Johanna Spyri: Heidi, the Girl from the Alps

Heidi, the Girl from the Alps, a two-volume novel written by Johanna Spyri (born in 1827 in a small village, died in the city of Zurich in 1901), was published in 1879 / 1880, became a world-wide success story already towards the end of the 19th century and children do still like it today - as a book, as a radio play and as a movie.

Heidi is by far the most popular piece of Swiss literature ever written and has been translated from German into 50 languages, been filmed more than a dozen times, and more than 50 million copies of Heidi books have been sold world-wide (Switzerland's population is only 8 million ...).

Summary of Johanna Spyri's Heidi Story

The orphan child Heidi first lives with her aunt Dete, but Dete would like to concentrate on her career. So she brings Heidi to her grandfather, a queer old man living in an alpine cottage far from the next village (he is therefore called Alm-Uncle, Alpöhi or Almöhi in German). Alm-Uncle is good-hearted but mistrusts anybody and wants to keep the child from all evils of the world. So he refuses to send Heidi to school; instead she goes to the pastures, together with Peter, a shepherd boy looking after the goats.

Swiss goats

These Swiss goats might look much like Alm-Uncle's goats Little Bear and Little Swan.

This (all too harmonious) alpine idyll finds a sudden end when aunt Dete comes in again and brings Heidi to Frankfurt (Germany) where she shall stay with Clara, the paralyzed daughter of a rich family, and is supposed to learn something.

Heidi who has never seen a town, least a city, travels a distance of over 500 km (300 miles) to one of the largest European cities situated in a foreign country with a different culture.

downtown Frankfurt/Main

Downtown Frankfurt may have looked quite like this by the end of the 19th century

Thanks to the grandmother of Clara, Heidi learns to read and write, but she can't get acquainted to the strict discipline in a bourgeois upper class house (personified by governess Fraulein Rottenmeier). Heidi is very lonely and gets depressed by the gray anonymous city. She becomes ill of homesickness and starts to walk in her sleep. Miss Rottenmeier is alarmed, not because of the fate of the poor child, but rather because she thinks that there are ghosts in the old house. Finally Clara's father Herr Stresemann and the sympathetic doctor of the family decide to stay up till midnight and find out about the ghosts. When the doctor sees Heidi walking around in her sleep, he finds the right diagnosis and sends her back to the alps.

Next summer, Clara visits Heidi there. They go to the pastures and Heidi shows Clara all the beauty of her alpine world. Peter gets terribly jealous, and in a moment when he feels unobserved, he pushes the empty wheelchair down to the valley so it gets smashed. Clara wants to see the flowers and is forced to walk - and her desire is strong enough that she overcomes her handicap. Healings at body, spirit and soul in that healthy Alpine world - end well, all well.

Heidi at the Cinema

Heidi Movies from 1920 to 2001

1920 The first film production on Heidi was a silent movie made in USA
1937 Sound film by Allan Dawn starring Shirley Temple as Heidi
1952 Swiss film production by Luigi Comencini starring Elsbeth Sigmund as Heidi, Thomas Klameth as Geissenpeter and Heinrich Gretler (one of Switzerland's best know actors) as Alpöhi. This was probably the most successful Swiss movie in the USA (300 copies in 4300 movie theaters).
1955 Franz Schnyder tries to follow on his own successful 1954/1955 film productions dealing with stories by Jeremias Gotthelf (a conservative early 19th century Swiss writer) and presents his own version of Heidi (same leading actors as in Comencini's production). Schnyder's Heidi is the first color movie produced in Switzerland - (all too) obviously in the service of tourism-advertising
1965 Austrian film production starring Eva Maria Sieghammer as Heidi
1967/68 American production starring Jennifer Edwards as Heidy
1977 Japanese animated cartoon films (a television series consisting of 52 issues), very successful also in Germany, Austria and Switzerland
1979 German televion series (26 issues) starring Katja Polletin (Austria) as Heidi, Stefan Arpagaus (Switzerland) as Geissenpeter and Katharina Böhm as Clara
1988 Alienation of the subject matter: Michael Douglas produces Courage Mountain in Austria. Heidi and Peter are presented as a young courting couple during World War I
1992 Short television series by Walt Disney
2001 The recent Swiss Heidi film production by Markus Imboden keeps roughly to the traditional action frame, but modernizes the details radically - concerning both the psychology of the figures (the stubborn Geissenpeter has changed into a cool boy) and the hightech accessories (Heidi and Peter communicate via internet and mobile phone SMS [Short Message Service, very popular among European teenagers in the early 2000's when we still had 2G mobile phones and social media had not been invented yet]).
2001 Remake of the successful Japanese comic series of 1977

Heidi: an Attempt to an Interpretation

Starting with movie director Imboden's view

At first sight, Heidi is certainly «an emotional story dealing with primitive fears; the anxiety of the child to be without parents and to be displaced.» (Markus Imboden, movie director). To this substance the story is reduced essentially when Imboden starts his 2001 Heidi movie on the Alp (not on lovely pastures, but rather in a modern mountain restaurant, however), and finishes at a Popmusic concert in Zurich's Hall Stadium.

