Open main menu

The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Wilhelm Meister

WILHELM MEISTER, Goethe's greatest novel, consists of ‘Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship,’ published in 1796, and ‘Wilhelm Meister's Travels or the Renunciants,’ published in final form in 1829. Both parts of the novel deal with the adventures of a young man and the development of his character, each part, however, being conceived from a different point of view. In the ‘Apprenticeship’ Wilhelm Meister, the son of a well-to-do merchant, decides to join a band of strolling actors, both from personal enthusiasm for their profession and for the noble purpose of raising the German stage to a higher level. But he realizes, after some time, that he is not a born actor; the company to which he belongs can not keep up the high standard which it had reached in the presentation of Shakespeare's ‘Hamlet’ (book 5), and makes the stage a place of cheap amusement instead of a place of education; the life of the actors is of an indifferent, drifting nature, depending on the opportunities of the moment. Wilhelm withdraws from the stage and feels more at home with a certain secret society — The Society of the Tower — whose members as a rule belong to the nobility. Real culture and superior skill in worldly matters can be found among them. The high goal which they pursue in the education of man is to develop and to reconcile with each other all the qualities with which the individual is endowed by nature. The common problem which all men have to solve in the course of their lives is the reconciliation of the moral and the sensual, the ideal and the real, while art and perhaps religion are considered the means for attaining such a complete, harmonious personality. Man is to make himself a work of art which, independent of its surroundings, has its object exclusively in itself. Against this inspiring conception of man by which Wilhelm is attracted and which his fiancée Natalie and to some extent also her aunt represent (Cf. ‘Confessions of a Fair Saint,’ book VI), stand out the pathetic figures of Mignon and the harper, who are doomed to a tragic end. Characteristic features of Germany in the 18th century are the separation of classes into nobles and commoners, the conception of the theatre as a place of education, and the tendency to form secret societies. The construction of the ‘Travels’ is decidedly loose. Wilhelm himself no longer plays so prominent a part; reflections and maxims, descriptions of conditions and institutions take up a great deal of space, and a number of short stories but vaguely connected with the main story are inserted at different places. The whole is conceived in a new spirit, the spirit of renunciation, the power of which every individual must experience in the course of his life and without which mutually beneficial relations with our fellowmen cannot be established. Accordingly a new standard is set up for the individual and for society. Above all, the individual is to be made a useful member of society, and to this end it is necessary that he should confine his best efforts to one definite activity; Wilhelm chooses surgery for his specialty. The separation of classes, already disregarded at the end of the ‘Apprenticeship,’ where marriages between nobles and commoners are contracted, is set aside for democratic ideas in the ‘Travels’ where noblemen in leading positions consider themselves no better than their fellow-workers. The feeling between men has become wider and freer, and so has the feeling between countries. While, in the first part of the novel, emigration to America is rejected, the second part pronounces both emigrating and staying at home equally good, indeed the chief characters — among them Wilhelm — make up their minds to go to America. For good men are at home anywhere where they are useful. A world-society is hoped for which will inform its members about all parts of the world and foster in them a “world-piety” which respects all forms of religion and government serving mankind while fulfilling their special tasks. The individual, esthetic man of the 18th century is replaced by the social, practical man of the 19th century; the ideal of the harmony of the individual is eclipsed by the ideal of the harmony of the world. We see the author of ‘Wilhelm Meister’ like the colossal mythical statue of Apollo at Rhodes standing as it were on the shores of two centuries. Consult edition of Goethe's works in ‘Deutsche National-Literatur’ (Vols. XV-XVI, 1882-98); ‘Wilhelm Meister's theatralische Sendung’ (1911); English translations in ‘Everyman's Library,’ by Carlyle, and in ‘Bohn's Libraries.’ Bielschowsky, ‘Goethe’ (Vol. II, 26th edition, pp. 128-183, 513-568); Creizenach, introductions and notes in ‘Goethe's Sämtliche Werke, Jubiläums-Ausgabe’ (Vols. XVII-XX).