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...
(The entire section is 851 words.)