Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6000

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, did for the German novel what his early play Goetz of Berlichingen, with the Iron Hand did for German dramA&Mdash;it revolutionized prose writing in German and rescued German literature from a deadening provincialism. The people and places in The Sorrows of Young Werther have been so well documented, to a great extent by Goethe himself in his autobiography, that the reader with biographical knowledge of Goethe has difficulty separating the author from the titular hero Werther. The autobiographical content of the novel has often led to one-sided interpretations that have ignored other important aspects of the work, yet the genesis of the story in Goethe’s own experience is impossible to ignore.

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After Goethe had finished his law studies in Strasbourg, he returned to his parental home in Frankfurt to pursue, somewhat halfheartedly, a law career. At the behest of his father, Goethe went in May, 1772, to Wetzlar, which still claimed fame as the seat of the Reichskammergericht (supreme court) of the Holy Roman Empire. At a ball in the small town (which becomes one of the central episodes in the novel), Goethe met Lotte Buff, who was unofficially engaged to Johann Christian Kestner, a secretary to the Hanoverian legation. Goethe often visited her at the home of her father, a widower with many children, and he, like Werther, eventually fell in love with her; but Goethe fell in love often and easily, and the intensity of his relationship with Buff has been overemphasized. Goethe’s letters to her do not read like Werther’s; the identification of Goethe with Werther should not be carried too far. This is not to say that Goethe’s emotions for Buff were shallow—his hasty retreat from Wetzlar without even a farewell speaks against this—but Goethe was attracted to married or “taken” women, a not unimportant psychological phenomenon.

After leaving Wetzlar, Goethe visited Sophie von La Roche, a popular writer of sentimental novels, at Ehrenbreitenstein. There he fell in love with the author’s daughter, Maximiliane, who, like Buff, was engaged to be married. This sensitive situation continued even after Maximiliane’s marriage, until her husband, Brentano, put an end to it, nearly a year and a half after Goethe had left Wetzlar.

Shortly after Goethe left Wetzlar, Kestner, who carried on a correspondence with Goethe for many years, wrote to Goethe and described in great detail the suicide of a young man two years Goethe’s senior, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, whom Goethe had met. Jerusalem had killed himself over unrequited love for a married woman. Although in his autobiography Goethe claims that the Jerusalem incident was the catalyst for The Sorrows of Young Werther (a catalyst that took nearly two years to bring about an effect), later scholarship would indicate that it was not until Goethe’s affair with Maximiliane that he began to get the idea for the novel. By the time Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, he was naturally no longer the same man he was two years earlier. He had essentially already left behind many of his Sturm und Drang traits, those rebellious Romantic characteristics that modern humans so fondly cherish in their struggles against society and technology. Like his contemporary Friedrich Maximilian Klinger, Goethe saw the dangers of Romantic excess, and The Sorrows of Young Werther can claim to be Goethe’s reckoning with his not-too-distant past.

The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther begins (as does Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s epistolary novel Julie: Ou, La Nouvelle Héloïse, 1761; Eloise: Or, A Series of Original Letters, 1761; better known as The New Héloïse) and ends (as does Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded, 1740-1741) with comments by the editor, who has collected Werther’s letters to provide “consolation” for those who have fallen like Werther. The first letter is dated May 4, 1771, and serves asexposition. Werther has been sent by his mother to find out about an inheritance. He has left behind “the poor Leonore,” whom he has abandoned after being attracted to her sister. This often-overlooked fact reveals much about Werther’s character and does not present Werther in a favorable light at the beginning of the novel.

Werther is an artist, or at least he claims to be, but he deludes himself. In his second letter (May 10), he writes: “I am so happy, dear friend, so completely immersed in the feeling of a tranquil existence that my art suffers from it. I couldn’t draw now, not a line, and have never been a greater painter than at this moment.” Werther allows himself to be overwhelmed by his feelings for nature, and he uses these feelings to rationalize his dilettantism.

