Elective Affinities

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Title page of the first print

The Elective Affinities is a novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe from the year 1809. It describes the story of the couple Charlotte and Eduard, who lived in seclusion and whose marriage fell apart due to the addition of two other characters. As if in a chemical reaction, both spouses experience a strong new attraction, which is also reciprocated: Charlotte, who emphasizes reason, to the intelligent and energetic Captain Otto; the impulsive, passionate Eduard to the adolescent, quietly charming Ottilie. The conflict between passion and reason leads to chaos and ultimately to a tragic end.


The novel, which is often described as Goethe's best and at the same time his most enigmatic, cannot be assigned to any literary epoch. On the one hand, there are elements that make it a work of Weimar Classicism , such as the plot layout as a scientific parable. But there are also opposing tendencies that make it almost a work of Romanticism , for example when one thinks of the figure of the Christian martyr at the end of the novel. The term “elective affinity” comes from chemistry, where it describes the attractive and repulsive behavior of chemical compounds in that the stronger acid displaces the weaker one from its salts ( chemical affinity ). This law is based on the fate of the two couples by Goethe. The point of renunciation also comes into play and makes the novel the first of the poet's late works (see also Wilhelm Meister's Wanderjahre ).


First part

After the death of their first spouse, Eduard and his childhood sweetheart were able to marry Charlotte. The rich, aristocratic couple lives secluded on an Edwardian estate. There it is dedicated to its hobbies, especially the design of the landscape park . The relationship between the two is more familiar than love or passion. The contemplative togetherness is interrupted when - after Charlotte's initial misgivings - everyone accepts a guest into the house: Eduard his friend, Captain Otto, who is in need through no fault of his own, and Charlotte her niece, Ottilie, who has no parents or money.

The captain is characterized by knowledge and drive. On his initiative, various improvements are made on the estate. Above all, however, he is responsible for the landscape architecture work; Charlotte supports him. The young Ottilie lacks the qualities that lead to social success. She speaks little, is altruistic and modest, has a lot of empathy and is at peace with herself. Charlotte instructs her in the management of the household, which she soon takes over completely. At first unconsciously, then unacknowledged, Eduard and Ottilie on the one hand, Charlotte and the captain on the other, feel increasingly drawn to each other. The spouses spend another night together, in which both fantasize in the arms of the loved one.

The next day, Charlotte and the captain confess their feelings to each other. Out of respect for the conjugal promise of loyalty, however, Charlotte demands of him to renounce her love. There is also a passionate scene between Eduard and Ottilie; In contrast to the other couple, Eduard gives himself up passionately and with the claim to be able to take possession of Ottilie, his love, which he cannot hide from others either.

Charlotte thinks she can ask Eduard to do the same violence she did to herself. She suggests removing Ottilie and restoring the original relationship. Eduard is deeply affected. He had anticipated the possibility of a divorce, especially since he believed his wife was connected to the captain. In order to delay a decision, he moves to another property. Shortly before, the captain also left the house to take up a job.

Left behind, the two women try to carry on with their usual lives. A young architect takes over the duties of the captain. Outwardly, Ottilie is desperate because of Edward's absence. Charlotte finds out that she is pregnant and hopes that Eduard will now return to her. He reacts disturbed to the news. To him, existence seems unbearable; he flees to war. Ottilie sees all hope for herself destroyed by Charlotte's pregnancy. She withdraws into herself.

Second part

Wilhelm von Kaulbach 's illustration of Goethe's elective affinities : Ottilie with Charlotte's son

The beautification work now extends to the village cemetery and the associated church. Ottilie helps the architect with the painting of a side chapel , but refuses to show his affection for her. Charlotte gives birth to a son. He is amazingly similar to Ottilie and the Captain - the result of the double 'spiritual adultery' from which it arose. Ottilie takes care of the child.

A visitor tells of people who found themselves in a conflict similar to the present one, but which in this case ended in a happy marriage. His narrative is inserted into the novel as the novella The Whimsical Neighbor Children.

