Author: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
First published: Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, 1795–1796 (English translation, 1824)
Time: Eighteenth century
Wilhelm Meister (VIHL-hehlm MIS-tur), the novel's hero, who provides continuity to an otherwise long series of vignettes. He is the son of a wealthy merchant who cannot understand his son's fascination for the theater. Meister, discovering that his first love is unfaithful, travels for his father's firm collecting debts and publicizing the company's wares. He meets actors along the way, joins them, keeps them out of financial difficulties, and learns that a young boy he has been protecting is his own son. Meister finally marries and settles down with a nobleman's sister, a “beautiful Amazon” who once rescued Meister's troupe of actors from bandits. He believes he has served his apprenticeship in life.
Philina (fih-LEE-nah), a gay young actress in love with Meister and around whom a group of unemployed actors forms. Meister, after lending financial aid to the destitute troupe, decides to travel with them. Philina is devoted to Meister, and she nurses him back to health after he is wounded by robbers.
Mariana (mah-ree-AH-nah), Meister's first love, whom he abandons when he learns that she is a kept woman. After her death, it develops that she has born him a child; through a set of coincidences, the boy is with his father in the traveling company of actors.
Mignon (mee-NYOHN), a graceful, pretty child whom Meister rescues from a troupe of acrobats who mistreat her. She becomes devoted to Meister and follows him everywhere. She becomes ill and dies. It is learned after her death that she was the daughter of a nobleman priest by an incestuous affair he had had with his sister. The mad priest, turned harpist, ironically had been in the traveling company with Meister and Mignon. He had been expelled from the group and sent to live with a clergyman after he had attacked and nearly killed Meister's illegitimate son, Felix.
Aurelia (ow-RAY-lee-ah), a woman who has lost her husband and been deserted by her nobleman lover. She takes Mariana's child as her ward when Mariana dies of a broken heart. When Meister meets Aurelia on his travels, he, unknowingly, also finds his son. After Aurelia dies, he becomes her ward's protector.
Melina (meh-LEE-nah), a wandering player rescued by Meister when a girl's parents discover that Melina has been indiscreet with their daughter. Meister sees the pair married, and he gives Melina money with which he starts the company that Meister joins.
The Prince of ———, an influential nobleman for whom a local count and countess provide entertainment by hiring Melina's company for a series of performances. The prince is pleased by the entertainment; the count and countess are confused by the strange antics of the players generally and of Meister in particular, for he makes love to the countess and convinces the count that in Meister the nobleman sees his own Doppelgänger.
Old Barbara, Mariana's maid, who explains to Meister after Mariana's death that Felix is his son by her former mistress.
Natalia (nah-TAH-lee-ah), a beautiful “Amazon,” the sister of one of Meister's nobleman friends, who leads a party to rescue Meister's troupe when it is set upon by robbers. It is Natalia whom Meister finally marries.
Serlo (SAYR-loh), an actor-manager and Aurelia's brother. He gives Meister's company a contract.
Lothario (loh-TAH-ree-oh), a nobleman, Natalia's brother, who befriends Meister and introduces him to intellectual circles in Germany. Lothario had loved Aurelia and deserted her.
Norberg, Mariana's wealthy patron, to whom she is unfaithful by making love to Meister.
Laertes (LAYR-tehs), Philina's escort and Meister's carefree friend. He loves to dance and play practical jokes.
Felix, Meister and Mariana's illegitimate son.
Werner (VAYR-nur), Meister's prospective brother-in-law, who warns him that Mariana is a woman of easy virtue.
Countess ———, Lothario and Natalia's sister.