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Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre

by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes

(Leipzig, 1795)

This was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's second, assumed-to-be semi-autobiographical novel, after The Sorrows of Young Werther. It is considered a classic coming-of-age tale, or Bildungsroman,

Abridged: JH

Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship

I.-On the Road

The moment was now at hand to which poor Mariana had been looking forward as to the last of her life. Wilhelm Meister, the man she loved, was departing on a long journey in connection with his father's business; a disagreeable lover was threatening to come.

"I am miserable," she exclaimed, "miserable for life! I love him, and he loves me; yet I see that we must part, and know not how I shall survive it. Wilhelm is poor, and can do nothing for me-"

Darkness had scarcely come on when Wilhelm glided forth to her house; he carried with him a letter in which he entreated her to marry him forthwith, saying that he would abandon his father's business, and earn his living on the stage, to which he had always been strongly drawn. This he could do with certainty, as he was well acquainted with Serlo, manager of a theatre in a town at some distance.

His plan was to leave the letter with her, and return a little later for her answer. The vehemence of his emotion at first prevented him from noticing that she did not greet him with her wonted heartiness; she complained of a headache, and would not hear of his coming back later that evening. Suspecting nothing wrong, he ceased to urge her, but he felt that this was not the moment for delivering his letter. He retained it, therefore, and, in a tumult of insatiable love, as he tore himself away from her he snatched one of her neckerchiefs, and, after pressing it madly to his lips, crushed it into his pocket.

His whole being was in a ferment of excitement as he walked aimlessly about the streets. Midnight found him again in the neighbourhood of Mariana's house; consciousness of the fact brought him to himself. He went slowly away, set himself for home, and constantly turned round again; at last, with an effort, he constrained himself, and actually departed. At the corner of the street, looking back yet once more, he imagined that he saw Mariana's door open, and a dark figure issue from it. He was too distant to see clearly, and in a moment the appearance was lost in the night.

On his way, he had almost effaced the unexpected delusion from his mind by the most sufficient reasons. To soothe his heart, and put the last seal on his returning belief, ere he disrobed for the night, he took her kerchief from his pocket. The rustle of a letter which fell from it took the kerchief from his lips; he lifted it, and read a passionate letter from another man, railing at her for her coldness on the preceding night, making an appointment for that same night, and breathing a spirit of intimate familiarity.

* * * * *

A violent fever, with its train of consequences, besides the unwearied attentions of his family, were so many fresh occupations for his mind, and formed a kind of painful entertainment. On his recovery, he determined to abandon for ever his former leaning towards the stage, and to apply himself with greater diligence to business, and, to the great contentment of his father, no one was now more diligent in the counting-house. For a long time he continued to show exemplary attention to his duties, and was then thought sufficiently master of his business to be sent on a long expedition on behalf of the firm.

The first part of his business successfully accomplished, Wilhelm found himself at a little mountain town called Hochdorf. A troupe of actors had got stranded there, their exchequer empty, their properties seized as security for debts. Wilhelm recognised among them an old man whom he recollected as having seen on the stage with Mariana. After some hesitation, he hazarded a question concerning her. "Do not speak to me of that baggage!" cried the old man. "I am ashamed that I felt such a friendship for her. Yet, had you known the girl better, you would excuse me. I loved her as my own daughter; indeed, I had formed a resolution to take the creature into my own house, and save her from the hands of that old crone Barbara, her confidante; but my wife died, and so the project came to nothing. At the end of our stay in your native town, I noticed a visible sadness about her. I questioned her, but she evaded me. At last we set out on our journey. She travelled in the same coach with me, and I soon observed what she could not deny, that she was about to become a mother. In a short time the manager made the same discovery; he paid her off at once and left her behind at the village inn."

Wilhelm's old wounds were all torn open afresh by the old man's story; the thought that perhaps Mariana was not wholly unworthy of his love was again brought to life. Nay, even the bitter accusations brought against her could not lower her in his estimation; for he, as well as she, was guilty in all her aberrations. He saw her as a frail, ill-succoured mother, wandering helplessly about the world.

The old longing for the stage came back to him with redoubled force; he determined to give it vent, for a time at least, and to this end he advanced to Melina, the manager of the actors, a sum of money sufficient to redeem their properties, and accompanied the troupe until such time as it should be repaid.

A profitable engagement soon came their way. A wealthy count, who happened to pass through the town, required their services to entertain the prince, whom he was shortly expecting as a guest. For several weeks they stayed at his castle, and when, on the prince's departure, their engagement came to an end, they were all weightier in purse than they had been for many a long day. Melina was now in hopes to get established with his company in a thriving town at some distance. To get there it was necessary to take a considerable journey by unfrequented roads.

Accordingly, conveyances were hired, and a start was made. Towards evening, they began to pitch their camp in the midst of a beech wood; all were busily engaged about the task allotted to each-the women to prepare the evening meal, the men to attend to everything necessary for their comfort for the night. All at once, a shot went off; immediately another; the party flew asunder in terror. Next moment armed men were to be seen pressing forward to the spot where the coaches, packed with luggage, stood.

The men all rushed at the intruders. Wilhelm fired his pistol at one who was already on the top of the coach cutting the cords of the packages. The scoundrel fell, but several of his friends rushed to his aid; our hero fell, stunned by a shot-wound and by a sword-stroke that almost penetrated to his brain.

When he recovered his senses, it was to find himself deserted by all his companions except two of the girls. His head was lying in Phillina's lap, while Mignon, the child whom he had rescued from a brutal circus master who was ill-treating her, was vainly trying to staunch his wounds with her hair. For some time they continued in this position, no one returning to their aid. At last, they heard a troop of horses coming up the road; a young lady emerged on horseback, accompanied by some cavaliers. Wilhelm fixed his eye on the soft, calm, sympathising features of the stranger; he thought he had never seen aught nobler or more lovely. In a few moments one of the party stepped to the side of our hero. He held in his hand some surgeon's instruments and bandages, with which he hastily attended to his wounds. The lady asked several questions, and then, turning to the old gentleman, said, "Dear uncle, may I be generous at your expense?" taking off the coat that she was wearing as she spoke, and laying it softly above him. As he tried to open his mouth to stammer out some words of gratitude to the beautiful Amazon, the impression of her presence worked so strongly on his senses that all at once it seemed to him that her head was encircled with rays, and a glancing light seemed by degrees to spread itself all over her form. At this moment the surgeon gave him a sharper twinge; he lost consciousness; and on returning to himself the horsemen and coaches, the fair one and her attendants, had vanished like a dream.

II.-A Message from the Dead

Wilhelm's wounds were slow to heal, and it was long before he was able to move about freely again. When he fully recovered he went to his old friend, Serlo, and obtained a position in his company, both for himself, and also for many of his companions in misfortune.

With Serlo he remained for a considerable period, until an untoward event led to his leaving him. Aurelia, Serlo's sister, had long entertained an affection for a nobleman, whom she knew by the name of Lothario; though at one time much attached to her, his affection had cooled off, and for a long time now he had not had any communication with her. Heartbroken at this treatment, though still devotedly attached to him, she gradually pined away, and complete neglect of her health finally brought her to her death-bed. Before she died, however, she wrote a letter of farewell to him, which she entrusted to Wilhelm to deliver as soon after her death as possible.

Arrived at the castle where the baron lived, he found his lordship unable to give him any attention that day, as he was engaged to fight a duel, and was busy settling up his affairs in preparation. Wilhelm was requested to remain until a more convenient season. On the following morning, while the company were seated at breakfast, the baron was brought back in a carriage, seriously wounded.

As the surgeon came out from attending him, the band hanging from his pouch caught Wilhelm's eye; he fancied that he knew it. He was convinced that he beheld the very pouch of the surgeon who had dressed his wounds in the forest, and the hope, so long deferred, of again finding his lovely Amazon struck like a flame through his soul.

The abbé entered from Lothario's chamber, and said to Wilhelm, "The baron bids me ask you to remain here to share his hospitality, and, in the present circumstances, to contribute to his solacement."

From this hour our friend was treated in the house as if he belonged to it.

"We have a kindness to ask of you," said Jarno, the baron's confidential companion, to Wilhelm one morning. "The violent, unreasonable love and passionateness of the Lady Lydia only hinder the baron's recovery. She must be removed by some means. His wound requires rest and calmness; you see how she tortures him with her tempestuous anxieties, her ungovernable terrors, her never-drying tears. Enough! Our doctor expressly requires that she should quit us for a while; we have persuaded her to pay a visit to a lady, an old friend of hers; it will be your task to escort her, as you can best be spared."

"I willingly undertake the charge," said Wilhelm, "though it is easy to foresee the pain I shall have to suffer from the tears, the despair, of Lydia."

"And for this no small reward awaits you," said Jarno. "Fraulein Theresa, with whom you will get acquainted, is a lady such as you will rarely see. Indeed, were it not for an unfortunate passage between her mother and the baron, she would long since have been married to his lordship."

When they returned from their visit, Lothario was in the way of full recovery. He was now for the first time able to talk with Wilhelm about the sad cause that had brought him to the castle. "You may, however, well forgive me," he said, with a smile, "that I forsook Aurelia for Theresa; with the one I could expect a calm and cheerful life, with the other not a happy hour."

"I confess," said Wilhelm, "that in coming hither I had no small anger in my heart against you, that I proposed to censure with severity your conduct towards Aurelia. But, at the grave in which the hapless mother sleeps, let me ask you why you acknowledge not the child-a son in whom any father might rejoice and whom you appear entirely to overlook. With your tender nature, how can you altogether cast away the instinct of a parent?"

"Of whom do you speak?" said Lothario. "I do not understand you."

"Of whom but your son, Aurelia's son, the lovely child to whose good fortune there is nothing wanting but that a tender father should acknowledge and receive him."

"You mistake, my friend," said Lothario; "Aurelia never had a son. I know of no child, or I would gladly acknowledge it. But did she ever give you to believe that the boy was hers-was mine?"

"I cannot recollect that I ever heard a word from her expressly on the subject, but we took it so, and I never for a moment doubted it."

"I can give you a clue to this perplexity," interposed Jarno. "An old woman, whom Wilhelm must have noticed, gave Aurelia the child, telling her that it was yours. She accepted it eagerly, hoping to alleviate her sorrows by its presence; and, in truth, it gave her many a comfortable hour."

This discovery awoke anxieties in Wilhelm. He thought of the beautiful child Felix with the liveliest apprehension, and expressed his wish to remove him from the state in which he was.

"We can soon arrange that," said Lothario. "I think you ought yourself to take charge of him; what in us the women leave uncultivated, children cultivate when we retain them near us."

It was agreed to lose no time in putting this plan into execution, and Wilhelm departed forthwith to fetch the child.

Passing through the house, he found Aurelia's old serving-maid, whom he had never seen at close quarters before, employed in sewing. Felix and Mignon were sitting by her on the floor.

"Art thou the person," he demanded earnestly, "from whom Aurelia received this child?"

She looked up, and turned her face to him; he saw her in full light, and started back in terror. It was old Barbara!

"Where is Mariana?" cried he.

"Far from here."

"And Felix?"

"Is the son of that unhappy and too tender-hearted girl. Here are Mariana's last words," she added, handing him a letter.

"She is dead?" cried he.

"Dead," said the old woman.

A bitter grief took hold of Wilhelm; he could scarcely read the words that Barbara placed before him.

"If this should reach thee, then lament thine ill-starred friend. The boy, whose birth I survived but a few days, is thine. I die faithful to thee, much as appearances may be against me; with thee I lost everything that bound me to life. This will be my only comfort, that though I cannot call myself blameless, towards thee I am free from blame."

Wilhelm was stupified by this news. He removed the children from Barbara's care, and took them both back with him to Lothario's castle. Felix he kept with him, while Mignon, who was not in the best of health, was sent by the baron to the house of his sister, at some distance.

III.-Wilhelm's Apprenticeship

One evening Jarno said to Wilhelm, "We can now consider you as one of ourselves with such security that it were unjust not to introduce you deeper into our mysteries. You shall see what a curious little world is at your very hand, and how well you are known in it." He led our friend through certain unknown chambers and galleries of the castle to a door, strongly framed with iron. Jarno knocked; the door opened a little, so as to admit one person. Jarno introduced our friend, but did not follow him.

Within was complete darkness. A voice cried "Enter"; he pressed forward and found that only tapestry was hemming him in. Raising this, he entered. Within, he found a man, who said, in a tone of dignity, "To guard from error is not the instructor's duty, but to lead the erring pupil; nay, let him quaff his error in deep, satiating draughts; he who only tastes his error will long dwell with it; he who drains it to the dregs will, if he be not crazy, find it out."

A curtain closed before the figure, whom Wilhelm vaguely recollected as having seen at some time previously; possibly on the night when he had parted from Mariana. Then the curtain opened again; another figure advanced, "Learn to know the men who may be trusted," he said, and again the curtain closed. "Dispute not with us," cried a voice; "thou art saved, thou art on the way to the goal. None of thy follies wilt thou repent; none wilt thou wish to repeat."

The curtain opened; the abbé came into view. "Come hither," he cried to his marvelling friend. Wilhelm mounted the steps. On the table lay a little roll.

"Here is your indenture," said the abbé. "Take it to heart; it is of weighty import." Wilhelm opened it, and read:


"Art is long, life short, judgment difficult, opportunity transient. To act is easy, to think is hard, to act according to our thought is troublesome. It is but a part of art that can be taught; the artist needs it all. Who knows it half, speaks much, and is always wrong; who knows it all, speaks seldom, and is inclined to act. No one knows what he is doing while he acts aright; but of wrong-doing we are always conscious. The instruction which the true artist gives us opens the mind, for where words fail him, deeds speak. The true scholar learns from the known to unfold the unknown, and approaches more and more to being a master--"

"Enough," cried the abbé; "the rest in due time. Now look round you among these cases." With astonishment Wilhelm found, among others, "Lothario's Apprenticeship," "Jarno's Apprenticeship," and his own "Apprenticeship" placed there. "May I hope to look into these rolls?"

"In this chamber nothing is now hid from you."

Wilhelm heard a noise behind him, and saw a child's face peeping through the tapestry at the end of the room. It was Felix. His father rushed towards him, took him in his arms, and pressed him to his heart.

"Yes, I feel it," cried he. "Thou art mine. For what a gift of Heaven have I to thank my friends! How comest thou, my child, at this important moment?"

"Ask not," said the abbé. "Hail, young man! Thy apprenticeship is done; nature has pronounced thee free."

After sorrow, often and in vain repeated, for the loss of Mariana, Wilhelm felt that he must find a mother for the boy; and also, that he could not find one equal to Theresa. With this gifted lady he was now thoroughly acquainted. Such a spouse and helpmate seemed the only one to trust to in such circumstances. Her affection for Lothario did not make him hesitate; she looked on herself as free; she had even spoken of marrying, with indifference, indeed, but as a matter understood.

Before Theresa's answer came to hand, Lothario sent for our friend. "My sister Natalia bids me beg of you to go to her as soon as possible. Poor Mignon seems to be getting steadily worse, and it is thought that your presence might allay the malady." Wilhelm agreed, and proceeded on the journey.

IV.-Heart Against Reason

Behind a light screen, which threw a shadow on her, sat a young lady, reading; she rose and came to him. It was the Amazon! Unable to restrain himself, he fell on his knee and cried "It is she!" He seized her hand, and kissed it with unbounded rapture.

A day or two later, the following letter from Theresa was handed to Wilhelm.

"I am yours, as I am, and as you know me. I call you mine, as you are, and as I know you. As it is no passion, but trust and inclination for each other, that leads us together, we run less risk than thousands of others. You will forgive me, will you not, if I still think often and kindly of my former friend; in return, I will press Felix to my heart, as if I were his mother. Adieu, dear friend! Theresa clasps you to her breast with hope and joy."

Natalia wrote a letter to her brother; she invited Wilhelm to add a word or two. They were just about to seal it, when Jarno unexpectedly came in.

"I am come," he said, "to give you very curious and pleasing tidings about Theresa; now guess."

"We are more skilful than you think," said Natalia, smiling. "Before you asked, we had the answer down in black and white," handing him as she spoke the letter she had just written. Jarno read the sheet hastily. "What shall I say?" cried he. "Surprise against surprise! I came to tell you that Theresa is not the daughter of her reputed mother. There is no obstacle to her marriage with Lothario: I came to ask you to prepare her for it."

"And what," said Lothario, taking Wilhelm by the hand, "what if your alliance with my sister were the secret article on which depended my alliance with Theresa? These amends the noble maiden has appointed for you; she has vowed that we two pairs should appear together at the altar. 'His reason has made choice of me,' she said; 'his heart demands Natalia: my reason shall assist his heart.'"

Lothario embraced his friend, and led him to Natalia, who, with Theresa, came to meet them. "To my mind, thou resemblest Saul, the son of Kish, who went out to seek his father's asses, and found a kingdom."

"I know not the worth of a kingdom," said Wilhelm, "but I know that I have attained a happiness undeserved, which I would not change for anything in life."

* * * * *

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