Elective Affinities

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Elective Affinities
Goethe die wahlverwandtschaften erstausgabe 1809.jpg
The title page of the first edition
AuthorJohann Wolfgang von Goethe
Original titleDie Wahlverwandtschaften
LanguageGerman (original)
English (1854)
PublisherJ. G. Cottaische Buchhandlung, Berlin
Publication date

Elective Affinities (German: Die Wahlverwandtschaften), also translated under the title Kindred by Choice, is the third novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, published in 1809. The title is taken from a scientific term once used to describe the tendency of chemical species to combine with certain substances or species in preference to others. The novel is based on the metaphor of human passions being governed or regulated by the laws of chemical affinity, and examines whether or not the science and laws of chemistry undermine or uphold the institution of marriage, as well as other human social relations.


The book is situated around the city of Weimar. Goethe's main characters are Eduard and Charlotte, an aristocratic couple both in their second marriage, enjoying an idyllic but semi-dull life on the grounds of their rural estate. They invite the Captain, Eduard's childhood friend, and Ottilie, the beautiful, orphaned, coming-of-age niece of Charlotte, to live with them. The decision to invite Ottilie and the Captain is described as an "experiment" and this is exactly what it is. The house and its surrounding gardens are described as "a chemical retort in which the human elements are brought together for the reader to observe the resulting reaction."[1][2]


Elective Affinities is supposed to be the first work to model human relationships as chemical reactions or chemical processes since the aphorism of the classical Greek philosopher Empedocles: "people who love each other mix like water and wine; people who hate each other segregate like water and oil."[3]

The term "elective affinities" is based on the older notion of chemical affinities. In the late 19th century, German sociologist Max Weber, who had read the works of Goethe at the age of 14, used Goethe's conception of human "elective affinities" to formulate a large part of sociology.[4][5] In early nineteenth century chemistry, the phrase "elective affinities" or chemical affinities was used to describe compounds that only interacted with each other under select circumstances. Goethe used this as an organizing metaphor for marriage, and for the conflict between responsibility and passion.

In the book, people are described as chemical species whose amorous affairs and relationships were pre-determined via chemical affinities similar to the pairings of alchemical species. Goethe outlined the view that passion, marriage, conflict, and free will are all subject to the laws of chemistry and in which the lives of human species are regulated no differently from the lives of chemical species.[6][7][8] Opinions over the years have been split as to whether Goethe's theory was used in metaphor.[9][10]

In the novella, the central chemical reaction that takes place is a double displacement reaction (double elective affinity), between a married couple Eduard and Charlotte (BA), at the end of their first year of marriage (for each their second marriage), and their two good friends the Captain and Ottilie (CD), respectively. The first marriages, for both Eduard and Charlotte, are described as having been marriages of financial convenience, essentially arranged marriages. Specifically, when they were younger, Eduard was married off to a rich older woman through the workings and insatiable greed of his father; Charlotte, likewise, when her prospects were none the best, was compelled or obliged to marry a wealthy man, whom she did not love.

In the fourth chapter, the characters detail the world's first ever verbally-depicted human double displacement chemical reaction. The chapter begins with description of the affinity map (reaction map) or 'topographical chart' as Goethe calls it. On this reaction map, we are told that on it 'the features of the estate and its surroundings were clearly depicted, on quite a large scale, in pen and in different colors, to which the Captain had give a firm basis by taking trigonometrical measurements'.

Next, to explain the reaction, we are told:

'provided it does not seem pedantic,' the Captain said, 'I think I can briefly sum up in the language of signs. Imagine an A intimately united with a B, so that no force is able to sunder them; imagine a C likewise related to a D; now bring the two couples into contact: A will throw itself at D, C at B, without our being able to say which first deserted its partner, which first embraced the other's partner.' This is shown below:
AB + CD → AD + BC
'Now then!' Eduard interposed: 'until we see all this with our own eyes, let us look on this formula as a metaphor from which we may extract a lesson we can apply immediately to ourselves. You, Charlotte, represent the A, and I represent your B; for in fact I do depend altogether on you and follow you as A is followed by B. The C is quite obviously the Captain, who for the moment is to some extent drawing me away from you. Now it is only fair that, if you are not to vanish into the limitless air, you must be provided with a D, and this D is unquestionably the charming little lady Ottilie, whose approaching presence you may no longer resist.'

