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Reviews of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795)

Review by spiphany (2009-01-27)
A rather odd offering from Goethe. This novel perplexed me when I first read it, and in many ways it continues to do so. For a book which is often considered the original Bildungsroman -- a genre I associate with something like Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, with its focus on the protagonist's cultural mileau and its influence on his personal development -- Wilhelm Meister seems oddly disjointed and unteleological, and the characterization of Wilhelm remains incoherent. The novel makes the most sense if it is read as an exercise in style, since each of the books can be seen as experimenting with a different genre, but it is definitely not what I was expecting.

In spite of these concerns (some apparently shared by Goethe's contemporaries, whose critical reactions were mixed), Goethe remains a wonderful raconteur, and his writing is always a pleasure to read. This may actually be part of what makes the book so frustrating -- with a lesser writer it would be easy to dismiss the difficulties of the work as a lack of skill in developing plots, but Goethe has amply shown what he is capable of, so we keep looking for other explanations to understand what he is doing. Experimenting with realism, perhaps, with the artificiality of generic conventions.

©Steven Jeffery /, 2017
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