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Narrative 10.3 (2002) 277-306
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Character, Silence, and the Novel:
Walter Benjamin on Goethe's Elective Affinities
N. K. Leacock
Walter Benjamin's 1924-25 essay on Goethe's Die Wahlverwandtschaften [The Elective Affinities] is widely acknowledged as "standard-setting" in the reception history of one of the most important European novels of the nineteenth century. Yet the essay "Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften" ["Goethe's Elective Affinities"] has received more thorough discussion as a work of critical theory than as a reading of a novel. 1 Recent studies of Benjamin explicate the essay as an elaboration of the concept of "immanent criticism" described in Benjamin's dissertation on early German Romanticism. Immanent criticism "completes" the literary artwork by articulating or unfolding its own internal tendency to reflection; it was developed and practiced by Romantic critics in close relation with the literary production of Goethe, its critical language a reflection of his literary language. Benjamin's early criticism likewise develops in a closer engagement with Goethe's literary works than is always acknowledged. The following article seeks to supplement recent considerations of Benjamin's essay with an account that remains more closely tied to the text and reception of Goethe's novel. 2
When Goethe published Die Wahlverwandtschaften in 1809, the novel produced an immediate and lasting bafflement that was only to be deepened by the author's comments on his own work. Die Wahlverwandtschaften is a novel of manners, but its title, drawn from the terminology of eighteenth-century chemistry, seems to indicate a departure from the social rules that govern manners. Instead, this strange title refers readers to a scientific law according to which elements with innate "affinities" will choose, or "elect," to bond together, even if they must break out of previously formed unions in order to do so. The symmetry that marks the transformations expressed in [End Page 277] chemical formulas appears in this work as a symmetry in the over-formalized plan of the novel. Goethe enhanced the estranging effect of this symmetry by destroying all drafts and schemas used in the composition process, and by offering the work to his readers as one whose form was deliberately veiled. 3 If it is the novel's inhumanly perfect formal symmetry, denoted by Benjamin as its "prodigious, magical beauty" ["ungeheuere, beschworene Schönheit" ("GW" 180)], that provoked the bafflement, discussion of the novel did not confront this beauty directly until well into the twentieth century. Like any good novel of manners, Die Wahlverwandtschaften also offers a story of social life, and nineteenth-century readers largely left the question of scientific or aesthetic symmetry aside to focus on its story or plot.
Die Wahlverwandtschaften traces the course of what might be termed a love quadrangle. Eduard and Charlotte are a recently married couple, and Charlotte's niece Ottilie and their friend the Captain are guests at their country estate. By the end of the first volume, Eduard's affections have been silently transferred to Ottilie, and Charlotte's to the Captain. A nocturnal meeting between the married partners, though lawful on the physical level, leads to what the novel describes as a "double adultery" ["doppelten Ehbruch" (WV 455)] when each participates in body but with a mind focused on the image of the absent beloved. These images have a generative power, so that the child born nine months later resembles not Eduard and Charlotte, but its imagined parents Ottilie and the Captain.
The death of the child early in the second volume seems to be a "sacrifice" ["Opfer" (WV 461)] that will open the way to new partnerships. But this way is not open to Ottilie, who tries to leave the house, then returns with Eduard after an unlucky meeting on the road. This meeting, and her refusal to answer his proposal, begins a period of silence and anorexic decline that ends with her death. But the image of Ottilie, repeated in the faces of angels painted on the chapel vault, remains a force in the novel, as her body, miraculously preserved under a glass cover...