Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship

by Johann Goethe

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 767

A naïve young man from a prosperous family, Wilhelm Meister is allowed to choose between a bourgeois, middle-class life in business and a bohemian, independent life as an artist. Rejecting his father’s advice that he settle down and study business, Wilhelm decides to pursue a career in the theater as both an actor and a playwright. Wilhelm is distracted, though, by his love for Marianne, an actor, who, with her maid Old Barbara, conspires to keep Wilhelm in addition to a rich, older lover. One evening, Wilhelm observes his rival leaving Marianne’s room. Heartbroken, Wilhelm finally takes his father’s advice and begins a business trip that his father and Wilhelm’s best friend, Werner, hope will teach him about the world.

Before leaving, Wilhelm breaks down weeping in front of Werner. He declares that he has no artistic talent and, parting with his Muses, he throws the bundles of his poetry into a fire. He then sets off on his journey to collect the debts his father holds on account. In his heart, however, Wilhelm remains “a restless, disorganized youth who wanted to live apart from the humdrum circumstances of middle-class life.” In a small town not far from his father’s estate, Wilhelm finds himself drawn to an amateur theater production. Observing the director beat a young girl for refusing to play her part, Wilhelm rescues her, ousts the director, and begins his association with the troupe. As the company’s new director, Wilhelm takes on the girl, Mignon, as his adopted daughter, and together they travel the countryside staging plays and amusements for the local nobility.

Laertes and Philine, two of the best actors in the troupe, take Wilhelm and Mignon on sunny picnics where they flirt and joke. One afternoon, they are attacked by bandits in the forest. Wilhelm fights valiantly, drawing a pistol and shooting a bandit from his horse. Laertes joins him in the battle, but the other actors flee, and Wilhelm is badly wounded. Near death, he is saved by Mignon, who gathers up her long hair and uses it to stanch the flow of blood from a bullet wound in his chest.

Taken to recuperate at the house of a nobleman, Wilhelm slowly regains his health. During his convalescence he engages in many debates on the nature of art and poetry, especially on the topic of William Shakespeare. In the company of educated people, Wilhelm realizes that the actors took advantage of him, that they spent his money freely and failed to thank him, and that worst of all they abandoned him and left him for dead.

Forced to see that his own talent is mediocre, Wilhelm again feels compelled to choose a life in business. His new friend, the nobleman Lothario, encourages him to develop all of his talents, without focusing on any one in particular. To inform himself further, Wilhelm reads the diary of a saintly woman and concludes that there are two sources of truth, internal and external. He has just come to this realization when Mignon, who long endured poor health, suffers a heart attack and dies in his arms. Wilhelm then encounters Old Barbara, who tells him that his former lover Marianne died, swearing her love for him.

At his host’s castle, Wilhelm is surprised to meet his old friend Werner, who traveled into the countryside on business. Each quickly sees that the other has changed. Werner has become rich, but also sickly, stoop-shouldered, and bald, whereas Wilhelm, who is relatively poor, has grown into a handsome, fine figure of a man.

Parting from Werner, Wilhelm continues his journey and discovers...

(This entire section contains 767 words.)

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that he has a son by Marianne. The boy, Felix, comes into Wilhelm’s care and changes his father’s outlook on life. Wilhelm realizes that he lacks the talent to succeed in the theater. When he faces the truth about himself he discards his illusions and ends his apprenticeship, realizing that “art is long, life is short.” Having matured, he proposes to Natalie, a young woman his friends select as the perfect mate. She refuses to give him an answer, but Wilhelm is distracted from his hopes and fears when Felix accidentally drinks opium. Fearing for the child’s life, Wilhelm summons a doctor. Natalie swears that if Felix survives, she will accept Wilhelm’s hand in marriage. Felix recovers, and Wilhelm joyfully accepts his new responsibilities as father and husband. Renouncing the artistic life, he takes his friend Jarno’s advice and begins a happy domestic life, while Jarno sets sail for the New World in America.