Places Discussed

Edward and Charlotte’s home

Edward and Charlotte’s home. Extensive country estate in Germany—a home worthy of an aristocratic couple who have withdrawn from fashionable court life to share a cultivated though not reclusive retirement. Their large manor house with two wings is surrounded by domestic gardens and a nearby landscape of villages, fields, lakes, and hills. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe almost seems inclined to conceal the fact that the locale of his story is German, choosing instead to evoke a generic European landscape comparable to a landscape portrayed by noted seventeenth and eighteenth century painters.

By avoiding details of a specific locale, Goethe focuses attention on the psychological content of his narrative that permits him to suggest that his story’s tragic events are underlain by social and philosophical issues that are continental in scope. His story’s narrow topographical range also gives its setting—and the novel itself—a sense of being a laboratory of social relationships, a circumstance that agrees with the novel’s title, which is borrowed from contemporary scientific speculation about the physical interaction of chemical substances.

Gardening and the alteration and management of the estate are essential themes in the novel from its opening; the fateful events that are to overwhelm Edward and Charlotte, along with their companions Ottilie and the unnamed “Captain,” are set in motion in the first chapter by Edward’s insistent question of Charlotte, “Are my gardening and your landscaping to be for hermits only?”

Moss hut

Moss hut. Small, rustic outbuilding that Charlotte is building at the beginning of...

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Dieckmann, Liselotte. “Novels: The Elective Affinities.” In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Boston: Twayne, 1974. Discusses the way irony, symbolism, and other narrative elements shape the novel. Contains an annotated list of Goethe criticism.

Lange, Victor. Introduction to Elective Affinities, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Translated by Elizabeth Mayer and Louise Bogan. Chicago: Regnery, 1963. Written by a well-known Goethe scholar, this is an excellent introduction to the philosophical and moral issues raised in the novel. Emphasizes the ambivalence of love and marriage in the story.

Peacock, Ronald. “The Ethics of Goethe’s Die Wahlverwandtschaften.” Modern Language Review 71, no. 2 (April, 1976): 330-343. Examines the novel’s ethical sensibility regarding marriage as an institution. Places Ottilie at the center of the story as an affirmative ethical statement, despite her tragic life.

Tanner, Tony. “Goethe’s Die Wahlverwandtschaften.” In Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979. A study of the four main characters. Highly critical of Ottilie, who is usually idolized. Analyzes the symbolic value of particular objects, activities, and landscape descriptions so prominent in the novel.

Vietor, Karl. “Elective Affinites.” In Goethe the Poet, translated by Moses Hadas. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949. Represents the classical view of the novel in German scholarship, which points to the inevitable conflict between nature and civilization. Argues that the solution lies in restraint, balance, and resignation. Emphasizes the tragic necessity of the plot.