Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre

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

Like Christoph Martin Wieland’s Geschichte des Agathon; The Story of Agathon (1766-67) and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), Wilhem Meisters Lehrjahre is a Bildungsroman (novel of education). Like its predecessors it explores the moral and sexual education of its main protagonist. Wilhem Meisters Lehrjahre can be seen as Goethe’s fullest exploration of the problem which had plagued Werther, namely: how to reconcile an intensely powerful emotional life with life’s practicalities.

The term Bildungsroman (novel of education) was first developed by Wilhelm Dilthey in 1870 but the term fits Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre perfectly, since Wilhelm’s wish is to educate himself, as he writes to his friend Werner in Book Five, Chapter Three:

Daß ich dir's mit einem Worte sage: mich selbst, ganz wie ich da bin, auszubilden, das war dunkel von Jugend auf mein Wunsch und meine Absicht. Noch hege ich ebendiese Gesinnungen, nur daß mir die Mittel, die mir es möglich machen werden, etwas deutlicher sind.


To tell you in a single word: to educate myself, just as I am; ever since my youth, this was, obscurely, my wish and my intention. I still hold this same conviction, only now the means to make it possible are a little clearer to me.

Despite Wilhelm’s optimism, his education proves to be extremely problematic. In the first half of the novel (Books One to Five), Wilhelm experiments with a theatrical career, instead of becoming a merchant as his father had hoped. In the final books of the novel, Wilhelm joins a mysterious, secretive organisation called the Turmgesellschaft (Tower Society). Wilhelm’s attempts to educate himself, and the Tower Society’s attempts to help him, are continually upset by the contingency of events and the unpredictability of desire. The ending of the novel remains deliberately reticent about what, if anything, Wilhelm has actually learned. And yet Wilhelm’s social entanglements bring him great joy, and the novel conveys a sense that a social life is an indispensible aspect of human development.

Book One

(1) Mariane performs as a young officer. Mariane and Barbara discuss Norberg and Wilhelm; Wilhelm enters. (2) Wilhelm reminisces with his mother about the puppet theatre. (3) Wilhelm and Mariane play with the puppet theatre. (4), (5) and (6) Wilhelm reminisces to Mariane about the puppet theatre. (7) The failed attempt to stage ‘Tancred & Chlorinde’. (8) More theatrics; the poetic muse versus ‘Trade’. (9) Mariane frets and Wilhelm dreams of theatrical greatness. (10) Werner explains to Wilhelm why being a merchant is glorious. (11) Werner’s father and Wilhelm’s father send Wilhelm on a business trip. (12) Mariane and Barbara discuss what to do. (13) On his travels, Wilhelm sees Melina and his lover in chains. (14) Wilhelm intercedes on Melina’s behalf. (15) Wilhelm is disappointed by the mess and gossip backstage. Encounter with Werner. (16) Wilhelm’s letter proposing to Mariane. (17) Wilhelm meets a stranger and they converse about free will and necessity. Wilhelm finds a note proving Mariane’s unfaithfulness.

Book Two

(1) Wilhelm’s suffering; his heartbreak. (2) He burns his poems; a troubled scene with Werner. (3) He travels on business and sees a play in a barn. (4) Wilhelm meets Mignon, Laertes and Philine. The miners’ play and rope-dancers; Wilhelm saves Mignon. (5) Melina and his wife arrive and offend people. (6) Melina begs Wilhelm to help him buy costumes; more on Mignon. (7) The old actor tells Wilhelm of Mariane’s pregnancy. (8) Mignon does her egg dance for Wilhelm. (9) The actors improvise on a boat trip; Wilhelm discusses education with a stranger. (10) The reading of the Ritterstück (knight play) ends in chaos. (11) Wilhelm buys presents for Philine. The Harpist. Melina gripes at Wilhelm. (12) Philine kisses Wilhelm and runs upstairs. Wilhelm is just about to follow her up to her bedroom, when he is interrupted twice. He agrees to finance Melina’s theatrical venture. (13) Upset, Wilhelm visits the Harpist. (14) Philine seduces the stablemaster, who fights a duel with Friedrich. As Wilhelm prepares to leaves, Mignon has a fit. Wilhelm has a fit and he agrees to be her father.

Book Three

(1) Mignon sings ‘Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn’; ‘Do you know the country where the lemon trees blossom’. The Count engages the company. (2) Wilhelm’s opinions about the aristocracy. The Baron reads his play aloud; Wilhelm is fascinated by the Countess. Melina organizes. (3) Arriving at the castle, the actors get a chilly reception. (4) The Count and the Baron arrive and they improve the accommodation. First appearance of Jarno. (5) Wilhelm has an almost private audience with the Countess. (6) Wilhelm negotiates his alterations to the play. (7) Philine is in her element. At the dress rehearsal, the Count accepts the changes to the play. Mignon refuses to dance. (8) Wilhelm and the Countess exchange meaningful glances. Wilhelm’s praise of Racine fails to impress the Prince; Jarno introduces Wilhelm to the works of Shakespeare. (9) The satirical poem about the Baron; the pedant is attacked; Wilhelm saves Friedrich from a beating. (10) The Baroness persuades Wilhelm to dress up as the Count and visit the Countess, but the Count comes back early. (11) Wilhelm praises Shakespeare. Jarno tells Wilhelm to join the army but Wilhelm is offended by his coldness. (12) The Count mistook Wilhelm for his Doppelgänger, and now suffers from melancholy; the Countess gives Wilhelm her ring and suddenly they embrace and kiss.

Book Four

(1) The Baron gives Wilhelm some money. The company sets off. The Harpist wants to leave but Wilhelm persuades him to stay. (2) A discussion about loyalty and friendship. Wilhelm is elected as the new director. (3) Wilhelm discusses playing Hamlet. (4) Laertes’s story. The company sets off on a dangerous journey. (5) The company is attacked by bandits and Wilhelm is wounded. (6) The Amazon (Natalie) arrives on horseback. Wilhelm’s wounds are tended by her doctor. (7) The actors blame Wilhelm and Philine. (8) More recriminations from the actors; Wilhelm promises to make good their losses. (9) Wilhelm’s convalescence, tended by Philine; he dreams of the beautiful Amazon. (10) Philine and the rest of the company take their leave; Wilhelm is left with Mignon. (11) Wilhelm yearns for the woman on horseback, but all enquiries are in vain. (12) Wilhelm broods and eventually sets off to see Serlo and rejoin the company. (13) Wilhelm tells Serlo and his sister Aurelie about Hamlet. (14) Wilhelm and Aurelie discuss Ophelia. Philine enters, planning amorous intrigue. (15) Once again, Aurelie’s confessions to Wilhelm are interrupted; more on Hamlet. (16) Aurelie’s story; more on Mignon. (17) Laertes helps Wilhelm to concoct an account of his travels. (18) Serlo’s story. (19) Serlo offers Wilhelm a contract; Wilhelm is torn between a theatrical career and a career in commerce. (20) Aurelie makes Wilhelm swear never to trifle with a woman’s affections. She cuts his hand with a dagger.

Book Five

(1) Wilhelm receives news of his father’s death. (2) Werner’s letter to Wilhelm proposing a business partnership. (3) Wilhelm’s letter to Werner; the distinction between the aristocrat and the bourgeois. Wilhelm signs the contract with Serlo. (4) The proposed alterations to Hamlet. (5) More preparations for Hamlet; flirting between Serlo and Philine. (6) The prompter will be Pyrrhus; more on individual roles. Wilhelm does not know who should play the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. Then he receives an anonymous letter, promising him that the ghost will appear when the time comes. (7) Wilhelm and Serlo discuss drama, the novel, and acting technique. (8) Rehearsals for Hamlet. Two ‘friends of the theatre’ encourage the actors to take fencing lessons, and speak more loudly. (9) Serlo asks Wilhelm if Hamlet really has to die at the end of the play and Wilhelm insists that he does. (10) Philine leaves her slippers in Wilhelm’s room. (11) The first performance of Hamlet. The Ghost appears on cue. (12) The actors celebrate the play’s success. Mignon bites Wilhelm. Someone creeps into Wilhelm’s bed. (13) The warning on the scarf. The Harpist burns the place down; Wilhelm saves Felix. The second performance of Hamlet. (14) Wilhelm sees the Harpist and tries to reason with him, but he is mentally ill. (15) Wilhelm puts the Harpist in the care of a clergyman. Serlo and Wilhelm discover Philine in the arms of an officer. Philine insist that the ‘officer’ is actually her girlfriend, but the next day both of them are gone. (16) Wilhelm visits the country vicar who hopes to cure the Harpist. Wilhelm learns that the Count has become melancholic; he and the Countess have joined a religious community called the Herrenhuter. Serlo and Melina plan to stage operettas in future. The company performs Lessing’s Emilia Galotti. Aurelie sickens and dies.

Book Six

Wilhelm reads the Bekenntnisse einer schönen Seele; Confessions of a Beautiful Soul. This is the spiritual autobiography of Natalie’s aunt, who becomes a Stiftsdame (canoness). The text includes many words of wisdom from the uncle of the ‘schöne Seele’, e.g.:

Glauben Sie mir, meine Liebe, der größte Teil des Unheils und dessen, was man bös in der Welt nennt, entsteht bloß, weil die Menschen zu nachlässig sind, ihre Zwecke recht kennenzulernen und, wenn sie solche kennen, ernsthaft darauf loszuarbeiten.


Believe me, my dear, most of the damage and what people call ‘evil’ in the world occurs simply because people are too negligent to get to know their own aims and, when do they know them, to work seriously towards them.

Book Seven

(1) Wilhelm meets the Abbé and Lothario. Wilhelm dreams of his father and Mariane. In the dream, Friedrich appears and chases them away. (2) Wilhelm sees Jarno again; Lothario fights a duel. (3) Wilhelm criticises the theatre to Jarno. (4) They discuss the Harpist; Wilhelm accompanies Lydie in a coach. (5) Wilhelm meets Therese and is shown her garden. (6) Therese tells Wilhelm of her affair with Lothario. (7) Lothario tells of his love affairs. (8) Barbara tells Wilhelm that Felix is his son. Wilhelm wants to believe but he still has his doubts. Wilhelm takes his leave of the theatre. (9) Wilhelm is initiated into the Tower Society.

Book Eight

(1) Werner arrives in order to conduct a property sale with Lothario. Wilhelm agrees to invest some of his inheritance in the property, jointly with Lothario. Wilhelm accepts his responsibilities as a father. He reads the Tower Society’s record of his education. He writes to Therese asking her to marry him. (2) The property deal is concluded. Lothario recommends that country estates should be taxed, and divided equally between all offspring. Wilhelm travels to visit the sick Mignon, who is staying with Natalie. Natalie’s house now contains the art collection of Wilhelm’s grandfather. (3) Wilhelm discusses education with Natalie; Mignon’s worrying condition. (4) Therese writes to accept Wilhelm’s marriage proposal, but Jarno intervenes, saying that she must marry Lothario. (5) Therese arrives; Mignon dies. Lothario arrives; Jarno advises Wilhelm. (6) Friedrich arrives and tells Wilhelm of his love for Philine, and that Philine is now pregnant. The Abbé tells Therese the story of her mother. (7) Jarno is going to America to found a branch of the Tower Society there, and the Abbé is going to Russia. The Marchese arrives. The Abbé suggests that Wilhelm accompany the Marchese, but Wilhelm does not want to leave Natalie. (8) Mignon’s funeral. (9) The story of Mignon and the Harpist. (10) The Harpist (Augustin) reappears, and seems tranformed. The doctor claims that the Harpist is cured. The Count arrives. It is feared that Felix has drunk a lethal dose of opium, but luckily this is not the case. The Harpist cuts his throat and dies. Wilhelm and Natalie get engaged.

* * *

Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-96) is the reworked version of a shorter, unfinished, and less complex novel called Wilhelm Meisters Theatralische Sendung; Wilhelm Meister’s Theatrical Mission (written 1777-85; published 1911).

Goethe later wrote a sequel, Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre; Wilhelm Meister’s Journeymanship (first published 1821, revised version 1829) in which Wilhelm becomes a doctor and we hear more of the Tower Society's American colony.

Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre exerted a decisive influence on the course of the novel in the 19th century and the 20th century, influencing French writers such as Stendhal, Balzac and Flaubert, as well as German-speaking writers such as Novalis, Gottfried Keller, Adalbert Stifter, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Christa Wolf.

English Translations

Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, trans. by Eric Blackall in cooperation with Victor Lange (Princeton: NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995)

Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, trans. by H. M. Waidson (London: Oneworld Classics, 2012); (Richmond: Alma Classics, 2013)


Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, trans. by Thomas Carlyle (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1824-27)

Further Reading on the Bildungsroman (with chapters on Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship)

Michael Beddow, The Fiction of Humanity: Studies in the Bildungsroman from Wieland to Thomas Mann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982)

W. H. Bruford, The German Tradition of Self-Cultivation: 'Bildung' from Humboldt to Thomas Mann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975)

James Hardin (ed.), Reflection and Action: Essays on the Bildungsroman (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991)

Michael Minden, The German Bildungsroman: Incest and Inheritance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)

Franco Moretti, The Way of the World: the Bildungsroman in European Culture, trans. by Albert Sbragia (London: Verso, 2000)

Martin Swales, The German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978)

Further Reading on Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship in English

Jeremy Adler, ‘Towards Infinitude’, Times Literary Supplement, January 13 2012, p. 8

Matthew Bell, Goethe’s Naturalistic Anthropology: Man and Other Plants (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 228-56

John Blair, Tracing Subversive Currents in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1997)

Tobias Boes, Formative Fictions: Nationalism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Bildungsroman (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012), Chapter 2: ‘Apprenticeship of the Novel: Goethe and the Invention of History’, pp. 43-69

Terence Cave, Mignon’s Afterlives: Crossing Cultures from Goethe to the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)

Jane V. Curran, Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship: A Reader's Commentary (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2002)

Andreas Gailus, ‘Forms of Life: Nature, Culture, and Art in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship’, Germanic Review 87:2 (2012), 138-74

Martha B. Helfer, ‘Wilhelm Meister’s Women’, Goethe Yearbook 11 (2002), 229-54

Elisabeth Krimmer, ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: Paternity and Bildung in Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre”’, German Quarterly 77:3 (2004), 257-77

Georg Lukács, Goethe and his Age, trans. by Robert Anchor (London: Merlin, 1968), Chapter 3: ‘Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship’, pp. 50-67

Catriona MacLeod, ‘Pedagogy and Androgyny in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre’, Modern Language Notes 108:3 (1993), 389-426

Rosa Mucignat, ‘Theatrical Revolutions and Domestic Reforms: Space and Ideology in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and Austen’s Mansfield Park’, Comparative Critical Studies 7 (2010), 21–40

Thomas Pfau, ‘Bildungsspiele: Vicissitudes of Socialization in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship’, European Romantic Review 21:5 (2010), 567-87

Mattias Pirholt, Metamimesis: Imitation in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and Early German Romanticism (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012)

Ernest Schonfield, ‘Compromise and Collectivity in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 81:1 (2012), 12-25

Further Reading in German

Hee-Ju Kim, Der Schein des Seins. Zur Symbolik des Schleiers in Goethes “Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre” (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2005)

Marcel Krings, ‘Die entgötterte Welt. Religion und Ökonomie in Goethes “Lehrjahren”’, Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie 127 (2008), 161-76

Terence James Reed, ‘Revolution und Rücknahme. “Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre” im Kontext der Französischen Revolution’, Goethe-Jahrbuch 107 (1990), 27-43

Karl Schlechta, Goethes Wilhelm Meister (Frankfurt/Main: Klostermann, 1953)

Thorsten Valk, Melancholie im Werk Goethes. Genese – Symptomatik – Therapie (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2002)