Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The following entry presents criticism of Goethe's novel, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796; Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship). See also Novelle Criticism and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Drama Criticism.
Essentially a romantic work, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre is considered the seminal Bildungsroman, or novel of development and maturation, in German literature. An expansion of Goethe's earlier project Wilhelm Meister's Theatrical Mission, the Lehrjahre details Wilhelm Meister's entry into the theater and subsequent education in the ways of the world as a debt collector for his father and an itinerant actor. Following an intricate plot, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre presents not only its protagonist's personal development, but also Goethe's own philosophical and aesthetic views, which are presented via its character's sometimes discursive speeches.
Plot and Major Characters
Goethe's novel is told as a succession of vignettes about the life of a young man in love. As the story begins, the objects of Wilhelm's affections are two-fold, focused both on an actress, Mariane, and the local stage where she performs. With a penchant for versifying rather than for business, Wilhelm determines to scorn his father's disapproval and ask Mariane to marry him while he is away on assignment. Yet his friends are skeptical of the plan and warn him of Mariane's low character. One morning, Wilhelm is shocked to find a man leaving Mariane's house. Jilted by Mariane in favor of Norberg, her protector and lover, Wilhelm decides to accept his father's plan that he travel about collecting debts for the family business; he thus sets out on his adventures. In a nearby town he befriends Philina and Laertes, who become his close companions. While attending an acrobatic show, the three notice that a young girl in the troupe is being poorly treated. Wilhelm rescues the tomboy, Mignon, from the cruelty of her fellows, and she joins him as a devoted follower. Wilhelm then becomes part of a small company of struggling actors. They perform at a nearby castle, where Wilhelm wins the admiration of a countess. The actors then return to their travels and are waylaid by bandits, one of whom wounds Wilhelm before being chased away by a beautiful Amazon. Then follows a period of convalescence for the young man, and for Mignon, who was also injured in the altercation. Time passes, and the acting troupe departs, leaving Wilhelm to pursue his stage career alone after recovering from his wounds. He joins the company of Serlo, a noted actor-manager, in his production of Hamlet. Meanwhile, his father has died and Wilhelm, having inherited enough property to support himself, meets Aurelia, Serlo's sister. Some time later, Aurelia dies, but not before asking her friend to take a letter to Lothario, her former lover. Lothario, Wilhelm learns, resides at the nearby castle, and is brother to the countess he had once entertained, as well as a member of a secret society of nobles and intellectuals to which Wilhelm seeks entry. After returning from a mission for Lothario, Wilhelm learns that Mignon has left and is now mortally ill. He locates her and discovers that she is the daughter of an Italian priest who had gone insane with love for his sister. Mignon dies, and Wilhelm again encounters the Amazon, Natalia, who had previously saved him. The two marry and there ends Wilhelm's apprenticeship.
As a Bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre principally sketches the emotional, intellectual, and artistic development of its protagonist, following him from the youthful exuberance of first love to a more mature understanding of his creative capacities and social identity. As it follows Wilhelm on his picaresque quest toward self-fulfillment and awareness of his place in the world, the novel explores the young man's gradual acceptance of responsibility and his instruction in the guiding principles of reason, symbolized, critics note, by Lothario's Society of the Tower. Beyond this overarching theme of education, commentators additionally perceive in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre Goethe's concern with the nonlinear representation of time and the recognition of multiple and contradictory sources of truth. The work is also said to reveal Goethe's thoughts on the principles of dramatic art, ideas concentrated in his influential critical discussion of Shakespeare's Hamlet in book five of the novel.
Many critics of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre have acknowledged the work's numerous technical flaws, including its inadequately realized characters, meandering plot filled with improbable coincidences, and overall lack of aesthetic unity—the last of these objections having been generally explained by the fact that Goethe paused for several years in his composition of the novel. Most commentators, however, have seen beyond these relatively minor defects and instead focused on its significant impact as the prototypical Bildungsroman, a work that essentially defines the salient characteristics of the education novel. Modern critics have also frequently applied the concepts of psychoanalysis to the novel, with many finding this approach useful in examining Wilhelm's forging of a mature identity and in evaluating the work's female characters, particularly the abused Mignon. Several scholars have also commented on the influence of Goethe's friend Friedrich von Schiller upon Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and have suggested that the work represents one of the most notable achievements in early German romantic fiction.