Noted critical reactions[edit]

Astrida Tantillo[edit]

In her 2001 book Goethe's Elective Affinities and the Critics, she writes:

From the time of its publication to today, Goethe's novel, Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities, 1809), has aroused a storm of interpretive confusion. Readers fiercely debate the role of the chemical theory of elective affinities presented in the novel. Some argue that it suggests a philosophy of nature that is rooted in fate. Others maintain that it is about free choice. Others believe that the chemical theory is merely a structural device that allows the author to foreshadow events in the novel and bears no relevance to the greater issues of the novel.[11]

Walter Benjamin's essay on The Elective Affinities[edit]

This essay by Walter Benjamin, written around 1920-21, was described by Austrian critic Hugo von Hoffmannsthal as "absolutely incomparable". It is renowned as an exemplary instance of Benjamin subjecting his literary subject matter to a process of intensive dialectical mediation. In the essay, which attacks Goethe's prose style and intentions, Benjamin argues for the possibility of the transcendence of mythic thinking (which he locates in the medium of Goethe's prose) in favour of the possibility of an as yet unencountered (and, in principle, unimaginable) "freedom". Typically, Benjamin locates this experience in art, which is, according to him, alone able, through mediation, to transcend the powers of myth.


A 1974 East German film with the same title was directed by Siegfried Kühn for the DEFA film studio.[12]

Francis Ford Coppola, in the grip of clinical manic depression and anxiety over his incomplete opus Apocalypse Now, and while purportedly under the influence of his girlfriend, screenwriter Melissa Mathison, proposed making a "ten-hour film version of Goethe's Elective Affinities, in 3D".[13]

John Banville's 1982 novel The Newton Letter adapts the story to Ireland. A description by Gordon Burgess can be found in German life and letters, April 1992.

The 1993 play Arcadia, by British playwright Tom Stoppard, is a modern-day remake of Elective Affinities, albeit with a twist. The play takes place in modern times and 1809, Goethe's time; characters are replaced subtly, e.g. 'The Captain' becomes 'The Naval Captain'; and the chemical affinity becomes updated in the play with discussion on the second law of thermodynamics, chaos theory, and other subjects; albeit the play still holds to the idea that the characters are reactive entities, discussing ideas such as the "heat" of interactions between the characters.

Robin Gordon's 1995 short story "Leaves in the Wind" adapts the story to modern England, with Edward and Charlotte as an academic couple.

In 1996, a film version was made, entitled The Elective Affinities, by director Paolo Taviani.

The 2009 film Sometime in August directed by Sebastian Schipper is loosely based on Goethe's novel and transposes the story to modern-day Germany.[14]

References in culture and theory[edit]

  • Max Weber, who offered a way to describe the development of capitalism that distinguished itself from the theories of Karl Marx, described the rise of capitalism in terms of a number of social, cultural, and historical elective affinities or links between ideas rather than purely in terms of economic material, most notably in the Protestant Work Ethic.[5]
  • Walter Benjamin wrote an essay entitled "Goethe's Elective Affinities". Published in Neue Deutsche Beiträge in 1924. It is one of his important early essays on German Romanticism.
  • In 1933, René Magritte executed a painting entitled Elective Affinities.
  • In French New Wave director François Truffaut's 1962 movie Jules et Jim, one of the two male characters, Jim, who is visiting his friend Jules, is lent the book, but Jules' wife, Catherine, suddenly asks him to return it. She then becomes Jim's lover.
  • In Michael Ondaatje's novel, Anil's Ghost, the book is discussed as being placed with other novels in the doctors' common room of a Sri Lankan hospital, but remaining unread.
  • In Günter Grass's first novel The Tin Drum, Elective Affinities is one of the two books which the central character Oskar uses for guidance, along with a book on Rasputin.
  • In Maurice Baring’s novel Cat’s Cradle (Heineman, 1925) Elsie Lawless drolly and accurately comments (in relation to the attractions for Walter and Bernard to women other than their wives) “Quite a case of ‘elective affinities’, isn’t it?” The scene occurs in 1901 just after the Coronation of King Edward VII.


