Typologies of Repetition, Reflection, and Recurrence: Interpreting the Novella in Goethe's Wahlverwandtschaften

Article excerpt

Und doch bei aller Unvollständigkeit des Literarwesens flnden wir tausendfältige Wiederholung, woraus hervorgeht, wie beschränkt des Menschen Geist und Schicksal sei.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Maximen und Reflexionen

IN THE TENTH CHAPTER OF THE SECOND PART of Die Wahlverwandtschaften Goethe inserts the novella "Die wunderlichen Nachbarskinder,"1 an intriguing puzzle whose solution elucidates his moral and lends added unity to the work Thomas Mann deems "de[n] kühnsten und tiefsten Ehebruchsroma[n], den die moralische Kultur des Abendlandes hervorgebracht hat."2 The novella must be considered a puzzle, for although Goethe provides information throughout the novel that reveals the identity of the young officer of the insert, the character of the novel whose past presages the future of the other three principals, he challenges the reader to deduce the outcome of the episode and to determine why the vignette is included, why it appears where it does in the sequence of events, and how it relates to the work as a whole. Deciphering the correspondence between novella and novel affords the full understanding of both, as the one hinges on the other. Only by extrapolating the insert's untold conclusion can one know with certainty the untold fate of the novel's surviving principals and grasp the inevitability of that fate within a relentless continuum. As the novel's title suggests, the elemental symmetry of being is governed by immutable natural law. Accordingly, parallels of structure, setting, plot, character, and language between novella and novel allow the reader to fill in gaps in each. Taken together with Goethe's observations on patterns and functions of repetition, reflection, and recurrence, recorded over the course of decades, the extrapolated outcomes in Die Wahlverwandtschaften evince the author's belief in the force of causality-as compelling as meter or rhyme in verse-something other writers might term destiny, providence, or stasis. Despite the wealth of clues and hints Goethe furnishes the reader, disregard and misinterpretation of the novella have consistently confounded critics, scholars, and translators, obscuring their insight into the greater work.3

On 1 June 1809 Goethe wrote from Jena to tantalize his friend the composer Karl Friedrich Zelter with the confidence that Die Wahlverwandtschaften, nearing completion, was a particularly nuanced, cryptic work:'Tch habe viel hineingelegt, manches hinein versteckt. Moge auch Ihnen dies offenbare Geheimnis zur Freude gereichen" (HA 6:638). Over the next twenty years Goethe warned various correspondents and confidants that the novel would not be apprehended on first reading, and nearly two centuries after its release Henry and Mary Garland confirm that "hardly any work of Goethe has been interpreted so variously and with such subtlety"4 In commentary for the Hamburg edition of Goethe's collected works Benno von Wiese underscores the difficulty the novel presents even the careful reader: "Die wiederholte Lekture vertieft nur das Geheimnis" (HA 6:672). With regard to "Die wunderlichen Nachbarskinder," the crux of occasionally vituperative debate is the relation of the novella to the rest of the work, although the disputants generally agree that correct interpretation of the novella is essential to Goethe's message.

Walter Benjamin, for example, in the seminal essay "Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften" (1924/25), assails Friedrich Gundolf's study Goethe (1916) for fatally overlooking the embedded novella as an interpretive tool by focusing so narrowly on biographical elements in the novel.5 Benjamin argues at length that Goethe includes "Die wunderlichen Nachbarskinder" to clarify the complex work's lesson: "Nichts konnte den Rest von Zweideutigkeit der ihr verbleibt unscheinbarer machen, als die Einfügung einer Novelle. . ." (168).Wiese concurs with Benjamin on this point:"Wenn der Erzähler an dieser Stelle nochmals eine Erzählung in das Ganze des Romans einlegt, so gibt er uns damit einen Schlüssel an die Hand, die Bildwelt des Romans in wechselseitiger Spiegelung zur Bildwelt der neuen Novelle zu verstehen" (HA 6:720). …