(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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....

(The entire section is 767 words.)