Buch Annette (poetry) 1767
Die Laune des Verliebten (drama) 1767
Neue Lieder (poetry) 1769
Rede Zum Schäkespears Tag (criticism) 1771
Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand [first publication] (drama) 1773 Goetz of Berlichingen with the Iron Hand 1799
Von deutscher Baukunst (criticism) 1773
Clavigo (drama) 1774 Clavidgo (sic), 1798; also published as Clavigo 1897
Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (novel) 1774 The Sorrows of Werter 1779; also published as Werter and Charlotte 1786; The Sorrows of Young Werther 1929; and The Sufferings of Young Werther 1957
Stella (drama) 1776 Stella 1798
Die Geschwister (drama) 1787 The Sister published in Dramatic Pieces from the German, 1792
lphigenie auf Tauris (drama) 1787 lphigenia in Tauris 1793
Der Triumph der Empfindsamkeit [first publication] (drama) 1787
Egmont (drama) 1788 Egmont 1841
Faust: Ein Fragment (poetry) 1790
Torquato Tasso (drama) 1790 Torquato Tasso published in Torquato Tasso: A Dramatic Poem from the German with Other German Poetry, 1827...
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SOURCE: “Comic Configurations and Types in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre,” in Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, Vol. 19, No. 1, February, 1983, pp. 6-19.
[In the following essay, Amrine traces comic archetypes, symbols, and themes in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.]
Goethe himself ranked the Lehrjahre among the ‘most incalculable productions,’1 yet critics have more often complained that the final sum is drawn all-too-neatly.2 The ending of the novel, where all the loose ends of the plot are tied up in a flurry of disclosures leading to three marriages, has been felt to be inorganic—something appropriate to a comic novel or even a Trivialroman, but very much out of place in the progenitor of a new and complex historical genre. Emil Staiger has gone so far as to suggest a failure of nerve on Goethe's part, a victory of convenience over aesthetic judgment: ‘Mit den Vermählungen, die am Schluβ bevorstehen, fallen wir vollends in die Romanschablone einer vorklassischen Literatur zurück. Goethe wolhe fertig werden und lieβ es bei einer Fabel bewenden, die allzu deutlich die Spuren einer klugen Disposition verrät.’3
Yet comic elements are to be found not merely at the conclusion, but throughout the Lehrjahre; both the extent and the importance of these elements have been consistently ignored...
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SOURCE: “Re-presentations of Time in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre,” in Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2, May, 1990, pp. 95-118.
[In the following essay, Kacandes analyzes the complex temporal and narrative organization of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, viewing anachrony—dissonance between the order of narration and the actual sequence of events in the storyline—as the structuring principle of the novel.]
Having just completed the leonine task of reading the whole of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre in two days, Schiller recorded his immediate impressions in a letter to Goethe (2 July 1796):
Billig sollte ich … heute noch nichts schreiben; denn die erstaunliche und unerhörte Mannigfaltigkeit, die darin im eigentlichsten Sinne versteckt ist, überwältigt mich. Ich gestehe, daβ ich bis jetzt zwar die Stetigkeit, aber noch nicht die Einheit recht gefaβt habe, obwohl ich keinen Augenblick zweifle, daβ ich auch über diese noch völlige Klarheit erhalten werde, wenn bei Produkten dieser Art die Stetigkeit nicht schon mehr als die halbe Einheit ist … Wie ist es Ihnen gelungen, den groβen, so weit auseinandergeworfenen Kreis und Schauplatz von Personen und Begebenheiten wieder so eng zusammenzurücken.1
Schiller's amazement at the variety and fullness of the novel as well...
