There are a few notable aspects to this book:
The moving description of nature, especially the mountain world of the Swiss alps – the “Alm”.
The character portraits and the way in which the different characters relate to one another, coming from differing backgrounds and “worlds”, and the story is told with realism.
What the characters each portray. I shall come back to this below.
The first paragraph of the book is a good teaser of the powerful pictorial description of the mountain world of the alpine meadows, its profundity, its beauty, its serenity. Here it is, quoted in full:
From the old and pleasantly situated village of Mayenfeld, a footpath winds through green and shady meadows to the foot of the mountains, which on this side look down from their stern and lofty heights upon the valley below. The land grows gradually wider as the path ascends and the climber has not gone far before he begins to inhale the fragrance of the short grass and sturdy mountain-plant, for the way is steep and leads directly up to the summits above …
Later, and ever repeatedly, different aspects of this special world are described to us in different words, but reinforcing the same essential message: the glory that is God’s wonderful Creation, brought to life for us in this alpine world into which the writer transports us.
The story revolves around Heidi who is characterized as “the light-hearted little child”.
Heidi is an orphan who is taken to live with her grandfather, who lives as a recluse in a hut up in the mountain. The villagers of the village of Dörfli below, among whom he had lived but whom he had decided to leave and retire to his mountain hut, call him Alm-uncle.
Alm-uncle is an austere man; the goodness of his heart is not known by the villagers below, but Heidi is able to open it up.
Going out every morning with the shepherd boy, Peter, to graze the goats in the alpine meadows, she soon learns to know and to love this mountain-world.
When they are “Out with the goats”, we read that:
… she now kept with Peter, and the goats also became more orderly in their behaviour, for they were beginning to smell the plants they loved that grew on the higher slopes and clambered up now without pause in their anxiety to reach them.
…Heidi then sat down beside Peter’s outstretched figure and looked about her. The valley lay far below bathed in the morning sun. In front of her rose a broad snow-field, high against the dark-blue sky, while to the left was a huge pile of rocks, on either side of which a bare lofty peak, that seemed to pierce the blue, looked frowningly down upon her. The child sat without moving, her eyes taking in the whole scene, and all around was a great stillness, only broken by soft, light puffs of wind that swayed the light bells of the blue flowers, and the shining gold heads of the rock-roses, and set them nodding merrily on their slender stems. … Heidi had never felt so happy in her life before. She drank in the golden sunlight, the fresh air, the sweet smell of the flowers, and wished for nothing better than to remain there for ever. …
Of night time there, we are told:
… she continued on her way up the mountain, her basket on her arm. All around her the steep green slopes shone bright in the evening sun, and soon the great gleaming snow-field up above came into sight. Heidi was obliged to keep on pausing to turn and look at the higher peaks, which were behind her as she climbed. Suddenly a warm red glow fell on the grass at her feet; she looked back again – she had not remembered how splendid it was, nor seen anything to compare to it in her dreams – for there the two high mountain peaks rose into the air like two great flames, and the whole snow-field had turned crimson, and rosy-coloured clouds floated in the sky above. The grass upon the mountain sides has turned to gold, the rocks were all aglow, and the whole valley was bathed in golden mist. And as Heidi stood gazing around her at all the splendour the tears ran down her cheeks for the very delight and happiness, and impulsively she put her hands together, and lifting her eyes to heaven, thanked God for having brought her home, thanked Him that everything was as beautiful as ever, more beautiful even than she had thought, and that it was all hers again once more. And she was so overflowing with joy and thankfulness that she could not find words to thank Him enough. Not until the glory began to fade could she tear herself away. …
And at “Sunday bells”:
The morning breaks,
And warm and bright
The earth lies still
In the golden light –
For Dawn has scattered the clouds of night.
Is seen around
Things great and small
To his praise abound –
Where are the signs of his love not found?
Joy shall be ours
In that garden blest,
Where after storm
We find our rest –
I wait in peace – God’s time is best.