After an absence of about a year, Eduard returns from the war with awards. He invites the captain, who has meanwhile been promoted to major, to him and instructs him to ask Charlotte for a divorce. His plan is for Charlotte to live with the major and the child on the estate, while he himself goes on a journey with his lover. Despite various objections, the major is on his way to the estate. Eduard cannot control his impatience and follows him immediately. On the bank of the lake laid out by the architect he meets Ottilie with the child; they hug each other and experience direct, physical passion for the first time. Certain of the divorce, Edward presents his plans to the lover. Ottilie leaves the decision to Charlotte. Out of time, she wants to row home across the lake. Excited by meeting Eduard, she lets the child fall into the water while boarding the boat; she can only hide it dead.

Charlotte blames herself and her hesitation for the accident. She agrees to the divorce. When the major advertises himself, he receives an indefinite answer. With the death of the child Eduard sees the last obstacle to a connection with Ottilie removed. This, in turn, sees itself as the culprit and also notices that in the past turmoil it has become unfaithful to its nature. She wants to atone for her "crime" by renouncing her love. But after Eduard has brought about another meeting against her will, she realizes that the mutual attraction is insurmountable. She stops speaking and eating and dies. Her grave in the chapel she painted herself soon becomes a place of pilgrimage for those seeking help. A little later, Eduard, who has lost his will to live, also dies. Charlotte has him buried at the side of her lover.


Statue of St. Ottilie on Mount Odile in Alsace.

As Goethe later reports in his autobiography Poetry and Truth , a first suggestion for the figure of Ottilie went back to the year 1770. At that time he visited the monastery of St. Ottilie on Mount Odilien : “The picture I made of her and her name made a deep impression on me. I carried both of them around with me for a long time until I finally gave them to one of my daughters who were later but no less beloved [...] ”. Goethe dealt with elective affinities for the first time in 1807. At that time they were still planned as a novella insert for the novel Wilhelm Meister's Wanderjahre , with which they share the motive of renunciation . However, the material turned out to be too extensive for the short form. Goethe wrote the novel from the end of May to the end of June as well as in August 1808 and from April 15 to October 4, 1809. It was published at the end of October 1809.

The elective affinities came about during the war against Napoleon , which immediately shook Goethe's hometown Weimar and his private existence. The chaos of contemporary history, "transformed into wild passions", is echoed in the novel. The subject of love and marriage also touched the author personally. In 1806 Goethe married his longtime partner and mother of his son, Christiane Vulpius . That did not prevent him from developing a passionate affection for two very young women, Minna Herzlieb and Sylvie von Ziegesar , in the years that followed; in both cases he practiced renunciation. Even if the novel cannot be interpreted from these experiences, they still echo in it, and features of the beloved women can be found in the figure of Ottilie. In a conversation with Eckermann, Goethe himself pointed out the biographical reference by saying that “it contained no line that was not experienced, but no line as it was experienced”.

One year after the publication of the elective affinities , Goethe designed the topic of marriage, love and renunciation again in a more crude way in the poem Das Tagebuch .

Stylistic classification

The novel marks the transition to Goethe's old work. It cannot be clearly assigned to any literary epoch. Individual motifs, above all the relentlessness with which fate leads the protagonists into the tragedy, represent a recourse to Greek tragedy and thus to the Weimar Classic . On the other hand, there are the mystical elements that surround Ottilie (her handwriting is the same the Eduards on (1.12), walking over a coal deposit causes her headache (2.11), several people are involuntarily attracted to her), a characteristic of romanticism that Goethe actually disliked. The same applies to Catholicism , which became more and more thematic towards the end of the novel, right up to the closing words: "[...] and what a friendly moment it will be when they one day wake up together again." Romanticism, but partly also interpreted as criticism and parody of romantic literature.


