Academic journal article German Quarterly

What Really Happens in Die Wahlverwandtschaften

Academic journal article German Quarterly

What Really Happens in Die Wahlverwandtschaften

Article excerpt

Die Wahlverwandtschaften is a novel about interpretation, about the different ways in which different people read their shared lives. it is about other things too, of course, but it is on this, as it were, hermeneutic concern of the novel that i wish to concentrate here. for if Goethe is to show us different people interpreting things differently, there has to be a distinction in the novel between what the characters think or say or assume or pretend is happening and what is really happening. Just as the phenomena of nature are-according to both kant and Goethe1-grounded in things that really exist even though we cannot know them as they are in themselves, so our reading of the novel has to be based on the assumption that definite things really happen in it, even though we can know them only as they are filtered through the interpretations of the characters and the narrator.

Here we have, i believe, the explanation for the paradox that is one of the strangest features of this strange book. on the one hand, as stuart atkins noted in one of the foundational english-language studies of Die Wahlverwandtschaften, to which the present article is both an appendix and a homage, the novel is at pains to be, as he calls it, verisimilar, accurately reflecting, as its first readers also noted (e.g., achim von arnim to Bettina Brentano, 5 November 1809; Ha6, 660), the circumstances of their time and place and society. on the other hand, a veil of what we might call unspecificity is drawn over the very details that make for verisimilitude. in Die Wahlverwandtschaften Goethe simultaneously creates and subverts a distinction between interpretation and reality. He leads us to think that there is a mystery, that the characters', and even the narrator's, explicitly formulated views of what happens are not the real story. He provides us, as we shall see, with a consistent and systematic set of clues to what a real story, unspoken, and independent of all explicit interpretations contained in the narrative might be; but he does not tell us enough for that real story to emerge as a competitor to all those conflicting interpretations that constitute the asking "what really happens in Die Wahlverwandtschaften" i shall illustrate this structure by discussing three major problems that have attracted critical attention: dates and place; the interpolated novella, Die wunderlichen nachbarskinder; and the uncanny child, who resembles neither of his legal parents, Charlotte and her husband, the rich baron, eduard, but rather their respective lovers, the Hauptmann and Charlotte's niece, ottilie.

Dates and Place

In Die Wahlverwandtschaften the only month specifically named is the april on an afternoon of which the action begins, though we are also told that the Nativity tableau in which ottilie plays the central role is presented on Christmas eve (Ha6, 242, 403). However the progression of the seasons is carefully noted, even though the months are not named, and four events to which a date would seem intrinsic articulate the developing plot, though the dates themselves are not given: the birthdays of Charlotte, ottilie, and eduard, and the name-day of the Hauptmann. i hope eventually to show that in one matter at least this suppression of information is vital to the overall effect of the novel.

as for the year of the action, that too is not given to us, though it is evident that the events are spread over a period of about eighteen months from the april of one year to the autumn of the year following. the question when these two years might be situated was definitively settled by stuart atkins in his article, though a simpler argument for his conclusion is possible. Goethe has included in his text what i am calling "clues" which identify the two years beyond question as 1806 and 1807.

the first crucial clue is ottilie's reference in her journal to her wish to hear alexander von Humboldt talk about his travels in the tropics (Ha6, 416). …

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