Elective Affinities by Goethe

For German literature month, co-hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, I decided to read Goethe’s Elective Affinities. After all, I already had a copy on my shelf, and I watched the film version of the book some time ago. Can’t say I was crazy about the film, and I much preferred the book. That said, I could really see that Goethe and I would never get along, and actually, I probably wouldn’t have been able to stand him in the flesh.  I’ve already made two posts regarding some of the reactions I had to this novel, and while I found myself disagreeing with Goethe on many issues, the novel itself is rather engaging in spite of its idealised characters and brazen snobbery (yes I know it’s the 19th C and hardly enlightened times). Anyway, a great read, and certainly one that did not induce indifference.

My Penguin version, translated by R.J. Hollingdale, includes a marvellous introduction which details just a portion of Goethe’s life. It’s Goethe in middle age, and this biographical information has direct relevance to Elective Affinities. Hollingdale states that Goethe lived with Christiane Vulpius for over 18 years, and they had five children together when Goethe married her in 1806. He was 57 and she was 41. Hollingdale explains that the marriage appeared to be a gesture of gratitude towards Christiane as she had bravely faced down Napoleon’s marauding army just 5 days before.  Marriage appeared to change Goethe:

But now that he was a married man, he discovered that he had all along harboured very stern moral principles with regard to the marriage tie, and he became an emphatic critic of the laxity displayed by the society in which he lived.

These ‘principles’ were sorely tested when Goethe fell in love with the eighteen year old Minna Herzlieb in 1807. Elective Affinities which began as a short story was written in 1808, but was then converted into the novel in 1809. Goethe’s “affair” with Minna was, according to Hollingdale, the “first of the affairs of his later life with women far younger than he.” How then did Goethe, in love with a teenage girl, and yet now married juggle those “stern moral principles” with his feelings & behaviour? For the answer to that question, read the novel.

Elective Affinities is a strange read. It feels as though it’s an ‘idea’ novel–and by that I mean the book is full of ideas that are then superimposed onto its characters. The result is not a character-driven book, but rather a book which explores ideas through the imagined actions and reactions of characters. For this reason, Goethe’s characters, at times do not appear human at all–not flesh and blood humans who rage, lust and fight. Instead we see idealised humans, and at times impossibly idealised humans. In some ways, Elective Affinities reminded me of Therese Raquin and Zola’s Scientific Determinism. That may seem to be a strange connection as there are no idealised humans in Therese Raquin, of course, but it is an ‘idea’ novel. Tancock, in his translation of Therese Raquin notes that Zola used a formula of sorts, and it’s exactly this formula that reminds me of Elective Affinities:

The formula is to arrange some temperaments, add some medical or neurological jargon, deliberately omit the interplay of character and all purely psychological reactions, and call the mixture ‘fatality.’

Elective Affinities begins on the large estate of Eduard and Charlotte, a middle-aged couple who were separated and married off to others in their youth. Eduard married a much older wealthy woman who was considerate enough to kick off and allow Eduard to return to his former sweetheart, now a widow. Charlotte and Eduard live alone, and Charlotte’s only daughter Luciane lives at boarding school. Charlotte also has a ward, Ottilie, the daughter of a deceased best friend. There’s the sense that Eduard and Charlotte have tried to create a perfect world on their estate and they are now engaged in non-stop renovations and property improvements. It’s an idyllic life, and one they’ve carefully crafted, but at the same time there’s a creeping sense of boredom. After all, just how many moss huts can you construct on your property before you start wishing for some action?

Action, or at least change, appears in the form of two individuals who arrive, by invitation, at the estate. Ottilie returns from boarding school, and the Captain, an old friend of Eduard’s, a man who’s fallen on hard times, is invited to stay. Charlotte isn’t particularly thrilled by the intrusion of the Captain, and she seems to have some sense of foreboding:

Remember that our pleasures too were intended to a certain extent to depend on our being alone together.

Charlotte argues that this is   “the first truly happy summer of my life,” and she’s sure that the addition of other people will shatter their private Eden. Eduard disagrees. He thinks that the “Captain’s presence will disturb nothing, but rather expedite and enliven everything.” Well at least Charlotte saw it coming, and as it turns out, Charlotte is correct. Nothing is ever the same again, and in essence, everyone’s lives are shattered.

The book is ostensibly about the actions of a handful of characters who struggle between societal conventions and the call of passion, but it is rife with Goethe’s philosophy. Hollingdale tells us that the story is about “Goethe’s idea of marriage, the currently accepted idea of it, and the passions with which neither idea seems able to cope.” But it doesn’t stop there. We also get notions of death, memory, and social criticism. It’s all good, but at times it does get heavy-handed. Instead of realistic characters, the action bends to philosophical soliloquy, and perhaps one of the best examples of that occurs when Goethe’s characters discuss chemistry (Goethe was interested in the subject). This is a reflection of what happens in the book and where the ‘elective affinities’ come in:

“Provided it does not seem pedantic,” the Captain said, “I think I can briefly sum up in the language of signs. Imagine an A intimately united with a B, so that no force is able to sunder them; imagine a C likewise related to a D; now bring the two couples into contact; A will throw itself at D, C at B, without our being able to say which first deserted its partner, which first embraces the other’s partner.”