The children of the story think logically, simply, naturally and clearly and yet, before she went to Frankfurt where she met the invalid child, Clara, into whose life she brought an awakening of joy, Heidi was non literate. We learn from this how rich, indeed sometimes much richer an “unlearned” mind can be as, for example, we read Heidi’s clear thoughts:
… Oh, how glad I am that God did not let me have at once all I prayed and wept for! And now I shall always pray to God as she told me, and always thank Him, and when He does not do anything I ask for I shall think to myself, it’s just like it was in Frankfurt: God, I am sure, is going to do something better still. So we will pray every day, won’t we, grandfather, and never forget Him again, or else He may forget us.
She shows a childlike belief in “grandmamma” which is then confirmed by her own experiences.
Heidi now led her friend to her favourite spot where she was accustomed to sit and enjoy the beauty around her; the doctor followed her example and took his seat beside her on the warm grass. Over the heights and over the far green valley hung the golden glory of the autumn day. The great snowfield sparkled in the bright sunlight, and the two grey rocky peaks rose in their ancient majesty against the dark blue sky. …
… And she reads this hymn to Peter’s grandmother:
Let not your heart be troubled
Nor fear your soul dismay,
There is a wise Defender
And He will be your stay.
Where you have failed, He conquers,
See, how the foeman flies!
And all your tribulation
Is turned to glad surprise.
If for a while it seemeth
His mercy is withdrawn
That He no longer careth
For his wandering child forlorn,
Doubt not His great compassion,
His love can never tire,
To those who wait in patience
He gives their heart’s desire.
Further we read:
As the eyes grow dim, and darkness
Closes round, the soul grows clearer,
Sees the goal to which it travels,
Gladly feels its home is nearer.
In the chapter “News from distant friends” we read:
It was the month of May. From every height the full fresh streams of spring were flowing down into the valley. The clear warm sunshine lay upon the mountain, which had turned green again. The last snows had disappeared and the sun had already coaxed many of the flowers to show their bright heads above the grass. Up above the gay young wind of spring was singing through the fir trees, and shaking down the old dark needles to make room for the new bright green ones that were soon to deck out the trees in their spring finery. Higher up still the great bird went circling round in the clear blue sky as of old, while the golden sunshine lit up the grandfather’s hut, and all the ground about it was warm and dry again so that one might sit out where one liked. Heidi was at home again on the mountain, running backwards and forwards in her accustomed way, not knowing which spot was most delightful, Now she stood still to listen to the deep, mysterious voice of the wind, as it blew down to her from the mountain summits, coming nearer and nearer and gathering strength as it came, till it broke with force against the fir trees, bending and shaking them, and seeming to shout for joy, so that she too, though blown like a feather, felt she must join in the chorus of exulting sounds. Then she would run again to the sunny space in front of the hut, and seating herself on the ground would peer closely into the short grass to see how many little flower cups were open or thinking of opening. She rejoiced with all the myriad little beetles and winged insects that jumped and crawled and danced in the sun, and drew in deep draughts of the spring scents that rose from the newly-awakened earth, and thought the mountain was more beautiful than ever. All the tiny living creatures must be as happy as she, for it seemed to her there were little voices all round her singing and humming in joyful tones, “On the mountain! On the mountain!
Not only were the nights of this month of May so clear and bright, but the days as well; the sun rose every morning into the cloudless sky, as undimmed in its splendour as when it sank the evening before, and the grandfather would look out early and exclaim with astonishment, “This is indeed a wonderful year of sun; it will make all the shrubs and plants grow apace; you will have to …
So May passed, everything growing greener and greener, and then came the month of June, with a hotter sun and long light days, that brought the flowers out all over the mountain, so that every spot was bright with them and air full of their sweet scents. This month too was drawing to its close when one day Heidi, having finished her domestic duties, ran out with the intention of paying first a visit to the fir trees, and then going up higher to see if the bush of rock-roses was yet in bloom, for its flowers were so lovely when standing open in the sun. …”
What do the characters stand for?