The title of the novel refers to Goethe's preoccupation with the natural sciences, which are discussed several times in the text itself. The term 'elective affinities' is borrowed from the chemistry of the time. It describes a process that can occur when two chemical compounds meet. If the affinity is sufficiently strong , the components of these connections separate from one another in order to reunite with a partner that has become free of the other connection. In the fourth chapter of the first part, Eduard, Charlotte and the captain discuss this matter and jokingly transfer it to their own situation. In doing so, they refer to the fact that the title is also to be understood in a figurative sense: the novel examines the extent to which its four main characters act on the basis of the necessities of natural law or from free will decisions. The connection between chemistry and human behavior, which seems somewhat violent from today's point of view, is explained on the one hand by the state of science at the time, which did not yet clearly distinguish between chemistry and alchemy , on the other hand by Goethe's personal worldview. He was convinced that all appearances of living nature were connected with one another.


(Numbers in brackets indicate the relevant chapter)

According to Goethe's statement, the novel was the only major work that he had worked “after presenting a thoroughgoing idea”. Accordingly, the elective affinities show a high degree of design density and formal construction. Thomas Mann praised it as "a miracle of the success and purity of the composition, of the richness of relationships, connectedness, unity."

Symbols, references, parallel history

The novel is pervaded by a network of symbols and references. As examples from the abundance of symbols are the plane trees by the lake, since ancient times a symbol of the oneness of life and death, which have accompanied the event: Eduard planted them on the day Ottilie's birth, Charlotte and the captain confess their love among the plane trees (I, 12), here Eduard and Ottilie look together at the "rushing, flashing emergence and disappearance" of the fireworks (in turn a symbol of Eduard's passion) (I, 15), opposite the plane trees, Ottilie lets the child fall into the lake (II, 14). The suitcase that Eduard puts in her room is used in various ways as a symbol of the fulfillment and denial of sexual love. Their names symbolize the solidarity of the characters. Because not only the captain, Eduard is actually called Otto (I, 3), the syllable "ott" is contained in both "Charlotte" and "Ottilie", and consequently the child is also named Otto after its four parents - on the other hand, most of the other people remain nameless and are referred to by their professions or titles (the assistant, the count, the baroness, the architect, the clergyman, in the case of mediator name and profession coincide).

In numerous places the novel refers in coded form to later events. So Ottilie's starvation is already prepared in the third chapter of the first part, when reference is made to “her great temperance in eating and drinking”. This note is repeated again later (I, 6); in Chapter II, 16 she refuses breakfast. The central chapter I, 4 is full of references. In the conversation, Eduard, Charlotte and the captain here anticipate the later development without even knowing it. So the decision is made to purchase “equipment to rescue the drowned people” because “in the vicinity of many ponds, bodies of water and waterworks, one and the other accident of this kind often occurred.” Charlotte also wants “everything harmful, everything deadly” from the household remove, because "the lead glaze of the pottery, the verdigris of copper vessels had already worried her." Then the discussants transfer the chemical elective affinities to themselves and have no idea how close they are to future reality. "[...] the relationships only become interesting when they result in divorces," says Eduard, whereupon Charlotte complains about the "sad word" that, unfortunately, one hears so often in the world now. "" Opportunity creates relationships, "says she and continues: "[...] once they [the chemical substances] are together, then God help them!" Finally, the conversation leads to the decision to invite Ottilie. This turns Charlotte's original caring intention into its opposite, as Ottilie's arrival paves the way for tragedy. References of this kind are only accessible to those readers who are already familiar with the later development. That is why Goethe recommended reading the novel several times, because it contained more "than anyone would be able to take in after reading it once".

As a parallel story, the novel The wonderful neighborhood children is inserted into the novel (II, 10). It offers a solution to the elective affinities problem, the fairytale-like nature of which indicates that a solution to the conflict is not possible in reality.

The narrator

The novel is presented by an omniscient narrator , who reproduces and comments on the events as well as the feelings and thoughts of the people. To do this, he uses "language of extreme precision and clarity that seems to be secured by a sovereign overview and knowledge of the world." He reports the story of the novel from a distance that leaves him unaffected by the tragic entanglements and suffering of the people; he notes his observations objectively and soberly like a scientist intent on knowledge.

