Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Novelle Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

Novelle Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The following entry presents criticism on Goethe's novella, Novelle.

Published in 1828, Novelle was so named by Goethe because he intended the work to be a “model specimen” of the literary novella. Like the tales of Boccaccio that served as his literary inspiration for the genre, Goethe's novellas were defined by what the writer called a narration of a single striking or unique event—in this case, a nobleman saving a princess from an escaped tiger. As Goethe continued to write novellas he introduced a moral component to his narratives, and so expanded the concept of the genre, and by the mid-nineteenth century the distinguishing feature of the German novella was the resolution of moral conflicts. With its unusual setting, remarkable incident, and moral themes, Novelle serves as a perfect statement of the form as Goethe conceived it. Goethe likened the structure of Novelle to the growth of a plant, and he decided that its final ideal resolution of inner and outer conflict should appear to readers as surprising, but as organic as the bloom of a flower.

In 1797, Goethe begun writing the tale in rhyming verse under the title Jagdgedicht (The Hunt), but abandoned the project when Friedrich Schiller and Wilhelm von Humboldt were less than enthusiastic about the piece. Thirty years later Goethe returned to the story and wrote it in prose form. Goethe remarked to his friend Johann Eckermann, that “it was the aim of this novella to show how that which is unruly and untamable can often be better overcome by love and piety than by force.”

Plot and Major Characters

The action of Novelle takes place in a single day in an unidentified German kingdom. The Prince is preparing to lead a group of noblemen out to the woods for a hunting expedition, but the hunt is delayed as he says farewell to his new bride, the Princess. When he finally rides away on his horse, the Princess sadly watches his departure with the aid of a telescope. The Prince has one of his noblemen, Honorio, remain behind to act as his wife's personal attendant. The Prince's uncle, Friedrich, tries to cheer the Princess after her husband has left by showing her drawings of the old family castle which has long since been abandoned and lies in ruins. She asks to take a horse ride to view the old castle in person, but Friedrich refuses because the path is so overgrown and he worries for her safety. Finally, Friedrich and Honorio agree to accompany the princess to the base of the castle to view the surrounding countryside.

As they make their way through the town square, their horses become frightened by the roars of a lion. They see a collection of wild animals owned and caged by a family that makes its living by exhibiting the animals to the townspeople. Friedrich refuses to stop and view the animals, and so the group leaves town to ride through the countryside to the castle ruins.

Honorio and the Princess pass the time looking out on their surroundings with the aid of the telescope. He observes in horror that the village they have left behind is being consumed by a fire. The Princess directs Friedrich to return at once to the town to help the townsfolk; she and Honorio will make their way back at a more leisurely pace so as not to endanger her safety. After Friedrich's departure, Honorio and the Princess are threatened by an approaching tiger. He orders her to escape on her horse, but the tiger follows her. As he chases the tiger trying to shoot it, his first shot misses its mark; when the princess's horse stumbles, it appears that the tiger will overtake her. Before it does, however, Honorio's second shot fatally wounds the tiger.

As he sits atop the tiger's corpse, Honorio begs the Princess that she grant him a special wish: to be allowed to leave the kingdom, something that the Prince has never allowed him. She assures him that she is sure that in light of all that has happened her husband will consent to this request. However, Honorio seems saddened by her reply, implying that he was secretly in love with the Princess.

The scene is interrupted by the arrival of the owners of the dead tiger. They are distressed to find the tiger dead, crying out that the animal was tame and would not have hurt them. They inquire if the couple has seen their lion, which also had escaped when the fire had started to burn in the town. The Prince and his hunting expedition—returning early because they too have noticed the fire—come across the unhappy group. When the Prince learns what has happened, he orders his men to find the lion and kill it. The owner of the animals tells the Prince that he and his son can capture the lion, which they claim is also tame, without weapons. As the conversation continues, the boy plays his flute and sings a biblically inspired song about Daniel and the lions.

The lion is spotted sitting high in the ruins of the old castle. The boy approaches the lion, and with his flute and singing is able to lead the lion away from the hunters. He finds that the lion is hurt, removes a thorn from its paw, and continues to sing as the lion nestles in his arms. The danger is past, and the story concludes.

Major Themes

Most critics agree that the central theme of Novelle is that personal and social harmony are the results of moral self-mastery. Related to this is the idea that force is not the best means for creating societal stability. While the narrator only hints at Honorio's love for the Princess, his offer of the tiger's pelt while on bended knee is seen to be his declaration of love for an unobtainable lady in the German tradition of Minnesänger (troubadours). The Princess, too, can be seen as being drawn to the handsome Honorio because of her concern that the dying tiger has the potential to hurt him. Their mutual attraction, if acted upon, would cause problems not only for the royal couple, but for the entire kingdom that considers them as role models. The tiger and lion, like love itself, are at once tame creatures and symbols of latent aggression and disharmony. Many critics have noted that in the end it is not the lion, but Honorio himself, who is tamed as he watches the example of the flute-playing boy. Critics have noted that the tiger and lion—since they are tame and pose no real threat to Honorio or the Princess—represent the irrational fears of mankind. Honorio's violence can be viewed in contrast to the non-violence of the boy's actions.

A few critics have suggested that Goethe used the symbolism of Novelle as a guise for his political beliefs. Friedrich, it is claimed, refers to the German historical figure Friedrich the Great, and the name Honorio is symbolic of the honorary German nobility of the time. The fire has been interpreted as a veiled reference to the French Revolution. The religious family who cares for the wild animals symbolizes Goethe's belief that nationalism and revolution in Germany could only bring positive results if they were tempered by the language and reverence of the Christian religion. Others commentators have argued that the story is meant to show that literature itself could act as a stabilizing force in Germany, and that art could have the same type of positive influence as Goethe believed religion could have.

Critical Reception

While the fairy-tale qualities of Novelle make the story accessible to all readers, the work continues to elicit a great deal of scholarship, primarily in German, in an attempt to unravel the multiple layers of symbolism in the narrative. Many critics have praised Goethe's method of building psychological tension in the novella as he moves back and forth between idyllic descriptions of the natural surroundings and scenes of violence and despair. Others have noted the use of various optical motifs. There remains considerable disagreement as to how to view each of the characters of the novella. Most critics, for example, have argued that Honorio learns self-mastery from the events outside the old castle; others claim that the non-violence of the child exposes Honorio as a man who has made bad decisions because of irrational fear and infatuation with the Princess.

From its initial publication, critics have praised Novelle for its subtle literary techniques and for the depth of its symbolism. Unlike Goethe's early novellas in which external events are the center of attention, Novelle forces the reader to concentrate on how external events affect the inner lives of its characters. This shift from a concentration on external events to their inner significance has been called Goethe's major contribution to the German short story genre.