- The Power of Images in Goethe’s Elective Affinities
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Elective Affinities narrates how a married, mature couple, Eduard and Charlotte, are involved in a set of projects to reform, renovate, enhance and beautify their country estate and its surroundings. When they are joined on their estate by Eduard’s old friend Hauptmann (captain) and Charlotte’s niece Ottilie, these additions to the household provoke the disruption of the marriage and result in the departure of both Eduard and Hauptmann. In the second part of the novel, the absent men are partially replaced in their functions in the household by a young architect and an assistant teacher from Ottilie’s school. It is throughout this second part that the projects initiated in the first part are revealed to have been futile or failed endeavors. Whether Elective Affinities has been seen as a commentary on the status of marriage and divorce, on the roles of the bureaucrat, educator, mother, and teacher, on the false trust in scientific innovation and planning, on dilettantism and a new professionalism, or on new media and the end of originality, in most cases the novel has been read as a critical examination of modernity.1 This essay, however, will consider Elective Affinities not primarily as an analysis of modernity but rather as an examination of reactions to modernizing projects and change. It will do so by focusing on the second part of the novel, especially on the architect’s and Ottilie’s preoccupation with images in their relationship to life and death. [End Page 63]
Among all the other modernizing, rationalizing projects depicted in this novel, Charlotte’s cemetery renovation is assigned a key role.2 The narrator introduces this topic in the opening chapter of the second part, informing his reader that Charlotte has had the gravestones removed from the actual places of burial and transformed the individual gravesites into a blooming clover field: “Wir müssen dieses Vorfalls gedenken, weil er verschiedenen Dingen einen Anstoß gab, die sonst vieleicht lange geruht hätten.”3 The cemetery renovation—especially with regard to one noble family’s protest against it—is characterized as a catalyst which serves to accelerate the events of the second half of the novel, which begins with the architect’s renovation of the chapel next to the cemetery, a project he initiates in response to his discussion with Charlotte and Ottilie about the noble family’s complaint. The placement of Ottilie’s embalmed body in a glass coffin in that very chapel, brings the novel to an end. In brief, the second part of the novel is introduced as a reaction to the severance of the bond between the gravestone and the actual burial site and it ends with the reinstitution of the bond between the location of the corpse and memorial in Ottilie’s and finally Eduard’s entombment in the renovated chapel. How, and this is the central question this essay shall address, is the second part’s primary focus on the character of Ottilie and its preoccupation with the status and nature of images related to this frame?
The focus on images in the second part of the novel almost always involves the relationship between images and the human body. Whether it is Charlotte’s daughter Luciane during her visit at her mother’s country estate entertaining herself by comparing prints of primates with the faces of her acquaintances, or Luciane’s elaborately staged tableaux vivants, the birth of Charlotte’s son, who evokes another aspect of the image when he is described as having Ottilie’s eyes and the physique of Hauptmann, or else the carefully staged nativity scene at Christmas, in all of these the focus on an image or a likeness involves questions about the human body as a medium.4 This approach to images and questions of likeness is at once motivated and complicated by the frame in that it highlights the way in which the human body, in its relationship to images, is marked by mortality and decay.
In what follows, I shall subsume a discussion of the treatment of images in Elective Affinities neither...