Werther loses himself in nature, in reveries about an old love, in the patriarchal atmosphere of Homer, and essentially withdraws from society into himself. The letter of June 16, the longest in the novel, describes the ball where Werther meets Lotte. He has been warned that Lotte is engaged to Albert, but that is of little concern to him. His letter is replete with broken thoughts, effusions, and dashes that portray his inner turmoil, and the fact that this letter comes seventeen days after the previous one shows how enthralled he is with his “new” love. Werther imagines the idyllic scene at the end of Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), a scene that for him must remain unrealized. Lotte serves as a new cathexis; Werther completely loses himself in thoughts of her and does not know “either that it’s day or night.” His search, his yearning for an idyllic, harmonious life, contrasts with his romantic longing for independence.

Werther often compares himself to a child and is very fond of children. He mentions his mother only briefly and his father not at all. He often longs for the innocence of childhood and subconsciously seems to wish that he could be among children for whom Lotte cuts the daily bread. His search for security, for protection, is very childlike, and he looks to Lotte as much for maternal as for sexual affection.

His passing comment about the local preacher’s daughter (“I must say I found her not unpleasing”), who again is “taken,” underlines his emotional instability. At times, however, Werther is capable of profound thoughts and of analyzing his own problems: “If we once have the power to pull ourselves together, our work will pass briskly through our hands, and we shall find a true pleasure in our activity” (July 1). “Activity” is a key word for Goethe and serves as a means of interpreting the novel. Wilhelm, the recipient of Werther’s letters, and Werther’s mother admonish him to find some kind of productive activity, which he only ridicules: “Am I not now active, and isn’t it basically one and the same whether I count peas or lentils?” (July 20).

Later in the novel, Werther begins to read James Macpherson’s skillful forgery The Works of Ossian (1765), in whose stormy and turbulent descriptions of nature he finds his own feelings mirrored. Goethe commented later (August 2, 1829) that Werther read Homer while sane and Ossian after he went mad. The changing style of Werther’s letters reflects his inner turmoil. Absent now are the pithy statements; subjectivism has taken over. Again, his friend Wilhelm admonishes him “to get rid of the miserable feeling that must consume all of your powers,” but Werther notes in his diary that there is no “appearance of improvement.”

Werther’s second-longest letter deals with his argument with Albert about suicide (August 12). Werther justifies it, while Albert ridicules it as a tool of a spineless man, and the reader has a presentiment. Only ten days later, Werther writes that he is incapable of doing anything: “I have no imaginative powers, no feeling for nature, and books make me sick.” He hopes that a new position will cure him (another important theme in Goethe’s works), but the first book closes with his statement, “I see no end to this misery but the grave.”

The second book begins one month and ten days after the last letter of book 1 and more than five months after the first letter of the novel. Werther now has the position of secretary to an ambassador, a position that he cannot endure for long. The position does, however, bring about a kind of recovery that enables Werther to see his problem: “Nothing is more dangerous than solitude” (October 20). There are now longer intervals between the letters, in which he often vacillates between recognizing his problems and putting the blame on others for them: “And you are all to blame whose twaddle placed this yoke on me and who have prated so much about activity. Activity!” (December 24).

Three months after his arrival, Werther writes Lotte for the first time, and his vocabulary once again is marked by words such as “isolation,” “loneliness,” and “limitation.” Goethe interjects the parallel story of a farmhand, whom Werther had met earlier, whose unrequited love will later lead to murder. Werther identifies so much with this man’s fate that he later makes an attempt to save him. This and the parallel motif of a man who worked for Lotte’s father, fell in love with Lotte, was driven from the household, and became insane as a result of his unrequited love skillfully mark Werther’s decline.

On December 6, about nineteen months after the first letter of the novel, Werther’s correspondence ends, and the editor tells how he gathered the material that covers Werther’s last days. The editor’s longer, analytical sentences contrast sharply with Werther’s rhapsodic prose. Like Wilhelm, he speaks of Werther’s inactivity—“He seemed to himself justified in his inactivity by all this”—but he also presents material (the very informed source is not given) that shows Lotte was not totally without blame, that she spurred Werther on somewhat until it was too late. When Werther, at the end of the novel, sends his servant to borrow Albert’s pistols for a supposed trip, Lotte reacts in horror; she knows that Werther wants the pistols to shoot himself, yet she does nothing about it, because Werther had visited her against Albert’s wishes and she now fears Albert’s remonstrations.

