Elective Affinities

Die Wahlverwandtschaften; Elective Affinities; Kindred by Choice (1809)

Goethe’s third published novel is about a group of people with so much time and money on their hands that they start to play games with their own lives and with other people’s. These experiments, which seem harmless at first, soon go out of control and the results are deadly. In stark contrast to the emotional content, the narrative technique is astonishingly detached.

Eduard, a Baron, and his wife Charlotte live on a country estate. For each of them this is their second marriage. Since they are landed gentry, they have very little to do but manage their estate. Their marriage is destroyed when they choose to invite Eduard’s best friend, the Hauptmann (Captain) and Charlotte’s young niece Ottilie to stay. As Charlotte points out (in Part One, Chapter 2) they are ‘experimenting’ with people’s lives, including their own. The scientific metaphor is expressed in the novel’s title, which refers to the chemical reaction between calcium carbonate and sulphuric acid which instantly recombine to form calcium sulphate and carbon dioxide. This process of recombining is explicitly applied to human relationships in Part One, Chapter 4. The phrase ‘Wahlverwandtschaften’ is ambiguous: on one level it implies an inevitable chemical reaction; on another level, when applied to human relationships, it implies conscious freedom of choice (Wahl). This raises the question of whether the characters are dominated by forces beyond their control, or whether they do have an element of choice.

The action of the novel is confined to the country estate, which the characters are continually trying to manage and improve. No expense is spared on forestry, building work, garden design and church restoration. As the novel progresses, the characters’ attempts to control external nature, and their own human nature, fail miserably. The characters also spend enormous sums of money on birthday parties and on wedding celebrations (when Charlotte’s daughter Luciane marries a rich Baron in Part Two, Chapters 4-6). There is a sense here that the continual round of conspicious consumption is preventing the characters from taking a long hard look at themselves. Rather than coming to terms with their feelings and with each other, there is a considerable amount of evasion, for example when Charlotte thinks that everything can be restored (in Part One, Chapter 13), and when Eduard flees to his country retreat, and then goes to war. Ottilie is the character who engages in the most serious introspection and self-analysis, as is shown in the extracts from her diary in Part Two. But this too is a risky business, since Ottilie dies from anorexia.

Part One

In Chapter 1 the novel begins with a self-reflective flourish: ‘Eduard – so nennen wir einen reichen Baron [...]’; ‘Eduard – this is how we will name a rich baron [...]’


This sets the tone for the restrained, reflective narrative which is to follow.

When we first see Eduard he is attempting to control his natural environment: grafting new shoots onto young trees in his orchard. Eduard tells his wife Charlotte that he would like his old friend the Captain to come and live with them, and help him to manage his estate. Charlotte has misgivings about this, and tries to dissuade him, pointing out:

Das Bewußtsein, mein Liebster, entgegnete Charlotte, ist keine hinlängliche Waffe, ja manchmal eine gefährliche für den, der sie führt


Consciousness, my dear, replied Charlotte, is an insufficient weapon, indeed sometimes it can even be dangerous for he who wields it

In Chapter 2, Charlotte says that she would like her niece Ottilie to stay. Charlotte had once introduced Ottilie to Eduard as a suitable marriage partner, when she herself was unavailable, but at the time Eduard had still preferred Charlotte. They ask their friend Mittler’s advice but he doesn’t know what to suggest. Charlotte gives in and says that the Captain can stay, saying: ‘Laß uns den Versuch machen!’; ‘Let’s try the experiment!’ https://www.projekt-gutenberg.org/goethe/wahlverw/chap01.html

Eduard says Ottilie can stay too, but Charlotte says that this can wait.

In Chapter 3 the Captain arrives; so do letters from the boarding school expressing concerns about Ottilie.

In Chapter 4 Charlotte infuriates Eduard by reading over his shoulder; then the three friends discuss various chemical reactions including phenomena known as ‘elective affinities’ (Wahlverwandtschaften). Charlotte announces that she has decided to send for Ottilie, since her housekeeper has just left (hardly a compliment to Ottilie).

In Chapter 5 two more letters arrive from the school arrives, and Eduard approves Charlotte’s decision to send for Ottilie. He points out that whereas Ottilie gets migraines on the left side of her head, he sometimes gets them on the right side.

