Another Dead Body: A Review of "The Adventure of the German Student" by Washington Irving
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
How many books has everyone read since self-quarantining? Also let me know what you’ve read so I can add them to my ever growing to be read list that I’ll probably not get to for quite a few years. Anyway, I’m personally working on reading The Hunger by Alma Katsu during this period of time. We’re not talking about that book today though, I’m nowhere near done with it, so we’ll be talking about another short horror story this week: “The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving.
Originally published in 1824, “The Adventure of the German Student” follows Gottfried Wolfgang, aka our German Student, over the course of one night in Paris during the French Revolution.
Before we unpack everything that happens during the course of one night, we need to talk about Wolfgang. In short, he’s a depressed fuckboy.
All the backstory that Washington Irving gives on the main character is that this guy is in Paris to study at some school in France because he was too good for the schools in Germany, and because he was becoming depressed due to his studies while in his home country. It’s heavily implied that at one point this man was basically getting high all the time and hiring sex workers. So his friends and family literally thought it would be best for this man to go to Paris, France, right at the start of the French Revolution, in hopes to improve this man’s mental state.
That doesn’t work, and instead this man hoes it up even more. Irving writes that Wolfgang spends his time looking at porn in his small apartment. While Irving claims that his character is “too shy and ignorant of the world to make any advances to the fair,” too much of the character’s backstory points to him being from a well-to-do family with enough money to spend on physical pleasures whenever he wishes.
But go ahead, try to change my mind on this matter. I dare you.
So, Hannah, what is the actual plot of the book then?
Oh, let me tell you. Our depressed fuckboy is wandering around on a dark and stormy night. Where does he wander, you may ask? He wanders to the guillotine where there is definitely blood from that day’s executions, and where there is a random young lady sitting on the stairs of the guillotine’s platform. It takes about .2 seconds for our fuckboy to “fall in love” with her and invite her back to his tiny, porn filled apartment.
Once home, he thinks of doing the “gentlemanly” thing of allowing her to have the apartment to herself while he finds new housing for the night, but instead he asks her to marry him because she’s the most beautiful woman he has ever met.
It’s heavily implied that the pair sleep together, especially considering the ending which I’ll spoil for you shortly, but nothing is explicitly said of the matter. Flash-forward to the next morning where, after spending the night canoodling with his new fiancé, he leaves the tiny apartment to find something more spacious only to return a few hours later to a shocking scene.
This is where I once again spoil everything about the ending of this story. Skip the next few paragraphs if you don’t want to know the ending.
For those who already know the ending, or don’t mind being spoiled, here is what our fuckboy returns to.
It’s a dead body.
His fiancé lays dead in the bed. But, guess what, it gets worse.
Wolfgang freaks out and leaves. When he returns to the apartment with cops to explain the situation, the cops drive the main character to absolute madness. The cops, fairly nonchalantly, tell Wolfgang that his future bride was executed via guillotine the morning before. Oh, then they proceed to remove the choker the woman had been wearing and her head falls off; thus proving that she was killed the day before.
Honestly, this is quite the iconic ending. I feel like even before I read this short story I knew the ending, and have seen many other works inspired by this piece. Of course the most famous piece inspired by “The Adventure of the German Student” is a short children story “The Green Ribbon” about the woman who wears a green choker to keep her head on. Points to “The Adventure of the German Student” for inspiring creepy stories for generations.
My only qualm with this story is the woman’s motivation. Why did her spirit, or a spirit, inhabit her body to drive Wolfgang mad? Is this spirit evil? If it was the actual woman’s spirit, then why did she choose to remain near the guillotine instead of getting revenge on those who executed her? Listen, if I was executed during the French Revolution, and had to option to stay for the remainder of the day, you can bet that I would be haunting my killers.
Washington Irving does throw in the idea that there is some “evil spirit” haunting Wolfgang, thus causing him to turn to drugs and porn. Therefore, it is possible that this evil spirit haunting Wolfgang takes control of this dead woman’s body to lure him towards more depravity and eventual madness.
Personally, I don’t believe that there is an evil spirit haunting the main character. I think the main character is just making poor decisions, and is suffering from depression. So that leaves a plethora of questions for me about the woman and spirit inhabiting her body. I know that’s probably the point of the story, but I want answers! I don’t want to analyze books or stories all the time. Sometimes, I just want answers, and there are too many unanswered questions at the end of this one.