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  • Wilhelm Meisters Schneiderseelen
  • Daniel Purdy

The Schleier is a well-established motif in Goethe’s lyric poetry, one that alludes to Classical encounters between a poet and his Muse, but which at the end of the eighteenth century also corresponds to a social-historical reality that is described in tragic terms within his prose writing. This paper will elaborate how the inspirational figure of lyric poetry—the veiled Muse—is rewritten as a fashion victim in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. When he translates this allegory into prose as the actress Mariane, Goethe places his feminine ideal in a socially specific narrative frame that ends tragically. Given the class and gender distinctions operating within late feudal- and early bourgeois society, the difference between the mythic celebration of femininity and the prosaic reality of everyday life becomes overwhelming. The fate of Mariane in the Lehrjahre is of course comparable to that of Gretchen in Faust 1, however the narrative voice in Lehrjahre ironically foregrounds the differences between the representation of desire within lyric poetry and the novel, suggesting an implicit critique of the first person subjectivity that typifies Goethe’s early poetry.1

Friedrich Schlegel was the first critic to call attention to the ironic manner in which Wilhelm’s desires are portrayed, however he does not devote enough attention to how Lehrjahre establishes a sharp contrast between the lyrical ideal and prosaic society. Indeed, Schlegel’s Romantic agenda seeks to integrate lyric poetry with the novel, yet their differences are highlighted quite dramatically precisely when the two genres are brought together in the Lehrjahre. This paper will examine the narrative consequences that unfold when the mythic trope of the Schleier is appropriated by prosaic desire. By focusing on the materiality of Mariane’s garment as a sign and a fetish object, we can see how the genre shift from poetic allegory to everyday fashion exposes the tragic difference between the idealization of women and their historical position in bourgeois society.

Already in his correspondence with Goethe as the latter was composing the Lehrjahre, Schiller pondered the place of poetry in the novel. He admired the poetic form revealed in certain scenes as well as in the overarching plot, and even though he believed that the novel’s inevitable engagement with ordinary life placed it outside the higher aesthetic realm, Schiller recognized the [End Page 209] interpenetration of the two forms, i.e., the presence of poetry in narrative prose. In a letter from 20 October 1797, he writes:

Die Form des Meisters, wie überhaupt jede Romanform, ist schlechterdings nicht poetisch, sie liegt ganz nur im Gebiete des Verstands . . . Weil es aber ein echt poetischer Geist ist, der sich dieser Form bediente und in dieser Form die poetischen Zustände ausdrückte, so entsteht ein sonderbares Schwanken zwischen einer prosaischen und poetischen Stimmung, für das ich keinen rechten Namen weiß.


Many since Schiller have sensed that the story’s characters and their actions have been guided, not just by the Turmgesellschaft, but by a higher aesthetic principle. Hans Reiss has described this formative quality shaping the quotidian reality of the novel as the poetic within prose. Hannelore Schlaffer, following Walter Benjamin’s famous reading of Wahlverwandschaften, isolates the ancient poetic undertones in the novel’s representation of ordinary life, in which characters acquire an aura as their actions, thoughts, desires, and statements are layered with words, gestures, and plot elements of Greek mythology (5). Schlaffer describes Goethe’s characters as “diaphanous” in the sense of an image (such as a stained glass window) that acquires an extra shimmer of meaning through the play of light that passes through it from behind.2 The play of light adds a poetic quality to the prose, but Schlaffer resists claiming that Goethe’s technique transforms the individual figures in the novel into straight-forward allegories of Greek mythology.

In considering the prosaic transformation of a poetic figure, my argument runs along the same channels as Hannelore Schlaffer’s thesis that the characters are written so that they contain a mythic identity behind the veil of their everyday ordinariness: “In den versteckten mythischen Bildern siegt endlich doch die Poesie über die Prosa” (5). Yet...


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