Goethe: Prose Fiction

Goethe’s three most famous novels represent high watermarks in each of their chosen genres:

(1) His first novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werther[s]; The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774; revised version 1787), gives a twist to the established genre of the sentimental epistolary novel because it is based almost entirely on letters written by Werther himself. The resulting emotional intensity and brevity of the novel made it an instant bestseller.

(2) Goethe’s next published novel, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-96) was an enormously influential Bildungsroman (novel of education).

(3) Die Wahlverwandtschaften; Elective Affinities (1809) inaugurates the novel of adultery which was later developed by Flaubert (Madame Bovary), Tolstoy (Anna Karenina) and Fontane (Effi Briest).

Goethe’s novels are partly informed by French novels. His first novel, Werther, is indebted to Prévost’s Manon Lescaut (1731) and Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761). Goethe’s later novels show some affinities with Denis Diderot (1713-84), particularly in terms of their restrained prose style and moral subtlety. The narrative voice used by both writers tends to be reserved and even neutral, to the point of being poker-faced. When Goethe and Schiller became friends in 1794, one of the Goethe’s first presents to Schiller was a copy of Diderot’s first novel Les bijoux indiscrets; The Indiscreet Jewels, first published in 1748 (see letter to Schiller of 25 July 1794). Schiller had already published a partial translation of Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste et son maître; Jacques the Fatalist and his Master in 1785. On 26 November 1804 Schiller gave Goethe a handwritten copy of Diderot’s Le neveu de Rameau; Rameau’s Nephew which he had acquired. Goethe immediately set about translating it into German, and his translation was published in 1805.

According to Eric Blackall, Goethe appreciated Diderot’s La Religieuse; The Nun because it ‘presented intensely emotional experiences without losing detachment’, and he admired Le neveu de Rameau; Rameau’s Nephew because of the way in which it combined ‘the most heterogeneous elements of reality into an ideal whole’ (see reading list below, Blackall, pp. 88 and 89 respectively). These same comments can also be applied to Goethe's own fictional work.

Goethe’s novels also engage in a dialogue with Enlightenment anthropology, as Matthew Bell has shown (see reading list below).

Goethe wrote five novels:

Die Leiden des jungen Werther[s]; The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774; revised version 1787)

Wilhelm Meisters Theatralische Sendung; Wilhelm Meister’s Theatrical Mission (written 1777-85; published 1911)

Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-96)

Die Wahlverwandtschaften; Elective Affinities (1809)

Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre; Wilhelm Meister’s Journeymanship (first published 1821, revised version 1829)

Goethe’s shorter prose fiction includes:

Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten; Conversations of German Emigrants (1795)

Novelle; Novella (1828)

Please click on the above links for further information.

Further Reading in English

Matthew Bell, Goethe’s Naturalistic Anthropology: Man and Other Plants (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)

Eric A. Blackall, Goethe and the Novel (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976)

William J. Lillyman (ed.), Goethe’s Narrative Fiction: The Irvine Goethe Symposium (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1983)

Clark S. Muenzer, Figures of Identity: Goethe’s Novels and the Enigmatic Self (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 1984)

Hans Reiss, Goethe’s Novels (New York: St. Martin, 1969)

R. H. Stephenson, ‘Goethe’s Prose Style: Making Sense of Sense’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 66 (1997), 33-41

Further Reading in German

Stefan Blessin, Goethes Romane. Aufbruch in die Moderne (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1996)

Manfred Engel, Der Roman der Goethezeit, vol. 1: Anfänge in Klassik und Frühromantik. Transzendentale Geschichten (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1993)

Raymond Heitz and Christine Maillard (eds.), Neue Einblicke in Goethes Erzählwerk. Genese und Entwicklung einer literarischen und kulturellen Identität (Heidelberg: Winter, 2010)

Dennis F. Mahoney, Der Roman der Goethezeit (1774-1829) (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1988)