“Now then!” Eduard interposed: “until we see all this with our own eyes, let us look on this formula as a metaphor from which we can extract a lesson we can apply immediately to ourselves. You, Charlotte, represent the A, and I represent your B; for in fact I do depend altogether on you and follow you as A follows B. The C is quite obviously the Captain, who for the moment is to some extent drawing me away from you. Now it is only fair that, if you are not to vanish into limitless air, you must be provided with a D, and this D is unquestionably the charming little lady Ottilie, whose approaching presence you may no longer resist.”

Of course, things don’t quite work out the way Eduard predicted.

Goethe’s depiction of Ottilie and Charlotte are both impossibly idealised, but the characterisation of Ottilie is the worst offender here. She’s the youngest character of the 4 (Eduard, Charlotte, the Captain and Ottilie), and she’s the wisest becoming more and more saintly and nauseating as the novel wears on until she’s ultimately cast as the virgin Mary in a tableau. I much preferred Goethe’s secondary characters, and it’s here that the author seems to let go of worrying about ideas and concentrates on character. There’s Mettler, a rather shady character who goes around ‘fixing’ divorces, and Charlotte’s horrible daughter, Luciane. She enters the novel rather late in the picture–like a whirlwind. Goethe calls her a “flaming comet.” She’s beautiful, selfish, vain, shallow, nasty and engaged to a nobleman who’s unfortunately ready to indulge every whim. As Goethe throws Luciane in the action, he seems to really get into her rotten nature. She’s a foil, of course, for Ottilie, and the two young girls are polar opposites. Nothing in-between for Goethe:

In general you might have thought she had made it her principle to expose herself to an equal measure of praise and blame, affection and disaffection. If she tried in a dozen ways to win people over, she usually managed to alienate them again through the sharpness of her tongue, which spared nobody. They never paid a visit in the neighbourhood, she and her companions were never hospitably received in some house or mansion, without she made it clear on the way home in the most uninhibited way how  inclined she was to find all human affairs merely ridiculous. Here there were three brothers who had politely waited for one to be the first to get married while old age overtook them; here there was a little young wife with a big old husband; there, contrariwise, a cheerful little husband and a clumsy giantess. In one house you could not move a step without treading on children, another she thought empty-looking even when crowded because there were no children in it. Certain elderly husbands ought to get themselves buried as soon as possible so that, since there were no legal heirs, someone could for once have a good laugh in the house again. Certain married couples ought to travel because they were in no way fitted to keep house. And as she criticized the people, so did she criticize their goods, their homes, their furniture, their crockery. Wall decorations of any kind especially excited her mockery. From the most ancient wall-carpets to the latest wallpaper, from the most venerable family portraits to the most frivolous copperplates, all had to go through it, she pulled them all to pieces, so that you had to marvel that anything for five miles around continued to exist.

Goethe grants that “there may not perhaps have been any malice” in Luciane’s rude, obnoxious behaviour, but she’s somehow rather refreshing after Ottilie’s impending sainthood, the faint whiff of Charlotte as burning martyr, and Eduard’s noble sacrifice to passion.



Filed under Fiction, Goethe

6 responses to “Elective Affinities by Goethe

  1. I’m really glad to read the review and know what it is about, particularly after reading Gary playing along with the phrase “elective affinities” in Gros Câlin, something I didn’t remember but struck me after your two first posts.

    I don’t think I could stand it; I’m not good with one-dimensional characters, especially when that dimension is sainthood. 🙂

    • Emma: They’re not really one-dimensional as much as at times not entirely convincing. There are a couple of spots, for example, Ottilie does things that may be be interpreted one way or another (can’t give away too much). The author who’s obviously blindly in love with this character naturally imputes the best possible motive to the things she does. I found the book frustrating at times, but still fascinating–perhaps because of what it tells us about Goethe more than anything else.

  2. I’m not sure Emma, Ottilie reminded me a lot of the Princesse de Clèves and I adore her. I also never found Die Wahlverwandtschaften heavy at all and the language is beautiful. Yes, it reads like an experiment at times but I liked it. Anthony from Times Flow Stemmed reviewed it just this week as well and his reaction is similar. He didn’t like it a first but was highly fascinated by it.
    In any case it’s as far from Werther as can be. Completely different.

  3. As much as I like Elective Affinities, it’s pale compared to La Princesse de Clèves which is certainly one of my 10 favourite books, if not my favourite. Goethe isn’t even among my top 100.

  4. Guy, Caroline,
    OK, I should reconsider it. Good to know it’s far from Werther.
    Guy, you really need to read La Princesse de Clèves, it’s excellent and thought-provoking. (and frustrating sometimes. I didn’t understand it when I was younger)

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