Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"Elective Affinities" by Johann Wolfang von Goethe

Poor Goethe! When Italian students read "The Sorrows of Young Werther" they object that the plot is identical to Ugo Foscolo's "The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis", when it is in fact the opposite, the Italian writer having taken Goethe's Sturm und Drang masterpiece as a model for his epistolary novel. Moreover, when one decides to read Goethe's "Elective Affinities" (1809), in spite of having great expectations, for Goethe is one of the most celebrated writers of German literature,  the disappointment is overwhelming. The annoying perfection of the language, the falsified and timeless world where all the characters move as if inside a schematic, almost formulaic plot and the stultified, slightly unnerving story of adultery are the main letdowns of this overtly famous novella. Needless to say, the style is elegant and refined. Not a single word is out of place, which is also quite irritating.  

Only if you know Goethe enough, or if you have good intuition, you can come to the conclusion that all of this was made on purpose. The Arcadian, motionless environment where the characters live hints at their terrible boredom: Eduard and Charlotte, both at their second wedding, are an apparently happy couple. They spend their time tidying up the gardens, greenhouse, little cemetery and huts of their estate. When they decide to invite the Captain, a long-standing friend of Eduard, and Ottilie, Charlotte's adoptive daughter, things will never be the same. Relying on chemical reactions and theories, Goethe describes how certain people are supposedly meant to be mutually attracted according to chemical affinities. 

What one should have clear in mind even before starting to read "Elective Affinities" is that Goethe was trying to criticize, as harshly as he could, the Romantic movement (which he had contributed to shape, by the way). The saccharine nature of Eduard and Charlotte, always described as perfect creatures leading a perfect life in a perfect house without external intrusions, the controlled, artificial landscapes they create and the ubiquitous symbols and allegories hide sheer melancholy and the desire to push away death. When nature is not controlled it is destructive, so we tend to create artificial landscapes, that are pleasing for the eye, but that are really only clumsy attempts to make us forget that life has no meaning after all: we are all going to die and become a bundle of bones. In other words, for Goethe pretending to go back to classicism and to the Arcadia, trying to be closer to nature while experiencing melancholia was not a healthy way of experiencing life. Eduard and Charlotte try to fill up their lives with gardening and with extreme love passions, but strange deadly omens seem to haunt them. Goethe was and was not a romantic: he experienced dejection and depression, especially after the death of his friend and fellow writer Schiller. "Elective Affinities" can be read whether you like or do not like romanticism. It can be a painful reading, no doubts about that. Furthermore, it is a book that has many layers: on the surface it is about adultery, marriage and morality, but on another level, it reflects on life and death, metaphysical and existential questions, the relationship between science and human nature. 

If there is a conclusion to be drawn, "Elective Affinities" cannot be considered a fun and uplifting book to read. There are some gloomy (and potentially spooky) moments that will stay with you for a long time and raise many questions. Moreover it is rather difficult to catch all the allusions, allegories and symbols scattered in the book. You have the constant feeling that every object and every action has another meaning, but the whole design remains mysterious. In my own experience, it was very useful academically, but I cannot say that I enjoyed reading it. However, if you are ingenuous enough, you can end up appreciating the pastoral landscape and the cleverly trimmed plot, without having the sense of claustrophobia I experienced. If you are more sophisticated and better read than me, instead, you could actually delight in Goethe's allusions and criticism of the early-nineteenth-century zeitgeist.


  1. Such academically written books are beyond me. You showed great knowledge of the subject. Novices like me would have jumped and pronounced Goethe guilty of such over-perfection. Yet, I am scared (by this) of picking anything by him.

  2. For somebody who hasn't read Goethe at all, Stefania, would you recommend this or Young Werther as the starting place? Or neither? (I'm that somebody, sorry to say.) Happy New Year in advance, by the way!

  3. @Nana: I understood the book only because I had had a lecture on it at university. Otherwise, I would have been completely put off.

    @Richard: I would definitely recommend Werther to start with. It's much more "enjoyable" and from there you can start to "dig through" Goethe's change of opinions regarding romanticism in "Elective Affinities". Happy New Year to you too by the way!

  4. ciao Stefania!
    le affinità elettive: bello! veramente l'ho letto molto tempo fa, spinta, a dire la verità, dalla visione del film, che mi era piaciuto tanto (dei fratelli Taviani).
    E acchiappo l'occasione per farti un buon anno che sia proprio buono. E ti mando un abbraccio:-)

  5. @Elisa: non sapevo ci fosse il film. A me il libro ha irritato parecchio, ma come ho scritto nel post, la cosa è voluta. Goethe critica un tipo di sensibilità romantica vuota, fastidiosa e stucchevole. Il difficile è farsi piacere una scrittura così volutamente perfetta, dove ogni aggettivo è portato all'eccesso (il barone ricco, nel fiore degli anni e con una moglie che ama etc.).Ad ogni modo, ci sono delle scene, per esempio quella finale al lago, che sono di una tristezza e di una forza difficilmente riscontrabile altrove.
    A proposito, buon anno anche a te!

  6. Excellent analysis of a novella I never read. I'm not sure if I'd like it after having been so disappointed by 'Young Werther'.