The very first sentence of the novel: "Eduard - that's what we call a rich baron in prime manhood [...]" makes it clear that the person Eduard is pure invention. The narrator does not pretend to convey a real event. Rather, the novel presents itself as a protocol of a mental experiment, the people in it turn out to be "[...] symbols, evenly arranged and confused chess pieces of a high level of thought."

time and room

Exact times are almost completely avoided in the novel. Only the first sentence informs the reader that the action will start in April. Only from the changes in nature and the recurring festivals can we see that the plot extends over a year and a half until the autumn of the following year. External events that would allow a chronological classification are only mentioned once: there is a war. However, it remains unsaid in which of the coalition wars (since the events are obviously contemporary) Eduard draws. The characters in the novel remain unaffected by current events, they live in their own time cosmos. This goes so far that after a few weeks of his stay the captain “[…] forgot to wind up his chronometric seconds clock, for the first time in many years; and wherever they did not seem to sense that they were beginning to become indifferent to time. "(I, 7)

The place of action is just as indeterminate as time; nowhere is there any indication of the location of the estate. As in time, people also live in spatial isolation. The action is almost entirely limited to the narrow area of ​​the castle, estate and village. The captain and Eduard leave this area temporarily, but are ignored by the narrator for the duration of their absence. Only once, at Ottilie's departure for the pension (II, 16), does the narrator step out of the small world of the novel.

The lack of reference to reality "creates an artificial world that can exist detached from time and space."

background knowledge

The term elective affinity shows up in the relationship between Eduard and Charlotte, who love each other and live together. But as soon as Ottilie and Otto come to visit, each of them thinks that Ottilie / Otto is a better fit for him / her. In Eduard this is shown very clearly; he tries to win Ottilie for himself and regard her as his property. There is only "one nature", writes Goethe, since "even through the realm of serene rational freedom the traces of dreary, passionate necessities run through inexorably, which can only be erased completely by a higher hand, and perhaps not in this life either".

The novel met with little understanding from Goethe's contemporaries.

Eduard is convinced of the idea of elective affinities and believes that it can be transferred to interpersonal relationships. The fact that this does not succeed in the end shows the social pressures that prevailed at that time. The model for the park could have been the Hermitage in Arlesheim. Plans for the English garden, which was laid out in 1785, were circulated among scholars. However, Goethe himself did not pass Arlesheim on any of his trips to Switzerland. It is generally known, however, that Goethe knew the so-called "Garden Realm", the Principality of Anhalt-Dessau, very well through multiple trips, which shows multiple references to the characteristics of the romantic landscape park cited in the elective affinities. This becomes clearest in the reorganization of the burial place by Charlotte, described by Goethe. The Dessau cemetery, which was newly laid out towards the end of the 18th century, apparently served as a direct model for this. The architect is Daniel Engelhard , a friend of the classicist architects.

Apart from the narrator and direct speech, the reader learns a lot from Ottilien's diary . The initially seemingly loose stringing of thoughts does not lack a superordinate connection: Just as a thread of inclination is woven into the ropes of the British Navy, “which one cannot wind out without dissolving everything”, “just as a thread of inclination runs through Ottilien's diary and attachment that connects everything and denotes the whole. As a result, these remarks, considerations, excerpted aphorisms and whatever else may occur, become particularly peculiar to the writer and are of importance to them. ”(II; Chapter 2). The narrator points out to the reader, as it were, that some of the aphorisms could hardly have come from Ottilie himself: “At this time, events are less often noted in Ottilien's diary, but more often maxims and sentences related to life and withdrawn from life. But because most of them cannot have arisen through their own reflection; so it is likely that she will be given some (sic!) booklet, from which she wrote out what she was comfortable with. ”(II, chapter 4)

“Communicating is nature; To take in what is communicated as it is given is education. " (Part 2, Chapter 4)
"No one is more a slave than he who considers himself free without being one." (Part 2, Chapter 5)
“The individual remains free to deal with what attracts him, what gives him pleasure, what seems useful to him; but the actual study of mankind is man. " (Part 2, Chapter 7)

Goethe partially anticipates the plot through Ottilien's mouth. That she has to die in the end results from the inner necessity of the novel. The experiment fails because society does not allow the freedom of attachment that is necessary for chemical elective affinities.



