"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 23, 2013

"Elective Affinities" (1809) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Elective Affinities (in German: Die Wahlverwandtschaften; also translated as "Kindred by Choice"), Goethe's third novel, published in 1809, is a strange book. Even Goethe's contemporaries didn't know how to deal with it: was the great author in his tragic story of persons attracted to each other as by some natural force, against which nothing helped, pleading in favor of marriage or rather against it? The novel was even mistakingly thought to argue for the chemical origin of love! But what was the meaning of this novel written in a strangely detached tone (one could even speak of an “august style” - a far cry from the liveliness of English contemporary Jane Austen) and composed with the utmost care, but dealing with a highly emotional content? The principal characters always maintain the strictest decorousness, no matter how fierce their feelings.

Elective Affinities tells the story of Baron Eduard and his wife Charlotte, wealthy aristocrats who have married each other for love after earlier marriages of convenience. They live on a country estate (to which the action of the novel is limited) and spend most of their time managing and improving the estate. No expense is spared on garden design, the construction of a summer house, road improvement and church restoration. Then they decide to bring some variation into their life of rural idyll by inviting a couple of visitors: Eduard's best friend, Otto - in the novel usually called "the Captain" - and Charlotte's beautiful, docile niece, Ottilie.

[Goethe portrait from Wikipedia]

Goethe here introduces the chemical metaphor of “elective affinities” - as in an experiment in chemistry, also in human relations instant recombinations may take place - this is what the title of the novel points at. Or is there a free choice ("Wahl")? When Eduard and Charlotte start playing games with their own and other's lives, they will notice that things can easily get out of control – human nature is different from the nature in their park and cannot be so easily mastered. There are perfectly good reasons for inviting The Captain and Otille, but doing so can very well upset the balance between Eduard and Charlotte.

And indeed, the inevitable happens. At first these four people get along famously: they take long walks together and in the evenings make music. But is gradually becomes clear that Eduard is irrevocably attracted to Ottilie and Charlotte to the Captain. Charlotte and the Captain, two rational characters, struggle against their inclination, without transgressing any borders; but Eduard helplessly succumbs to it and the young Ottilie also falls for the older man. They are both emotional natures.

Charlotte confronts her husband but refuses to agree to a divorce. Eduard and the Captain leave the estate for a trial seperation - Eduard starts living apart on one of his farms and later decides to go to war (it was the time of the Napoleonic Wars), even though Charlotte has just given birth to his baby. The second part of the novel introduces new characters, such as an architect who decorates a chapel in the village church; and the Assistant of Otillie's college who is in love with her. We also see Charlotte's exuberant, hyperactive daughter and her extravagant wedding party to a rich Baron as a contrast to the quiet and serious Otillie. Otillie, for her part, grows more and more ethereal and has started a diary in which she mainly writes impersonal maxims.

But when Eduard returns, things come to a head. When he unexpectedly appears before Otillie, who is out in the park carrying his and Charlotte's baby, she panicks so much that she ends up dropping the baby in the lake. The first victim has been made, but it will not end here. Seemingly harmless at first, the experiment which toyed with real feelings has gotten out of hand and finally has deadly results. Eduard later commits suicide, and Otillie in the end dies of anorexia. She is buried in the newly decorated chapel of the village church, in a glass coffin, and the villagers adore her as a saintly figure...

That last thing sure is irony. But then, Goethe himself was a bit in love with her character – although married, even until high age he entertained spontaneous passions for various young women. One could say that he has written what can almost be called a postmodern novel about the conflicts those passions caused in him.

I have read the German version available on Gutenberg (another one can be found at Zeno); an English translation is available at Archive. There are also excellent English versions in Penguin and Oxford Classics.