The end of the novel is masterful in its succinct style: “At twelve noon he died.At night toward eleven [the steward] had him buried at the spot Werther had chosen. The steward followed the body, and his sons, but Albert found it impossible. People feared for Lotte’s life. Workmen carried him. No clergyman escorted him.”

Goethe intended to depict in The Sorrows of Young Werther the problems of an excessively sensitive soul, showing how unbridled emotions and inactivity could lead to death. He drew from his own life, but he also saw many Werthers around him, as in the figure of the gifted contemporary poet and dramatist Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz. The influence of the novel was great, but Goethe’s intent was widely misunderstood. Young men with romantic hearts saw in the book a justification for excessive emotion and suicide, and they emulated Werther by dressing in the blue coat and yellow vest that he wears in the novel. “Werther fever” was on the rise, and there was even a spate of suicides à la Werther. For this and other reasons, Goethe revised the novel in 1787. Still, Werther became a model for Romantic writers throughout the world, and to this day, his story is the best known among Goethe’s works.

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship

Like most of Goethe’s mature works, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship had a long genesis. Goethe made first mention of this, his second novel, in an entry in his diary dated February 16, 1777, although he probably was working on the novel as early as 1776; it took him nearly twenty years to complete it. To be sure, he had finished a large portion of the novel by 1785, through book 6 and part of book 7, but work on the novel, as with the plays Iphigenia in Tauris, Egmont, and Torquato Tasso, was interrupted by his trip to Italy from 1786 to 1788. Not until his friendship with Friedrich Schiller, who supplied insightful criticism and suggestions, many of which Goethe adopted, did Goethe regain interest and finish the work. The novel Goethe published in 1795 and 1796 was essentially a thorough revision of the earlier version titled Wilhelm Meisters Theatralische Sendung (1911; Wilhelm Meister’s Theatrical Mission, 1913), the manuscript of which was not discovered until 1910.

Wilhelm Meister’s Theatrical Mission is a bildungsroman in both literal and figurative senses. The fragment opens with Wilhelm as a boy, and the interesting psychological development of the child, which closely follows Goethe’s autobiography, is to a great extent sacrificed in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which begins with Wilhelm as a young man about to leave the parental home (the few childhood scenes are told in retrospect). In Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, the theater loses in importance: Wilhelm Meister’s Theatrical Mission reflects the ambitions and concerns of a budding dramatist; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, Goethe’s ideas on culture and human development. The former follows the pattern woven by Goethe in many of his early poems and dramas about the artist; the latter can no longer be termed “a portrait of the artist as a young man.” The theater represents only one step on Wilhelm’s path of self-development. The language of the former reads much like Goethe’s Sturm und Drang prose and is quite different from the stylized, sculptured prose in the latter, which is characteristic of Goethe’s prose style after his years in Italy. Many of the ideas and most of the characters, however, were transferred from the early fragment to the novel and merely reshaped to represent the thinking of the mature Goethe.

Thematically, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship consists of five parts: home (book 1 and book 2, chapters 1 and 2), Wilhelm’s travels as a businessman and his first theatrical encounter (book 2, chapter 3, to book 3, chapter 12), the theater of Serlo (book 3, chapter 13, to book 5, and book 7, chapter 8), “Confessions of a Fair Saint” (book 6), and the “Society of the Tower” episodes (book 7, chapters 1-7 and 9, and book 8). The linear construction enables the reader to follow the development of Wilhelm from a somewhat naïve, eager young man through his many trials and tribulations to his reception into the Society of the Tower, where he is given an indenture that will guide him in his journeyman years.

At the beginning of the novel, Wilhelm, like many young people, disdains his family’s supposed avarice and bourgeois life and views the theater as a means of escape. His mother curses the day she gave him a puppet theater, for she believes his calling to the theater will ruin him physically and morally. Goethe’s description of theater life mirrors quite accurately the circumstances and plight of theater groups in Germany in the 1760’s and 1770’s.

