Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - Essay

Johann Goethe


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The following entry presents criticism of Goethe's novel, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796; Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship). See also Novelle Criticism and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Drama Criticism.

Essentially a romantic work, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre is considered the seminal Bildungsroman, or novel of development and maturation, in German literature. An expansion of Goethe's earlier project Wilhelm Meister's Theatrical Mission, the Lehrjahre details Wilhelm Meister's entry into the theater and subsequent education in the ways of the world as a debt collector for his father and an itinerant actor. Following an intricate plot, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre presents not only its protagonist's personal development, but also Goethe's own philosophical and aesthetic views, which are presented via its character's sometimes discursive speeches.

Plot and Major Characters

Goethe's novel is told as a succession of vignettes about the life of a young man in love. As the story begins, the objects of Wilhelm's affections are two-fold, focused both on an actress, Mariane, and the local stage where she performs. With a penchant for versifying rather than for business, Wilhelm determines to scorn his father's disapproval and ask Mariane to marry him while he is away on assignment. Yet his friends are skeptical of the plan and warn him of Mariane's low character. One morning, Wilhelm is shocked to find a man leaving Mariane's house. Jilted by Mariane in favor of Norberg, her protector and lover, Wilhelm decides to accept his father's plan that he travel about collecting debts for the family business; he thus sets out on his adventures. In a nearby town he befriends Philina and Laertes, who become his close companions. While attending an acrobatic show, the three notice that a young girl in the troupe is being poorly treated. Wilhelm rescues the tomboy, Mignon, from the cruelty of her fellows, and she joins him as a devoted follower. Wilhelm then becomes part of a small company of struggling actors. They perform at a nearby castle, where Wilhelm wins the admiration of a countess. The actors then return to their travels and are waylaid by bandits, one of whom wounds Wilhelm before being chased away by a beautiful Amazon. Then follows a period of convalescence for the young man, and for Mignon, who was also injured in the altercation. Time passes, and the acting troupe departs, leaving Wilhelm to pursue his stage career alone after recovering from his wounds. He joins the company of Serlo, a noted actor-manager, in his production of Hamlet. Meanwhile, his father has died and Wilhelm, having inherited enough property to support himself, meets Aurelia, Serlo's sister. Some time later, Aurelia dies, but not before asking her friend to take a letter to Lothario, her former lover. Lothario, Wilhelm learns, resides at the nearby castle, and is brother to the countess he had once entertained, as well as a member of a secret society of nobles and intellectuals to which Wilhelm seeks entry. After returning from a mission for Lothario, Wilhelm learns that Mignon has left and is now mortally ill. He locates her and discovers that she is the daughter of an Italian priest who had gone insane with love for his sister. Mignon dies, and Wilhelm again encounters the Amazon, Natalia, who had previously saved him. The two marry and there ends Wilhelm's apprenticeship.

Major Themes

As a Bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre principally sketches the emotional, intellectual, and artistic development of its protagonist, following him from the youthful exuberance of first love to a more mature understanding of his creative capacities and social identity. As it follows Wilhelm on his picaresque quest toward self-fulfillment and awareness of his place in the world, the novel explores the young man's gradual acceptance of responsibility and his instruction in the guiding principles of reason, symbolized, critics note, by Lothario's Society of the Tower. Beyond this overarching theme of education, commentators additionally perceive in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre Goethe's concern with the nonlinear representation of time and the recognition of multiple and contradictory sources of truth. The work is also said to reveal Goethe's thoughts on the principles of dramatic art, ideas concentrated in his influential critical discussion of Shakespeare's Hamlet in book five of the novel.

Critical Reception

Many critics of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre have acknowledged the work's numerous technical flaws, including its inadequately realized characters, meandering plot filled with improbable coincidences, and overall lack of aesthetic unity—the last of these objections having been generally explained by the fact that Goethe paused for several years in his composition of the novel. Most commentators, however, have seen beyond these relatively minor defects and instead focused on its significant impact as the prototypical Bildungsroman, a work that essentially defines the salient characteristics of the education novel. Modern critics have also frequently applied the concepts of psychoanalysis to the novel, with many finding this approach useful in examining Wilhelm's forging of a mature identity and in evaluating the work's female characters, particularly the abused Mignon. Several scholars have also commented on the influence of Goethe's friend Friedrich von Schiller upon Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and have suggested that the work represents one of the most notable achievements in early German romantic fiction.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Buch Annette (poetry) 1767

Die Laune des Verliebten (drama) 1767

Neue Lieder (poetry) 1769

Rede Zum Schäkespears Tag (criticism) 1771

Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand [first publication] (drama) 1773 Goetz of Berlichingen with the Iron Hand 1799

Von deutscher Baukunst (criticism) 1773

Clavigo (drama) 1774 Clavidgo (sic), 1798; also published as Clavigo 1897

Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (novel) 1774 The Sorrows of Werter 1779; also published as Werter and Charlotte 1786; The Sorrows of Young Werther 1929; and The Sufferings of Young Werther 1957

Stella (drama) 1776 Stella 1798

Die Geschwister (drama) 1787 The Sister published in Dramatic Pieces from the German, 1792

lphigenie auf Tauris (drama) 1787 lphigenia in Tauris 1793

Der Triumph der Empfindsamkeit [first publication] (drama) 1787

Egmont (drama) 1788 Egmont 1841

Faust: Ein Fragment (poetry) 1790

Torquato Tasso (drama) 1790 Torquato Tasso published in Torquato Tasso: A Dramatic Poem from the German with Other German Poetry, 1827


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Frederick Amrine (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Comic Configurations and Types in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre,” in Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, Vol. 19, No. 1, February, 1983, pp. 6-19.

