- Reinhard – best friend of Elisabeth, five years her senior. The novella is centered on his character and narrated as a flashback to several points in his life. He is already an old man at the beginning of the narrative, and returns to old age at the end, in the quasi-frame story. He is described as a Wanderer and his main physical characteristics are his hat and walking stick, markers of his migrant character. He has a very authoritative tone even as a child talking to Elisabeth. He presumes that one day they will be married and travel together to India (Orientalist fantasy). Their relationship is predicated on this assumption and hope. Reinhard has a taxonomical interest. It is unclear what his specific field of study is, but he dabbles in Botany (and teaches it to Elisabeth), and undertakes a Grimm-style task of collecting Märchen and other linguistic Merkmale of the regions through which he travels. Oddly, as a child and young man, he wrote his own Märchen, though some of them are very reminiscent of other stories (Biblical reference: story of Daniel in the Lion’s den, Classical reference: die drei Spinnerinnen – the fates). Ends up writing verse and his gift of a volume of poems to Elisabeth after his first year of study seems to mark the end of their relationship, although the poems are all clearly dedicated to her. He seems very tuned in to his surroundings, but often finds himself going awry and having surreal, Märchenhafte experiences in nature. He seems placeless, but simultaneously at home everywhere. A typical wanderer figure
- Elisabeth – best friend, worshiper of Reinhard. Clearly still a child for the first parts of the story, but acts and is portrayed as strangely mature for her age. She also has a very strong attachment to her mother and relies heavily on her mother’s input for decisions – she claims that she will not be allowed to travel to India (Reinhard assures her that by that time they will be married and no one will be able to tell her what to do, although by positioning himself as the authority at that point, he assumes the same power that he begrudges her mother), and it is implied that her mother convinced her to marry Erich instead. While she is not entirely without free will, Elisabeth’s life seems to be largely the result of other people’s actions. Platially, Elisabeth seems very much to rely on others’ directions. The one time that she does wander into nature on her own (as a five year old), Reinhard calls her back into the house (domesticity) that he has finished building for them. She allows herself to be steered spatially and directionally just as much as she allows herself to be steered in her life decisions. Here, her spatial helplessness seems to be a symptom or symbol of her willingness to surrender her own agency.
- Erich – very much a supporting actor. He assumes the position that Reinhard leaves vacant when he leaves to study. After his third proposal, he convinces (with the help of her mother) Elisabeth to marry him. He notably replaces the bird that Reinhard had given Elisabeth with a more stylish, less wild bird in a golden cage. He brings Elisabeth out of her rustic surroundings into a much more manicured, wealthier lifestyle. He seems to represent civilization/Bourgeoisie/manicured life, whereas Reinhard seems more to represent the wilder, less constrained life they had had as children.
- Elisabeth’s mother – she only speaks a couple of times, but is a constant presence. She seems to have steered Elisabeth away from Reinhard and toward Erich. However, at a crucial moment (after Reinhard’s recitation of a song about a mother steering her daughter away from the man she loved), she keeps Erich from following the visibly upset Elisabeth into the garden saying “she has things to do in the garden” or similar. She acts as a foil to Reinhard’s mother, whom Elisabeth gives a portrait of herself for Christmas, and who facilitates Elisabeth’s sending letters and gifts to Reinhard, as if she couldn’t send them on her own (was her mother forbidding it?).
- Die Zigeuner – they appear twice in the novella. Once, when Reinhard is away studying, at Christmas. He sees the woman singing a song about a love affair gone awry, which ends “allein soll ich sterben” or similar. She seems to try to seduce Reinhard, who is, at that moment, told that a Christmas package has arrived from his home. The smell of the Christmas cakes that his mother and Elisabeth have baked him fill his room (she seems to fill the room, in a way) and spill into the hall. The cakes have the letters of his name put on them with sugar – by Elisabeth, who seems to be affirming Reinhard’s identity in lieu of her own – and he gives half of them to a beggar. The second appearance of the Zigeuner is at the very end of his visit to Immensee, when they appear begging at the house as Reinhard and Elisabeth return from rowing on the lake. Elisabeth gives them all her money and Reinhard asks what else they could want. The woman answers that they could want nothing else and then repeats the last line of her song about dying alone. At this, he recognizes the woman (unheimlich) and seems also to realize that he has to leave Immensee.
His visit to Immensee to see Elisabeth and Erich is punctuated by a number of experiences in the landscape. He is caught in a rainstorm on his way back to the house and sees a seeming apparition of Elisabeth and is infuriated by her turning her back and going ahead of him back to the house. He goes walking along the banks of the See in the evening and swims out to see a Wasserlilie that seems to recede further away from him as he swims toward it. This results in a terrifying spatial confusion. The combination of his confusion and the belief that he is being pulled under by the water plants around him cause him to panic and head back for the shore, at which point he sees that the flower is exactly as far away as he originally thought it to be. This is a surreal almost Märchenhaft moment in the story. Finally, Elisabeth has been charged by Erich, with the task of showing Reinhard all the most beautiful places on their estate, while Erich and Elisabeth’s mother are mysteriously away on business. On their way back (with him steering, but Elisabeth still in charge of showing him the way – perhaps the only time they’re on equal footing, really), Reinhard has insights into Elisabeth’s character just from looking at her hand resting on the edge of the boat. When she realizes he’s staring at her hand, she lets it trail in the water. Later that night, he retraces their steps and ponders whether or not to leave.
Here, the question seems to be not where people are at home or what places seem to have the most importance or symbolic weight, but instead a question of who has authority in space. Reinhard is certainly the most authoritative when it comes to navigating space, doing most of the leading and almost never following. When he is following direction (given by Elisabeth at Immensee), he is still in physical control of their movements, piloting the boat. He also underscores his authority over natural space by undertaking natural historical/botanical categorization. This organizing impulse is carried over and he seems also to take control of language by trying to organize and categorize linguistic patterns and stories. His creative impulse seems to decrease after Elisabeth marries Erich – in the beginning, he composes his own Märchen and verses and clears new paths down which to guide Elisabeth (while they’re looking for strawberries, for instance – in that particular instance, however, his urge to move forward results in him leaving her behind.), whereas he ends by only categorizing others’ Märchen, sayings, and songs, and asks directions while on his approach to Immensee.
Narrated in the 3rd person, omniscient, although this seems illogical with the story playing out, as it does, in the context of Reinhard’s memories. He couldn’t know all he seems to remember. The novella is largely realistic, but has some romantic overtones, with a number of unheimlich moments and apparitions. There are many moments where one expects a magical occurrence, but Reinhard always seems to shake off any romantic/magical action.
Temporal tension. Frame narrative takes place in the Present, where Reinhard is an old man. In the space of a few moments, perhaps, of real time, he revisits his ten year old self, his seventeen year old self, and himself as a young-middle-aged man before returning to his present self in old age.
Mix of genres - Lyric moments are very important and take the place of narration for major moments in the story.