Elective Affinities opens with a discussion between Eduard and Charlotte about whether they will invite his friend, and then her ward, to stay with them. And a strange discussion it is.
More “Goethe weirdness”? Similar to the mason, I don’t know how much to take the way characters address each other in this novel as a joke. As Anthony noted on Twitter, the narrator is hilariously ironic. I second-guess myself on irony way too much. Because this is definitely a joke—a large one, I mean, one the size of the novel pretty much. More on that later, but first, a sample. Eduard has just completed his argument for why they should let the Captain come and stay:
‘Enough: I am grateful to you for listening so sympathetically. Now it is your turn to be just as frank and circumstantial. Say whatever you have to say. I promise not to interrupt.’
‘Very well then,’ Charlotte replied, ‘and I will begin by making a general observation. Men attend more to particular things and to the present, and rightly, since they are called upon to act and to influence events. Women, on the other hand, with an equal rightness attend more to the things that hang together in life, since a woman’s fate and the fate of her family depend on such things hanging together and it is up to her to see to it that they do. Accordingly, let us look for a moment at our present and our past lives, and you will have to admit that inviting the Captain here does not wholly fit in with our intentions, our arrangements, and our plans.’
Oh, what lovebirds they are! Charlotte proceeds to rationally and linearly lay out their history and the decision they had taken to now be together, alone. “‘All that was done with your consent,'” she says, “‘solely in order that we should live for ourselves and enjoy undisturbed the happiness we had longed for early on and had now at last achieved.'” Nineteenth-century German newlyweds were so dreamy.
(As best I can tell, this absurdly dry rationality is in the original German. I’m not competent enough to guarantee it, nuance-wise, but I read it pretty much the same. For example, Eduard’s bit quoted above: “Nun danke ich dir, daß du mich freundlich angehört hast; jetzt sprich aber auch recht frei und umständlich und sage mir alles, was du zu sagen hast; ich will dich nicht unterbrechen.”)
So what’s the point of all this? Well, if you can explain the back-and-forth of human relations as simply as a chemical reaction, why shouldn’t you be able to argue with your husband as clearly and reasonably as laying out a mathematical proof? And why shouldn’t you be able to lay out the grounds of your estate along completely rational lines, and keep the village peasants in good order through enlightened methods of improvement, and teach the village children to be cleanly and take care of each other and become good parents? You can order it all, if only you think about it well enough, consider it calmly enough, and plan cleverly enough.
All except that nasty fate, those things that hang together.