[In the following essay, Amrine traces comic archetypes, symbols, and themes in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.]


Goethe himself ranked the Lehrjahre among the ‘most incalculable productions,’1 yet critics have more often complained that the final sum is drawn all-too-neatly.2 The ending of the novel, where all the loose ends of the plot are tied up in a flurry of disclosures leading to three marriages, has been felt to be inorganic—something...

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Irene Kacandes (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Re-presentations of Time in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre,” in Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2, May, 1990, pp. 95-118.

[In the following essay, Kacandes analyzes the complex temporal and narrative organization of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, viewing anachrony—dissonance between the order of narration and the actual sequence of events in the storyline—as the structuring principle of the novel.]

Having just completed the leonine task of reading the whole of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre in two days, Schiller recorded his immediate impressions in a letter to Goethe (2 July 1796):


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Hartmut Steinecke (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Novel and the Individual: The Significance of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister in the Debate about the Bildungsroman,” in Reflection and Action: Essays on the Bildungsroman, edited by James Hardin, University of South Carolina Press, 1991, pp. 69-96.

[In the following essay, Steinecke considers Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre as a seminal Bildungsroman and studies its presentation of the hero's struggle to reconcile himself with reality.]

If one were to list the most important texts in the history of the novel of the nineteenth century, one work would clearly stand out as the one most frequently mentioned and discussed: Wilhelm Meisters...

(The entire section is 9836 words.)

Jill Anne Kowalik (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Feminine Identity Formation in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 2, June, 1992, pp. 149-72.

[In the following essay, Kowalik surveys Goethe's portrayal of the childhood psychosexual development of the female characters in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.]

Natalie, the “beautiful soul,” and Therese have been treated almost without exception in commentaries on Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre as examples of idealized types, representing static categories or principles of feminine existence. Scholars explicitly or implicitly adopt Schiller's view, expressed in a letter to Goethe dated 3 July 1796: “Es ist zu...

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Marc Redfield (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ghostly Bildung: Gender, Genre, Aesthetic Ideology, and Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre,” in Genre, Vol. 26, No. 4, Winter, 1993, pp. 377-407.

[In the following essay, Redfield highlights aesthetic and gender representation in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre,evaluating the novel and its relationship to the genre of the Bildungsroman.]

For the being of Geist has an essential connection with the idea of Bildung.


Whoever could manage to interpret Goethe's Meister properly would have expressed what is now happening in...

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Ursula Mahlendorf (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Mystery of Mignon: Object Relations, Abandonment, Child Abuse and Narrative Structure,” in Goethe Yearbook, edited by Thomas P. Saine, Vol. VII, 1994, pp. 23-26.

[In the following essay, Mahlendorf interprets the figure of Mignon as the embodiment of eroticism and incest in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, seeing her as a symbolic threat to the order of the Bildungsroman.]

From her first appearance in the novel, the mysterious strange beauty of the child Mignon excites the protagonist's curiosity even as the gender of the “Geschöpf”1 remains ambiguous. From the beginning, Wilhelm's erotic impulses are awakened in her presence....

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Hellmut Ammerlahn (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre: An Apprenticeship toward the Mastery of Exactly What?” in Colloquia Germanica, Vol. 30, No. 2, 1997, pp. 99-119.

[In the following essay, Ammerlahn discusses Wilhelm's process of mastering his creative imagination in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.]

Some 200 years after the publication of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, the high regard for Goethe's most influential novel as well as the arguments over its central meaning are thriving unabated.1 The majority of knowledgeable authors and critics, from Schiller to James Joyce and Thomas Mann, from Friedrich Schlegel to Dilthey and Lukács, are united in...

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John Blair (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Monologue and Dialogue in the Lehrjahre,” in Tracing Subversive Currents in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, Camden House, 1997, pp. 163-83.

[In the following excerpt from his study of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Blair focuses on the “multiplicity of voices” and their alternate representations of truth in Goethe's novel.]

The chapters of this study have viewed the Lehrjahre as it qualifies or criticizes monolithic or limiting structures within Enlightenment culture—concepts of inheritance, property, legitimacy, propriety, tradition, and notions concerning sexuality. Forces of both authority and transgression are...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Brown, Jane K. “The Theatrical Mission of the Lehrjahre.” In Goethe's Narrative Fiction: The Irvine Goethe Symposium, edited by William J. Lillyman, pp. 69-84. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1983.

Studies Goethe's attack on neo-classicism in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.

Cohn, Dorrit. “Wilhelm Meister's Dream: Reading Goethe with Freud.” In German Quarterly 62, No. 4 (Fall 1989): 459-72.

Argues that Goethe endeavors to portray Wilhelm's dream in Book Seven of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahrewith a great degree of psychological realism, and analyzes the dream itself.

Dürr, Volker O. “The Humanistic Ideal and...

(The entire section is 730 words.)