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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 395

"Adventure of the German Student" by Washington Irving tells the story about a young student called Wolfgang Gottfried who moves from his home in Germany to Paris to recover from his "melancholic temperament." His increasingly reclusive behavior has isolated him from his friends and family and put him into his...

(The entire section contains 1146 words.)

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"Adventure of the German Student" by Washington Irving tells the story about a young student called Wolfgang Gottfried who moves from his home in Germany to Paris to recover from his "melancholic temperament." His increasingly reclusive behavior has isolated him from his friends and family and put him into his own dark world.

He took up a notion, I do not know from what cause, that there was an evil influence hanging over him; an evil genius or spirit seeking to ensnare him and ensure his perdition.

Paris initially proves his savior. He enjoys the philosophical discussion and the exciting atmosphere created by the French Revolution. Unfortunately, everything changes when the revolutionaries begin executing their enemies during the Reign of Terror.

but the scenes of blood which followed shocked his sensitive nature; disgusted him with society and the world, and made him more than ever a recluse.

Alone in his student quarters, he begins to fantasize and dream about a woman "of a female face of transcendent beauty." The dream comes true when he sees her lying on the scaffold of the guillotine on the Place de Grève dressed in black.

Wolfgang takes her home, where he declares his love.

“Why should we separate?” said he: “our hearts are united; in the eye of reason and honour we are as one. What need is there of sordid forms to bind high souls together?” The stranger listened with emotion: she had evidently received illumination at the same school. “You have no home nor family,” continued he; “let me be every thing to you, or rather let us be every thing to one another. If form is necessary, form shall be observed—there is my hand. I pledge myself to you for ever.” “For ever?” said the stranger, solemnly. “For ever!” repeated Wolfgang. The stranger clasped the hand extended to her: “Then I am yours,” murmured she, and sank upon his bosom.

In the morning, however, Wolfgang finds her dead and calls the police. Seeing her, the policeman is shocked; he says he had seen the same woman guillotined only the day before. He takes off her black collar and the woman's head rolls onto the floor.

The story finishes by introducing the story's narrator who is telling his friend that the story is in fact true and that he saw Wolfgang in a mental asylum.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 751

This story, one of a number of tales and sketches collected in Tales of a Traveller (1824), is narrated by an old man to a group of listeners. The story concerns a young student from the German university town of Gottingen. The student, Gottfried Wolfgang, is described as a man of good family but also as one given to intense speculation on the dark, mystical side of existence. Indeed, he is shown to have dedicated himself to these studies to such an extent that both his physical health and his imagination have become “diseased.” As the narrator tells his audience, “He took up a notion, I do not know from what cause, that there was an evil influence hanging over him; an evil genius or spirit seeking to ensnare him and ensure his perdition.”

To combat Wolfgang’s melancholy and morbid obsessions, his friends and family send him off to France to continue his studies at the Sorbonne. They hope that, removed from the gloomy German environment, he will be more happily influenced by the new surroundings of the school and by the “splendors and gayeties of Paris.” Unfortunately, Wolfgang arrives in Paris at the beginning of the Reign of Terror, and the scenes of butchery and cruelty that follow cause him to withdraw even more into his own private, dark world of the imagination. Again, in the words of the narrator, “Sometimes he spent hours together in the great libraries of Paris, those catacombs of departed authors, rummaging among their hoards of dusty and obsolete works in quest of food for his unhealthy appetite. He was, in a manner, a literary ghoul . . .”

In addition to his constant musings on the metaphysical and demonic, the student is also sexually obsessed. Although he is too shy actually to approach a woman, he gives himself over to romantic and erotic dreams when safely ensconced in his room. One female face in particular becomes the focus of his desires; he dreams about her night after night until he nears the point of madness. Finally it happens that on one stormy night Wolfgang, making his way from the library to his room, finds himself at the Place de Greve, the site of the daily executions performed on the guillotine. As he reluctantly crosses the square, he sees a dark figure collapsed on the steps leading up to the horrible instrument of death. Motivated by an uncommon feeling of sympathy, he approaches the figure to offer help or condolence, but when he speaks he sees, to his amazement, that the person is the haunting and enticing young woman whose face has filled his dreams. He asks her if she has a home, a place to stay on such a stormy night. “Yes—in the grave!” she answers, and Wolfgang, touched by her despair, impulsively offers his own room as temporary shelter. The beautiful woman accepts.

Once Wolfgang and his guest reach his boardinghouse, he is better able to appraise her appearance, which is both alluring and disturbing. She has long, raven-black hair, eyes “large and brilliant,” and a striking figure. Most remarkable, however, is the “broad black band . . . clasped by diamonds” that she wears around her neck. Although somewhat perplexed, Wolfgang is immediately captivated by the strange woman. As they talk, he gives over all of his doubts and fears; soon he expresses his love and passion for her, and she in return avows her desire for him. “I pledge myself to you forever,” he tells her. “Forever?” she asks seriously. “Forever!” he answers, whereupon she gives herself to him as his bride for the remainder of the night.

The next morning Wolfgang goes out before his bride awakes, but when he returns he finds her sprawled across the bed, her head hanging over one side, her face “pallid and ghastly.” Horrified, he calls for help and waits in shock for the authorities. When a police officer arrives, he, too, is stunned at what he sees, for he recognizes the corpse as that of a recent victim of the guillotine. As the police officer unclasps the black band around her neck, the strange woman’s head drops onto the floor, and Wolfgang shrieks in despair, remembering his old nightmare of damnation. Driven now into total madness, he is finally placed in an asylum, where he remains until his death.

Is the story true? “I had it from the best authority,” the narrator replies. “The student told it me himself. I saw him in a mad-house in Paris.”

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