Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 381

While a short story, "The Adventure of the German Student" is not short on themes. This story by Washington Irving has been the source of much speculation as to all he was trying to convey. Primarily, The Adventure of the German Student appears to be about morality. The main character,...

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While a short story, "The Adventure of the German Student" is not short on themes. This story by Washington Irving has been the source of much speculation as to all he was trying to convey. Primarily, The Adventure of the German Student appears to be about morality. The main character, Gottfried Wolfgang, is an isolated student—he has friends, but he chooses to spend most of his time engrossed in his studies. This causes him to become delusional, and he believes that he is being haunted by an evil spirit. His friends, seeing that he is falling apart, send him to study in Paris.

It is there that Wolfgang becomes worse. He arrives during the French Revolution, and he gets caught up in everything that is going on in the city:

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.

Wolfgang retreats to his room, where he dreams of women and “in his lonely chamber would often lose himself in reveries on forms and faces which he had seen.”

Here, Irving is cautioning against lust and against acting out those lustful thoughts.

Wolfgang begins to dream of one woman in particular, a woman he has never met, but he clearly sees her face. Imagine his surprise when he finds this woman distraught on the steps of the guillotine!

What was his astonishment at beholding, by the bright glare of the lighting, the very face which had haunted him in his dreams.

He brings her home and promises her “forever” if she will be his bride, yet he doesn’t know her, doesn’t love her, and says that if making it a formality is necessary, then he will. He wants to be physical with her without responsibility, he wants to act on his lust and is seeing her as an object, not a person. She accepts and "sank upon his bosom."

The next morning he goes to find them a bigger place to live, and when he returns he discovers she is not a sleeping bride, but a corpse. He is horrified, and this is the final thing which drives him mad.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 331

The stories in Tales of a Traveller strongly reflect the influence that the European gothic horror story, with its emphasis on psychological as well as physical terror, played on Washington Irving. Gottfried Wolfgang is an “enthusiast,” one given to extremes rather than carefully reasoned actions. He has devoted himself to unhealthy studies, and they have made him into a kind of monster—a “literary ghoul,” as Irving bluntly puts it, feeding on dead and putrid thoughts just as an actual ghoul would feed on dead bodies. Thus, the student is shown from the beginning to be of unsound mind, bordering precariously on the edge of madness.

Irving also makes clear, however, the student’s sexual obsession, which is equally unhealthy. His lack of restraint as he thinks about women, and especially about the one ravishing female of his dreams, shows yet again the diseased state of his imagination. Indeed, these two fascinations—mystical speculation and sexual fantasies—are linked in the student’s mind: His ghoulish tendencies are easily transformed into necrophilic desires.

Finally, when Wolfgang gives himself to the mysterious woman, he does so by denying time-honored social and religious beliefs and ceremonies. “What need is there of sordid forms to bind high souls together?” he asks before consummating his marriage night with his “bride.” Because the woman is most likely dead, although possibly inhabited by an evil spirit, this sexual consummation is an act of incredible horror: Wolfgang becomes a necrophiliac and must pay for his rashness with his sanity.

Thus, in addition to being a thrilling horror story, “Adventure of the German Student” is a warning against enthusiasm, loss of balance, lack of reason. For Irving, who grew up in the Age of Reason, Wolfgang represents the dangers of extreme liberality, whether in philosophy, sex, or religion, just as the French Revolution illustrates the madness of a society that rejects a rational manner of government. The story shows Irving’s uneasiness with many aspects of the Romantic movement.

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