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  • Goethe’s Families of the Heart by Susan E. Gustafson
  • Marcus Bullock
Goethe’s Families of the Heart. By Susan E. Gustafson. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. viii + 199 pages. $120.00 hardcover, $107.99 e-book.

The key statement on Goethe’s œuvre in Susan E. Gustafson’s conclusion informs us that “as we have seen, throughout Goethe’s literary production characters move spontaneously from heterosexual to same-sex relationships, and vice versa” (186). To be strict about it, the analysis doesn’t take us throughout his literary production, but if this were true about the selection of works discussed, it would still constitute quite a revelation. The body of this study consists of four chapters, constructed in the form of generally independent essays on, respectively, Die Wahlverwandtschaften, Stella, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, and Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre. These texts would be representative enough to cause one to look into Werther and Faust with an eye for spontaneous movement from heterosexual to same-sex relationships, were such phenomena actually meant by the statement. For the purposes of this study, however, a close conversation between a male and a female character is sufficient to define a heterosexual motif, and, accordingly, one between a male and a male, or female and female, signifies a “same-sex” relationship. For example, Stella offers a contrast with Die Wahlverwandtschaften because in the latter case “we find just the allusion to same-sex relations” between Charlotte and her niece Ottilie, whereas the former presents “not just the expectation of such a possibility, but the overt performance of same-sex affinities between women through open and loving dialogue” (65).

We need to understand what is and what is not meant by “affinities” or, more distinctly, by “elective affinities” in Gustafson’s argument. She builds her evaluation of the texts dealt with in all four chapters according to an ideal model of relationships that she sees as shifting, fluid, and, in the term she borrows from Lisa M. Diamond, “non-exclusive” (11). Sexual orientation as we normally understand it in the terms “heterosexual” and “same-sex” has no defining place here because she interprets the connections as assembling family-like groupings that deviate sharply from what she calls biological families. This makes for a certain amount of distance between the way Goethe constructs his plots and her interpretation of them within that model: “Intriguingly, there is also no distinction made in the novel [Wahlverwandtschaften] between the type of affinities that draw heterosexual couples together and those that draw same-sex couples to one another” (20). Just as she has reduced the idea of sexuality to irrelevance in order to accommodate this non-distinction, so any approach by which we might identify “elective affinities” as a characteristic idea of Goethe’s gives way to a sort of ideology of non-defining as well. [End Page 654]

The phrase “elective affinities” is, obviously, derived initially from the commonplace translation of “Wahlverwandtschaft”—although one should note that the H.M. Waidson version of the novel uses the more explicit English, “kindred by choice.” In Die Wahlverwandtschaften, the Captain, who keeps up with contemporary scientific theories, uses this term to account for a chemical reaction in which acidic and basic radicals undergo a predictable process of exchange. The four principal characters then discuss how a figure in inanimate nature might apply to forces at work in human nature. The chemical radicals in this reaction are in no sense free since they move according to a power (which we now know depends on the polarity of electrical charges) that imposes the new connection on them according to an inherent causal law. In Goethe’s novel, the equivalent in human relations produces the power of desires to form a bond of marriage according to an impulse that inheres so deeply in the persons affected that it overwhelms freely made prior commitments. This power causes the tragic outcome of the novel, and the apparently happy outcome in the novella that it contains. However, even that outcome only looks happy to the deficient narrator who remains oblivious to its effect on the jilted Captain.

The phrase “elective affinities” or just “affinity” occurs at least three...


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pp. 654-656
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