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SOURCE: “The Novel and the Individual: The Significance of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister in the Debate about the Bildungsroman,” in Reflection and Action: Essays on the Bildungsroman, edited by James Hardin, University of South Carolina Press, 1991, pp. 69-96.
[In the following essay, Steinecke considers Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre as a seminal Bildungsroman and studies its presentation of the hero's struggle to reconcile himself with reality.]
If one were to list the most important texts in the history of the novel of the nineteenth century, one work would clearly stand out as the one most frequently mentioned and discussed: Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.1 This novel is pivotal in the development of the genre in Germany. This fact was seen from the very beginning in critical discussions; dozens of monographs and hundreds of articles deal with the development and meaning of the type of novel that uses Goethe's work as model and for which, for some time now, the term Bildungsroman has been customary.2Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre was considered virtually the German equivalent of the social novel as “the medium through which a characteristically German preoccupation can speak with greatest urgency to a wider European public,” as Martin Swales wrote in his work The German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse.3 This view is found not only among...
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SOURCE: “Feminine Identity Formation in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 2, June, 1992, pp. 149-72.
[In the following essay, Kowalik surveys Goethe's portrayal of the childhood psychosexual development of the female characters in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.]
Natalie, the “beautiful soul,” and Therese have been treated almost without exception in commentaries on Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre as examples of idealized types, representing static categories or principles of feminine existence. Scholars explicitly or implicitly adopt Schiller's view, expressed in a letter to Goethe dated 3 July 1796: “Es ist zu bewundern, wie schön und wahr die drei Charaktere der Stiftsdame, Nataliens und Theresiens nuanciert sind. Die zwei ersten sind heilige, die zwei andern sind wahre und menschliche Naturen; aber eben darum, weil Natalie heilig und menschlich zugleich ist, so erscheint sie wie ein Engel, da die Stiftsdame nur eine Heilige, Therese nur eine vollkommene Irdische ist” (It is admirable how subtly the three figures of the canoness [the beautiful soul, J. K.], Natalie, and Therese are so beautifully and truly portrayed. The first two are saintly; the other two have a true and human character; but because Natalie is both saintly and human, she appears as an angel, whereas the canoness is only a saint and Therese only a perfect earthly...
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SOURCE: “Ghostly Bildung: Gender, Genre, Aesthetic Ideology, and Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre,” in Genre, Vol. 26, No. 4, Winter, 1993, pp. 377-407.
[In the following essay, Redfield highlights aesthetic and gender representation in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre,evaluating the novel and its relationship to the genre of the Bildungsroman.]
For the being of Geist has an essential connection with the idea of Bildung.
Whoever could manage to interpret Goethe's Meister properly would have expressed what is now happening in literature. He could, so far as literary criticism is concerned, retire forever.
Among the challenges the modern novel offers to genre theory, that of the Bildungsroman is remarkable on several counts. Few literary terms have known greater success, both in the academy and in high culture generally, and in any number of national or linguistic contexts. “If a person interested in literary matters commands as many as a dozen words of German,” Jeffrey Sammons remarks, “one of them is likely to be: Bildungsroman” (229). If this person also commands the staples of Western literary history, she will also know that this subgenre is supposed to have been...
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SOURCE: “The Mystery of Mignon: Object Relations, Abandonment, Child Abuse and Narrative Structure,” in Goethe Yearbook, edited by Thomas P. Saine, Vol. VII, 1994, pp. 23-26.
[In the following essay, Mahlendorf interprets the figure of Mignon as the embodiment of eroticism and incest in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, seeing her as a symbolic threat to the order of the Bildungsroman.]
From her first appearance in the novel, the mysterious strange beauty of the child Mignon excites the protagonist's curiosity even as the gender of the “Geschöpf”1 remains ambiguous. From the beginning, Wilhelm's erotic impulses are awakened in her presence. Compassion with her strange contortions (96) and irresistible attraction to the “geheimnisvollen Zustand” of the child, this “Rätsel” (98), change during that first evening to outrage at her being beaten and abused by the master of the acrobats (103). The air of mystery remains attached to the child's figure until the denouement, when protagonist and reader learn of the mystery's core, that Mignon is the issue of brother/sister incest in an old feudal family. What, then, is the relationship between the ideology of the Meister novel and the insistence of the narrative on mystery, abusive violence, and eroticism?