A series of coincidences and misunderstandings involving Wilhelm’s lover, Marianne—an actor who, unbeknown to him, is pregnant—causes him to abandon her and resign himself to his father’s business. Years pass; Wilhelm despairs over his ability as a writer, which he still believes to be his calling, burns his manuscripts, and seems to dedicate himself diligently to his father’s merchant profession. Following the advice of his father and his friend Werner, Wilhelm sets out on a trip to collect some debts owed to his father. As soon as he hears of a theatrical troupe performing in the vicinity where his travels have taken him, the old flame smoldering inside flares up and he is consumed by the idea of the theater. He encounters a motley group of actors and takes up with them.

The two theater episodes help Wilhelm gain insights into himself. At first enthusiastic about pursuing his dream of belonging to an acting troupe, he dedicates body and soul to the theater, which he serves as actor, writer, and director. (These activities reflect Goethe’s involvement as writer, actor, and, after 1791, director of the Weimar Theatre.) While at a castle with the troupe, Wilhelm is introduced to the theater of Shakespeare by Jarno, a mysterious figure and a member of the Society of the Tower whose function becomes clear only later. Shakespeare has a profound effect on Wilhelm, as he did on all the German dramatists of the 1770’s; Wilhelm’s conversations about Shakespeare and Hamlet (pr. c. 1600-1601) with Serlo, the director of a troupe in a large city of commerce (probably modeled on Hamburg), and with his sister Aurelie, and their subsequent successful performance of the play, form the nucleus of the fourth book. The sections on Hamlet do not, however, represent the thinking of the older Goethe, but rather the subjective sentimentality of the Sturm und Drang writers. Wilhelm’s dissatisfaction with the members of the troupe and the bustle of the city causes him to reflect on the direction he has taken in his life; for the first time, he admires the order and activity of the world of commerce (book 4, chapter 20). Wilhelm still views the theater as a goal, however, writing to his friend Werner, “to develop myself exactly as I am, that was vaguely my wish and my intention from the days of my youth.” The German word (aus)bilden (to develop, to educate, to cultivate), a variant of which is found in “bildungsroman,” is a key word in the novel and appears more than one hundred times. At this point in the novel, Wilhelm knows he must develop himself, but he still falsely views the theater as an end and not as a means.

Toward the end of the fifth book, Wilhelm becomes more and more disillusioned with the theater, and his criticism of it culminates in the declaration in book 7, chapter 8: “I am leaving the theatre to join up with men whose association has to lead me in every sense to a pure and certain activity.” The word “activity” (Tätigkeit), as in The Sorrows of Young Werther, is a key word in Goethe’s novels, and it is toward an active, constructive life that Wilhelm must move.

The Society of the Tower makes up most of book 7 and all of book 8. Wilhelm discovers that many of the people who have crossed his path throughout the novel (Jarno, the Abbé, Natalie “the beautiful amazon,” the Countess, Friedrich, and others) are connected with the society and have monitored and guided his development. Wilhelm is now initiated into the secrets of the society, and the Abbé says: “Your apprenticeship is over, nature has released you” (book 7, chapter 9). Wilhelm discovers that the boy Felix, who has been with him since his days with Serlo, is his son by Marianne, who died in childbirth. He also learns that Mignon and the harp player, those Romantic spirits whom he met while with the first acting troupe, are father and daughter from an incestuous affair. Symbolically, they must die, for they represent an aberrant side of life not compatible with Wilhelm’s active, healthy endeavors. (Significantly, and ironically, German Romantic writers and musicians of the early nineteenth century were enraptured with the figures of Mignon and the harp player.)

Wilhelm falls in love with Natalie, who, like the other members of the Society of the Tower, will play a significant role in the continuation of the novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Travels. Wilhelm’s development, however, is not yet over; the society will direct him on his next journey, which he will make with his son Felix.

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is a milestone in the development of the novel as a genre. Not until Charles Dickens did a novelist again weave such an intricate plot. Goethe had literary debts to such writers as Samuel Richardson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Oliver Goldsmith, but he paid them back with interest. His use of different genres within the novel—of letters, songs, and stories within the story—was to have a great influence on the next generation of novelists in England, France, and Russia. In Germany, Goethe made the novel into an art form, a form that, unlike poetry or drama, was able to encompass the breadth of the human condition.

