the spider on her face gives birth to innumerable other spiders. They scurry off into the night and spread across the valley like a horrific disease, killing the livestock wherever they go.

Another child is born, and this time Christine manages jsremias steal it from the mother and take it to the green man. Just before she hands it to him, however, the priest arrives and rescues it. The spider that was Christine terrorizes the valley just as the smaller spiders had, but this time it is the people who are killed, not the animals.

No one is safe from the spider; no weapons are effective in fighting it off. Only an act of courageous self-sacrifice will spidfr it.

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The Black Spider is so densely packed with symbolism and religious imagery that it carries the weight of a much longer novel. As a Christian parable it is predictable and heavy-handed, but as a horror story it is as haunting as the best works of Edgar Allan Poe. Although its author might have considered jeemias an essentially religious work, contemporary readers can enjoy it on a secular level and appreciate its literary merits without accepting its theological conclusions.


jerenias Kaempf is the founding editor of The Northwest Review of Books. An Interview with Hermione Lee. Susan Bernofsky’s Blog on Literary Translation. Kaempf April 5,