Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre 1795.jpg
Title page of first edition
Author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Original title Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre
Language German
Genre Bildungsroman, philosophical novel
Publisher Johann Friedrich Unger (Berlin)
Publication date
Preceded by Wilhelm Meister's Theatrical Calling (Wilhelm Meisters theatralische Sendung) (1777–1785)
Followed by Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years (Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre) (1821–1829)

Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (German: Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre) is the second novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, published in 1795–96.


The eponymous hero undergoes a journey of self-realization. The story centers upon Wilhelm's attempt to escape what he views as the empty life of a bourgeois businessman. After a failed romance with the theater, Wilhelm commits himself to the mysterious Tower Society.

Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship depicts the eighteenth-century German reception of William Shakespeare's dramas: the protagonist is introduced to these by the character Jarno, and extensive discussion of Shakespeare's work occurs within the novel's dialogues. Wilhelm and his theater group give a production of Hamlet, in which Wilhelm plays the lead role. Shakespeare's work had begun to be translated into German in the 1740s, and had attained tremendous popularity and influence in Germany by the end of the century.


Goethe's work on the novel began in the 1770s. An early version of the work, unpublished during Goethe's lifetime, was discovered in the early twentieth century, and published under the title Wilhelm Meister's Theatrical Calling (Wilhelm Meisters theatralische Sendung). When the Apprenticeship was completed in the mid-1790s, it was to a great extent through the encouragement and criticism of Goethe's close friend and collaborator Friedrich Schiller that it took its final shape. Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre ("Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years"), the sequel to the Apprenticeship, was already planned in the 1790s, but did not appear in its first edition until 1821, and in its final form until 1829.


Further books patterned after this novel have been called Bildungsroman ("novels of formation"), despite the fact that Wilhelm's "Bildung" ("education", or "formation of character") is ironized by the narrator at many points.[1]

According to Andrew Crumey, "while Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is billed as the classic coming-of-age tale, or Bildungsroman, it’s really far more than that: a story of education and disillusionment, a novel of ideas ranging across literature, philosophy and politics, a masterpiece that resists all pigeonholing."[2]


R.D. Miller, discussing "heritage" in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, concluded that it was in this idea that Goethe had expressed his mature classical ideal of humanity according to which the individual contains within himself and embodies the general, such that a dedication to the life of others would not necessarily, from that point of view, imply renunciation of his own being.[3]


The novel has had a significant impact on European literature. Romantic critic and theorist Friedrich Schlegel judged it to be of comparable importance for its age as the French Revolution and the philosophy of Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Arthur Schopenhauer cited Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship as one of the four greatest novels ever written. [4]

Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship provided the text for many lieder, among others by Beethoven, for example Sehnsucht: Gedicht von Goethe viermal in Musik gesetzt von L. van Beethoven, four settings of "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt", WoO. 134 (1808), and by Schubert, for example D 877, Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister, Op. 62 (1826).[5]

The 1866 opera Mignon by Ambroise Thomas is based on Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.

The film The Wrong Move by Wim Wenders is a free adaptation of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.

Characters of the novel[edit]

  • Barbara
  • Mariane
  • Norberg
  • Wilhelm Meister
  • the lieutenant
  • Werner
  • Mr. Melina
  • Mme. Melina
  • Serlo
  • Laertes
  • Philine
  • Mignon
  • Friedrich
  • the harper
  • Jarno
  • the count
  • the countess
  • the baron
  • Aurelie
  • Felix
  • the beautiful soul
  • Natalie
  • the Abbé
  • Lothario
  • Lydie
  • Therese
  • the marquis


  1. ^ See Sammons, Jeffrey L. (1981). "The Mystery of the Missing Bildungsroman; or, What Happened to Wilhelm Meister's Legacy?". Genre 14: 229–246. 
  2. ^ Crumey, A. "Book Of A Lifetime: Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship " Independent, 11 April 2008
  3. ^ Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre: an interpretation, R. D. Miller, The Duchy Press, Harrogate, 1969
  4. ^ Schopenhauer, Arthur. "The Art of Literature". The Essays of Arthur Schopenahuer. Retrieved March 22, 2015. 
  5. ^ "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt" at LiederNet Archive

External links[edit]