By avoiding details of a specific locale, Goethe focuses attention on the psychological content of his narrative that permits him to suggest that his story’s tragic events are underlain by social and philosophical issues that are continental in scope. His story’s narrow topographical range also gives its setting–and the novel itself–a sense of being a laboratory of social relationships, a circumstance that agrees with the novel’s title, which is borrowed from contemporary scientific speculation about the physical interaction of chemical substances.
Gardening and the alteration and management of the estate are essential themes in the novel from its opening; the fateful events that are to overwhelm Edward and Charlotte, along with their companions Ottilie and the unnamed “Captain,” are set in motion in the first chapter by Edward’s insistent question of Charlotte, “Are my gardening and your landscaping to be for hermits only?”
Moss hut. Small, rustic outbuilding that Charlotte is building at the beginning of the novel. A picturesque place overlooking part of the estate, the hut is an organic structure that Charlotte intends to visit with Edward. When Edward first sees it he pointedly observes that although the hut has a fine view, it seems a little small. However, he quickly adds that it has room for a third person because he hopes to secure Charlotte’s consent to invite the Captain, his lifelong friend, to live with them for a time. Charlotte herself is soon to ask that her niece, Ottilie, also join their family circle, and she in turn concedes that the hut will even accommodate a fourth person. This brief, early, scene in the hut is the inception of the disturbance of Edward and Charlotte’s marriage that is to be caused by the introduction of two elements from the outside.
The rustic hut decorated with evergreen boughs expresses the affection that Charlotte has for her marriage and her country estate, but the arrival of the Captain heralds the ends of both her tranquil relationship with Edward and her landscaping project. Charlotte’s hut is soon overshadowed by an ambitious plan promoted by the Captain to build a summerhouse on a higher, more commanding location beyond the hut. Soon, both domestic harmony and a refined, intimate relation to nature are sacrificed to unpredictable currents of passion between Edward and Ottilie and between Charlotte and the Captain.
Lake and village. Edward and the Captain formulate plans to improve both the lake and the village that adjoin the estate, thus indulging in another round of technical and engineering activity which, in the context of the emotional turmoil brewing in their midst, is somewhat irrational and self-indulgent. Their penchant for improvements alarms Charlotte, who is sensibly concerned with the financial stability of the estate.
The lake is also the scene of the novel’s most unsettling passage, in which Charlotte’s infant child accidentally drowns while in Ottilie’s care. The contrast of this tragedy with the men’s preoccupation with civil and social engineering is a striking instance of the author’s eighteenth century Enlightenment sensibility confronting newer currents of Romanticism.
Village church. In a subsequent passage of the novel concerning a talented young architect, Charlotte herself is the sponsor of a project to restore the village church and decorate its chapel. Here Goethe reveals the depth of his knowledge of contemporary and historical art by describing an interior space that recalls the work of the German painter Philip Otto Runge, a younger contemporary of Goethe’s and a representative of the transition from Neoclassicism to Romanticism within their cultural milieu.