VOR DEM STURM: Roman aus dem Winter 1812 auf 13 (1878; Before the Storm: A Novel of the Winter 1812–13, 1985), Fontane's first novel— and the one most underappreciated—treats the response of various sectors of Prussian society, aristocrats and intellectuals as well as clergy and peasants, to the changing tides of the Napoleonic Wars. It opens in Berlin on Christmas Eve of 1812, as the news of the French defeat in Russia is beginning to circulate, and it concludes as the armed conflict between Prussian militia and French occupiers gets underway. Yet the novel embeds this decisively political material, the birth of modern German nationhood, in an expansive and multidimensional account of the context, the historical legacies of the region, the private lives of the protagonists, and the meandering conversations of a long list of characters, major and minor. This combination of an emphatically political topic, which raises expectations for a decisive parti pris, and a prose strategy that submerges the national-historical narrative in a surfeit of seemingly random material, stands out as the salient aesthetic-political enigma of Vor dem Sturm. This tension between political expectations and quotidian content has elicited a decidedly ambivalent reception history.
Some critics have responded to the eclipse of the political narrative by the digressive treatments of seemingly extraneous content in terms of Fontane's biography and his late development as a novelist. Although he was already sixty when he completed Vor dem Sturm, this was in fact his first novel, and its alleged aesthetic flaws have therefore sometimes been attributed to his underdevelopment as a fiction writer. According to this view, Fontane was still deploying the stylistic habits of his travelogues and therefore was insufficiently attentive to the novel reader's expectations for boldly drawn plot lines. As long ago as 1940, Marianne Zerner argued that Vor dem Sturm suffers “from the compositional weaknesses of a first novel and, through its close connection to the Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg, with technical features that are unfortunate for a novel.” She contrasts the structural expansiveness of Vor dem Sturm with Fontane's tighter subsequent novels.