Once upon a time in a land far away there lived two wealthy, beautiful people whose names were Eduard and Charlotte. Theirs was a peaceful and contented second marriage. They had fallen in love in their youth but had ended up with other people, whose early deaths had left them finally free to marry one another. Now they were spending their time glorifying and improving their large estate, building pathways and clearing vistas, as part of a landscaping project intended to benefit the whole community. But somehow this wasn’t enough, as contented happiness is rarely enough, and Eduard wanted to invite his old friend, the Captain, to come and stay with him, on the grounds that his knowledge of cartography would be a great help. Charlotte reluctantly agreed, and finding herself summarily neglected by her husband, she chose to invite her young niece, Ottilie, a beautiful adolescent girl whose poor progress at her boarding school indicated she was better suited to domestic service than education. Having brought these two people, attractive and able in their different ways, into the enclosed and secluded world of their estate, trouble inevitably befell paradise. Eduard fell head over heels with Ottilie, and Charlotte fell more cautiously in love with the Captain. What was to be done? Eduard was all for a quick partner swap but Charlotte favoured self-restraint. She and the Captain agreed not to succumb to their passion, and having exercised this tremendous discipline, Charlotte expected Eduard to do the same. But Eduard’s nature was altogether different to his wife’s; volatile, capricious, determined, impassioned, he simply could not see how he could bear to give up Ottilie. And so, recognizing the sacrifice his wife had made, he agreed to go away for a long time, throwing himself into a distant war, whilst his wife waited patiently for him to come to his senses, sending word that she was now carrying his unborn child.
This strangely modern moral dilemma provides the starting point of one of the earliest novels ever written, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Elective Affinities. Goethe was an eighteenth century wunderkind (his dates were 1749-1832), famous as a writer, but also influential in science, law and philosophy. He wrote the first ever bestseller, The Sorrows of Young Werther, on his first attempt at a novel, although in later life he wanted to distance himself from its rather syrupy message of Romanticism (Werther’s love for a married woman torments him so that eventually he commits suicide – the book was so popular it induced many a young man to do the same, proving that reading is not necessarily good for us). Towards the end of his life he wrote Faust, which is probably his most famous work. Goethe could do it all; novels, poetry, drama, scientific treatises, and he was surprisingly forward in his thinking, as interested in sexuality as he was in religion, seduced by science as much as by classical literature, always trying to figure out how human beings could live a good life when things always seemed to get so complicated.
The strange title, Elective Affinities, refers to the central allegory of the novel, which explores the parallels between natural sciences and human emotions. Eduard and the Captain are discussing science when Charlotte walks in and asks to be informed as to their topic. Elective affinities, they explain to her, describe a prevalent chemical reaction. Where you have two compounds, AB and CD brought into close conjunction, A becomes attracted to D, and B to C, with the result that new configurations are formed. But the very term ‘elective affinities’ reveals a contradiction in this process. Some elements have a natural affinity to one another, as if tapping into a profound underlying cosmic compulsion, and so how can they be ‘elective’, a question of free will and choice? This is the little problem Goethe offers us by transposing these chemical reactions into the world of human desires.
Charlotte understands her desire for the Captain to be subject to her intelligent and pragmatic will. She believes in the principle of marriage, and privileges order and organization above all else. It’s interesting that in the early part of the novel she comes across as repressive and somewhat inhuman, but as events develop beyond everyone’s control, her ability to come to terms with what happens and to keep seeking pragmatic solutions gives her authenticity and grace. Eduard, by contrast, embodies passionate compulsion, and whilst his excesses and enthusiasms are vivid, and his loving loyalty to Ottilie is impressive, he nevertheless starts to look like a weak man, an instrument of doom. But really, this is Ottilie’s novel. Young, beautiful, profoundly attractive to all around her and terribly unformed when the novel starts, Ottilie finds herself the unwitting catalyst for disaster. This is all the more surprising when Ottilie represents natural goodness, loving kindness and proper, ethical concern. Yet she is the one who will bear the brunt of the tragedy that lies at the end of this sort of quasi literary experiment of Goethe’s, an experiment in which he wonders what happens when people with everything are tempted into losing it all for something as ephemeral as love.
But what makes this more than just a novel of possible adultery is the wealth of symbolism woven into every single event. If you’ve ever wondered what symbolism is, this is the novel to tell you. The most obvious symbolism is to be found in the landscape upon which our characters ceaselessly work. The endless process of making paths symbolizes the protagonist’s need to find pathways through their moral maze; the search for the best vantage point reveals their quest for the right perspective on their lives; a series of three lakes are brought together, just as the destinies of Ottilie, Eduard and Charlotte start to merge, and then once all the menfolk have left, the women move into a new house they have had built in the grounds, to indicate their radical change in state. But beyond these links of emotional state with physical context, Goethe is fascinated by the way we invest events with symbolic meaning. The decisions the characters take in their turmoil are indicative of their own strange, often complex relationship to morality, as well as their ability to be seduced by superstition. But then, not everything that happens in this novel is rational, either, so the reader can’t quite decide whether good old German pragmatism really is the way forward (a kind of eighteenth century Vorsprung durch Technik), or whether spirituality of a powerful, enigmatic kind is indeed a force to be reckoned with. What is clear, is that when we invest symbolism in an event, when we decide to stick meanings onto it, we have made a decision as to how we wish to view the event. But this very act occurs at the same moment as we decide that meaning comes from some external point, not inner choice, and so we are in thrall to its power. This becomes very important as the characters twist and turn in their predicaments, cutting themselves off from possible choices and alternative perspectives out of guilt, anxiety, desire and stubbornness that they are unable to own.
This is a book that you can’t swallow in one gulp, or if you did, you’d lose all its subtleties and charm. It’s a slow read that repays the careful reader and provokes any number of philosophical and psychological questions. It’s also quite funny in places, when Charlotte’s utterly ghastly daughter comes to stay, for instance. And it is a strange and curious mixture of a hymn to anality, the deeply held belief that the quiet, orderly life is the one that brings happiness, and a torchsong to the demonic, that wild, disruptive and compulsive force of life that destroys and creates over and over again. For anyone who wants to broaden their knowledge of world literature, this is an intriguing, lovely, hybrid thing, and an important station of the cross on the route to the modern novel.