Gottfried Keller’s Green Henry, a great German bildungsroman, is frequently compared to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s two Wilhelm Meister novels, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796;Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1824) and Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre: Oder, Die Entsagenden(1821, rev. 1829; Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, 1827). The autobiographical content of Green Henry is unmistakable, for the book is almost entirely an authentic description of Keller’s life in Switzerland, his struggles in Munich, and his disillusioned return home. The first version of the novel ends with Heinrich’s death, but after Keller became a respected county official in his native country, a second, much revised, version appeared. This version, which became the standard one and reflects the author’s newfound security, ends on a fatalistic but not destructive note. Keller, as enthusiastic about description of nature as were his Romantic contemporary writers, loved his native surroundings; however, he added strong realism to his stories, which was quite shocking to his audience. The value of the novel is increased by a dry sense of humor, which fills the basically tragic book with contrasts.
The novel, like the revised version of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, rejects the youthful desire for irresponsible self-fulfillment typical of the Romantic personality in favor of individuals finding their place in society. The young Heinrich, with an indulgent mother and no father to guide him in the direction of responsibility, lives a life colored by fantasy; he is unable to perceive reality as it is and to measure himself against it. He paints from imagination rather than knowledge, and his painting, like his life, has no ties to the fabric of the natural world. In this sense, his art, rather than being a calling, is a symptom of his false relationship to the world, and his life is one long process of disillusionment.
It is only at the end that Heinrich sees his proper calling in the life of his town and in a career of service. This wisdom comes too late to spare him guilt and suffering, and his education in life has been gained at a terrible cost. In the end, however, the patient, loving humanity with which he tells his own story convinces the reader that his life is not, ultimately, a tragedy.