Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s middle years as a classicist were bracketed by early and late years dominated by Romantic characteristics. Elective Affinities is a product of that late Romanticism. As he aged, however, Goethe was less adamant than he was in his younger days about his own adherence to any set of aesthetic principles. As a consequence, Elective Affinities contains elements of both classicism—primarily in form—and Romanticism—mainly in content. The novel has a classic symmetry of form that complements the symmetrical arrangement of the four protagonists, dividing the married couple, Edward and Charlotte, between their two guests, Ottilie and the Captain. The classic harmonious structure of Elective Affinities is created by its cool, formal, generally unemotional style—particularly evident in the distancing between narrator and action evoked by Goethe’s use of a third-person narrator. These classical qualities lead to the expectation that the issues with which the novel deals will be rigorously pursued to the necessary logical conclusion.

Such, however, is not the case, because Goethe treats content from a predominantly Romantic perspective. In Elective Affinities, the absolute moral imperative of classicism collides with the irresistible force of Romantic natural law. The classical view would mandate that society emerge the victor. Indeed, classic orthodoxy would reject the simultaneous existence of two immutable but antithetical laws in the universe. Romanticism, on the other hand, would argue for the victory of the individual and allows for paradox and contradiction. Rather than affirm a clear-cut endorsement of either law, however, Goethe concludes the novel ambiguously: Although death is the fate of the lovers who defied the moral code of society, those disciples of natural law ironically carry off a moral victory of sorts by wringing sympathetic comments from the narrator, who thinks about the existence of some higher plane where there is no conflict between social order and natural law. The implication—a thoroughly Romantic one—is that the two lovers, buried side by side, may yet reach that plane.

In addition to the fusion of classic and Romantic elements typical of Goethe’s works, Elective Affinities also illustrates another of the author’s lifelong preoccupations: the nature of the learning process. From Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1779) to Faust (1833; The Tragedy of Faust, 1838), Goethe was concerned with epistemology and its relation to education, although that concern is most pronounced in the two Wilhelm Meister novels. The bildungsroman, as these novels are called, is a tale of character development and the shaping of one’s innate endowments. As such, the term also applies to Elective Affinities, since this novel subtly delineates the evolving mental and emotional qualities of the four protagonists as each one’s elective affinity—in chemistry, the irresistible mutual attraction between two elements—changes over the course of the story. To be sure, Elective Affinities is much more than a novel about the philosophy of learning or a study in classic versus Romantic, but a delicately woven, intense psychological drama.