Elective Affinities

Goethe’s third novel, Elective Affinities, was first conceived as a novella to be placed in what was later to become his fourth novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, but the idea became so important to Goethe that he expanded the novella into a novel in what was for him a relatively short period of time; of his novels, only The Sorrows of Young Werther was written more quickly. Goethe himself said that Elective Affinities should be read three times to comprehend its ramifications, and in his diary, he noted that the idea behind the novel was to portray “social relationships and their conflicts in a symbolic way.”

Elective Affinities differs from Goethe’s other novels in that it focuses attention on a group of people rather than on an individual, as in The Sorrows of Young Werther and Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. In Elective Affinities, Goethe, somewhat like his contemporary, Jane Austen, uses a small group of people as a microcosm to represent the problems of contemporary society.

Elective Affinities begins with what seems to be an idyll. Edward and Charlotte live on a large estate and are arranging it to their tastes. They are both in their second marriage. Having been lovers in their youth who were forced into marriages of convenience, they were able to marry after the deaths of their spouses. Soon, however, flaws begin to appear in the idyllic setting. Edward and Charlotte are designing a new house, a pleasure pavilion (Lustgebäude), and, as with most actions in the novel, this one is symbolic: The old house, representing their marriage, is no longer adequate, and the building of the new one is an unconscious admission that their marriage itself is no longer adequate to one or to both of them. Apart from Faust, Elective Affinities is Goethe’s most symbolic work, and attention must be paid to every object—the plane trees, the church, water, the paths, headaches, and so on—for symbolic meaning blended into the novel in a masterful way.

The stagnation of the marriage becomes clear when Edward wants to invite his old friend, the Captain, who has fallen on hard times, to come live with them. Charlotte, who is by far more perceptive than Edward, fears this move. She knows that a third person will change their lives, but whereas she is completely happy and satisfied in her activity (Tätigkeit), Edward is a dilettante who needs the “active” Captain to stimulate him. The narrator, whose function in Elective Affinities is generally to analyze the characters and their relationships objectively rather than to admonish, as in The Sorrows of Young Werther, comments that before the arrival of the Captain, Edward and Charlotte had had less conversation than usual, because they had disagreed over the building of the park: “Thus daily Charlotte felt lonelier.”

The Captain arrives, and Charlotte decides to have Ottilie, the orphaned daughter of an old friend, brought from the boarding school that she attends with Luciane, Charlotte’s daughter from her first marriage; thus, the tragic constellation is complete. One day, the four of them are together when the Captain begins speaking of elective affinities, the tendency in chemistry for particles to break up and form new combinations. Edward, who misconstrues nearly everything, comments that these relationships become interesting only when they cause separations (Scheidungen in German, also meaning “divorces”), and he makes the analogy (quite unaware, consciously at least, of its implications) that Charlotte represents A, he himself B, the Captain C, and Ottilie D: When A and B break up, and C and D likewise, they form the new unions of AC and BD. Edward’s casual talk disturbs Charlotte, who recognizes in it his subconscious yearning.

The new pairs are indeed gradually formed. Charlotte finds with the Captain new “activity” that she no longer shares with Edward, and Edward delights in being with Ottilie, with whom he shares a childlike nature. The names of the characters are themselves significant: Edward’s real name, “Otto” (which is also the Captain’s first name), “Charlotte,” and “Ottilie” all have the same root, showing symbolically the close affinity among them. The action of the first part pinnacles in a scene of psychological adultery. Edward visits Charlotte’s bedroom one night after “a strange mix-up took place in his soul,” and during intercourse, he thinks of Ottilie while Charlotte thinks of the Captain. Upon waking, Edward has a presentiment and considers what he has done a crime. Thereafter the thought of Ottilie consumes him, just as Lotte’s image consumed Werther.

Elective Affinities, like most of Goethe’s later works, contains the theme of renunciation (Entsagung), and it could, in fact, justifiably carry the German subtitle of Wilhelm Meister’s Travels: Oder, Die Entsagenden (or those who renounce). Charlotte learns to renounce the Captain; Edward does not renounce, nor does Ottilie at this point in the novel. The Captain leaves, and when Edward learns that Charlotte is pregnant, he flees to seek his end in a war of which he has no real understanding, just as he does not understand most things in his life.