  1. ^ Oxford University Press. (2006). Book Review Archived 2004-12-23 at the Wayback Machine of Goethe's Elective Affinities.
  2. ^ Smith, Peter, D. (2001). Elective Affinities Archived 2006-06-15 at the Wayback Machine. Abstract from the article that appears in Prometheus 04.
  3. ^ Adler, Jeremy. (1990). "Goethe's Use of Chemical Theory in his Elective Affinities" (ch. 18, pgs. 263-79) in Romanticism and the Sciences, edited by Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine, New York: Cambridge University Press.
  4. ^ Herbert, Richard, H. (1978). "Max Weber's Elective Affinities: Sociology within the Bounds of Pure Reason", American Journal of Sociology, 84, 366–85.
  5. ^ a b McKinnon, A.M. (2010) "Elective affinities of the Protestant ethic: Weber and the chemistry of capitalism."[permanent dead link] Sociological Theory, vol 28, no. 1, pp. 108-126.
  6. ^ Constantine, David. (1994). Translation, Introduction, and Notes to Oxford World Classics (translation of Goethe's Elective Affinities). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-283776-1
  7. ^ Prigogine, Ilya; Stengers, Isabelle (1984). Order Out of Chaos – Man's New Dialogue with Nature. Bantam Books. p. 319. ISBN 0-553-34082-4.
  8. ^ According to Belgian chemical engineer Ilya Prigogine, "B.J. Dobbs, The Foundation of Newton's Alchemy (1975), also examined the role of the "mediator" by which two substances are made "sociable"; we may recall here the importance of the mediator in Goethe's Elective Affinities (Engl. trans. Greenwood, 1976). For what concerns chemistry, Goethe was not far from Newton."
  9. ^ Adler, Jeremy. (1987). "Eine fast magische Anziehungskraft". Goethe's "Wahlverwandtschafte" und die Chemie seiner Zeit ("An almost Magical Attraction". Goethe's Elective Affinity and the Chemistry of its Time), Munich.
  10. ^ On possible issues associated with the chemical analogy, see: (a) Robert T. Clark Jr, (1954). "The Metamorphosis of Character in Die Wahlverwandtschaften", The Germanic Review, 29, 243–53.
    (b) John Milfull, (1972). "The 'Idea' of Goethe's Die Wahlverwandtschaften", The Germanic Review, 47, 83–94;
    (c) H. B. Nisbet, (1969). "Die Wahlverwandtschaften: Explanation and its Limits", Deutsche Viertejahrsschrift fur Literaturwissenschaft and Geistesgeschichte, 43, 458–86;
    (d) E. L Stahl, (1945). "Die Wahlverwandtschaften", Publications of the English Goethe Society, new series, 15, 71–95;
    (e) F. J. Stopp, (1959–60). "Einwahrer narziss: Reflections on the Eduard-Ottilie Relations in Goethe's Wahlverwandtschaften", Publications of the English Goethe Society, new series, 52–85;
    (f) Waltraud Wietholter, (1973). "Legenden. Zur Mythologie von Goethe's Wahlverwandtschaften", Deutsche Viedrteljahrsschrift fur Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, 56, 1–64.
  11. ^ Tantillo, Astrida, O. (2001). Goethe's Elective Affinities and the Critics. Camden House.
  12. ^ "Die Wahlverwandtschaften". Filmportal.de (in German). Deutsches Filminstitut. Retrieved 2015-07-04.
  13. ^ Peter Biskind. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, New York: Touchstone, imprint of Simon & Schuster, 1998, 1999, p. 373. ISBN 0-684-85708-1.
  14. ^ "Mitte Ende August". Filmportal.de (in German). Deutsches Filminstitut. Retrieved 2015-06-16.

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