In Chapter 6 Charlotte is very concerned about Ottilie’s ‘Mäßigkeit im Essen und Trinken’, her ‘moderation in eating and drinking’. Charlotte becomes increasingly fond of the Captain. In Chapter 7 Eduard becomes increasingly fond of Ottilie.

In Chapter 8 Eduard is now so fond of Ottilie he lets her read over his shoulder, although when Charlotte did this in Chapter 4 he was outraged. Now the four friends start to experience ‘geheimnisvolle Absichten’; ‘secret intentions’ and ‘zurückgedrängten Empfindungen’; ‘repressed feelings’.


In Chapter 9 the foundation stone is laid for the new pavilion on the hill and the stonemason gives a speech. We hear of the Count and the Baroness, who fell in love with each other although they were already married to other people. Both couples separated, but the Count could not divorce and so he continues to meet with the Baroness in private. Mittler dislikes the pair and makes a speech claiming that ‘Die Ehe ist der Anfang und der Gipfel aller Kultur’; ‘Marriage is the beginning and the height of civilization’.


In Chapter 10 the Count and the Baroness arrive and the Count explains why romantic comedies are so deceptive (admirers of Jane Austen, please take note):

In der Komödie sehen wir eine Heirat als das letzte Ziel eines durch die Hindernisse mehrerer Akte verschobenen Wunsches, und im Augenblick, da er erreicht ist, fällt der Vorhang, und die momentane Befriedigung klingt bei uns nach. In der Welt ist es anders; da wird hinten immer fortgespielt, und wenn der Vorhang wieder aufgeht, mag man gern nichts weiter davon sehen noch hören.


In a comedy we see a marriage as the final outcome of a wish which has been postponed by the obstacles of several Acts, and the moment that the wish is fulfilled, the curtain falls, and the momentary satisfaction continues to echo in our minds. In reality it is different; there behind the curtain, the acting continues, and when the curtain rises again, most people would prefer not to see or hear what goes on.

Then the Count suggests he can find employment for the Captain elsewhere and Charlotte is thunderstruck.

Chapter 11 features the notorious scene of 'spiritual adultery'. While they are making love, Charlotte imagines that she is with the Captain, and Eduard that he is with Ottilie.

In Chapter 12 each of the two couples (Eduard and Ottilie, Charlotte and the Captain) embrace for the first time.

Chapter 13 is (unusually) written mainly in the present tense. Despite the can of worms being opened, Charlotte still hopes that the damage can be contained: ‘ein gewaltsam Entbundenes lasse sich wieder ins Enge bringen’; ‘that which has been violently unbound may yet allow itself to be restrained’


Charlotte tries to keep Eduard and Ottilie apart, but both couples fall more deeply in love. Ottilie tells Eduard how the Captain had complained about his flute-playing, and Eduard is offended.

In Chapter 14 the Captain gets a job offer starting immediately but conceals this from his friends. Preparations are made for Ottilie’s birthday.

In Chapter 15 it is Ottilie’s birthday. The Captain saves the life of a drowning boy. Eduard sets off the fireworks just for Ottilie. The Captain prepares to leave. Ottilie is amazed by the jewellery and lace she has received for her birthday.

In Chapter 16 the Captain has left and Charlotte arranges for Ottilie to go back to boarding school, telling Eduard that it would not be fair on her if Ottilie were to stay. Eduard writes a letter to Charlotte saying that he will go away himself, so that Ottilie does not have to.

In Chapter 17 Charlotte and Ottilie are left alone in the house, but Ottilie cannot stop thinking about Eduard. Ottilie becomes friendly with a village girl called Nanny.

In Chapter 18 Mittler visits Eduard in his country retreat and tries to persuade him to return home, but Eduard refuses. Then Mittler visits Charlotte who tells him that she is pregnant. When Eduard hears the news he is so upset that old habits reassert themselves: he rejoins the army and fights in the war.

Part Two

In Chapter 1 Charlotte’s alterations to the chuchyard cause offense to a local family. They send a solicitor to inform her that they are revoking their family’s bequest to the church. Charlotte and her architect do not care about this, but Ottilie is disconcerted that the dead will be deprived of a memorial.

