Review: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Elective Affinities”

by Miles Raymer

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A proper analysis of this book can only be executed by readers with a thorough knowledge of early 19th-century literary tropes and gender roles. I am no such reader. To me, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Elective Affinities felt like a soap opera from a parallel universe (i.e. Europe’s romantic period). While containing some terrific turns of phrase and a few ruminations about human nature that still ring true, Elective Affinities is first and foremost a paragon of anachronism. The motivations and actions of the characters are inexplicable in modern terms, and the narrative arc follows a queerly Shakespearan route, mirroring the Bard’s romantic comedies in the first part and his tragedies in the second.

This book is about four aristocratic lovers: Eduard and Charlotte, a married couple, and Ottilie and the Captain, the unfortunate objects of their extramarital affections. Eduard and Charlotte’s pampered life is upset when Ottilie and the Captain both undertake extended stays at their estate. As Eduard falls for the demure and naive Ottilie, Charlotte’s respect for the Captain’s emotional maturity (a quality she also possesses) draws her away from her husband. In Goethe’s words, these characters have “natures which, when they meet, quickly lay hold on and mutually affect one another” (52). The four companions debate whether human relationships result from some predetermined sequence of events (i.e. chemistry), or because affinities can be “elective”: “One relationship was preferred to another and chosen instead of it” (54).

This is an interesting and persistent philosophical question, but one that fails to imbue this particular narrative with much lasting value. This is because Goethe’s characters are either boring or profoundly unlikable. They spend all their time bickering about 19th-century first world problems, such as Eduard’s discomfort when someone reads over his shoulder, outdated theories of gender essentialism, and strategies for the optimal placing of a new path in the already-opulent grounds surrounding the mansion. Eduard is the worst by a long shot, proving himself an insufferable pissant whose only “virtue” is the luck of his wealthy parentage.

Elective Affinities captures European consciousness prior to the advent of Marxist thought. Goethe’s protagonists blithely ignore the struggles and inner lives of the servants and peasants who surround them, treating them like meatbags whose only decent purpose is to facilitate dinner parties and dig garden beds. From two centuries’ distance, it is almost comic to observe Goethe’s utter lack of perspective regarding the bourgeoisie’s inability to extend humanist principles to members of the proletariat. At one point, a lovesick Eduard encounters a beggar and proclaims, “You are to be envied…You still enjoy your alms of yesterday, but my happiness of yesterday is gone!” (134).

In trying to untangle this knot of misplaced affections, Goethe goes for the┬ákill in the novel’s final act. He does his best to wring some genuine tragedy out of this overblown and haughty story, but fails in almost every regard–except one. This book is a success insofar as it shows how the people in Goethe’s world were utterly constrained by the ridiculous social expectations of aristocratic life. Lives are ruined and lost because of natural developments that, while causing appropriate emotional stress, should never result in the maudlin outcomes depicted here. Elective Affinities helps us realize that, despite its many sins, the modern world is better than what came before.

Rating: 4/10