Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1416
Wilhelm Meister is traveling on foot with his young son, Felix. As a consequence of his liberation from ordinary desire through the noble Lothario and the abbot, the once-troubled Wilhelm becomes a Renunciant. Under the terms of his pledge, he is to wander for years, never stopping in one place more than three days. His travels are intended to give him a final philosophical polish. Gone are the countinghouse and the stage; he is now undertaking a last purifying sacrifice.
While Felix plays merrily on the mountainside, Wilhelm muses beside a steep path. Hearing voices, he turns to see his son with a group of children running downhill before a donkey driven by a holy-looking man. The beast carries a sweet-faced woman with a small baby. The adults smile at Wilhelm, but the path is too steep for them to stop. When Wilhelm catches up with the party, the man invites him to visit his household, and his wife amiably seconds the invitation. It is decided that Felix should go on ahead with the family and Wilhelm will follow the next day, after he retrieves his wallet, left high on the mountain.
When he arrives, Wilhelm is charmed to find the family living in a restored chapel. He is struck by the fact that the man’s name is Joseph and his wife’s is Mary; they do indeed seem a holy family. When he learns their story, Wilhelm is reverent.
Joseph’s father was a rent collector for an absentee landlord. Joseph was promised that if he grew to be a steady man and a competent craftsman, he would succeed his father, but instead he decided to be a woodworker. When he was sufficiently skilled, he began to restore the paneling in the old chapel. His best work was the reworking of an elaborate wood panel depicting the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.
One day, as Joseph was wandering on the trail, he found a beautiful woman weeping beside the path. Her husband was killed by robbers. Joseph, alarmed by the woman’s distress and condition, took her to his home and summoned his mother. Soon the widow delivered a child. After a patient courtship, Joseph married the widow, Mary, and took her to live in the old chapel. Now he is the rent collector in his father’s place and possesses a loving family.
While playing, Felix comes upon a box of stones that was given to Joseph by a scientist searching for minerals in that region. He learns that the geologist’s name is Montan, a name frequently used by his old friend Jarno. Wilhelm hopes to overtake the scientist in the course of his own wanderings. He and Felix start out, led by Fitz, a beggar boy who was a playmate for Felix during the stay with the collector and his wife. On the way, they come to a barrier of fallen trees. While their guide is looking for another path, Felix wanders into a nearby cave and there finds a small box, no larger than an octavo volume, rich-looking and decorated with gold. Wilhelm and his son decide to conceal the box among their belongings and to tell no one of its discovery for the time being.
A short time later, Fitz leads them to the place where Montan is prospecting. As Wilhelm expected, the scientist is Jarno, whom Wilhelm knew in his acting days, now a Renunciant geologist. They stay with Jarno for three days, while the scientist tries to satisfy Felix’s great curiosity about minerals and their properties.
The party leaves Jarno and starts off to survey a natural phenomenon known as the Giant’s Castle. Sending the pack animals around by road, the travelers follow a rugged path until they come in sight of a beautiful garden, separated from them by a yawning chasm. Fitz leads them into an aqueduct that gives entrance to the garden. Suddenly they hear a shot. At the same time, two iron-grated doors begin to close behind them. Fitz springs back and escapes, but Wilhelm and his son are trapped. Several armed men with torches appear, and to them Wilhelm surrenders his only weapon, a knife. He tells his son to have no fear, for there are pious mottoes carved on the walls leading to the castle to which their captors conduct them.
After spending the night in a well-appointed room, father and son breakfast with the lively Hersilia and her older, more sedate sister Julietta. Felix is charmed with Hersilia, as is his father. Hersilia gives Wilhelm a romantic manuscript to read. The next day the eccentric uncle of the girls appears and takes them to lunch in a shooting lodge.
Finding himself in such agreeable and learned company, Wilhelm exerts himself to please. Hersilia accepts him as one of the family; to show her trust, she gives him a packet of letters to read, which tell of her cousin Lenardo. Some years ago Lenardo determined to set out on his travels. To get the necessary funds, his uncle collected all outstanding debts. While arranging his affairs, he dispossessed a tenant farmer with a beautiful daughter called the Nut-Brown Maid. Although the girl pleaded with Lenardo for mercy, she and her father were evicted. Now Lenardo writes his aunt that he will not come home until he learns what happened to the girl.
After reading the letters, Wilhelm takes his son to visit the aunt, a wise woman called Makaria. In her castle Wilhelm meets an astronomer who reveals to him many of the secrets of the stars. Advised by the savant, Wilhelm deposits the box Felix found with an antiquarian until the key can be located.
At a distant castle, a major comes to visit his sister. His intention is to consolidate the family fortunes by marrying his son Flavio to his sister’s daughter Hilaria. To his surprise, Hilaria claims to love him. Then the major, after getting a valet to make him look younger, goes to tell Flavio the news. He is heartened to learn that Flavio is in love with a widow.
One night, Flavio bursts hysterically into his aunt’s castle. The widow repulsed him when he became too eager in his lovemaking. Flavio soon finds solace in Hilaria’s company. When the major returns, the atmosphere grows tense. The gloom lifts only after Hilaria’s mother writes for advice to Makaria, who advises the widow to tell the major that young Flavio and Hilaria fell in love. Then Hilaria and the pretty widow set out to travel to Italy.
In his wanderings, Wilhelm comes upon Lenardo, who begs his aid in learning what became of the Nut-Brown Maid. When Wilhelm agrees to the quest, Felix is put in a school run by wise men who teach the dignity of labor and the beauty of art. Shortly after Wilhelm leaves the school, he is able to send Lenardo word that the girl is now well-off and happy. The wandering nephew then returns to Makaria.
With an artist friend, Wilhelm travels among the beautiful Italian lakes. This neighborhood is especially dear to him, for it was the home of his beloved Mignon, his foster daughter. The two men are lucky enough to meet Hilaria and the widow, but the ladies disappear before any serious interests can develop.
Hersilia writes to Wilhelm that she is keeping Felix’s box, as the antiquarian went away, and that she also has a key to the chest. Returning to Germany, Wilhelm goes to the school to get Felix. He is pleased to find him a well-grown young man with considerable artistic ability. Father and son, once more together after their long separation, begin to visit their old friends.
They discover that Hilaria and Flavio married and that Flavio became a prosperous merchant. Felix is greatly attracted to Hersilia. When he learns that she has both key and box, he persuades her to let him try to open it. The key, however, is magnetic, and the halves come apart when he tries to turn the lock.
Felix tries to embrace Hersilia, and the girl pushes him away much harder than she intends. Fearing she does not love him, Felix impetuously dashes away and is injured when he falls on the shore beside a stream. There Wilhelm finds him unconscious. His old training in medicine proves valuable, however, and Wilhelm is able to bleed his son and restore him to consciousness.