Heidi: simple childlikeness, described as “the light-hearted little child”
Clara: who was invalid but was healed in the mountain air
Peter: shepherd boy
Alm Uncle/Grandfather: retreat from past life
Grandmamma, Frau Sesemann: sophisticated wealthy woman/lady but wise
Grandmother: simple mountain dweller, who in the very last sentence of the book says:
Heidi, read me one of the hymns! I feel I can do nothing for the remainder of my life but thank the Father in Heaven for the mercies He has shown us!
The people of the village of Dörfli: simple country folk
Frankfurt: the city and urban life
The good doctor: a good natured kind man
Herr Sesemann: Clara’s father and well to do businessman
Fräulein Rottenmeier: Herr Sesemann’s housekeeper
Brigitta: Peter the shepherdboy’s mother
Tinette: chambermaid in Herr Sesemann’s household
Sebastian: The valet at Herr Sesemann’s house in Frankfurt
The pastor of the village of Dörfli
The people of Mayenfeld: The town closest to Dörfli
Dete: Heidi’s aunt
In a way the story “Heidi” is an allegory of human life, and I shall quote here and there to illustrate this.
On the healing of Clara who came from Frankfurt as an invalid:
The sky spread blue and cloudless over the hut and the fir trees and far above over the high rocks, whose grey summits glistened in the sun. Clara could not feast her eyes enough on all the beauty around her. …
How life went on at Grandfather’s –
It was many years since they had had such a splendid summer among the mountains. Day after day there were the same cloudless sky and brilliant sun; the flowers opened their fragrant blossoms wide, and everywhere the eye was greeted with a glow of colour; and when the evening came the crimson light fell on the mountain peaks and on the great snowfield, till at last the sun sank in a sea of golden flame.
And Heidi never tired of telling Clara of all this, for only.higher up could the full glory of the colours be fully seen; and more particularly did she dwell on the beauty of the spot on the higher slope of the mountain, where the bright golden rock-roses grew in masses, and the blue flowers were in such numbers that the very grass seemed to have turned blue, while near these were whole bushes of the brown blossoms with their delicious scent, so that you never wanted to move again when you once sat down among them. …
The important lesson of the inner voice, also sometimes called the “small still voice”, the conscience, grandmamma, Frau Sesemann teaches Peter so strongly in the following lines:
… Stop trembling, for I want you to listen to me. You sent the chair rolling down the mountain so that it was broken to pieces. That was a very wrong thing to do, as you yourself knew very well at the time, and you also knew that you deserved to be punished for it, and in order to escape this you have been doing all you can to hide the truth from everybody. But be sure of this, Peter: that those who do wrong make a mistake when they think no one knows anything about it. For God sees and hears everything, and when the wicked doer tries to hide what he has done, then God wakes up the little watchman that he places inside us all when we are born and who sleeps on quietly till we do something wrong. And the little watchman had a small stick in his hand, and when he wakes up he keeps on pricking us with it, so that we have not a moment’s peace. And the watchman torments us still further, for he keeps on calling out, ‘Now you will be found out! Now they will drag you off to your punishment!’ And so we pass our life in fear and trouble, and never know a moment’s happiness or peace. Have you not felt something like that lately, Peter?’…
’… for you see the harm you intended has turned out for the best for those you wished to hurt. As Clara had no chair to go in and yet wanted so much to see the flowers, she made the effort to walk, and every day since she has been walking better and better, and if she remains up here she will in time be able to go up the mountain every day, much more often than she would have done in her chair. So you see, Peter, God is able to bring good out of evil for those whom you meant to injure, and you who did the evil were left to suffer the unhappy consequences of it. Do you thoroughly understand all I have said to you, Peter? If so, do not do anything wrong, and whenever you feel inclined to do anything wrong, think of the little watchman inside you with his stick and his disagreeable voice. Will you remember all this?’
“My good grandmother,” said Frau Sesemann, interrupting her, “we are all equally poor and helpless in the eyes of God, and all have need that He should not forget us. ….”
It is highly recommended that the original u n a b r i d g e d version or any good translation of this book should be read.