The first half of the second part deals with how Charlotte and Ottilie lead their lives during the absence of Edward and the Captain. Ottilie, even though she still longs for Edward, matures, and this maturation process can be followed in her diary, excerpts from which occasionally break thenarrative flow of the novel. At times, it is hard to believe that Ottilie, who had difficulties in school, can actually understand the pithy statements she copies into her diary. Readers of Goethe are inclined to view Ottilie as an authorial mouthpiece in these passages, just as the aphorisms in “Makarien’s Archive,” at the end of Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, serve to represent Goethe’s thinking. Ottilie’s diary also prepares the reader for her renunciation of Edward and for her belief that it is wrong to break up the marriage of Edward and Charlotte. When the baby, which has Ottilie’s eyes and the Captain’s facial features, is born (conceived on the night of psychological adultery), Ottilie begins to sublimate her love for Edward into a pseudo-mother-love for the child.

In Elective Affinities, Goethe assimilates, as in his other novels, a variety of literary genres. Ottilie’s diary has already been mentioned; particularly striking is the function of the novella, “The Strange Neighbor Children,” which is integrated into the novel. The children in the novella parallel to a certain degree the characters in the novel, but the novella, based on events in the Captain’s past, has a happy ending (despite the parallel symbols of water and drowning), unlike the novel.

One day, Ottilie takes the baby to the lake, where she is suddenly surprised by Edward. Edward has returned from the war ever more intent on having Ottilie. He has met with the Captain (who is now a major, perhaps through advancement in the same war in which Edward fought) and has convinced him, even though the Captain hesitated at first, that Charlotte and he should divorce and that the Major should marry Charlotte and raise the baby. Ottilie resists Edward’s proposal that they marry, saying that Charlotte must decide their fate. In her confusion, she hurries, after parting from Edward, to a skiff, loses her balance, and drops the baby into the lake. By the time she retrieves it, it is dead.

Despite the tragic loss, Charlotte agrees to a divorce. Ottilie, however, has learned to “renounce.” She resolves to be a teacher and to return to the boarding school, where she can be “active.” Edward surprises her on her journey back to the school and gets her to return to the estate. During their brief meeting at an inn, however, Ottilie does not say a word; she refuses to express her love for Edward, realizing that the only escape for her is in death. Her maturation and new convictions become apparent when they return to the estate and she places Charlotte’s and Edward’s hands together. She continues not to speak and resolves to starve herself to death. Edward soon follows her in death, and the two are buried side by side.

Wilhelm Meister’s Travels

Wilhelm Meister’s Travels belongs to that group of Goethe’s later works (in poetry, West-Eastern Divan, and in drama, Faust) that are characteristic of his Altersstil (mature style) and that are not easily accessible. Goethe himself recognized the difficulty of his last novel; he admitted (February 17, 1827) that it could not have been written earlier. In a conversation six years before this admission (June 8, 1821), he cited the problem readers would have with the novel: “Everything is really to be taken symbolically, and everywhere there is something else hidden behind it. Every solution to a problem is a new problem.” The absence of plot; the interspersed novellas, poems, letters, aphorisms, dramatic dialogue, and technical discussions of various trades; and the often obscure wisdom of the aged Goethe make for difficult reading, but when the novel is read in the context of Goethe’s later works and his worldview, its seemingly vague symbols become clearer.

Goethe formed the conception of Wilhelm Meister’s Travels as soon as he finished its companion piece, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, but actual work on the novel did not begin until 1807, and it was not completed for more than twenty years. The novel fuses materials of two kinds: the novellas, written mostly between 1807 and 1818, which in style and content differ from the framework, and the framework itself, most of which was completed later. A first version appeared in 1821 and was then thoroughly revised for the second version in 1829. The novellas present vignettes of the human condition and the vicissitudes of human existence, and they are moralistic in that they reinforce the teachings implicit in the novel’s framework; almost all of them deal with the problem of passion. The title of the novel itself is bipartite: Wilhelm Meister’s Travels indicates a continuation, however loosely, of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship; the subtitle, Die Entsagenden (those who renounce), mirrors the philosophy of the society that directs theprotagonist.

