Back to top

’Free man’ in Eduard Bornhöhe’s The Avenger

Cultural memory, travelling forms, and the boundaries of the Estonian nation

The article deals with the most prominent text of the first wave of Estonian historical fiction, which is Eduard Bornhöhe’s Tasuja (1880,"The Avenger"). The novella is exemplary of the role of historical fiction as the medium of cultural memory in the Estonian nation building period of the second half of the 19th century. However, while the previous research on the text has underscored the creation of the figure of a militant national hero, the article explores the trope of the ’free man’ created in the novella, searching its roots in the contemporary historical culture, social reality as well as literature. On the one hand, the novella borrows extensively from other media of cultural memory such as early modern chronicles and contemporary texts of popular history. On the other hand, the figure of the free man who stands in between conflicting social classes is a literary device typical of Walter Scott’s historical novel. The article traces Scott’s influence on Bornhöhe through Alexandre Dumas’s rendering of the stories of Wilhelm Tell. in the line with Franco Moretti’s idea of travelling forms the article then explores how the type of the protagonist, foreign to the contemporary idealistic context of Estonian literature, became productive in the local context in drawing the boundaries of the nation. Whereas in many literatures the historical novel has had a streamlining function working for the erasure of borders within a nation, in the Estonian context, the article argues, the 19th-century historical fiction worked primarily to strengthen the border between Estonians and other ethnicities (Baltic Germans, Russians etc) of the Baltic area. In conclusion the article opens up a new perspective on the history of the 19th-century Estonian fiction which has traditionally been discussed in terms of belated romanticism and lack of stylistic unity. In taking cue from Moretti’s idea of travelling forms the stylistic heterogeneity is reinterpreted as a sign of multiple incoherent innovations in the national literary tradition.