Elective Affinities by Goethe

Goethe generates a lot of noise, an iconic artist adored by Kafka and Brod, yet I sense not widely read outside of Germany today. Elective Affinities is my first Goethe, read as part of the bibliographing Reading Challenge; Nicole is posting all week about her reading of Elective Affinities. German Literature Month, co-hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, influenced my intention to finally get around to Goethe. With a return journey to Australia this last week, I hoped to devote considerable time to reading, but the lure of films and a decent wine list got the better of me. Finishing Elective Affinities is about all I managed.

[…] what we call limestone is a more or less pure oxide of calcium tightly combined with a weak acid known to us in gaseous form. If a piece of that rock is placed in dilute sulphuric acid this combines with the calcium to form gypsum; the gaseous weak acid, on the other hand, escapes. A separation and a new combination have come about and one even feels justified in using the term “elective affinity”, because it really does seem as though one relationship were preferred to another and a choice made for one over the other.

This is how Goethe introduces the chemical theory of elective affinities and foreshadows the relationships that will come about between the noble Eduard and Charlotte, and their counterparts Ottilie and the Captain.

Ostensibly an archetypal nineteenth-century Romantic tragedy, there are elements that are surprisingly and prototypically postmodern. The opening fragment: “Eduard-let that be the name we give to a wealthy baron in the best years of his life-,” introduce us to a tendentious and questionable third-person narrative, which, with differing degrees of distance, presents the frames of mind of the four leading characters.

Tragic though the ending is, there is little attempt at the sort of plot resolution found in a Jane Austen story. The futility at the novel’s conclusion is another aspect of Goethe’s remarkably modern take on the Romantic tragedy. Aridity or death awaits each protagonist.

Don’t think though that Elective Affinities is a dull morality tale, like Jane Austen Goethe uses irony and satire to potent effect. Mittler (in English, mediator or go-between) is one such tool for Goethe’s humour:

Those with superstitious conviction that names are meaningful assert that it was his being called Mittler which obliged him to follow this strangest of vocations.

Goethe makes Mittler a “peculiar man,” a cleric who changed “career” after winning the lottery and appears to spend his time resolving (interfering) in people’s disputes. His role is as defender of tradition and marriage.

Elective Affinities provides no end of opportunity for rereading and interpretation. There are recurring themes. There are disputes that polarise the different characters (contrast Mittler’s view of marriage with the Count’s). There is the oddly detached practice of naming characters by their profession: the Captain (who becomes the Major in the second half), the Architect, the Count, and so on.

Part way through I was unsure whether I was enjoying Elective Affinities. By the end I am convinced of its artistry and that I will reread it and read more Goethe. Thanks, Nicole, for reading along and now I’ve posted my thoughts I can turn to yours.

6 thoughts on “Elective Affinities by Goethe

  1. I think it is a very complex novel and one you can have mixed feelings about.
    I think it really has something of a chemical experiment and a lot of Goethe’s ideas and research di go into it. It is certainly one fo re-reading.

  2. Layer upon layer, Caroline, it is one of those books you could spend a lifetime trying to unpick. Quite brilliant, the more so a few days later, always the sign of a great book.

  3. Ostensibly an archetypal nineteenth-century Romantic tragedy, there are elements that are surprisingly and prototypically postmodern.

    This is a great point, and something I totally didn’t get into. Not surprised you picked up on it–and grateful.

    I wish I had written a little more, or thought a little more, about Mittler—aside, at least, from that one hilarious line. He is probably the most interesting character relative to the amount of “screen time” he gets.

    I too was overwhelmingly struck with how much re-reading this novel could stand. I think what’s tough for me is that, whether Goethe actually plays things close to the chest or I just have a hard time picking up on what his “point” is…I have a hard time picking up what I think is the “real” meaning here. Who’s right? Is Mittler right? Is Charlotte right? Is Eduard? Is no one? What should have happened to these people—I mean, what should they have done? The intricacies of the relationships as they shift and change, the changes in the characters themselves, the way it’s all reflected in their environment…it’s very densely worked. Thanks again for suggesting the readalong, I’m so pleased to have gone back to Goethe and enjoyed him so much more than ever. (And apologies for the very late comment!)

    • It is the structure of the narrative I am keen to revisit, how Goethe draws us closer to Eduard and Ottilie in the first part, and distances them in the second, only to draw us closer to Charlotte.

      I also suspect there is so much allusion that gets lost in translation, culture and time.

  4. Pingback: German Literature Month 2011: Author Index « Lizzy’s Literary Life

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