The Society of the Tower has given Wilhelm rules that dictate his travels: He cannot stay longer than three days under one roof; when he leaves a place, he must travel at least one German mile (approximately five miles); and he cannot return to the same place for more than a year. The novel begins with Wilhelm and his son Felix journeying through the mountains. Goethe immediately introduces the symbolic figures of Joseph, a carpenter, and Maria, his wife, who live in an abandoned monastery and offer Wilhelm shelter. Goethe’s ideas on religion are encapsulated in this segment, both symbolically (the ruins of the monastery and Joseph’s work on it) and explicitly (in conversations between Wilhelm and Joseph). The theme of the family recurs throughout the novel, and this “first family” serves as a model.

Continuing on his wanderings, Wilhelm meets Montan, the Jarno of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Like many of the characters in the novel, Montan/Jarno is one who has “renounced,” and he later fulfills a utilitarian function in the new society; his métier is geology, hence his name. The characters in the novel who will later make up the society have professions that represent the vast and varied interests of Goethe: astronomy, weaving, geology, botany, and so on.

Wilhelm and Felix come to the house of the “Uncle” (der Oheim), where they meet Hersilie, with whom Felix falls in love. Felix’s love for Hersilie depicts the impetuous and immature side of love. His handling of the situation parallels to a great extent Wilhelm’s amorous adventures in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and is juxtaposed to the maturity of the now older and wiser Wilhelm. Wilhelm also meets at the Uncle’s house Juliette and Leonardo. Leonardo has been away to educate himself, has overcome the many obstacles of impetuous youth, and is now returning to his Uncle’s to take up new activities. The Uncle owns vast tracts of land in America, which Leonardo will inherit. The Society of the Tower also possesses large landholdings in America, and Leonardo plans to join them to found colonies in the new land for those people of the mountain regions whose skills are being replaced by the machines of the Industrial Revolution. (This utopian vision of America runs throughout German literature and would remain present in the novels of several young Austrian writers and German filmmakers in the late twentieth century.)

Wilhelm visits the castle of Aunt Makarie, whose nebulous figure seems to shed guiding light over the society’s proceedings. Her pithy advice and aphorisms allow Goethe to express his wisdom on every subject of interest to him. Makarie is the example par excellence of one who has renounced. She is confined to a chair, but her wisdom and guidance are sought by everyone. Wilhelm then comes to the Pedagogical Province, where he leaves Felix to be educated while he continues his journey. The Pedagogical Province is a strict, almost totalitarian educational system (with overtones from Plato, Rousseau, and Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi) where young people are rigorously trained to serve a function in society. Every aspect of the student’s life is dictated, and at first, Felix, again as a figure of youth whose passions must be controlled, is hesitant, but he does conform. The idea behind the Province is that man can attain the highest that he is capable of reaching. Some of the Province’s pupils will emigrate to America with the Society of the Tower.

Wilhelm later comes to that mountainous region whose inhabitants are threatened by the Industrial Revolution. There he meets a group planning to emigrate to America, and he begins practicing the profession he has chosen in order to be a useful member of society, namely, that of a doctor. Book 3 contains long passages on technical aspects of spinning and weaving, the society’s plans for colonies in America and in Europe, and finally a meeting of the immigrants at Markarie’s castle. Here some of the principal characters from Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship come together; they now all have a useful profession, a function in the new society: Friedrich, because of his good memory, is a copyist; the frivolous Philine has become, somewhat incredulously, an expert, selfless seamstress; and the Abbé is a teacher.

The novel ends as it began, symbolically. As Wilhelm travels upriver to join Felix, who is now several years older, a horse with rider plunges into the river. It is Felix, who has recently visited Hersilie on a mission of love, was rejected, and was riding grief-stricken when his horse fell into the river. Wilhelm saves his son by opening a vein—he has now completed his education; several years before, a similar incident had occurred in Wilhelm’s life, but he was untrained and had to watch a fisher-boy die. Wilhelm will now join Natalie and the Society of the Tower.

Wilhelm Meister’s Travels is not a psychological study of humankind and society as is Elective Affinities; rather, it is a receptacle into which Goethe poured the wisdom gathered over a long life. It contains some of his most profound thoughts on humankind, society, literature, art, music, and the sciences. It also contains the vision of Faust: The central themes of activity and renunciation help define humankind’s purpose on earth and the function of human beings in society—an unusual optimism for a writer in his eightieth year.

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