Places: Wilhelm Meister’s Travels

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre: Oder, Die Entsagenden, 1821, 1829 (English translation, 1882)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Philosophical

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedPedagogic Province

Pedagogic Wilhelm Meister’s TravelsProvince (peh-duh-GAH-jihk). At almost precisely the halfway point of the novel, Wilhelm enters the Pedagogic Province, a region subdivided into sections according to the nature of the educational activity that is pursued in each. As with many of the locales in the novel, Goethe gives the Province only a schematic description that allows him to explore a range of philosophical ideas. In the case of the Pedagogic Province, Goethe’s objective is in part to parody the ideas of two leading German educators whose writings reflected the contemporaneous theories of the French savant Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Wilhelm’s purpose in visiting the Pedagogic Province is to see his son, Felix, who is a pupil in a rigorous and somewhat implausible program that combines a hard-working farming life with the study of the fine arts and foreign languages. Passing first through the district for instrumental music–a pastoral settlement made up of cottages that are isolated in order to separate the practicing musicians–Wilhelm comes to the district of the visual arts. At first he perceives it as a solidly built town, but then he recognizes that it is an expansive and stately city.

Soon the scene changes to nighttime in an adjacent mountainous district, where a miner’s festival is in progress amid tiny flames flickering in clefts and valleys. This passage is one of several in the novel that momentarily evoke a sense of the sublime, a category of aesthetic experience popularly associated with awesome, uncanny, or even frightening aspects of nature in the late eighteenth century. Such unexpected changes of tone, scale, and perspective, as well as discontinuities of time, are features of Wilhelm Meister’s Travels that clearly set it apart from Goethe’s earlier Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-1796). Scenes of life in the countryside, and in villages and towns, are features of both novels, but in the earlier work the physical setting and the social implications of agricultural and industrial labor are significant themes.

Italian Lake

Italian Lake. The first of the many instances of “renunciation” promised by the book’s German title is a condition that has been imposed upon Wilhelm by his philosophical mentors: that he not remain in any place more than three days at a time, and that he never travel less than one mile from his lodging before he stops. Thus, the discontinuous parts of the novel that narrate Wilhelm’s travels are infused with a sense both of his separation from friends and family and of his displacement and restlessness. One notably poetic passage, set in a valley of northern Italy, briefly suspends this restlessness, even as it lends depth to the theme of renunciation.

Traveling to Italy in order to gather strength for the challenges that he is to face in bringing his “journeyman years” to a conclusion, Wilhelm meets a young painter in whose company he learns to see afresh the beauty of the natural world. Soon the pair is joined by two women whose own story of renunciation Wilhelm knows well, and in the span of several days spent together in boating and conversation, complex bonds of love spring up among the four. At the end of this brief idyll, on a moonlit night by the lakeshore, love must be simultaneously acknowledged and renounced in the stronger illumination of the characters’ loyalty to their “society” of renunciants.

*American wilderness

*American wilderness. In a writer so closely identified with mainstream European culture, it is more than a little surprising to find North America employed as an idealized social and geographic locale, yet a significant aspect of Goethe’s concern in this late novel is the effect of the Industrial Revolution upon the social life and the landscape of Europe. In repeated, if somewhat generic, references to the relatively new American nation, Goethe speculates about the economic and political renewal that might follow from the resettlement of agricultural and industrial activity in America. These passages notably contrast with the emotional content of the novel, but they are just part of the overall fabric of disparate moods and literary forms that the work embraces.

BibliographyBoyle, Nicholas. Goethe, the Poet and the Age. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1991. An exceptionally detailed study of Goethe’s development as an artist. Discusses Goethe’s novels and includes an extended analysis of the culture and times in which he lived and worked.Dieckmann, Liselotte. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. New York: Twayne, 1974. A lucid overview of Goethe’s novels, plays, and poetry. An excellent introductory source. Contains interesting chapters on biography and autobiography and chapters focused on the novels, including Wilhelm Meister’s Travels.Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Goethe: Or, The Writer.” In Representative Men: Seven Lectures. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1876. A vivid, extremely keen assessment of Goethe’s role as one of the legendary writers of his century. Of continuing relevance to later times. Discusses Goethe in the context of American and European writers. Also discusses the merits of Wilhelm Meister’s Travels.Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Goethe’s Literary Essays. Arranged by J. E. Spingarn. 1921. Reprint. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1964. Several essays place Wilhelm Meister’s Travels in the context of Goethe’s theories on the art of world literature. Contains Goethe’s own thoughts on the development of fiction and art.Lange, Victor, ed. Goethe: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. A representative selection of essays. Important essays on Goethe’s craft of fiction shed light of the construction of Wilhelm Meister’s Travels for the beginning reader. Includes a selected bibliography.
Categories: Places