Imboden openly admits that he intends to radically change the view we have of Heidi, «because it has been misused, instrumentalized ideologically and politically.» With this kind of internal distance to the traditional view of Heidi, we might, however, miss the chance to understand this novel for children in a deeper sense - taking into account that all good children's books have to say quite something to adults as well.

Trying to take a detached view

Perhaps we have to keep a little distance from the tendency of Swiss intellectuals to critize traditional Swiss values and take a really detached view - for example a Japanese view. While some academics in Switzerland are very critical about Johanna Spyri in general and her novel Heidi in particular, it may be significant that the only complete edition of Johanna Spyri's works was published in Japan (1962). As far as has been reported in Swiss newspapers, young Japanese women do not see and love Heidi as a precocious, vigourous teenager (as Imhof presents her). Heidi seems to be loved as a child of nature, a symbol for romanticism and lost innocence.

Such notions, however, remind of the end of the 19th century when authoress Johanna Spyri born as the daughter of a physician in a small peasant village Hirzel am Albis moves to live with her aunt in the city of Zurich where she could attend a high school. She shares the feelings of insecurity with thousands of workers displaced by the compulsions of the industrialisation. Moving out of rural Switzerland into modern cities was sort of a "cultural shock" for most of them. Besides they had to struggle hard to find their place, not only economically, but as well emotionally.

Orientation in a Changing World

Johanna Spyri's Heidi-story tries to give orientation in a world shaken by rapid social change, a world in disorder that makes people feel insecure - and this is exactly what makes the story attractive today in view of neoliberalism and globalization.

The foundation on an inctact alpine nature is, however, but one element of the story and we should not take an isolated view on just that.

Heidi as presented by Johanna Spyri does not return into the intact alpine world as if she had never been to the metropolitan city - to the contrary:

Heidi makes use of what she has learnt (the title of the second book is program!). Johanna Spyri does not opt for a cheap retreat into a idealized sweet world (as grandfather Alm-Uncle does in his frustration about mankind), neither for an obstinate keeping to simple views (as Peter the shepherd, who is too lazy to learn reading and writing).

Johanna Spyri presents a third way and wants to empower people to accept new challenges while keeping a good heart like Heidi, who is able to read stories to Peter's blind grandmother and even moves her unsociable grandfather to return into the village community.

Conclusion (2003)

Seen from this perspective, I wouldn't interpret the message of the story as sheer propaganda for internet and mobile phone "literacy" (on a simply technical level) neither for coolness as Markus Imhoof's movie might suggest.

The real challenge today is not, whether to use the modern means of communication at all, but rather what and how to communicate.

Addendum (2015-2020)

Writing this interpretation I felt pretty much off-mainstream in 2003. Twelve years later, Leandro Erlich, a famous Argentinian artist, created an installation called «Pulled by the Roots» on the marketplace of Karlsruhe (Germany), halfway between Switzerland and Frankfurt.

«Erlich, who is known worldwide for his hyper-real sculptures and installations, unambiguously addresses global issues such as uprooting, migration and simulation.» (from the official website of this art project, translation from German).

While most intellectuals in Switzerland tend to reject traditional Swiss values and promote an uncritical enthusiasm for globalization and multiculturalism they seem not to take notice of people feeling lost and uprooted in our «age of diversity». Though most of them do know the philosophical term «social alienation» in theory they seem not to recognise how many people experience our «global village» as a source of alienation. And maybe that's why they don't understand why populist parties in Europe find so many supporters and why Donald Trump got elected president of the USA in 2016.

Leandro Erlich, «Pulled by the Roots», Karlsruhe 2015

   Just to close the loop between 19th century and today:
inscription in neon colors seen in Frankfurt Frankfurt/Main (Germany): the future will be confusing (2016)

Frankfurt/Main (Germany), 2016:
«the future will be confusing»


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