Elective Affinities, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften), Goethe’s 1809 novel, is the story of Eduard and Charlotte, a middle-aged couple who have recently married, finding themselves, each widowed, unexpectedly able to fulfill their youthful dream of romance together. Not long after getting together, finding it simply irresistible to do so, they introduce new, volatile elements into their nuptial household: specifically, the Captain and Ottilie.

The Captain, Christian name Otto, is a friend of Eduard’s a bit down on his luck. Ottilie is Charlotte’s ward, a sweet young woman who might do well at her boarding school if only Charlotte’s daughter Luciane weren’t such a shining, sneering star. The Captain arrives first, and one evening as the three read aloud together he discusses with his married friends some principles of chemistry.

So the Captain began: ‘The first thing we notice about all the substances we encounter is Nature is that each is always drawn to itself….’

‘Let me run ahead,’ said Charlotte, ‘and see if I can guess what you are aiming at. Just as everything has an attraction to itself so too there must be a relationship with other things.’

‘And that will vary according to the different natures of the things concerned,’ said Eduard in haste. ‘Sometimes they will meet as friends and old acquaintances and come together quickly and be united without either altering the other at all, as wine for example mixes with water. But others will remain strangers side by side and will never unite even if mechanically ground and mixed. Thus oil and water shaken together will immediately separate again.’

Other elements have elective affinities for each other—the Captain gives the example of limestone being dissolved by sulphuric acid, because calcium has a greater affinity for sulphur than it does for oxygen. “‘A separation and a new combination have come about and one even feels justified in using the term “elective affinity”, because it really does seem as though one relationship were preferred to another and a choice made for one over the other,'” the Captain explains.

This direct discussion of chemistry is clearly important to the novel, and remarkable for a few reasons. First, its very explicitness is surprising, or at least jarring. It also makes it clear (or at least, even more clear than it already was) that there will be some separations and some new combinations coming up in the novel; the arrival of the Captain and Ottilie will disrupt the household, it only remains to be seen how.

And on close reading, the passage also reveals a funny flip in the scientism of elective affinities among people. The chemical bonds that are treated as a potential metaphor for human relations—thus implying that humans combine and separate “mechanically,” not through free will—are themselves anthropomorphized. The affinities are, after all, “elective,” and in the Captain’s explanation, that word is particularly apt because the chemicals are “preferr[ing]” one pairing over another. The novel may—may—be trying to take away the wills and preferences of its players, tossing them into a crucible together to see what comes out. Or it may just be that there is no difference at all between such elections and preferences and fate itself.

I read David Constantine’s translation of Elective Affinities as part of the bibliographing Reading Challenge, chosen by Anthony. Don’t miss yesterday’s sonnet on the novel, and I’ll be posting more throughout the week. It was fun, ridiculous, and continued to change my perspective on Goethe, so thank you, Anthony!

3 comments to Elective Affinities, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  • I hope to read this as part of German Literature Month (then again, I may not – so many books…). Did you actually like it? ;)

  • Oh absolutely. Very funny, and surprisingly readable. I’d certainly had enough of Eduard by the end, and it’s not the sort of thing to everyone’s taste, but I would definitely recommend. My favorite Goethe so far, no question.

  • At first I thought the chemical theory aspect obvious and lacking in subtlety, but as the combinations developed and new elements introduced (Ottilie’s gardens, the chapel, the baby) it became almost a detective story trying to unpick Goethe’s intent. What ‘elective affinity’ resulted in a baby that looked like the Captain but had Ottilie’s eyes?

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