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.
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.
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.