Places: Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, 1795-1796 (English translation, 1824)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Bildungsroman

Time of work: Late eighteenth century

Places DiscussedLothario’s estate

Lothario’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeshipestate. Home of the nobleman Baron Lothario. Set in the German countryside, the estate is Wilhelm’s initial point of contact with the social circle that will transform his life. Although the estate is that of a wealthy aristocratic family, the main structure is an irregular building in which symmetry and architectural style have been sacrificed to domestic comfort.

As a keen student of the visual arts and of architecture, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was readily able to describe any sort of architecture, and thus his evocation of the baron’s estate is precisely aimed at having the reader put aside notions of ostentation on the part of those characters who come from the aristocracy. Instead, the estate is to be taken as an index of the ethical and intellectual stature of its owners, who are not aristocrats in a traditional mold. In place of French-inspired formal gardens are domestic gardens that run right up to the buildings. Wilhelm’s observations that there is a cheerful village nearby and that all the gardens and fields seem to be in very good condition reflect Goethe’s interest in a range of domestic and agricultural issues during the time he served in an important administrative capacity within the court at his adopted home of Weimar, Germany.

The rustic exterior appearance of Lothario’s castle and its tranquil setting initially conceal from Wilhelm that it is the seat of a secret society constituted from his immediate circle. Wilhelm observes that a whole side of the castle, including its ancient tower, remains inaccessible to him, but he is soon conducted through dark passageways into a converted chapel that serves as a home for the society. There he is inducted into the group in a ceremony that recalls the stagecraft of the novel’s earlier episodes in the theater, except that instead of being illuminated by lamps, this stage is bathed in morning sunlight coming through a stained glass window. From this room Wilhelm emerges into the garden, observing nature anew with a recognition of how feeble his interest in the world outside himself had been. In this passage Goethe clarifies his sense of the need for a dynamic relationship between cultural experiences and those arising from the natural, organic world.

Hall of the Past

Hall of the Past. Magnificent hall, built by Lothario’s now-deceased uncle, in which two of the novel’s crucial concluding episodes take place. Wilhelm is taken there for the first time by Natalie, one of Lothario’s two sisters. The hall is a temple consecrated, not to a religious faith, but rather to art and music. However, because it is also a mausoleum Wilhelm expects to find a somber and perhaps gruesome interior. Instead he encounters a world of bright light–another manifestation of the ethos of the secret society into which he has been received.

The hall is also the scene of a further trial of Wilhelm’s character, the sudden death of his foster child, Mignon, who along with Wilhelm’s natural son, Felix, has been in the care of Natalie. The fateful visit to the Hall of the Past, and the subsequent funeral there of Mignon, provide Goethe with opportunities to describe an imagined architecture and to speculate on how musical performance may be integrated into the experience of the beautifully designed interior.

Therese’s house

Therese’s house. Home of Therese, a friend of Natalie and one of the women whom Wilhelm loves. Both women have homes that reflect their differing stations in life as well as the roles they play in the formation of Wilhelm’s character. Therese’s little house, painted red and white, is “amusing to look at” and though it has only a few fields, her extraordinary skill at managing fields and forests for others has gained her an excellent reputation as well as some prosperity. Therese personifies the worldly individual who thrives on physical activity and is at home in the natural world. Wilhelm’s love for her arises from his intellectual appreciation of her character and worldly competence.

Natalie’s house

Natalie’s house. Home of Natalie, Lothario’s sister. Natalie, whom Wilhelm seems destined to marry, contrasts with Therese in being a more contemplative person whose dwelling is the most solemn and sacred place Wilhelm has ever seen. When he first visits it, he feels as though he is in a fantasy world. The nobility of the house corresponds to the nobility of its owner, and in fact Wilhelm had long been seeking this woman who had once come to his aid as he lay wounded and delirious following a woodland attack by brigands. Natalie is a redemptive figure allied more with realms of art and the spirit than with the natural world, and Wilhelm’s love for her is from the heart.

BibliographyBrown, Jane K. Goethe’s Cyclical Narratives: “Die Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten” and “Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre.” Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975. Examines Goethe’s use of episodic technique and cyclical narrative. Also presents a methodology that allows the reader to appreciate the contradictions and parody in Goethe’s work.Fairley, Barker. A Study of Goethe. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1947. A noted Goethe scholar explores the life of the writer. Includes a discussion of the effect of German theater on Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.Leppmann, Wolfgang. The German Image of Goethe. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1961. Explores Goethe’s changing reputation within his own country, noting a gradual decline in popularity.Maugham, W. Somerset. “The Three Novels of a Poet.” In Points of View. London: Heinemann, 1958. Maugham argues that Goethe was a better poet than novelist. Maugham, who brings a creative as well as a critical faculty to bear on Goethe’s work, examines poetic technique, including imagery and meter.Pascal, Roy. “The Bildungsroman: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.” In The German Novel: Studies. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1956. Considers the formal and stylistic features of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Briefly discusses Goethe’s career as a theater director in Weimar and its influence on his novels.Reiss, Hans. Goethe’s Novels. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1969. Critical discussion of The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Wilhem Meister’s Apprenticeship, and Elective Affinities (1809). Examines Goethe’s natural philosophy, the sociological aspects of his writings, and his influence on German theater.
Categories: Places