Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship

by Johann Goethe

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Critical Evaluation

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Considered the prototype of the bildungsroman, a novel focusing on a character’s coming of age, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is both a chronicle of the German theater and a sort of handbook for innocents. Wilhelm’s many adventures and mishaps create the obstacles that force him to learn about the world around him. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe shows the reader that, even in the face of temptation and greed, and despite his naïveté, Wilhelm remains true to his principles and morals. When he is surrounded by scoundrels and abused and taken advantage of, Wilhelm never repays these injustices in kind. Instead, he simply accepts the foolishness and the selfishness of others and moves on, hoping steadfastly to encounter not only his one true love but also a friend to whom he can entrust his heart.

The plot of the novel is episodic, without being tightly connected. Characters often engage in long philosophical debates, acting more as mouthpieces for the author than as independent personalities. The narrative is therefore uneven, especially during breaks in the action when characters function primarily as pawns or ciphers. Nevertheless, Goethe executes one rhetorical flourish after another and creates a lyrical prose that is symphonic in its scope and fluidity. Nor is this musicality lacking in content. The author sows the dialogue with so many epigrammatic seeds and nuggets of wisdom that he creates the impression that he might yet create a dazzling whole from the revealing bits of a cosmic puzzle. Instead, however, it becomes clear that the author considers it his task to deepen the mystery of life, not to explain it. Wilhelm learns that “the sum of our existence divided by reason never comes out exactly and there is always a wondrous remainder.”

Goethe celebrates the end of Wilhelm’s apprenticeship with an epiphany, a sudden burst of inner knowledge, for having passed through the gates of initiation Wilhelm witnesses the death of his adolescent self and the birth of his adult identity. In embracing his son Felix, Wilhelm continues the cycle of life. The irony is that in the acceptance of responsibility and parenthood Wilhelm finds freedom. Goethe’s thesis is that people must accept the natural evolution of the self, and that they must not seek to retard their growth by indulging in nostalgia or by clinging to youthful dreams and illusions. On the contrary, individuals must embrace their lost innocence in order to grasp something new, in a process of accepting and letting go at the same time. Change must be cultivated, as it is the agent that propels the individual through a happy and productive life.

Goethe considers the movement forward more important than the success of the venture. The author thus poses a moral question, whether it is better to exist in a state of being or in one of becoming. Existence in a state of being may imply inertia and stagnation, whereas existence in a state of becoming may degenerate into counterproductive restlessness. The central theme of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship lies in the search for a compromise not only between being and becoming but also between thought and action and, with regard to the influences that cause an individual to act, between the external—which is the world—and the internal, which is the heart. Life is thus seen as a series of judgment calls. However, it is precisely this free will that Goethe celebrates, for the human ability to raise and improve its own consciousness reveals its connection to the divine. The ability to imagine God, and to reveal that conception with good works—that is to say through loyalty, devotion, and steadfastness—is...

(This entire section contains 952 words.)

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to confirm God’s existence. Particularly in the section entitled “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul,” Goethe illustrates the distance between the mind of God and the human mind, while also suggesting that this gap may be bridged by faith and courage. Again, however, Goethe implies that the source of this faith must not come from outside the individual but must be the product of that individual’s heart. The alternative is to accept “the monster that grows and feeds in every human breast, if some higher power does not preserve us.”

Despite the strength of this section, it might be critically faulted for its form. The transition from a third-person, omniscient point of view, centered in Wilhelm, to the first-person confession is abrupt and jarring. This threatens the book’s unity and raises the question whether the novel is about theatrical life or about a young man finding himself. As it happens, the author composed the novel during two different time periods separated by eight years—1786 and 1794—which may account for the shift in focus and for the feeling that the work comprises two halves that do not necessarily make a whole.

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship remains an important novel about initiation. When Wilhelm accepts Felix as his son, he reaches the end of his quest for identity. He acknowledges what he has created and claims it for his own, rejecting the illusions foisted on him by his society and by his own idealism. Intellectually he learns to separate the wheat from the chaff. He sees what he can and cannot do, and he accepts the difference. The ultimately pragmatic philosophy that emerges from the novel is that people should play to their strengths and avoid their weaknesses. Such intellectual honesty, however, can only be achieved through a brutal though not despairing candor with the self and with trusted friends. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is about the ongoing discovery of self and the continuing process of maturation and development—universal themes that secure Goethe’s place and that of this novel.


Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe