The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Elective Affinities, The
ELECTIVE AFFINITIES, The. Goethe's ‘Wahlverwandtschaften’ (Elective Affinities), first intended for insertion among the numerous short stories in the second part of ‘Wilhelm Meister,’ grew beyond the limits of availability for such use, and was published independently in 1809. Its composition is in the leisurely and somewhat oracular style which makes many of the episodes in ‘Wilhelm Meister’ seem more like the deliverance of a seer than a mirror of actual life; but here as elsewhere Goethe develops a significant motif in terms of human experience, and the symbolical title befits the manner in which his narrative of what happens to a particular group of persons invites the mind to ponder the inscrutable laws governing human behavior in general. The analogy between chemical reactions and the solution of personal bonds in the moral sphere has for us less of mystical fatality than it had for Goethe's romantic contemporaries; for us, however, as for them the issue raised is momentous, and the treatment — in many respects romantic — leads us to examine the sanctions of the first of all social institutions.
The story deals primarily with a wedded couple into whose domestic circle two other persons are introduced; but of these four, the young girl Ottilie is the one upon whom our attention is focused. The others, even the wife, persons of experience in the world, may be left to accommodate themselves to changed conditions; with Ottilie we profoundly sympathize; for she, a being of celestial purity and devotedness, becomes unwittingly involved in the toils of earthly life to which she is a stranger, and must by renunciation and death atone for an involuntary fault. Conceived in dramatic terms, the theme might be said to be the conflict of individual right with social convention. But Goethe's concern is not with any moral question or any dramatic demonstration; it is with the martyrdom of a hapless maiden, considered in its psychological aspect. The work, too restricted in scope to be called a novel, too diffuse to be a Novelle, is a study of singular penetration and completeness in the inner life of a beautiful soul. Translated by J. A. Froude and R. D. Boylan, London 1854. Consult “The German Classics” (New York 1913, Vol. II).