Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 851
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was considered by many critics to be the greatest writer of his time. His output included works of poetry and plays, as well as works in the novel form. An innovator in each of the genres he mastered, Goethe experimented freely and dynamically with the novel. Indeed, in Wilhelm Meister’s Travels—also known as The Renunciants—Goethe expanded the novel form to reach beyond the story of the individual to the story of society itself. At the onset of Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, in a continuation of the story in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1824), a letter written by the protagonist sets the stage for the rest of the work. Wilhelm Meister writes, “My life is to become a restless wandering. Strange duties of the wanderer have I to fulfill, and peculiar trials to undergo.” The novel concerns the main character’s continuing pilgrimage toward an understanding of himself and of the world.
Goethe was a master of the mosaic. Throughout Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, Goethe successfully weaves several different narrative strands and thereby expanded the structure of the novel as it was then known. The early part of the nineteenth century was generally a time of growth and of experimentation in the novel form, but Goethe reached far beyond anything then being done to create a highly complex narrative structure.
Throughout the work, Goethe interweaves soliloquies and dialogue, letters and observations, all of which demonstrate varying points of view on the nature of reality and knowledge, geology and art, and the practice of learning one’s place in the world. Within this complex structure a narrator describes Wilhelm’s travels. The letters inserted into the narrative structure—letters from Wilhelm to Natalia; from Lenardo to his aunt, from his aunt to Julietta; and from Julietta back to the aunt—show different temperaments and responses to stated events. Each letter works without a narrator or the interpretation the narrator provides. Through these shifting points of view on the same event it may be said that Goethe questions the validity of a singular point of view. In addition, the letters demonstrate the intimate connection among human lives.
Some of the letters in the narrative contain stories that could stand on their own as separate tales. Such is the case in one letter sent to Wilhelm, in which Hersilia, an admirer of Felix, relates a story that explores the context of Wilhelm’s travels and thus weaves the story of Wilhelm Meister the individual into a larger social and cultural framework.
Interestingly, Hersilia orders Wilhelm to deduce whether the story she relates to him in her letter is true or fictitious. By doing so, she sets the whole act of storytelling on its head. Not only must Wilhelm decide for himself the veracity of what he is told, but the reader, too, must question the validity of the plot. In this sense, Goethe transforms the reader into a pilgrim as well, who must sort through the available evidence of the journey to determine fact from fiction and perhaps eventually understand the present and the past.
To further complicate matters, the reader is also addressed by an “Editor,” who comments on the difficulty of selecting and arranging the anecdotes, “more complex narratives,” and poems that make up Wilhelm Meister’s Travels. In his comment on the arduous process of selection, the Editor laments: “We still find ourselves in more than one way impeded, at this or that place threatened with one obstruction or another.” Goethe constructs Wilhelm Meister’s Travels so that the reader experiences the sense of obstruction and diversion created by the complex narrative. The reader’s reaction may parallel that of Wilhelm when he encounters obstacles and diversions on his spiritual, moral, and psychological journey toward wisdom and understanding. Among other things, the protagonist journeys through castles, jostles with armed men, weaves his way through the lakes region, and wrestles with locked boxes to which he cannot find the key. Goethe sets up his novel in such a way that the reader takes a parallel journey of questions and of discovery.
Beyond the experiment with form, Wilhelm Meister’s Travels also provides a glimpse into the interrelation between human beings and their environment. The obstacles that Wilhelm confronts during his pilgrimage have a profound effect on him, yet it is Goethe’s belief that individuals, too, shape the society in which they live. Speculations on mathematics, astronomy, and geology are interspersed throughout the story, reflecting the importance of constantly questioning one’s world. It can be said that part of the purpose behind the pilgrimage carried out by Goethe’s protagonist is to determine his relationship to his age.
Wilhelm Meister’s Travels was created during a time of great social, economic, and religious flux in Europe. Napoleon had instigated great political strife, which was followed by the restoration of the monarchy. Goethe, grown older, used Wilhelm Meister’s Travels to look back at the ways in which the individual moves through society and at the eternal reshaping and changing of society itself.
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