This particular combination of themes and their undercurrents with regard to the Mignon figure has, of course,...
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SOURCE: “Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre: An Apprenticeship toward the Mastery of Exactly What?” in Colloquia Germanica, Vol. 30, No. 2, 1997, pp. 99-119.
[In the following essay, Ammerlahn discusses Wilhelm's process of mastering his creative imagination in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.]
Some 200 years after the publication of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, the high regard for Goethe's most influential novel as well as the arguments over its central meaning are thriving unabated.1 The majority of knowledgeable authors and critics, from Schiller to James Joyce and Thomas Mann, from Friedrich Schlegel to Dilthey and Lukács, are united in their praise of this work. As the artistic pinnacle of Goethe's classical period and as the best known embodiment of the ambiguous prose genre, Bildungsroman, this novel according to Hermann Hesse “ist … Vorbild und Ideal geblieben, hundertmal nachgeahmt, studiert, umgefühlt [worden], nie wieder erreicht …”2
Beyond such unison of acclamation, however, uncertainty abounds.3 Even the most common denominators defining later Bildungsromane4 seem inadequate criteria when judging Wilhelm's own development. Initial subjectivity and self preoccupation? Yes, but why also an unlimited Faustian Ganzheitsstreben in Wilhelm's quest? Maturation through conflict and insight?...
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SOURCE: “Monologue and Dialogue in the Lehrjahre,” in Tracing Subversive Currents in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, Camden House, 1997, pp. 163-83.
[In the following excerpt from his study of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Blair focuses on the “multiplicity of voices” and their alternate representations of truth in Goethe's novel.]
The chapters of this study have viewed the Lehrjahre as it qualifies or criticizes monolithic or limiting structures within Enlightenment culture—concepts of inheritance, property, legitimacy, propriety, tradition, and notions concerning sexuality. Forces of both authority and transgression are necessary to a vital and balanced system, but authoritative voices in the Lehrjahre, such as those of the characters who dominate books 7 and 8 of the novel, tend to suppress alternative views, to inhibit movement and interchange. The novel itself presents a multitude of voices and grants many of them—even contradictory ones—credibility. It is open to the play of uncertainty, to alternative meanings, to a complex reality of multiple truths. In this chapter I use the words “monologue” and “dialogue” not only to describe speech behavior—extended theatrical asides on and off the stage, or the tendency to self-indulgent or pedantic lecturing versus mutual, participatory conversation—but also to delineate attitudes toward others'...
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Brown, Jane K. “The Theatrical Mission of the Lehrjahre.” In Goethe's Narrative Fiction: The Irvine Goethe Symposium, edited by William J. Lillyman, pp. 69-84. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1983.
Studies Goethe's attack on neo-classicism in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.
Cohn, Dorrit. “Wilhelm Meister's Dream: Reading Goethe with Freud.” In German Quarterly 62, No. 4 (Fall 1989): 459-72.
Argues that Goethe endeavors to portray Wilhelm's dream in Book Seven of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahrewith a great degree of psychological realism, and analyzes the dream itself.
Dürr, Volker O. “The Humanistic Ideal and the Representative Public in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.” In Papers on Language and Literature 12, No. 1 (Winter 1976): 36-48.
Contends that Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre represents Goethe's attempt to align the Bildungsroman's focus on the individual with the theme of maintaining the traditional institutions of social life.
Dye, R. Ellis. “Wilhelm Meister and Hamlet, Identity and Difference.” In Goethe Yearbook IV (1992): 67-85.
Interprets the ironic component of Wilhelm Meister's identification with Hamlet.
Flaherty, Gloria. “The Stage-Struck Wilhelm Meister and 18th-Century Psychiatric Medicine.” In...
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