Sunday, March 10, 2013

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship


Opening Passage:

The play was late in breaking up: old Barbara went more than once to the window, and listened for the sound of carriages. She was waiting for Mariana, her pretty mistress, who had that night, in the afterpiece been acting the part of a young officer, to the no small delight of the public. Barbara's impatience was greater than it used to be, when she had nothing but a frugal supper to present: on this occasion Mariana was to be surprised with a packet, which Norberg, a young and wealthy merchant, had sent by the post, to show that in absence he still thought of his love. (p. 3)

Summary: Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship is a difficult book to summarize, but in nuce it is the story of how Wilhelm Meister learned that he, despite some genuine acting talent, could only fulfill his potential by leaving the stage. There are three themes that particularly stand out.

(1) We are all actors on the stage, playing our comic, tragicomic, or tragic parts. At one point in the book Wilhelm is complaining about the actors he spent much of the book and another character, the worldly-wise Jarno, replies:

"Poor dear actors! Do you know, my friend," continued he, recovering from his fit, "that you have been describing not the playhouse, but the world; that out of all ranks I could find you characters and doings in abundance, to suit your cruel pencil?...."

Acting is a reflection of living, and this accounts for the rather remarkable fact that most of the middle of the book is concerned with an extended discussion between several characters about how best to put on Shakespeare's Hamlet. Hamlet, of course, is a play which has a play inside it; and there's a sense in which Hamlet itself is a novel within the novel. (A discussion about differences between English and German drama at one point leads to the conclusion that Shakespeare's genius combined with English quirks gives the play a character that is in some ways more novelistic than dramatic, requiring adaptation in order to play it properly on the German stage.)

(2) If acting provides much of the material of the book, wandering provides much of its form. The book is famous for being an early influential Bildungsroman, a novel about how a life is built up; but it manages to be so in a highly wandering way (both in terms of Wilhelm's own wandering and in terms of the way the book itself is structured). The kind of education this wandering involves is described by the abbé, a mysterious figure who pops in and out of the story: "I augur better of a child, a youth who is wandering astray on a path of his own, than of many who are walking aright upon paths which are not theirs." Wilhelm's own wandering is described by a previous character, Theresa:

My friend, too, I honor on the same principle: the description of his life is a perpetual seeking wihtout finding,--not empty seeking, but wondrous, generous seeking; he fancies others may give him what can proceed from himself alone. (p. 497)

We learn by wandering freely, discovering things for our own selves, like wandering actors seeing the world.

(3) There is another aspect to the novel, which might be called 'family as destination'. As he wanders through the world, Wilhelm ends up slowly picking up a family to which he can truly belong: little Mignon, the best character in the book; an old harper singing of ancient losses; a vibrant young boy named Felix. As the story proceeds this group becomes more tight-knit, but the family also expands. It begins to experience life as a family, its tragedies and comedies alike, until Wilhelm can finally be said to have reached his destination. Who wanders freely will eventually wander home.

Wilhelm Meister himself is not much of a hero; Carlyle, never averse to saying it plain, calls him a "milksop", and he's quite right. At the end he notes that he has received a reward far in excess of anything that he has deserved. There is a sense in which Wilhelm Meister fails through his life, never quite succeeding at anything, however promising. But part of the point of the story is that just about anyone can educate themslees properly if they are wander in just the right way.

Favorite Passage: There are a few good ones, but here's one candidate.

"In the novel as well as in the drama, it is human nature and human action that we see. The difference between these sorts of fiction lies not merely in their outward form,--not merely in teh circumstance sthat the personages of the one are made to speak, while those of the other have commonly their history narrated. Unfortumately many dramas are but novels, which proceed by dialogue; and it would not be impossible to write a drama in the shape of letters.

"But, in the novel it is chiefly sentiments and events taht are exhibited; in teh drama, it is characters and deeds. The novel must go slowly forward; and the sentiments of the hero, by some means or another, must restrain the tendency of the whole to unfold itself and to conclude. The drama, on the other hand, must hasten; and the character of the hero must press forward to the end: it does not restrained, but is restrained...." (p.294)

Recommendation: Recommended, but you might want to re-read Hamlet first.


  1. thomashermit1:38 AM

    The more and more I think about it, the more and more I think that "development" is the wrong word. "Determination" seems to be a better one.
    There's a Kantian aspect to Meister. Many of the characters represent possibilities of what Meister could become, like Melina and Lothario. The individual begins life unconditioned, and out of an unconditioned infinity of possible self determinations, selects one by rejecting all the others.

    It's a book that deserves to be more widely read than it is...

  2. mackenzie9:26 PM

    what country does the book take place in?

  3. branemrys10:48 PM

    I would have to look it up, but I would guess that it mostly takes place in Saxony or Brandenburg -- which I guess would be Prussia, in modern-day Germany.


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