|Author||Annette von Droste-Hulshoff|
It has been considered as potentially one of the first murder mysteries and is indeed often viewed as a crime thriller or Gothic fiction. The book is full of implications and red herrings while there is no definitive answer as to what actually happened.
The story is based on a real-life 18th-century report provided by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's uncle, the agronomist and writer August von Haxthausen. The events take place in the village of B. (Dorf B.) in the Westphalian mountains, which represents Bellersen in the former Prince-Bishopric of Paderborn, today part of the town of Brakel. The plot reflects the conditions of anarchy, bigotry, and antisemitism in a microstate's society of the disintegrating Holy Roman Empire.
The main character of the novella, whose life we follow from beginning to end. It is never conclusively proved, but he is accused of the murder of the Jew Aaron, who vanished from his home. Friedrich also had to give evidence in the inquest into the murder of Brandis.
His mother Margreth (maiden name Semmler) was the second wife of Hermann Mergel. We learn that she died insane, literally driven mad by the tragic events of her life, mistreated by her husband and abandoned by her beloved son.
Friedrich's father, a drunkard, beat both his wives, while there is also an implication that he raped Margreth. However, he sincerely loved his son and always brought him little treats. Returning drunk in the night, he died of hypothermia during a winter storm when Friedrich was nine years old.
Margreth's brother, a bachelor, who adopts his nephew Friedrich when his father died. He is shown to be a bad influence, as Friedrich's personality undergoes dramatic changes after associating with him. Simon seems to be involved in illegal logging within the surrounding forests. He may be the father of Johannes.
Johannes Niemand ("John Nobody")
A mysterious character, who seems to become Friedrich's shadow. He is Simon's pig herdboy, and it is implied that he is also his illegitimate son. He is very similar physically to Friedrich, as shown when his mother mistakes the two on their first meeting. He and Friedrich disappear on the same day.
A forester who is found dead in the woods with an axe in his head. One reading of the novella is that Friedrich killed him, as they had an unfriendly encounter shortly before and he later appears frightened when confronted with the hatchet, but probably Simon is the murderer, using an old axe of his that Friedrich recognised.
The Jew Aaron was a usurer who sold Friedrich the pocket watch which, seemingly, belonged to Franz Ebel first. He sold the watch on credit and had not received payment for some time. He publicly demands payment at a wedding reception, humiliating Friedrich. Aaron was found slain under a beech three days later, becoming the second murder victim in the story.
- Full text of Die Judenbuche and other works of von Droste-Hülshoff at Zeno.org (German)
- Full text of The Jew's Beech-Tree in English