Secondary literature

  • Gabriele Brandstetter (Ed.): Telling and knowing. Paradigms and aporias of their staging in Goethe's “Elective Affinities”. Freiburg im Breisgau 2003, ISBN 3-7930-9336-0 .
  • Birgit Jooss : Living Pictures. Physical imitations of works of art in Goethe's time, Berlin 1999, ISBN 978-3-496-01197-2
  • Hermann August Korff : Order and Passion: Elective Affinities. In: Geist der Goethezeit. II. Part Classic, 8th unchanged edition, Leipzig 1966, pp. 353–369.
  • Ursula Ritzenhoff: Johann Wolfgang Goethe: The elective affinities. Explanations and documents, 2nd edition. Reclam, Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 3-15-016048-0 .
  • Rüdiger Bernhardt : Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: The elective affinities. König's explanations and materials , 298. C. Bange, Hollfeld 2008, ISBN 978-3-8044-1786-1 .
  • Gero von Wilpert : Goethe-Lexikon (= Kröner's pocket edition . Volume 407). Kröner, Stuttgart 1998, ISBN 3-520-40701-9 .
  • Jeremy Adler : "An almost magical attraction". Goethe's 'Elective Affinities' and the Chemistry of his Time. Munich 1987. ISBN 3-406-31559-3 .
  • Elisabeth Herrmann: The problem of death in Goethe's novel "The Elective Affinities". Erich Schmidt, Berlin 1998, ISBN 3-503-03785-3 .
  • Michael Niedermeier: The end of the idyll. Symbolism, reference to time, “Garden Revolution” in Goethe's novel “Die Wahlverwandschaften”. Peter Lang, Bern (inter alia) 1992, ISBN 978-3-86032-003-7 .
  • Susanne Konrad: Goethe's “Elective Affinities” and the dilemma of logocentrism. Carl Winter, Heidelberg 1995, ISBN 3-8253-0335-7 .
  • Theo Elm: Johann Wolfgang Goethe: The elective affinities. Diesterweg, Frankfurt 1991. ISBN 3-425-06034-1 .
  • Karl Otto Conrady : Goethe - Life and Work, Volume 2: Sum of Life. Athenaeum, Königstein im Taunus 1985. ISBN 3-7610-8259-2 .
  • Detlef Rasmussen: Georg Forster's Mainz Circle and Goethe's “Elective Affinities”. Love, marriage and refusal to divorce as subjects of representational poetry. In: Goethe and Forster. Studies on representational poetry. Edited by Detlef Rasmussen. Bonn: Bouvier 1985 (Collection Profile. 20), pp. 80–149. ISBN 3-416-01830-3 .
  • Thomas Mann : To Goethe's elective affinities. In Goethe's career as a writer. Fischer TB, Frankfurt 1982. ISBN 3-596-25715-8 .
  • Walter Benjamin : Goethe's elective affinities. In: Rolf Tiedemann , Hermann Schweppenhäuser (Ed.): Walter Benjamin. Collected Writings. Vol. I, 1. Frankfurt 1974, pp. 125-201.
  • Manfred Engel : "Woe to those who see symbols"? Symbolism and interpretation of symbols in Goethe's “Wahlverwandschaften”. In: Wezel yearbook. European Enlightenment Studies 2009–2010. Edited by Johann Karl Wezel Society, Rainer Godel, Jg. 12/13, Wehrhahn, Hannover 2011, ISSN  1438-4035 , ISBN 978-3-86525-228-9 , pp. 293-314.
  • Jens Soentgen : chemistry and love. A parable. In: Chemistry in our time , 30th year 1996, 6 ISSN  0009-2851 , pp. 295-299.
  • Uwe Diederichsen : Goethe's elective affinities - also a legal novel? In: Jochen Golz, Bernd Leistner , Edith Zehm (eds.): Goethe Yearbook. Volume 118 (2001), pp. 142-157.
  • Uwe Diederichsen: The "Elective Affinities" as the work of the lawyer Goethe. (Reproduction of a lecture from June 3, 2003). In: NJW 2004 , pp. 537-544.
  • Albert Meier: Correspondances. Poetic immanence in Johann Wolfgang Goethe's novel "The Elective Affinities". In: Raymond Heitz / Christine Maillard (eds.): New insights into Goethe's narrative / Nouveaux regards sur l'œuvre narrative de Goethe. Genesis and development of a literary and cultural identity / Genèse et évolution d'une identité littéraire et culturelle. In honor of / En honneur de Gonthier-Louis Fink. Heidelberg 2010, pp. 121–129.
  • Imelda Rohrbacher: Poetics of Time. On the historical present in Goethe's “Die Wahlverwandschaften”. V & R Uni-press, Göttingen 2016 (= Schriften der Wiener Germanistik, Vol. 5).
  • Hannah Dingeldein u. a. (Ed.): Threshold prose: (Re) readings on Goethe's elective affinities . Wilhelm Fink, Paderborn 2018, ISBN 978-3-8467-6237-0 .

