‘We were foolish,’ he said, ‘as I now see only too well.’

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.

4 comments to ‘We were foolish,’ he said, ‘as I now see only too well.’

  • Yes, absolutely – this is the height of enlightenment thinking, whereby a good life is available to all who control their passions, think things through, proceed carefully and cautiously… and in fact this leaves the protagonists ever more open to irrational emotions (even if they are couched in the quasi-explanation of chemical reactions). That German phrase you quoted, yes it’s dry and rational, but there’s also a quality of extreme politeness to it – politeness in the best sense: consideration, thoughtfulness, kindness, gentleness, diplomacy, tact. I don’t find it ironic as much as heartbreaking. Charlotte and Eduard did all they were capable of to manage relations between themselves, except of course listen to their emotions or accept the uncontrollable parts of the self (mostly associated with desire).

  • extreme politeness…consideration, thoughtfulness, kindness, gentleness, diplomacy, tact

    litlove, I wish I had your thoughtfulness and came up with this list of attributes myself last night when I wrote this post. The politeness was probably what struck me most forcefully but I couldn’t quite articulate that. So thank you!

    I can see the heartbreaking side of this, although the fact I have very little sympathy for Eduard, and sort of blame him for everything that happens, makes my actual feelings about the scene a little bit different. My heart breaks more for Charlotte. I bet someone less like Charlotte and more like Eduard might say the opposite!

    Wonderful comment though, thank you.

  • Just catching up on all your Elective Affinities posts and have to say, the novel does sound hilariously weird. I will have to take your word for the heartbreak, because what’s coming across is definitely the oddness. Which I find super appealing, so there you go.

    The stiltedness of the conversation between the husband and wife here—even apart from the dry or overly-polite quality, the depiction of conversation happening anti-naturalistically, in full paragraphs like revised essays kind of reminds me of reading Henry James characters relating to each other. Not because they actually speak similarly but because it seems just as far removed from the illusion of reality. In both I can only assume it’s beside the point that this isn’t how people actually speak.

  • The irony recalled later Jane Austen dialogue, but without the portrayal of likeable characters. Whereas Austen narrators satirise (mostly) with warmth, Goethe’s narrator is biased in favour of Charlotte (or that is how I read it), but only marginally. It is easy to find each character distasteful in his and her own way. I find in the structure of the narrative, the great artistry of this book. It is very cleverly done.