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 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.

First Book[edit]

1 When the young actress Mariane arrives home after the show, she finds a white negligee, a gift of her absent lover, the wealthy businessman Norberg. In her heart, however, Mariane loves Wilhelm. He appears and welcomes his mistress in a stormy mood. Old Barbara is not satisfied. Barbara wants her beautiful mistress to stick with the rich Norberg.

2 William's father complains that frequent visits to the theater by his son are a waste of time. Mariane, whose father is a minister, panics at the news that her mother is coming. Barbara is chosen to take Wilhelm to the local pub and keep him there until Mrs. Gruber departs. As the evening drags on, Mariane's mom decides to spend the night.

3 When Mme. Melina accuses Mr. Melina of boring his visiting niece Schanzi, Roper decides to introduce Karen to Wilhelm. Meanwhile, Wilhelm is involved in organizing a birthday celebration for Barbara, so when Roper suggests to Wilhelm that he would like him to take his niece out, Wilhelm refuses.

4 Wilhelm narrates that he had seen a puppet show as a child. When Wilhelm brings home a puppy, Barbara and Mariane remind him that landlord Melina doesn't allow pets on the premises. While the three try to hide the puppy from Mr. Melina, Wilhelm fails in several attempts to give the little pooch away.

5 Jaffe, a large chap, approaches their table to make a rude play for Mariane. His size intimidates Wilhelm. The situation becomes more embarrassing for Wilhelm when the Melinas drop in and Melina, in ill-tempered mood from a toothache, puts Jeff in his place. But Wilhelm feels he may have acted cowardly by avoiding a fight.

6 William talks to Mariane and Barbara about his childhood, the dolls and the theater. Barbara and Mariane, believing a burglar has stolen their rent money frantically try to avoid landlord Melina until they can replace it. After Wilhelm and Barbara find their apartment door unlocked and the cash missing, Mariane arrives and insists that she left the envelope containing the rent money on a shelf.

9 Wilhelm and Mariane convince Barbara that she should try to get the job. But the owner of the shop has other ideas, and hires a girl whose only qualification is her figure. Barbara decides to fight fire with fire, and announces that she's going to have her figure enhanced.

10 Mariane and Barbara go away for the weekend, leaving Wilhelm all alone. Wilhelm throws a big, noisy party, and, when Mr. Melina comes upstairs to complain Wilhelm entices him to join in the revelry. The next morning the girls come back to find the apartment in shambles and Wilhelm in bed with someone. The someone turns out to be Melina, who is mortified to find himself in Wilhelm's bed.

11 Wilhelm and Barbara feel compelled to inform Mariane that the mature sophisticated man she is courting happens to be married. Barbara has already chided Wilhelm about being jealous of Lorenz Crosse who is dining at the apartment with Mariane. Melina's comment that she knows Lloyd's wife, sends the roommates rushing back to their apartment to break up Mariane's romance.

12 Melina goes off on a journey to check out some deserted real estate, leaving Mme. Melina all alone. She convinces Barbara to come stay with her overnight, leaving Mariane and Wilhelm alone. Afraid that Wilhelm can't be trusted Barbara warns Mariane to play down her natural attractiveness. Though Mariane does her utmost to follow Barbara's instructions, appearing in a sloppy gown and hair uncombed, Wilhelm just finds her more appealing as her natural self.

13 Wilhelm learns that Mr. Melina has agreed by letter to sell his 10 year old horse to a dealer. Wilhelm convinces Mariane that they should buy it, since Melina is selling it so cheap. Although Mme. Melina chides him about going back on his word to the dealer, Wagstaff, Melina takes the trio's offer of slightly more cash. The horse leads to nothing but trouble for the two, who can't work out a system of sharing it.

15 Wilhelm and Barbara panic when they discover that Mariane is not home yet from evening out with the girls from the village, and it's three A.M. When Mariane does get home she's in tears because an attractive lad she met at the Fox tavern has mistaken her friendliness for something else.

16 Melina, dejected because a doctor has told him that women don't find him attractive, goes down to the tavern where Wilhelm is filling in as tapster for the evening. A sympathetic Wilhelm promises Joan, a pretty girl at the pub, that he'll take her to dinner the next evening if she'll sit with Melina and feign interest in him to boost his ego.

17 Barbara runs into Peter, a village boy whom she used to have a crush on. She invites him over. Wilhelm and Mariane are amazed at how nervous their usually cool servant is as she waits for Peter to arrive. When they meet him Wilhelm is impressed but Mariane spots him immediately for what he is -a real Don Juan.

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]


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 to 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.[3]

Schopenhauer also mentions the book in his Aphorismen zur Lebensweisheit.

Arguing against chasing transient pleasures, Schopenhauer says, "Where we were looking for pleasure, happiness and joy, we often find instruction, insight and knowledge, a lasting and real benefit in place of a fleeting one. This idea runs like a bass-note through Goethe's Wilhelm Meister; for this is an intellectual novel and is of a higher order than the rest."[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] Schubert set several excerpts more than once:[6]

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.


  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. ^ Schopenhauer, Arthur. "The Art of Literature". The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer. Retrieved March 22, 2015. 
  4. ^ http://www.gutenberg.org/files/47406/47406-h/47406-h.htm "Aphorismen zur Lebensweisheit"
  5. ^ "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt" at LiederNet Archive
  6. ^ (in German) Otto Erich Deutsch, with revisions by Werner Aderhold and others. Franz Schubert, thematisches Verzeichnis seiner Werke in chronologischer Folge (New Schubert Edition, Series VIII: Supplement, Volume 4). Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1978. ISMN 9790006305148 — ISBN 9783761805718, p. 553

External links[edit]