Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XII. - Goethe's Works, vol. 5 (W. Meister's Travels; Elective Affinities)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
CHAPTER XII. - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethe’s Works, vol. 5 (W. Meister’s Travels; Elective Affinities) 
Goethe’s Works, illustrated by the best German artists, 5 vols. (Philadelphia: G. Barrie, 1885). Vol. 5: W. Meister’s Travels; Elective Affinities.
Part of: Goethe’s Works, 5 vols.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The object of the campaign was attained, and Edward, with crosses and decorations, was honorably dismissed. He betook himself at once to the same little estate, where he found exact accounts of his family waiting for him, on whom all this time, without their having observed it or known of it, a sharp watch had been kept under his orders. His quiet residence looked most sweet and pleasant when he reached it. In accordance with his orders, various improvements had been made in his absence, and what was wanting to the establishment in extent, was compensated by its internal comforts and conveniences. Edward, accustomed by his more active habits of life, to take decided steps, determined to execute a project which he long had sufficient time to think over. First of all, he invited the major to come to him. This pleasure in meeting again was very great to both of them. The friendships of boyhood, like relationship of blood, possess this important advantage, that mistakes and misunderstandings never produce irreparable injury; and the old regard after a time will always re-establish itself.
Edward began with inquiring about the situation of his friend, and learned that fortune had favored him exactly as he most could have wished. He then half-seriously asked whether there was not something going forward about a marriage; to which he received a most decided and positive denial.
“I cannot and will not have any reserve with you,” he proceeded. “I will tell you at once what my own feelings are, and what I intend to do. You know my passion for Ottilie; you must long have comprehended that it was this which drove me into the campaign. I do not deny that I desired to be rid of a life which, without her, would be of no further value to me. At the same time, however, I acknowledge that I could never bring myself utterly to despair. The prospect of happiness with her was so beautiful, so infinitely charming, that it was not possible for me entirely to renounce it. Feelings, too, which I cannot explain, and a number of happy omens, have combined to strengthen me in the belief, in the assurance, that Ottilie will one day be mine. The glass with our initials cut upon it, which was thrown into the air when the foundation-stone was laid, did not go to pieces; it was caught, and I have it again in my possession. After many miserable hours of uncertainty, spent in this place, I said to myself, ‘I will put myself in the place of this glass, and it shall be an omen whether our union be possible or not. I will go; I will seek for death; not like a madman, but like a man who still hopes that he may live. Ottilie shall be the prize for which I fight. Ottilie shall be behind the ranks of the enemy; in every intrenchment, in every beleaguered fortress, I shall hope to find her, and to win her. I will do wonders, with the wish to survive them; with the hope to gain Ottilie, not to lose her.’ These feelings have led me on; they have stood by me through all dangers; and now I find myself like one who has arrived at his goal, who has overcome every difficulty and who has nothing more left in his way. Ottilie is mine, and whatever lies between the thought and the execution of it, I can only regard as unimportant.”
“With a few strokes you blot out,” replied the major, “all the objections that we can or ought to urge upon you, and yet they must be repeated. I must leave it to yourself to recall the full value of your relation with your wife; but you owe it to her, and you owe it to yourself, not to close your eyes to it. How can I so much as recollect that you have had a son given to you, without acknowledging at once that you two belong to one another forever; that you are bound, for this little creature’s sake, to live united, that united you may educate it, and provide for its future welfare?”
“It is no more than the blindness of parents,” answered Edward, “when they imagine their existence to be of so much importance to their children. Whatever lives, finds nourishment and finds assistance; and if the son who has early lost his father does not spend so easy, so favored a youth, he profits, perhaps, for that very reason, in being trained sooner for the world, and comes to a timely knowledge that he must accommodate himself to others, a thing which sooner or later we are all forced to learn. Here, however, even these considerations are irrelevant; we are sufficiently well off to be able to provide for more children than one, and it is neither right nor kind to accumulate so large a property on a single head.”
The major attempted to say something of Charlotte’s worth, and Edward’s long-standing attachment to her; but the latter hastily interrupted him. “We committed ourselves to a foolish thing, that I see all too clearly. Whoever, in middle age, attempts to realize the wishes and hopes of his early youth, invariably deceives himself. Each ten years of a man’s life has its own fortunes, its own hopes, its own desires. Woe to him who, either by circumstances or by his own infatuation, is induced to grasp at anything before him or behind him. We have done a foolish thing. Are we to abide by it all our lives? Are we, from some respect of prudence, to refuse to ourselves what the customs of the age do not forbid? In how many matters do men recall their intentions and their actions; and shall it not be allowed to them here, here, where the question is not of this thing or of that, but of everything; not of our single condition of life, but of the whole complex life itself?”
Again the major powerfully and impressively urged on Edward to consider what he owed to his wife, what was due to his family, to the world, and to his own position; but he could not succeed in producing the slightest impression.
“All these questions, my friend,” he returned, “I have considered already again and again. They have passed before me in the storm of battle, when the earth was shaking with the thunder of the cannon, with the balls singing and whistling round me, with my comrades falling right and left, my horse shot under me, my hat pierced with bullets. They have floated before me by the still watch-fire under the starry vault of the sky. I have thought them all through, felt them all through. I have weighed them, and I have satisfied myself about them again and again, and now forever. At such moments why should I not acknowledge it to you? you too were in my thoughts, you too belonged to my circle; as, indeed, you and I have long belonged to one another. If I have ever been in your debt I am now in a position to repay it with interest; if you have been in mine you have now the means to make it good to me. I know that you love Charlotte, and she deserves it. I know that you are not indifferent to her, and why should she not feel your worth? Take her at my hand and give Ottilie to me, and we shall be the happiest beings upon the earth.”
“If you choose to assign me so high a character,” replied the major, “it is the more reason for me to be firm and prudent. Whatever there may be in this proposal to make it attractive to me, instead of simplifying the problem, it only increases the difficulty of it. The question is now of me as well as of you. The fortunes, the good name, the honor of two men, hitherto unsullied with a breath, will be exposed to hazard by so strange a proceeding, to call it by no harsher name, and we shall appear before the world in a highly questionable light.”
“Our very characters being what they are,” replied Edward, “give us a right to take this single liberty. A man who has borne himself honorably through a whole life, makes an action honorable which might appear ambiguous in others. As concerns myself, after these last trials which I have taken upon myself, after the difficult and dangerous actions which I have accomplished for others, I feel entitled now to do something for myself. For you and Charlotte, that part of the business may, if you like it, be given up; but neither you nor any one shall keep me from doing what I have determined. If I may look for help and furtherance, I shall be ready to do everything which can be wished; but if I am to be left to myself, or if obstacles are to be thrown in my way, some extremity or other is sure to follow.”
The major thought it his duty to combat Edward’s purposes as long as it was possible; and now he changed the mode of his attack and tried a diversion. He seemed to give way, and only spoke of the form of what they would have to do to bring about this separation, and these new unions; and so mentioned a number of ugly, undesirable matters, which threw Edward into the worst of tempers.
“I see plainly,” he cried at last, “that what we desire can only be carried by storm, whether it be from our enemies or from our friends. I keep clearly before my own eyes what I demand, what, one way or another, I must have; and I will seize it promptly and surely. Connections like ours, I know very well, cannot be broken up and reconstructed again without much being thrown down which is standing, and much having to give way which would be glad enough to continue. We shall come to no conclusion by thinking about it. All rights are alike to the understanding, and it is always easy to throw extra weight into the ascending scale. Do you make up your mind, my friend, to act, and act promptly, for me and for yourself. Disentangle and untie the knots, and tie them up again. Do not be deterred from it by nice respects. We have already given the world something to say about us. It will talk about us once more; and when we have ceased to be a nine days’ wonder, it will forget us as it forgets everything else, and allow us to follow our own way without further concern with us.” The major had nothing further to say, and was at last obliged to sit silent; while Edward treated the affair as now conclusively settled, talked through in detail all that had to be done, and pictured the future in every most cheerful color, and then he went on again seriously and thoughtfully: “If we think to leave ourselves to the hope, to the expectation, that all will go right again of itself, that accident will lead us straight, and take care of us, it will be a most culpable self-deception. In such a way it would be impossible for us to save ourselves, or re-establish our peace again. I who have been the innocent cause of it all, how am I ever to console myself? By my own importunity I prevailed on Charlotte to write to you to stay with us, and Ottilie followed in consequence. We have had no more control over what ensued out of this, but we have the power to make it innocuous; to guide the new circumstances to our own happiness. Can you turn away your eyes from the fair and beautiful prospects which I open to us? Can you insist to me, can you insist to us all, on a wretched renunciation of them? Do you think it possible? Is it possible? Will there be no vexations, no bitterness, no inconvenience to overcome, if we resolve to fall back into our old state? and will any good, any happiness whatever, arise out of it? Will your own rank, will the high position which you have earned, be any pleasure to you, if you are to be prevented from visiting me, or from living with me? And after what has passed, it would not be anything but painful. Charlotte and I, with all our property, would only find ourselves in a melancholy state. And if, like other men of the world, you can persuade yourself that years and separation will eradicate our feelings, will obliterate impressions so deeply engraved; why, then the question is of these very years, which it would be better to spend in happiness and comfort than in pain and misery. But the last and most important point of all which I have to urge is this: supposing that we, our outward and inward condition being what it is, could nevertheless make up our minds to wait at all hazards, and bear what is laid upon us, what is to become of Ottilie? She must leave our family; she must go into society where we shall not be to care for her, and she will be driven wretchedly to and fro in a hard, cold world. Describe to me any situation in which Ottilie, without me, without us, could be happy, and you will then have employed an argument which will be stronger than every other; and if I will not promise to yield to it, if I will not undertake at once to give up all my own hopes, I will at least reconsider the question, and see how what you have said will affect it.”
This problem was not so easy to solve; at least, no satisfactory answer to it suggested itself to his friend, and nothing was left to him except to insist again and again, how grave and serious, and in many senses how dangerous, the whole undertaking was; and at least that they ought maturely to consider how they had better enter upon it. Edward agreed to this, and consented to wait before he took any steps; but only under the condition that his friend should not leave him until they had come to a perfect understanding about it, and until the first measures had been taken.