39 pages 1 hour read

Irmgard Keun

The Artificial Silk Girl

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1932

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Summary and Study Guide


The Artificial Silk Girl, by Irmgard Keun, originally published in 1932 as Das kunstseidene Mädchen, is an example of Neue Sachlichkeit, a German literary movement of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933). This guide follows the 2019 Penguin Modern Classics version translated by Kathie von Ankum.

Plot Summary

Doris, an 18-year-old German girl from a mid-sized town in the Ruhr Valley, dreams of becoming a star and living a life of luxury. She comes from a lower-middle-class family, lives with her mother and adoptive father, and works as a stenographer. She is beautiful and flirtatious, especially with her boss; she flirts with him to distract him from her many punctuation and grammar mistakes. She is also in love with a young man named Hubert, the first man with whom she was intimate. He does not want to continue a relationship with her because he wants to marry a wealthy girl from Munich.

Eventually, Doris’s flirtations get her in trouble at work, and she loses her job. Her mother finds her a job as an extra in a play at the local theater. In an attempt to impress the other girls, Doris lies about being in a relationship with the director. She worries about it catching up to her. Hubert returns to town. In an attempt to impress him, Doris steals an ermine coat from the theater’s wardrobe. The Munich girl has dumped Hubert, but he still doesn’t want to be with Doris. Doris doesn’t want to return the coat. She fears being arrested. Her friend, Therese, helps her flee to Berlin.

In Berlin, Doris dates many men in an attempt to meet one who can provide her with what she desires. She rooms with Tilli, a married woman who also wants to become a star; Tilli is trying to make it in film. Berlin becomes a whirlwind of excitement, dating, and trouble. Doris works briefly for a wealthy family, but when she sleeps with the husband’s friend, she loses the job and any hopes she had of becoming the husband’s mistress. A while later, Doris realizes her dreams when she briefly dates a rich industrialist. He gives her the life of luxury she has been seeking, but he is soon arrested, and Doris loses his support. 

Things begin turning against Doris. She moves out of Tilli’s apartment because Tilli’s husband, Albert, wants to sleep with her. She tries to live with a man she met earlier, but that ends in disaster, and she spends Christmas Eve homeless. Destitute, she decides to prostitute herself for 10 Marks, just so she can get something to eat. The man she decides to sell herself to, however, is not interested in sex with her.

Ernst, lonely because his wife has left him, takes Doris in and cares for her. At first, Doris despises Ernst, whom she calls the Green Moss, but as time goes on and she realizes how kind Ernst is, she slowly comes to love him. Although Ernst pines for his wife, Doris does everything she can think of to get Ernst to fall in love with her instead, to no avail. She fears losing the comfort and secure life that Ernst provides her, but when she realizes Ernst cannot love her, she helps him by getting his wife Hanne to come back to him. 

Once again, Doris finds herself penniless and homeless. She believes she only has three options: She can go with a man named Karl, a poor farmer who has made her an offer; she can become a prostitute; or she can continue to try and become a star. Before she makes her decision she says, “Perhaps glamour isn’t all that important after all” (144).