Considered the prototype of the bildungsroman, a novel focusing on a character’s coming of age, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is both a chronicle of the German theater and a sort of handbook for innocents. Wilhelm’s many adventures and mishaps create the obstacles that force him to learn about the world around him. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe shows the reader that, even in the face of temptation and greed, and despite his naïveté, Wilhelm remains true to his principles and morals. When he is surrounded by scoundrels and abused and taken advantage of, Wilhelm never repays these injustices in kind. Instead, he simply accepts the foolishness and the selfishness of others and moves on, hoping steadfastly to encounter not only his one true love but also a friend to whom he can entrust his heart.
The plot of the novel is episodic, without being tightly connected. Characters often engage in long philosophical debates, acting more as mouthpieces for the author than as independent personalities. The narrative is therefore uneven, especially during breaks in the action when characters function primarily as pawns or ciphers. Nevertheless, Goethe executes one rhetorical flourish after another and creates a lyrical prose that is symphonic in its scope and fluidity. Nor is this musicality lacking in content. The author sows the dialogue with so many epigrammatic seeds and nuggets of wisdom that he creates the impression that he might yet create a dazzling whole from the revealing bits of a cosmic puzzle. Instead, however, it becomes clear that the author considers it his task to deepen the mystery of life, not to explain it. Wilhelm learns that “the sum of our existence divided by reason never comes out exactly and there is always a wondrous remainder.”
Goethe celebrates the end of Wilhelm’s apprenticeship with an epiphany, a sudden burst of inner knowledge, for having passed through the gates of initiation Wilhelm witnesses the death of his adolescent self and the birth of his adult identity. In embracing his son Felix, Wilhelm continues the cycle of life. The irony is that in the acceptance of responsibility and parenthood Wilhelm finds freedom. Goethe’s thesis is that people must accept the natural evolution of the self, and that they must not seek to retard their growth by indulging in...
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