After Jena: Goethe's Elective Affinities and the End of the Old Regime

After Jena: Goethe's Elective Affinities and the End of the Old Regime

After Jena: Goethe's Elective Affinities and the End of the Old Regime

After Jena: Goethe's Elective Affinities and the End of the Old Regime


After Jena is the first scholarly work in English to set Goethe's influential and controversial novel Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften, 1809) squarely within the turbulent time in which it was written. Peter J. Schwartz explores the era of rapid modernization following Prussia's defeat at the battle Jena-Auerstedt (1806)--a battle that permitted Napoleon to extend French hegemony throughout Continental Europe and to dissolve or reform the institutional structures of the German ancient régime. Adducing evidence from many spheres and applying the tools of several disciplines, Schwartz persuasively shows how Elective Affinities reflects post-Jena changes in marriage, property, and inheritance law, and in the political role of the German nobility. He links questions of character, fate, and sacrifice in the novel to modern problems of sovereignty and legitimacy, and investigates how key scenes in the novel comment implicitly on Napoleon, Rousseau, the French Revolution, and the politics and aesthetics of the German Romantics. After Jena reveals the novel's ethical core to be a calculus of political legitimacy, and its aesthetics a means of conciliating tensions provoked by modernity's onrush. It will be of special interest to students of literature, history, philosophy, art, history, and aesthetics.


Our literature has nothing, I think, of comparable perfection in prose. Disser
tations on the subject are boring, but one must after all explain to oneself wherein
this excellence consists, in general and in detail, and this is how all the critical
writings of antiquity came into being

—Barthold Georg Niebuhr, on “Elective Affinities”

THAT Goethe’s ELECTIVE AFFINITIES (Die Wahlverwandtschaften) reflects the time of upheaval in which it was written has been understood since its publication in 1809. The author’s contemporaries were prompt to note the novel’s relation to their own era. In a letter written that year, the jurist Friedrich Carl von Savigny, for example, described it as “the most extraordinary look at this turbulent time.” Achim von Arnim, who disliked the book, nonetheless saw in it “a segment of vanishing history portrayed for the future in exact and exhaustive detail.” The critic Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand Solger praised its verisimilitude in yet stronger terms: “This novel, like ancient epic, contains everything significant and extraordinary about the age, and after a few centuries one might well be able to use it to reconstruct a comprehensive picture of our present everyday life.”

From the beginning, however, most readers have understood Goethe’s novel ahistorically. The two schools of interpretation that dominated its reception until fairly recently—an ethical conception of the novel as a warning against the hazards of moral laxity and as a defense of the marriage bond, on the one hand, and a metaphysical understanding of what happens in the novel “as a fatally determined, tragic causal chain,” on the other—stem from early reviews by Bernhard Rudolf Abeken and by K. W. F. Solger, respectively. Solger may have professed to see detailed in the novel “everything significant and extraordinary” about the current era, but he viewed such detail as a means of conveying invariant truths regarding fate and free will. Abeken scoffed outright at attempts to read history into the text. Most of the critics since who have taken historical realia into account have seen them, with Solger, as “merely the visible garb of personality types” [das . . .

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