In Chapter 2 the architect asks Ottilie to help him paint the interior of the chapel and Ottilie agrees. The first extract from Ottilie’s diary shows her reflections on mortality.

In Chapter 3 Ottilie and the architect decorate the chapel; there is another extract from Ottilie’s diary.

In Chapter 4 Charlotte’s daughter Luciane is getting married to a Baron but she flirts with the architect. Then she starts to complain because she left her pet monkey at home. Another diary extract: this time a collection of aphorisms.

In Chapter 5 Luciane continues to hold court. She takes a young man under her wing who lost his right hand in the war. The Count and the Baroness visit; the Count’s wife has died and soon they will finally be wed. A series of tableaux vivants are performed. Another series of Ottilie’s aphorisms, this time on human relationships, greatness, and art. E.g.: ‘Man weicht der Welt nicht sicherer aus als durch die Kunst, und man verknüpft sich nicht sicherer mit ihr als durch die Kunst’; ‘The surest means to escape the world is through art, and the surest means to connect with the world is through art.’ https://www.projekt-gutenberg.org/goethe/wahlverw/chap01.html

In Chapter 6 Luciane hears of a young woman who suffers from melancholy because she accidentally caused the death of a younger sibling. Now the young woman can only bear to see members of her family one at a time. Luciane decides to cure the girl. She wins her trust and takes her to a dinner party, but being the object of public curiosity proves too much for the girl and she starts screaming. Her condition worsens and she is committed to an asylum. Luciane doesn’t even realise what she has done, and starts to blame her friends. Then the architect insists that Ottilie must play the Virgin Mary in his tableau of the nativity. Ottilie recognises her boarding school teacher in the audience and is overcome with emotion.

In Chapter 7 the assistant schoolmaster discusses education. Charlotte says she would like Ottilie to return to the boarding school. The schoolmaster looks at an illustrated book of monkeys. Ottilie is repelled by them, as she records in her diary.

In Chapter 8 there is another discussion with the schoolmaster. Charlotte’s baby is born. The boy is called Otto after his father and after the Captain. Otto resembles Ottilie and the Captain, not his own parents. At the baptism, the aging pastor is so weak that he is upstaged by Mittler, who hijacks the ceremony, and gives a long speech, leaving the poor pastor standing up throughout. The pastor collapses and dies. Ottilie regards his corpse with a certain envy.

In Chapter 9 spring arrives and Ottilie helps the gardener in his work. Ottilie decides that her love for Eduard must become selfless, and she resolves to renounce him if necessary.

In Chapter 10 an English lord visits. The lord’s companion tells the story of ‘Die wunderlichen Nachbarskinder; ‘The Strange Young Neighbours’.

In Chapter 11 the lord’s companion describes Ottilie’s skill at rowing a boat. He tries out his pendulum experiment on Ottilie, who appears to respond, but Charlotte forbids further experiments. Ottilie spends time with baby Otto and she becomes like a second mother to him.

In Chapter 12 Eduard persuades the Captain, who is now the Major, to agree to him being with Ottilie.

In Chapter 13 Eduard rushes back to his estate and finds Ottilie and baby Otto alone in the woods. Ottile tells him he must go back to meet the Major, in order to await Charlotte’s decision. Eduard obeys her and he leaves. The narration switches into the present tense. In a state of extreme confusion, close to fainting, Ottilie gets into the rowing boat with Otto. Otto falls into the water and is drowned.

In Chapter 14 Charlotte is willing to divorce Eduard, but Ottilie is tormented by grief. She tells Charlotte that God has opened her eyes to her crime and now she must atone for it. She will never be Eduard’s.

In Chapter 15, Ottilie tells Charlotte she wants to go back to the boarding school, and thanks Charlotte for permitting her to try this ‘Versuch’; ‘experiment’ (that key word again, as in Book One, Chapter 2).

In Chapter 16 Ottilie departs and Eduard follows her to the inn. He writes a note to Ottilie, but when he delivers it he locks himself in her bedroom by mistake. Ottilie arrives but she refuses to say a word. Eduard begs Ottilie to be his but she shakes her head. He asks if he can take her back to Charlotte and she nods her head in affirmation.