Film adaptations

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Poetry and Truth , quoted from: Paul Stöcklein, epilogue to Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Die Wahlverwandationen , dtv, Munich 1963.
  2. ^ Gero von Wilpert: Goethe-Lexikon , keyword Die Wahlverwandationen .
  3. ^ Theo Elm : Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Die Wahlverwandationen , p. 8.
  4. Rüdiger Bernhard: Explanations on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - the elective affinities , p. 24.
  5. Quoted from: Rüdiger Bernhard: Explanations on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - die Wahlverwandschaften , p. 23.
  6. Karl Otto Conrady : Goethe - Leben und Werk, Second Volume: Sum of Life , p. 360.
  7. ^ Reproduction of the poem on Wikisource
  8. Elisabeth Herrmann: The problem of death in Goethe's novel “Die Wahlverwandationen” , p. 12.
  9. ^ Karl Otto Conrady: Goethe - Leben und Werk, Second Volume: Sum of Life , p. 346.
  10. ^ Theo Elm: Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Die Wahlverwandationen , pp. 11-16.
  11. On Eckermann, quoted from: Rüdiger Bernhard, Explanations on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - die Wahlverwandschaften , p. 49.
  12. Thomas Mann: To Goethe's Elective Affinities . In: Thomas Mann: Goethe's career as a writer , p. 170.
  13. ^ Theo Elm: Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Die Wahlverwandationen , p. 22.
  14. ^ Theo Elm: Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Die Wahlverwandationen , p. 31.
  15. ^ Theo Elm: Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Die Wahlverwandationen , P. 36–39.
  16. ^ Conversation with Eckermann, February 9, 1829, quoted from: Theo Elm: Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Die Wahlverwandationen , p. 36.
  17. Theo Elm: Johann Wolfgang Goethe: The Elective Affinities , p. 30.
  18. ^ Karl Otto Conrady: Goethe - Leben und Werk, Second Volume: Sum of Life , p. 345.
  19. ^ Theo Elm: Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Die Wahlverwandationen , pp. 43–44.
  20. Thomas Mann: To Goethe's Elective Affinities . In: Thomas Mann: Goethe's career as a writer , p. 174.
  21. ^ Judith Reusch: Temporal structures in Goethe's Wahlverwandschaften (dissertation), Verlag Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2004, p. 40.
  22. Identical editions by Bernhardt since 2003 to 2009. After that only as Amazon Kindle or online version in pdf format.
  23. Benjamin's essay also in all Insel editions of the "Wahlverwandationen" from 1972 to 1998, together with an introduction by Hans-Joachim Weitz: ISBN 3-458-33985-X , ISBN 3-458-31701-5 , ISBN 3-458 -33825-X , ISBN 3-458-33339-8 , ISBN 3-458-14779-9 , ISBN 3-458-14780-2 , ISBN 3-458-01701-1 .