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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 785

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"Adventure of the German Student" by Washington Irving tells the morbid story of a young student called Gottfried Wolfgang, who is sent to Paris to help him recover from his "melancholy temperament.

Gottfried Wolfgang was a young man of good family. He had studied for some time at Göttingen, but being of a visionary and enthusiastic character, he had wandered into those wild and speculative doctrines which have so often bewildered German students. His secluded life, his intense application, and the singular nature of his studies, had an effect on both mind and body. His health was impaired; his imagination diseased. He had been indulging in fanciful speculations on spiritual essences until, like Swedenborg, he had an ideal world of his own around him.

If anything, Paris makes his condition worse. Finding himself in the middle of the Reign of Terror, when people are being guillotined on the square every day, he sinks deeper and deeper into himself.

Wolfgang arrived at Paris at the breaking out of the revolution. The popular delirium at first caught his enthusiastic mind, and he was captivated by the political and philosophical theories of the day: 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. He shut himself up in a solitary apartment in the Pays Latin, the quarter of students.

Wolfgang begins to have a recurring dream about meeting "a female face of transcendent beauty":

While his mind was in this excited and sublimated state, a
dream produced an extraordinary effect upon him. It was of a
female face of transcendent beauty. So strong was the impression made, that he dreamt of it again and again. It haunted his
thoughts by day, his slumbers by night; in fine, he became
passionately enamoured of this shadow of a dream. This lasted
so long, that it became one of those fixed ideas which haunt
the minds of melancholy men, and are at times mistaken for
madness.

The author uses highly dramatic language that gives the story a dark and strange tone. Perhaps the best example is when he meets the woman for the first time:

As Wolfgang was crossing the square, he shrank back with horror at finding himself close by the guillotine. It was the height of the reign of terror, when this dreadful instrument of death stood ever ready, and its scaffold was continually running with the blood of the virtuous and the brave... Wolfgang’s heart sickened within him, and he was turning shuddering from the horrible engine, when he beheld a shadowy form cowering as it were at the foot of the steps which led up to the scaffold. A succession of vivid flashes of lightning revealed it more distinctly. It was a female figure, dressed in black. She was seated on one of the lower steps of the scaffold, leaning forward, her face hid in her lap, and her long disheveled tresses hanging to the ground, streaming with the rain which fell in torrents.

Wolfgang soon becomes "intoxicated with her beauty":

When lights were brought, and Wolfgang had a better opportunity of contemplating the stranger, he was more than ever intoxicated by her beauty. Her face was pale, but of a dazzling fairness, set off by a profusion of raven hair that hung clustering about it. Her eyes were large and brilliant, with a singular expression approaching almost to wildness. As far as her black dress permitted her shape to be seen, it was of perfect symmetry.

He offers to help her:

“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.

It is to avail. When he awakes to find she is dead, Wolfgang summons a policeman, who takes off her black collar and her head "rolled on to the floor."

The story finishes with what the reader presumes is the narrator insisting it was a true story and that he saw Wolfgang in a mental asylum. It gives the impression that it was all just a shaggy dog story.

Here the old gentleman with the haunted head finished his narrative. “And is this really a fact?” said the inquisitive gentleman. “A fact not to be doubted,” replied the other. “I had it from the best authority. The student told it me himself. I saw him in a madhouse at Paris.”

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