In Chapter 17 Ottilie withdraws into herself. She refuses to speak. She eats and drinks almost nothing. She only communicates in writing.

In Chapter 18 Mittler preaches a sermon about adultery, unaware that Ottilie is listening. Ottilie faints and Nanny confesses that she has been eating Ottilie’s food for her. Ottilie dies. Nanny is kept away from the funeral but when she sees the funeral cortège passing by she jumps out of a window. Her bones seem broken but when her body is placed next to Ottilie’s, Nanny is miraculously cured: she gets up and says that she has been forgiven. Eduard’s only pleasure now is to drink from the glass inscribed with the initials ‘E’ and ‘O’, until he notices that the glass has changed. A servant admits that the original glass was broken and had to be replaced. Eduard stops eating, drinking and talking. Soon he dies and is buried next to Ottilie.

Further Reading in English

H. G. Barnes, Goethe’s “Die Wahlverwandtschaften”: A Literary Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976)

Michael Beddow, ‘“Da wird hinten immer fortgespielt”: Un-ended Plots in Goethe’s Die Wahlverwandtschaften’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 53 (1984), 1-19

Matthew Bell, Goethe’s Naturalistic Anthropology: Man and Other Plants (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 298-322

Nicholas Boyle, ‘The Composition of Die Wahlverwandtschaften’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 84:2 (2015), 93-137

Sheila Dickson, ‘Two sides of an anorexic coin in Die Wahlverwandtschaften and Die Verwandlung: Ottilie as Heilige, Gregor as Mistkäfer’, Orbis Litterarum 54 (1999), 174-84

Mary Helen Dupree, ‘Ottilie's Echo: Vocality in Goethe's Wahlverwandtschaften’, German Quarterly 87:1 (2014), 67-85

Peter Uwe Hohendahl, ‘Ottilie’s Education. Goethe’s Die Wahlverwandtschaften and the Pedagogical Discourse around 1800’, Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 77:2 (2003), 214-41

Karl Leydecker, ‘The Avoidance of Divorce in Goethe’s Die Wahlverwandtschaften’, Modern Language Review 106:4 (2011), 1054-72

Christina Lupton, ‘The Made, the Give, and the Work of Art: A Dialectical Reading of Goethe’s Die Wahlverwandtschaften’, New German Critique 88 (2003), 165-90

Peter McIsaac, ‘Exhibiting Ottilie: Collecting as a Disciplinary Regime in Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften’, The German Quarterly 70:4 (1997), 347-75

Claudia Nitschke, ‘Corporeality and Emotion in Goethe’s Die Wahlverwandtschaften’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 79:3 (2010), 38-52

Roy Pascal, ‘Goethe: The Elective Affinities’, in Pascal, The Dual Voice: Free Indirect Speech and its functioning in the nineteenth-century European novel (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977), pp. 37-45

Peter J. Schwartz, After Jena: Goethe’s ‘Elective Affinities’ and the End of the Old Regime (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2010)

Susan Sirc, ‘Monkeys, Monuments and Miracles: Aspects of Imitation of Word and Image in Die Wahlverwandtschaften’, German Life and Letters 47:4 (1994), 432-48

Peter D. Smith, Metaphor and Materiality: German Literature and the World-View of Science 1780-1955 (Oxford: Legenda, 2000)

R. H. Stephenson, ‘Theorizing to Some Purpose: “Deconstruction” in the Light of Goethe and Schiller’s Aesthetics – the Case of Die Wahlverwandtschaften’, Modern Language Review 84:2 (1989), 381-92

Martin Swales, ‘Consciousness and Sexuality: Reflections on Die Wahlverwandtschaften’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 50 (1980), 79-117

John Winkelman, Goethe’s “Elective Affinities”: An Interpretation (New York: Peter Lang, 1987)

Further Reading in German

Jeremy Adler, ‘Eine fast magische Anziehungskraft’: Goethes ‘Wahlverwandtschaften’ und die Chemie seiner Zeit (Munich: Beck, 1987)

Web Link in German


Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften’