søndag den 11. december 2022

Elective Affinities: A Novel - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1809)


Elective Affinities

One of the best, and likely also worst, things about art is that it is open to interpretation and not an exact science. In the case of Goethe’s “Elective Affinities” I seem to have a rather different understanding of the novel than the clever heads who have formed the official interpretation of the novel and because of the above, my interpretation may be as good as theirs.

In the German countryside live Charlotte and Eduard. They may be lower nobility, but their rank is newer spelled out. They have resources enough for some extravaganza, but not endless funds. Both were previously married but as both widowed around the same time their infatuation with each other in their youth can now be realized in a marriage at their not so young age.

Their life together is in harmony when they get two new lodgers, Charlotte’s niece Ottilie and Eduard’s friend, the Captain (known throughout as “The Captain” and later “The Major”). Eduard falls passionately in love with Ottilie and his feelings are reciprocated. Charlotte and The Captain also develop feelings for each other but are better able to control them. When Eduard and Ottilie’s affair becomes too obvious Charlotte decides that Ottilie must be sent away, but Eduard flees and begs that Ottilie then can stay in the house. Eduard just manages to make Charlotte pregnant before he leaves but that is not enough to bring him home. Instead, he goes to war and throws himself into danger (the Napoleonic wars are raging at the time). When finally he does come home, he is dead-set on getting Ottilie. His scheme is that he gets divorced from Charlotte and marries Ottilie, while Charlotte marries the Captain/Major. Except his wild passion sets off a string of calamities, starting with the drowning of his little son.

Now, as I understand it, the common interpretation of this novel is as a critique of the institution of marriage as that being what prevents the “logical” pairings of the characters. Another, slightly more refined interpretation says that it is not so much the institution of marriage but the inability of the characters to think out of the box and release their adherence to conventions. In any case, they seem to think that Goethe meant these people to combine in different ways and their misfortune was that they were prevented from doing so. The major argument being that Goethe himself had affairs left and right and did not really consider marital faithfulness an objective but merely an obstacle.

My take on this story is much simpler. It demonstrates two characters, Charlotte and Eduard, where one can handle her emotions and weather potential disasters, while the other is a victim of his passions which unchecked must cause disaster left and right. Rather than being an advocate of serial monogamy, this story demonstrate the danger of unruly passions to the happiness and wellbeing of people.  

All characters have potential good futures ahead of them with plenty of reward, both socially and materially. Charlotte and the Captain/Major demonstrate how to reconcile passion and reality to both a common and a personal good, even satisfaction. Eduard on the other hand entirely embraces the romantic idea of letting his passions run his decision making with no regard for other people’s feelings and the potential for disaster, personal and to others. This makes him an egocentric person and his affair with Ottilie is just one example of his passion driven poor decision making. Charlotte’s daughter, Luciane, is another example of such a character where the damage she inflicts on others for he own gratification is obvious.

Rather than being an advocate of free love, Goethe is actually running a critique on the romanticism that was the rage at the time, asking those free spirits to rein in their passions a bit. This follows very much in the line of Goethe’s earlier novels, “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” which run similar conclusions.

Of course, I could be entirely wrong, but I am entirely entitled to my own interpretation of art.

Recommendation? It is okay, but pales compared to Goethe’s earlier work.


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